Scott of the Antarctic: From Hero to Villain? Scott Has Arguably Been Judged More Often and More Extensively Than Any Other Figure in British History. Once the Pride of a Nation, His Character Was Subsequently Attacked and Ridiculed as an Example of All That Was Wrong with a Country in Decline. but, as Max Jones Argues, the Evidence Suggests Otherwise

By Jones, Max | Geographical, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Scott of the Antarctic: From Hero to Villain? Scott Has Arguably Been Judged More Often and More Extensively Than Any Other Figure in British History. Once the Pride of a Nation, His Character Was Subsequently Attacked and Ridiculed as an Example of All That Was Wrong with a Country in Decline. but, as Max Jones Argues, the Evidence Suggests Otherwise


Jones, Max, Geographical


In May 1913, the Daily Mirror published the photographs taken by Captain Scott at the South Pole for the first time. They were 'the most remarkable, in their tragic interest, which have ever been published', the newspaper reported, recording 'one of the most splendid, the most inspiring tragedies in the world's history'. The special Scott memorial issue became one of the best-selling editions of any daily newspaper published in Britain before the First World War.

The announcement of Scott's death three months earlier had stunned the nation. King George V attended a memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral in an unprecedented gesture towards men who didn't belong to a royal family. The King hadn't been at the cathedral for the service in memory of the victims of the Titanic the year before. Head teachers read an account of the expedition to one-and-a-half million children in elementary schools around the country to coincide with the service.

Winston Churchill described the expedition as 'one of the great achievements of our time', while the Bookseller later declared Scott's story was 'as heart-stirring as any in the whole history of the human race'. So overwhelming was the chorus of praise that the socialist Clarion condemned the 'dire, hysterical, hero-killing press' and its 'journalistic ladlers of fulsome flapdoodle'.

But why did so many Britons hail Captain Scott as a national hero? Not only had he lost the race to the South Pole to the brilliant Norwegian Roald Amundsen, but he had died in the process, along with the four companions who appeared with him in the photographs at the pole.

Scott's old patron, former president of the Royal Geographical Society Clements Markham, loudly proclaimed in the press that the expedition was primarily a scientific enterprise. Scott had never entered a race, and was unconcerned about whether or not he was first to the pole.

It's true that the full extent of Amundsen's challenge became clear only after Scott had landed in Antarctica, when the crew of his ship, Terra Nova, encountered the Norwegian vessel Fram in the Bay of Whales. But Markham's protests were disingenuous. The very first sentence of the British Antarctic Expedition's fundraising prospectus had declared: 'The main object of the Expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of that achievement.' Scott was passionate about the expedition's scientific aims, as his journal reveals, but there can be no doubt he was also desperate to win the race for the pole.

GALLANT LOSER

It has become fashionable to argue that British praise for Scott expressed an enduring national preoccupation with gallant losers. Journalists habitually cite Scott when describing the latest heroic exit of a national sports team from an international competition--think of England's semi-final defeat to West Germany at the 1990 World Cup. If only Britons were less sentimental and more single-minded about winning, so the story goes, they would be more successful.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Such explanations miss the point when it comes to explaining 'why Scott became the nation's pre-eminent hero on the eve of the First World War. Victory or defeat in the race to the pole wasn't the decisive factor--what mattered was how Scott had faced death.

The search party that found the snow-covered tent containing the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson brought back not only the photographic plates they had exposed at the South Pole, but also the letters and diaries that told the explorers' story. The remarkable 'Message to the Public' that Scott had written at the back of his journal just before he died became the foundation of his heroic reputation.

The 'message' was partly a case for Scott's defence, claiming 'the disaster was not due to faulty organisation, but to misfortune in all risks which had to be undertaken', and partly an anguished plea for the relatives of the dead to be 'properly provided for'. The final section expressed the heroic fantasies of his generation. 'I do not regret this journey,' Scott wrote, 'which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.'

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Scott's words expressed the ethos of character and sacrifice so memorably captured in Rudyard Kipling's poem If: 'If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/and treat those two impostors just the same ... You'll be a man my son.' Adversity provided the true test of a man's character, and the greatest test of all was how he faced death.

If Scott had beaten Amundsen to the pole and survived, Britons would have garlanded him with honours. But it was the example of a noble death so eloquently expressed in his 'Message to the Public' that inspired the nation in 1913.

It's a common misconception that this romantic vision of heroic sacrifice was obliterated by the shells of the First World War. In fact, Scott's story echoed through the conflict, inspiring many soldiers to stand by their mates and stick it out to the end in the trenches, just as Scott and his men had done.

SYMBOL OF EMPIRE

Scott of the Antarctic remained a celebrated national hero in Britain between the wars. A number of commentators did question his character and methods. One former member of the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, aroused Scott's widow Kathleen's ire in 1922 for describing her late husband as 'moody' and 'peevish' in his book, The Worst Journey in the World.

During the 1930s, the Reverend James Gordon Hayes bluntly concluded that Scott should have taken more clogs to the Antarctic. This key point had been widely acknowledged by polar experts since 1913. All, however, agreed Scott had died bravely.

