Thursday, December 15, 2011
On the centenary - 14 December - of Roald Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole, I recommend a brilliant book by an unconventional historian, Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford. The book first came to my attention by way of the 1985 television series The Last Place on Earth, which was itself a remarkable achievement.
Huntford was highly critical of Amundsen's competitor in the race for the pole, Robert Scott, who reached the pole on 17 January 1912. On finding that Amundsen had already been there more than a month before, Scott and his four companions died on their way back. The discovery of their bodies eight months later confirmed Scott, at least in the minds of Britons, as the real hero of the race for the pole. In a "Message to the Public" found with his remains, Scott wrote:
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.
Amundsen, a true hero and certainly the more able explorer, never lived it down. In that strange age of exploration, in which people were more important for their courage than for their abilities, Scott was indeed a hero. Huntford's book, by presenting the facts of his expedition, revealed how egoistic and foolhardy Scott was. In an interview with The Guardian, Huntford asserted that
"In as much as I had an agenda, it wasn't to run down Scott; rather, it was to rehabilitate Amundsen, who I felt had never been given the credit he deserved outside Norway. No previous English-language biographer had even worked from the original Norwegian sources. It was only when I started reading both Scott and Amundsen's diaries that I became aware of the discrepancies. I found Scott almost incomprehensible, while Amundsen spoke a language to which I could relate. But then I've long felt an affinity with the Scandinavian psyche."
Yesterday, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, whose country has had a very tough year, said in a ceremony you can watch here, "We are here today to honour these five brave men. We are here today to celebrate one of the most outstanding achievements of mankind and we are here to highlight the importance of this cold continent for the warming of the globe."