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Remembering Scott

- March 29, 2012 in antarctica, Articles, captain scott, herbert ponting, History, lawrence oates, Photography, Roald Amundsen, south pole, terra nova expedition

A century on from his dramatic death on the way back from the South Pole, the memory of the explorer Captain Scott and his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition is stronger than ever. Max Jones explores the role that the iconic visual record has played in keeping the legend alive.

The photographer Herbert Ponting giving a lecture on his travels in Japan to the Terra Nova team in the hut at Cape Evans.

Why are some historical figures remembered, while others are forgotten? Major-General Henry Havelock was the toast of the nation in 1857. One of the British heroes of the ‘Indian Mutiny’, Havelock died after the relief of the city of Lucknow. Such was the fame of the devout Christian soldier, parliament approved the erection of his statue in Trafalgar Square, which still stands today. A decade ago, however, Mayor Ken Livingstone complained that most Londoners had no idea who Havelock was. The memory of Captain Scott, who died in Antarctica one hundred years ago, has fared much better than Havelock’s. The centenary of Scott’s last expedition has generated a wave of books, events, radio broadcasts and television documentaries over the last two years, including BBC 2’s The Secrets of Scott’s Hut fronted by modern celebrity-explorer Ben Fogle, a major new exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and a national memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Scott’s exploits in the uninhabited continent of Antarctica are free of the troubling associations which surround many other imperial heroes. Should the statue of a man known primarily for subjugating India still stand in the centre of a city where over one in ten of the inhabitants have roots in South Asia? As with so many aspects of our imperial past, Britons have found it easier to ignore and forget rather than confront such difficult questions. In part, of course, Scott is remembered today because his last expedition is such a great story: the drama of the race with Norwegian Roald Amundsen; the heart-breaking arrival at the South Pole a month too late; the agonising suspense of the return march; the tragic end only 11 miles from a supply depot which would have saved them. Yet a great story alone offers no guarantee of remembrance. Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition and his incredible boat journey to South Georgia were surprisingly neglected in Britain until the end of the 1990s.

Captain Scott writing in his journal.

Interior of the hut at Cape Evans with Cherry Garrard, Bowers, Oates, Meares and Atkinson.

Elsewhere1, I have emphasised the significance of Scott’s own words to his continued remembrance. The ‘Message to the Public’ Scott wrote at the back of his journal remains one of the ultimate expressions of bravery in the face of death. Scott’s journals are on permanent display as one of the ‘Treasures of the British Library’. The centenary celebrations would have been far less extensive if a search party had not found the journals in November 1912. But visual iconography has also proved essential to sustaining Scott’s story. His decision-making has been widely criticised, most savagely in Roland Huntford’s classic debunking biography Scott and Amundsen (London, 1979). Scott deserves great credit, though, for his appointment of Herbert Ponting as the expedition’s self-styled ‘camera artist’. Ponting’s early life remains obscure, but we know he abandoned his family to pursue a full-time career in photography. He later observed that he wouldn’t even recognise his own son if he walked past him on the street. Ponting exposed around 25,000 feet of film and 2,000 photographic negatives in the Antarctic. Rarely, if ever, has an expedition been documented so thoroughly and so beautifully. Publishers and film-makers today can be confident of the availability of rich visual resources for any new Scott project, with striking photographs of the central characters, wild life and Antarctic environment. Ponting frequently juxtaposed awe-inspiring natural features with tiny human figures, presenting the Antarctic as a medieval fortress besieged by brave polar knights.

The castle berg in summer

Photograph taken in January 1911 of Taylor and Wright at the entrance of an ice grotto near Cape Evans. The ship Terra Nova is anchored in the background.

In 1914, Ponting mounted a hugely successful series of illustrated lectures about the expedition at the Philharmonic Hall, performing in front of 100,000 people in only two months. The lectures proved so successful, King George V invited him to give a special performance at Buckingham Palace. Ponting had the misfortune, however, of purchasing the complete rights to the expedition’s film record from the Gaumont Company just before the outbreak of the First World War. Ponting would spend much of the next two decades attempting to exploit his Antarctic work, but never matched the success of the Philharmonic Hall lectures. Although his work continues to shape visual representations of Antarctica, Ponting did not take the most famous photograph of Scott’s last expedition. The explorers themselves exposed ten plates at the South Pole. In one they appear to slouch around Amundsen’s tent like rock stars on an album cover. Henry Bowers pulled the cord which took the most iconic image of the Antarctic disaster. This photograph remains the most frequently reproduced: five grim faces marked by hardships endured and the certain knowledge of hardships to come, the forlorn union jack a reminder of their defeat. The survival of this remarkable photograph helps explain the enduring appeal of Scott’s story. In 2000 Hello Magazine published two special editions celebrating ‘The 20th Century in Pictures’, ‘An Heirloom to Treasure’. Scott, Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson stared out from the front cover.

Photograph taken by Lieut. Bowers on 17 January 1912, a day after they reached the SOuth Pole to discover that Amundsen had beat them to it. The two sitting are Evans and Oates, with Bowers, Scott and Wilson standing behind them.

Scott and his men at Amundsen's base, Polheim. Left to right: Scott, Bowers, Wilson, and P. O. Evans.

The grave of Scott, Bowers and Wilson, erected at their final camp where their bodies were found.

Dr Max Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Manchester. He is the author of The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice (Oxford UP, 2003) and the editor of Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics) (Oxford UP, 2005). Max has been invited to lecture on Scott to audiences in Los Angeles, Milan and Tasmania. He is currently working on a new book on the rise and fall of national heroes over the last 250 years.

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Amundsen’s South Pole expedition

- December 14, 2011 in antarctic, captain scott, explorer, Images, non-article, photographs, Roald Amundsen, south pole

Images from The South pole; an account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in the “Fram,” 1910-1912, Roald Amundsen’s account of his expedition which became the first to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911, just five weeks ahead of a British party led by Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen and his team returned safely to their base, and later learned that Scott and his four companions had died on their return journey. Amundsen’s initial plans had focused on the Arctic and the conquest of the North Pole by means of an extended drift in an icebound ship. He obtained the use of Fridtjof Nansen’s polar exploration ship Fram, and undertook extensive fundraising activities. Preparations for this expedition were disrupted when, in 1909, the rival American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert E. Peary each claimed to have reached the North Pole. Amundsen then changed his plan and began to prepare for a conquest of the South Pole; uncertain of the extent to which the public and his backers would support him, he kept this revised objective secret. When he set out in June 1910, even most of his crew believed they were embarking on an Arctic drift. Amundsen made his Antarctic base, “Framheim”, in the Bay of Whales on the Great Ice Barrier. After months of preparation, depot-laying and a false start which ended in near-disaster, he and his party set out for the pole in October 1911. Although the expedition’s success was widely applauded, the story of Scott’s heroic failure overshadowed its achievement. For his decision to keep his true plans secret until the last moment, Amundsen was criticised for what some considered deception on his part. Recent polar historians have more fully recognised the skill and courage of Amundsen’s party; the permanent scientific base at the pole bears his name, together with that of Scott.

(Text based on Wikipedia / Images extracted from the scanned copy of the English translation of Amundsen’s book on the Internet Archive)

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