Great Scott?

With the centenary of Captain Scott’s death nearly upon us, David Stack considers Scott’s reputation and his expedition’s scientific legacy, and discusses an unlikely connection with Marie Stopes

The winners, it is often said, get to write history. But the losers, it might be added, often have the most compelling stories. Few have proved more enduring or heart-rending than the tragic tale of Captain Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913). Beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had arrived 34 days in advance of Scott’s party, on the 14 December 1911, the fatal return trek of Scott and his four comrades assumed an almost mythic status in the national consciousness.

When confirmation of Scott’s death in the Antarctic waste reached London in the spring of 1913 a crowd of 10,000 gathered outside his St Paul’s memorial service, attended by the King. Scott had first made his name, alongside Ernest Shackleton, on the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904. But it was the letters and diaries discovered alongside his frozen body, charting the stoic fortitude with which he and his men bore each successive disappointment and hardship, which secured Scott’s reputation.

The bravery, expressed in the stiff-upper lipped language of the English public school, spoke powerfully to the British (or perhaps just English) national character. Scott’s account of the self-sacrifice of Captain Lawrence Oates, in particular, made his colleague’s name a by-word for nobility. Aware that his frostbite was slowing the group’s progress, and unable to persuade them to leave him behind, Oates walked out of their tent into a snow blizzard. His last words, recorded by Scott, were the epitome of English understatement: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’.

Scott’s final words, written on 29 March 1912, were almost as poignant: ‘It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott’. Below he scrawled a plea for his and his men’s families: ‘For God’s sake look after our people’. He need not have worried. An appeal raised enough funds to provide pensions for the party’s widows and orphans, and also fund the establishment of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

Thereafter Scott’s reputation endured, more or less unchallenged, for more than sixty years. Although Ealing Studios’ 1948 film, Scott of the Antarctic, with John Mills in the lead, was nuanced enough to both celebrate a hero and hint at the thin line Scott trod between brave resolve and reckless bloody-mindedness. It was only the publication of Roland Huntford’s iconoclastic The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole in 1979, with its desperately unfavourable picture of Scott’s personality and competence, that a sustained critique began. More recently, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Susan Solomon, and David Crane have sought to restore Scott’s good name. Not that Huntford relented. In 2010 he published the first uncut version of Scott’s diaries, alongside those of Amundsen, which served to highlight Scott’s failings. As he told The Guardian at the time, Huntford saw the honouring of Scott as an expression of a British ‘perverse attraction to romantic heroes who fail rather than to Homeric ones who succeed. Most important of all was that Scott was dead; had he come home alive, he would have been soon forgotten.’

The approaching centenaries of both Amundsen’s success and Scott’s death will provide an opportunity to reassess Scott’s reputation and performance. Indeed a recent piece in The Observer suggests rehabilitation is already underway. While a forthcoming exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Scott’s Last Expedition, promises to bring together ‘powerful stories of human endeavour’ and celebrate ‘the expedition’s scientific achievements’. The latter is desperately needed because, as Huntford’s quote illustrates, Scott’s scientific legacy is too often overlooked.

Whereas Amundsen did literally ‘race to the South Pole’, Scott’s expedition was a more considered affair with explicit geological, meteorological and biological ambitions. Today some of what was undertaken can appear foolhardy and ill conceived. Perhaps the most striking example being the extraordinary efforts made by three of Scott’s colleagues to collect the eggs of an emperor penguin. In his book The Worst Journey in the World (1922) Apsley Cherry-Garrard recalled venturing 70 miles, guided by moonlight, in the Antarctic winter, to the penguin’s breeding colony at Cape Crozier, in temperatures that made his teeth chatter so violently they shattered. After five weeks, and close to death, the three men returned to base, with three eggs intact.

The explanation for this madcap mission was the widespread biological belief in recapitulation theory. The German Darwinist and embryologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) had done more than anyone else to promote the notion that an individual organism’s biological development (ontogeny) re-enacted its species’ evolutionary development (phylogeny). An idea Haeckel summarized in the epigram ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. With the emperor penguin believed to be one of the most primitive surviving birds it was expected than an analysis of its embryos would provide vital clues into how birds had first evolved. Unfortunately, Haeckel’s ideas were soon discredited; and ‘Cherry’ had lost his teeth in vain.

The rest of the Terra Nova expedition, however, was far from futile. Over 40,000 specimens were brought back to Britain, and they formed the basis of 15 volumes of bound reports, by 59 specialists. The expedition made observations of magnetism, atmospheric electricity and gravity, and recorded meteorological data that is still in use today. It pioneered glaciology and brought us Herbert Ponting’s groundbreaking photography and cinematography. Most significantly of all, Scott and his men collected a fossil of the extinct plant Glossopteris indica that provided a vital clue to the history of our planet.

