Reassessing Scott's Final Expedition: The Influence of the Terra Nova Expedition Extends Far beyond the Myths That Have Built Up around the Race to the Pole. Today, Its Significance Can Be Felt All over the World in Many Walks of Life, from Science and Exploration to Music and Even Popular Culture

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A glorious race! (Ig)Noble tragedy! Even today, few people think about Captain Scott beyond the Edwardian myth or the 1970s anti-myth. Our minds struggle to move outside storylines broadly formed by century-old newspaper headlines. As we contemplate the centenary of Scott's Antarctic expedition aboard Terra Nova, surely it's time to refresh our thinking.

Besides, both stereotypes are broadly untrue. When contrasted with the subsequent events of the 20th century, it seems slightly preposterous to view Scott's fate as either tragic or a failure. Had Scott lived and returned to the Royal Navy, perhaps to captain HMS Bulwark, the ship that he was commanding prior to the expedition, what would his fate have been?


On 26 November 1914, while recoaling off Sheerness, an explosion ripped Bulwark apart, killing all but 14 ratings of her 750 officers and crew. It barely merits a mention in the history of the First World War. This, it seems to me, is closer to a tragedy. The death of Scott and his companions, by contrast, inspired significant cultural achievement throughout the 20th century.

Nor was there ever a race to the South Pole in the specific sense. Amundsen raced Scott, but Scott refused to race Amundsen. 'I don't know what to think of Amundsen's chances,' Scott wrote in his diary on 22 October 1911. 'If he gets to the Pole, it must be before we do, as he is bound to travel fast with dogs and pretty certain to start early. On this account I decided at a very early date to act exactly as I should have done had he not existed. Any attempt to race must have wrecked my plan, besides which it doesn't appear the sort of thing one is out for.'

Not the sort of thing one is out for. True exploration has never been about dashing from A to B but about furthering the bounds of human knowledge by bringing back visual records, scientific data and samples. This takes time. If Scott had raced, he would have had to give up his scientific and exploration work. There is no doubt about which Scott himself saw as the more important: 'If the Southern journey comes off, nothing, not even priority at the Pole, can prevent the Expedition ranking as one of the most important that ever entered the polar regions.'

Scott was right. The expedition laid the foundations of modern polar studies and pioneered significant scientific progress throughout the 20th century, regardless of priority at the pole.


The simplest place to start anew is to reread Scott's own journal. There's no doubt that it is a remarkable document, often taught in history classes, but written so well that it's often also taught as English literature.

As with all great works, it's inspirational. Scott's diary challenges; it changes the way we see the world by illuminating the heart of the human condition. It does so because it faces us all up to our inevitable deaths, even as we plot our worldly success; and it does so because it was never written to be published verbatim, revealing Scott's doubts and human frailty, along with his battles to overcome his all too human flaws. In this, Scott's training as a Royal Navy officer shines through. The values of a naval officer, still taught in the Navy to this day--commitment, courage, discipline, respect, integrity and loyalty--are Scott's own values.

It's easy to forget that Scott was a forward-thinking officer of the Royal Navy in an era when science and human progress were considered to be unmitigated goods. Scott specialised in new technologies, such as torpedoes, and became the youngest junior battleship commander in the Navy.

Even in the way that he treated his men, Scott was a part of the meritocratic Fisher generation, rather than the hereditary hierarchy of the Victorian navy. It's no wonder, then, that Scott is still held as an example of Naval excellence and has a vessel of oceanographic exploration named for him, in HMS Scott. …


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