The expeditions to the South Pole of Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen are now part of historic legend. But during 1911 when they both set out to conquer the South Pole, very few expected them to achieve their mission. Amundsen will be remembered as the first man to conquer the frigid vastness of Antarctica as he erected the Norwegian flag at the South Pole on December the 11th 1911, thirty five days earlier to the arrival of his competitor Robert Scott. Despite this fact, it is the legend and aura of Robert Scott that continues to thrive even today. That he would eventually succumb to the brutal natural forces of Antarctica and would never return home to Britain had made him a martyr hero of sorts – an image that continues to this day. But beyond the personal rivalries and statures of both men, they both shared the same zeal and spirit of adventure and exploration. And it is through their explorations that the repository of knowledge that we had about the South Pole expanded significantly. This essay will look at primary and secondary sources of information pertaining to these two great men and try to find out how they differed in their approaches to fulfill their missions.
As Michael Barrett observes in the journal History Today, when the preparations and arrangements for the voyage are compared, it is clear that the British team headed by Robert Scott was far less prepared for travelling in polar regions. The Norwegian team headed by Amundsen was decidedly ahead in aspects such as “nutrition, skiing ability and dog-handling skills. They also had the natural advantages of being raised in a polar country. The fact that Scott trekked for about 1,000 miles while Amundsen was using dogs and skis is difficult to avoid.” (Barrett, 2000, p.3) Further, by studying the objects within their back-packs and also the amenities available in their base camps, we can get an idea of their respective approaches. For example, in the National Museum in Oslo, objects such as parts of a primus stove, leather washers in a tin, etc are displayed. While they look mundane at first glance, they played a key role in the expeditions. Take say an object as simple as a leather washer. They became crucial for the party’s survival as the following passage explains:
“On his way to the Pole, Scott laid depots containing fuel for the team to pick up on its way back. This fuel was incredibly important as, even though the explorers were surrounded by water, it was locked up in ice which they needed to melt in order to be able to drink. The British used leather washers in the fuel cans, but the leather deteriorated in the cold and the fuel evaporated. This had happened previously on the Discovery expedition of 1901, but Scott did not act on his experience. So when he stopped to collect the fuel on his return from the Pole, the cans were half empty”. (Barrett, 2000, p3)
In the case of Amundsen, having realized the inefficiency of leather washers, he took watertight bungs that minimized evaporation of fuel. The other difference in the approaches of the two men lay in the way they prepared for the expedition. Roald Amundsen, having dreamt of an adventurous life from early childhood is known to condition his body to tolerate extreme cold. Even during the fiercest of Norwegian winters, Amundsen would throw open the windows of his bedroom and still manage to sleep. Robert Scott though, having been born and lived most of his formative years in Britain, was never exposed to the cruel weather conditions of Norway. As a result his body was less adapted to the polar temperatures when compared to Amundsen. (Booth, 2007, p.136)
It would also be fair to say that Scott resorted to religious guidance during his expedition to Antarctica. Born in a poor family and initiated into the Christian faith by the deeply devout mother Hannah, Robert Scott read the Bible each day of his voyage. As he notes in his letter to his mother, “I read the church service every Sunday on our voyage to Melbourne, and I propose to do the same with equal regularity throughout the voyage.” (Booth, 2007, p.137) Added to this, Scott’s own unstable personality might have had a say on outcome of the expedition. According to his wife Kathleen, “he was given to periods of euphoria, interspersed with feelings of anxiety and depression” (Walters, 2002, p.6). A similar observation was also made by Huntford, who accompanied Scott in the expedition: “By temperament and character, Scott was unsuited to emergencies: they exacerbated his fluctuating moods and heightened his already taut nerves.” (Walters, 2002, p.6) Amundsen’s approach was more focused on scientific understanding and rationality, which had helped him master his mind as well as the hostile environmental conditions.