Back in 1861 the geologist Eduard Suess (1831-1914) had hypothesized the existence of a pre-historic southern supercontinent, which he called Gondwanaland. Key to this hypothesis was the presence of glossopteris fern fossils in India, Africa, and South America. The discovery of similar fossils in Antarctica, which Scott’s team gathered during a day ‘geologising’ at Beardmore Glacier on 12 February 1912, on their return journey from the South Pole, was the final piece of the puzzle needed to confirm Suess’s hypothesis. On the downside, the 35lb of rocks gathered that day must have slowed the group’s progress, and perhaps even contributed to their eventual deaths, less than 13 miles from a food depot.

The potential value of Antarctic fossils in substantiating Suess’s hypothesis had been impressed upon Scott by an ambitious young palaeobotanist he had encountered at Manchester University a few years earlier. She was Marie Stopes, remembered today as the popularizer of birth control and author of Married Love (1918), but at that time a committed scientist working on coal fossils. Stopes tried to convince Scott to take her with him to the Antarctic because, as she recalled in 1914, she ‘particularly desired to collect the fossil plants and examine the coal deposits which had been reported by Shackleton’. According to Stopes, the proposal was ‘seriously discussed’, but never came to fruition. Her admiration for Scott, however, was undimmed and her poetry collection Man included the eulogy, ‘To Captain Scott, R. N. In Memoriam’.

It has been (light-heartedly) hinted that Stopes bears some responsibility for Scott’s end, but rather than attributing blame it is more interesting to consider what might have happened had Stopes succeeded in her ambition to join the Terra Nova Expedition. It would be fanciful to imagine Stopes driving Scott on to success through her sheer indefatigability and force of personality. Not only because Stopes was, more often than not, a deeply divisive figure, more likely to have spread disharmony than instill resolve in any group, but also because even if she had made it to Antarctica, it is highly improbable that she would have joined the final five who journeyed to the South Pole. More likely she would have been confined to working closer to base with the Australian geologist Frank Debenham.

Stopes, in short, would probably have made little difference to the expedition, but the expedition might have made a huge difference to Stopes. If she had returned at all, there is no guarantee that she would have returned as the same woman who went on establish the first birth control clinic in the British Empire. Would it have mattered? Would the use of artificial forms of contraception have grown apace in the inter-war period regardless? The answer is most probably yes, but not in quite the same way. However skeptical one is about ‘great men’ – or ‘great women’ – views of history, the presence or absence of Stopes, from any given situation, could never be an entirely negligible thing.

We have ventured here from ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in history to counterfactual ‘what ifs’ – both subjects fraught with difficultly for the historian. A century on we need neither praise nor blame Scott, it is enough to mark the centenary by remembering the many sides of his remarkable story.

David Stack

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1 Response to Great Scott?

  1. This raises so many interesting questions. One I’d like to pick up on is Roland Huntford’s critique of Scott and of the alleged British worship of failure. Huntford’s ‘The Last Place on Earth’ was published in 1979 and seems to me to be very much of its time. Britain’s economic and social travails in the mid-1970s, culminating in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ 1978-9, fostered a rather panicky view that the UK was in a spiral of cataclysmic decline, that threatened to become terminal unless something drastic was done about it. This offered popularising historians a field day – notably Martin Wiener’s ‘English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit’. Wiener, not coincidentally an American, diagnosed the ‘British disease’ as due to a sentimental, country-loving softness prevalent amongst the governing elite. He contrasted it with the hard-headed entrepreneurial ruthlessness allegedly characteristic of the USA. Corelli Barnett, notably in ‘The Audit of War’, argued similarly that the welfare state was a sentimental luxury the UK could not afford; Britain’s indulgence in this weak-minded safety net had contributed significantly to its economic problems.

    On the whole these arguments have not stood the test of time well. Charles Feinstein and others demonstrated that the UK’s long-term postwar rate of economic growth was similar to that of other developed states, after taking account of differential resource endowments and the effects of high productivity growth immediately after WW2 in countries badly damaged during the war. Peter Mandler showed that cultural disdain for industry and strong pro-ruralism was just as characteristic of the supposedly more dynamic Germany and Japan (and, in different forms, many other developed nations). In short, there is not a great deal left, historiographically, of the view that the UK would have prospered more in the twentieth century if its culture had been marked by a more hard-headed, ruthless attitude. On the whole, as Eric Hobsbawm argued many years ago, it is probably better to look to economic factors to explain economic change, rather than invoking vague and poorly-specified cultural influences, for all their rhetorical appeal.

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