February 10, 1913 main content.

February 10, 1913

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


The British Mourn Scott's Death: February 10, 1913

Native Son Into Tragic Hero

News of Scott's death did not reach Britain until February 11, 1913. The sad facts were sent by telegraph from New Zealand, from which the Terra Nova had originally sailed in October, 1910. Cherry was amazed to see flags flying everywhere at half mast: "We landed to find the Empire -- almost the civilized world -- in mourning."

And indeed the outpouring of grief was remarkable. Within three days of the announcement, a state memorial service for Scott and his companions was held in St Paul's Cathedral, with, remarkably, King George V in attendance. (Reigning sovereigns almost never attended funerals or memorials of commoners.) This was the beginning of Scott's elevation to the status of tragic hero.


Hero Into Incompetent Failure

During the past several decades, however, a different picture of Scott has supplanted the heroic one -- one in which he is portrayed as being staggeringly ill-prepared, thus dooming his team to dreadful failure through unsound leadership and a series of poor decisions. The arc of his reputation, from hero to bumbler, has effectively dimmed the light on Scott's contributions, not only with regard to Antarctic exploration but also to Antarctic science. By contrast, recognition of Amundsen's seemingly effortless success has only grown.

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Scott Reimagined

Yet for all of his obvious, documented failings there is a full measure of countervailing evidence concerning Scott's strength of character -- his sense of justice and his willingness to do anything and everything he asked his men to do.

It is just not conceivable that this man -- who conducted not one but two expeditions to Antarctica and who had veterans and novices alike clamoring for positions on his team -- was the blubbering, unstable incompetent that some authors have made him out to be. Scott may never receive the level of praise that Shackleton has recently enjoyed, in part because Shackleton's accolades came for him comfortably late, long after the chief participants in his expeditions had died.

Scott comes with much more baggage, and with a list of virtues that were considered exemplary in upper-class, prewar Britain, but which have little resonance today. Nevertheless, one expects that the wheel will turn again, when new attitudes take hold or old ones are reinterpreted.