Scott and Amundsen 
by Roland Huntford.
Hodder, 665 pp., £13.95
Show More
Show More

Debunking explorers seems to have become a popular pastime. In recent years, Oliver Ransford has diagnosed David Livingstone as a manic depressive, Dennis Rawlins has discredited Robert Peary’s claim to the North Pole, and William McKinlay has proved that Vihjalmur Stefansson was a selfish cad. Debunking probably was inevitable. These men were all of the heroic age of exploration that began in the mid-19th century and ended at the beginning of the First World War. Explorers of any age are likely to be enveloped in romantic haze, but during that period they seemed almost superhuman.

Nineteenth-and early 20th-century exploration was a highly competitive and widely publicised enterprise: the search for the headwaters of the Nile or for the North-West Passage, and the race for the North or South Poles, were like epic dramas unfolding before the public eye, and the men who acted them out inevitably became epic heroes. Especially in England and the United States, national prestige was involved, but when a Livingstone went south or a Peary went north, they carried an emotional investment deeper than patriotism. Western man’s faith in his ability to prevail on the globe was somehow on the line: the public viewed explorers as allegorical figures who, silhouetted against the weird landscapes of the polar worlds or Africa, represented the Unconquerable Will of Mankind. They were adulated, purified of all base elements. To say a bad word about David Livingstone after his death in 1873 was to risk horsewhipping.

What goes up must come down – and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. No explorer, indeed no hero of any sort, has ever suffered a worse mauling than Robert Falcon Scott has suffered at the hands of Roland Huntford in Scott and Amundsen. If Scott received undue adulation in the past, he has now received undue abuse.

In spite of Scott’s popularity as a hero, his reputation has never been high among students of polar exploration, and much of what Huntford says in his book has been said before. As an explorer, Scott was too unimaginative and hidebound, locked into the conventional attitudes of the British Navy; as a leader, he was erratic, prone to moody withdrawal when vigorous action was badly needed; his resistance to using skis and dogs, overcome only when it was too late for his men to master either, was stupid; his refusal to make detailed plans far in advance, his dependence on last-minute improvisation, was fatal.

Scott and Amundsen underscores Scott’s inadequacies by placing him in parallel with his competitor for the South Pole, Roald Amundsen, and Huntford gives the best account of Amundsen’s life yet published. From 1893, when he skied across Norway’s Hardangervidda, to 1928, when he disappeared searching for Umberto Nobile, Amundsen relentlessly devoted all his considerable strength and intelligence to his chosen career as an explorer. As Huntford points out, being Norwegian helped, not only because Norway has a passion for the outdoor life, but also because it was a new nation that needed heroes. After Amundsen established his reputation as a member of the DeGerlache Antarctic Expedition of 1897, he benefited from the patronage of the great Fridjof Nansen, who saw that a man like Amundsen could call attention to a Norway that was just gaining perilous independence from Sweden. When Amundsen earned international fame by navigating the North-West Passage in 1904-05, he proved Nansen correct.

Amundsen was everything that Scott was not. Above all, he was a professional. Strong and determined, he also was open-minded and flexible, learning whatever he could from Eskimos, from his predecessors Nansen and Sverdrup, from Frederick Cook (who was on the DeGerlache Expedition), and from anyone else who could teach him anything. He was not impelled to prove his manhood by mindless heroics. He could adapt to the unexpected, but he also planned every detail of his expeditions, especially when it came to clothing, equipment and food. He was shrewd in manipulating the press, shameless in gathering funds, and ruthless in exercising command. Huntford’s portrayal of him, detailed and balanced, includes weaknesses as well as strengths. Although Amundsen earned loyalty as well as obedience from his men and was even capable of playfulness, there was something cold about him, something withdrawn and almost inhuman. Huntford notes that the mention of anything vaguely sexual so upset him that his face would freeze in disapproval.

If Huntford’s book had been primarily on Amundsen, with Scott included only as a background figure, it would have been an excellent biography, but Huntford chooses to give the two men equal space and equal importance. The problem is that he does not treat them equally. He allows Amundsen the dignity of being not only a great explorer but also a complex man; he allows Scott no dignity whatsoever.

Anyone who has studied the history of exploration knows that Scott was an amateur compared to Amundsen, and anyone with moral imagination knows that Scott was at least partly responsible for the deaths of his five companions as well as his own. Huntford’s analysis of Scott’s many errors is essentially sound, although he underestimates the dreadful role that chance can play when men submit to natural phenomena in the way that explorers must. (That Amundsen had extraordinarily good weather in the later parts of his journey, Huntford implies, was somehow earned good luck. There is no such thing.) Not only is Huntford correct in his criticism of Scott’s methods – or, rather, non-methods – he also may well be correct in his speculations about the workings of Scott’s mind.

