The Explorers' Legacies

Part of the Race to the End of the Earth exhibition.


Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton were among the most successful of what we may call the celebrity explorers of the early 20th century. Like celebrities today, their fame was only partly due to accomplishment; the rest came from whatever aspects of society's desires and ambitions they reflected back.

But fashions change in choice of heroes, and for this reason it is hardly surprising that popular views of each of these men have risen and fallen with the beat of the times. And, just as with modern celebrities, in the successive popular views of these men there is much that is manufactured, much complicating detail that is left out, and much that is modified to fit a preferred image, good or bad. There will never be the story of Scott or of Amundsen or of Shackleton, and the version adopted by one generation may be quite different from that preferred by another.

The Contest for the South Pole in Hindsight

The view from a century later allows some aspects of the contest for the South Pole to be seen more clearly than at the time. Scott and Amundsen faced similar challenges: each had to solve an enormous variety of logistical and practical problems. Their methods, though, were quite different.


Amundsen: Clear Goals, Few Revisions

Amundsen knew exactly how he wanted to achieve his single goal to be the first to reach the pole. Some of his decisions had to be made on the spot and some of these were bad. But there was no second-guessing and no major, poorly thought-out changes in plan at the last minute. His approach was spare, practiced, narrowly focused, matter-of-fact.

Scott: Uncertain Methods, Trust in Pluck

Scott was none of the above; intellectuals rarely are. Despite the enormous amount he learned on the Discovery expedition about living and working in the Antarctic, almost a decade later he was still frequently unsure whether he was making the right decisions.

For transportation, he did not trust dogs but took some anyway. Ponies made little sense as disposable draft animals in the Antarctic, but since Shackleton had used them, and since Shackleton had almost made it to the pole, Scott took them as well.

The motor sledges, untested in extreme cold or in the ice conditions found in the Antarctic, represented to Scott a technological fix that could ease the job of crossing the Ross Ice Shelf. So they came too, each costing the equivalent of a £1,000, and they accomplished little before failing. In the end, the only way left to him was the Royal Navy way-man-hauling, justified in Discovery days with the ringing phrase that "no journey made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realised when men do all the work."

Unlike Amundsen, Scott made many bad decisions: Allowing Wilson, Cherry-Garrard, and Bowers to almost kill themselves for science on the winter journey to Cape Crozier, trumpeting that expedition as a "test" of the proper proportion of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in sledging rations; taking a fifth man to the pole, seemingly on the whim of an idea that does not seem to have been discussed with anyone, even Wilson; and never managing to think about little, obvious things, such as setting up enough cairns or planting signal flags across a line of march so that depots would be found easily in any weather.

Seeing Explorers for What They Were

In Antarctica, Scott was not blatantly foolhardy, but he seems to have been persistently unaware of how close he scraped along the rasp edge of disaster. The difference between the two is that Amundsen tried to tilt the probabilities in his favor by careful forethought and overcompensation. By contrast, Scott was "continually on the panic," thought Charles Royds, one of the officers who knew him from the Discovery expedition, "expecting everything to be done at once and rows if nothing is done." By "panic," Royds meant that starting any matter, trivial to monumental, that blocked Scott in some way had to be dealt with immediately. If it could not be resolved in very short order, he would enter into a persistent state of nervous excitement that could be relieved only by taking action–any action.

There often seems to be no proper scale to Scott's reactions to things, no correlation between the size of the issue at hand and how he dealt with it. During the winter of 1911 at Cape Evans he seemed to be out of sorts almost constantly and small things would set him off horribly. Those who were less given to having their hands conspicuously occupied–such as the scientists–were the subject of some of his most hypercritical asides.

Amundsen and Scott, Fates Entwined, Continue to Inspire Exploration

Scott was an essential part of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration; indeed, it would be hard to imagine why that age would deserve its sobriquet were it not for Scott's matchless chronicling of his participation in it. He wrote like no one else has ever written of the experience of being there, of the landscapes and the seasons and the cold embrace of the ice, of his participation in the last of the great races for geographical discovery, of exhilarating accomplishment as well as bitter defeat.

In the English-speaking world, Amundsen is sealed in public memory as Scott's machinelike nemesis and competitor for the achievement of being first to the South Pole, but his story is much richer, as well as more human, than this limited acquaintance with the man provides.

Scott was in love with words, Amundsen with deeds; it is this opposition of types that provides not only much of the drama of the Race to The End of the Earth, but also its moments for contemplation.

A century later, their inseparable stories of striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding still provide inspiration to wanderers everywhere.

Robert Falcon Scott's Place in History

Modern Scientists Enjoy Safe Research Conditions

With few exceptions, the scientists of the Heroic Age had one chance, and one only, to go to Antarctica. If they didn't get what they needed in their sole throw of the dice, they were out of luck.

Today, field scientists working in Antarctica are supported by elaborate infrastructures that are funded and maintained by national polar programs. Support and safety for literally thousands of scientists engaged in a wide spectrum of research activities is provided by the more than 40 permanent scientific stations administered by individual nations and by a host of summer field camps. For studies that require ongoing data collection, such long-term access to study sites is critical. Because territorial claims were suspended in 1961 under the terms of the original Antarctic Treaty, modern-day scientists are free to go wherever science and their curiosity takes them.


Modern Scientist-Explorers as Scott's Inheritors

The tragic end of Scott's life will always dominate any treatment of his legacy. But anyone who knows the sweep of his entire story-and not merely his death-recognizes the lasting importance of his contribution. By encouraging scientific investigation of the Last Continent, he did something that few and perhaps no other participant in the Heroic Age was willing or even in a position to do. That remains his fundamental contribution, and every scientist who has worked in the Antarctic since then owes him something for it.

No one owns Antarctica; we all do. May it always remain a continent for science.