Propagandists used Scott's story to exemplify British values of comradeship and sacrifice during the Second World War, when the publisher John Murray promised he would keep his journals in print for 'as long as I have paper'. And in 1948, Ealing Studios' film Scott of the Antarctic, with John Mills in the title role, underlined Scott's enduring status as a national icon.

Not until the 1950s and '60s did cracks begin to appear in Scott's heroic image. The end of Empire, so strikingly dramatised by the Suez crisis, called the rhetoric of national greatness into question. Beyond the Fringe, Carry On Up the Khyber and Monty Python, among many others, mocked the stiff-upper-lipped stoicism that Scott exemplified, as more emotionally expressive models of masculinity rose to prominence.

Influenced by new insights from psychology, biographers increasingly drew attention to passages of introspection and doubt in Scott's copious writings. A new consensus emerged during this period that built on Cherry-Garrard's portrayal, presenting Scott as fatalistic and withdrawn--in the words of Peter Brent in 1974, 'an inward man' who suffered from 'black moods of depression' and 'a curious feeling of inadequacy'.

DEBUNKING MYTHS

Mocked by comedians and psychoanalysed by biographers, Scott's heroic reputation had already begun to fracture, but it was the publication of Roland Huntford's Scott and Amundsen in 1979 that turned Scott from hero to villain.

Huntford presented a man worthy not of admiration but castigation, whose flawed character and poor decision-making had caused the Antarctic disaster. Many authors before Huntford had argued that Amundsen was the superior explorer, but almost all had agreed that Scott's failings were redeemed by his brave death. Huntford, in contrast, ridiculed Scott's 'Message to the Public' as the special pleading of a man who had led his companions to their deaths.

Huntford's extensive research, encompassing previously unused Norwegian papers, demanded attention. Scott and Amundsen remains in print, a classic of the debunking genre of biography. Huntford's highly selective quotation of sources, however, undermines any claim that the book offers a balanced appraisal of Scott. Moreover, his laudable attempt to raise Amundsen's profile was thwarted by the incessant denigration of Scott that drives the narrative forward. Far from liberating the great Norwegian from his British rival, Scott and Amundsen bound the two men even more closely together.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Huntford judged Scott to be 'a suitable hero for a nation in decline'. His interpretation fitted perfectly with the Thatcherite diagnosis of the nation's ills during the 1980s. Radical Conservatives attacked complacent elites who stifled the entrepreneurial spirit, more interested in etiquette than efficiency. Incompetents such as Scott were the villains who deserved blame for the decline of British greatness in the 20th century.

Although Huntford's interpretation was always contested, his portrayal of Scott the villain took root. ITV's blockbuster mini-series of 1985, The Last Place on Earth, may not have matched the success enjoyed by The Jewel in the Crown the previous year, but millions around the world still watched Trevor Griffiths' script reinforce Huntford's contrast between British bunglers and Norwegian experts.

The explosion of interest in Ernest Shackleton at the end of the 1990s further cast Scott as the villain of the Heroic Age of polar exploration. Writers consistently contrasted the charismatic Anglo-Irish merchant seaman with the stiff and indecisive Royal Navy officer. Most highlighted the remarkable story of the Endurance expedition, claiming that Shackleton saved all of his men, while Scott led his comrades to disaster. The deaths of three members of the Ross Sea Party on Shackleton's Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition were routinely ignored to emphasise the contrast.

Huntford's charge of villainy has been forcefully rebutted from a range of perspectives over the past decade. Adventurer Ranulph Fiennes drew on his own extensive experience to dispute Huntford's accusations of polar incompetence. Leading US scientist Susan Solomon examined nearly a century of meteorological records to argue that exceptionally cold weather on the return from the pole was the decisive factor in the disaster, confirming Scott's own assessment of 'misfortune'.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the most significant new biography of Scott for a quarter of a century, David Crane presented a more sympathetic portrait in 2005. And my own work argued that Huntford had overestimated the significance of an establishment cover-up in crafting Scott's heroic image, pointing out that the cornerstone of his heroic reputation, the 'Message to the Public', was published in Scott's exact words.

TENSIONS REMAIN

A century after his death, a more balanced assessment of Captain Scott's strengths and weaknesses has emerged in the wake of these contributions. The astonishing scientific legacy of the Terra Nova expedition has also been more widely acknowledged, not least in the BBC's superb Frozen Planet.

Scott's own words continue to inspire admiration, but the tension between portrayals of Scott the hero and Scott the villain remains. Once fractured, a reputation can never be made whole again. Huntford's vision of Scott the villain, the amateur, the bungler, an emblem of national decline, still persuades many. Five weather-beaten faces stare back at us, unchanging, in those photographs from the South Pole, but our interpretations continue to evolve.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Scott of the Antarctic: From Hero to Villain? Scott Has Arguably Been Judged More Often and More Extensively Than Any Other Figure in British History. Once the Pride of a Nation, His Character Was Subsequently Attacked and Ridiculed as an Example of All That Was Wrong with a Country in Decline. but, as Max Jones Argues, the Evidence Suggests Otherwise
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.