Shackleton probably did haunt Scott as a competitor more than Amundsen, even though Shackleton was in England, Amundsen in the Antarctic, when the great race began. Scott had humiliated Shackleton on the Discovery expedition of 1901-02, and Shackleton in turn had humiliated Scott by achieving a farthest south a few years later. Shackleton, very much a ‘personality’, overshadowed Scott in public appearances: like many introverted men, Scott was capable of hating extroverts. Huntford may also be correct in surmising that Scott’s incompetence was so consistent as to ‘suggest the workings of a death wish’. Certainly it is possible that when he entombed his men and himself in their last camp, Scott sensed that even if he had failed to grasp victory, he could grasp glory by his death.

The most important new material that Huntford introduces in his book are passages from L.E.G. Oates’s diary, which were transcribed by Oates’s sister before the original diaries were destroyed by order of their mother. The passages do Scott’s cause further damage. The image of Oates hobbling from their last tent out into a blizzard, sacrificing his life in the hope of saving his companions, probably has done more than anything else to ennoble Scott’s expedition. (I remember myself at the age of 16 in my school infirmary with a broken ankle, immersed in a harrowing account of the expedition: when Oates left the tent, trumpets blared and violins wept in my silly young head.) Alas, Oates apparently loathed Scott – partly because of Scott’s dangerous incompetence and partly, as Huntford delights in surmising, because Scott was of the middle class while Oates was a gentleman. Whatever the cause of Oates’s dislike, one senses that Huntford is right: Oates left the tent in agony with frostbite, preferring to die rapidly in the blizzard rather than slowly in the company of a man he despised.

But, telling as the Oates material is, the way that Huntford uses it exemplifies the bias that distorts his book. Anyone who has participated in expeditions, or studied them closely, knows that they put a terrible strain on relationships. No expedition of any duration can be free of strife: tent or cabin mates are likely to hate each other, even if they learn to control the hatred. Huntford writes as if such strains were aberrant, but they are normal and unavoidable. Huntford himself discusses the tensions between Amundsen and the veteran explorer Hjalmar Johansen. Amundsen treated him with contempt, stripping him of authority just before the final push for the Pole, and several years later the humiliated Johansen killed himself. Huntford seems to know that Amundsen was callous in his treatment of Johansen, but he accepts the callousness with equanimity. Towards the end of the book, he briefly quotes Sverre Hassel, one of Amundsen’s dog-drivers, who said that Amundsen was hard to work for, but he does not develop the point. He dwells on every discontent and disagreement on the Scott expedition, but he implies mainly good fellowship on the Amundsen expedition.

This prejudice shows throughout the book. Any complaint by Amundsen about bad weather conditions passes without comment; any complaint by Scott becomes ‘self-pity’. When the Norwegians take chances, Huntford discusses their ‘flamboyant fatalism’ and ‘audacity’; when Scott takes chances, he is called ‘reckless’. Fridjof Nansen’s supporters are given no epithet; Clements Markham’s are labelled ‘henchmen’. Huntford gives no quarter: he neither states nor implies anything good about Scott from beginning to end of his book. He quotes Albert Armitage, second-in-command of the Discovery, who wrote that there was ‘much lovable in Scott’, but Huntford, apparently determined to ignore his own quotation, makes no attempt to discover what Armitage meant.

Not only does he savage Scott, he also savages anyone who supported Scott. Clements Markham, according to Huntford, was a raving homosexual with a taste for ‘earthy Sicilian boys’. (No documentation.) Kathleen Scott, we are led to believe, also had perverse tendencies, but she married Scott because she wanted a child and needed an impregnating device of some sort. Later, according to Huntford, she had a torrid love affair with, of all people, Nansen. (Again, no documentation – except an absurd reading-between-the-lines of a few comments in letters.)

So remorseless is Huntford’s attack on Scott that a reader becomes less interested in speculating about its truth or untruth than about the animus that produced it. One does not have to speculate very hard. Scott is not a man to Huntford: he is a symbol. A symbol of what? Of the professional Navy, of the old-line Royal Geographical Society, of the middle class, of gentility, of hero-worship, of piety, of Empire (especially decaying Empire). Huntford, in short, is out after that vague and protean bogeyman, ‘the Establishment’.

Huntford spoils what could have been an excellent book by creating such an extreme imbalance in his treatment of these two explorers. His portrayal of Amundsen is novelistic, not in the sense of being fictive but in the sense of being true to the complexity of a human being: it is, to use an old-fashioned literary term, ‘rounded’. His treatment of Scott, on the other hand, is ‘flat’ and essentially satiric rather than novelistic. All the characteristics of satire are there: the relentless emphasis on vice and folly, the refusal to let psychological or circumstantial complexity mitigate harsh judgment, the desire to render the victim grotesque by focusing on only one or two characteristics and exaggerating them, the angry thrusts through the satirised victim at things the satirist loathes. Huntford’s Scott, however, is a satiric caricature which generates no laughter, and humourless ridicule is both ugly and sterile.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences