Thanks everyone for the emails, questions and suggestions. I’m looking into making the most of this dynamically interactive inter-web thing. No blogger is an island, so stay posted for further details of ways to get involved/throw rotten tomatoes. The fattest common thread in your emails has been ‘Why Scott? What has he done for me?’ (I’m paraphrasing.) This is a good question, so I’ll start with that.
Firstly, I’m really inspired by his can-do attitude. Scott had no polar expedition experience when he had a chance meeting with Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. Markham remembered Scott from a meeting twelve years prior and sketched the outline of the intended British polar mission. Two days later, Scott applied to lead the Discovery expedition, and the rest, as they say... Granted, the encounter with Markham was lucky, but Scott followed it up. Adventure needs to be sought out, not waited for.
Captain Scott was driven by ambition, an iron work ethic and an adventurousness of spirit and outlook. Beyond the obvious perils involved in Antarctic exploration, the path of polar expeditioning was far from a secure route to promotion, compared with the naval officer ladder he’d been smoothly climbing up, up to then. I think our schooling trains us to be pliable employees, rather than bold risk-takers and anyone who strays from the path of least resistance gets my vote.
This is the ward room table around which Capt Scott and his men celebrated their last Midwinter (22 June 1911). Picture credit: P McCarthy, Antarctic Heritage Trust
Scott’s also admirable for his personable approach. From his Journals we know that Scott was racked with private doubts and the self-rebuke of the perfectionist, but to his crew and the people around him, he was noted to be fair and charming in manner. In all of his years of naval service, not a single formal complaint was lodged against him, which considering the stress of the situations he was commanding in is greatly impressive.
Captain Scott was not free from flaws, but he had the intelligence and self-knowledge to recognise his weaknesses, to work around them and even to capitalise on them. For example, he had the humility to assemble a team around him that was better qualified than him. For his Terra Nova mission Captain Scott was a naval officer tasked with leading a mixed crew (with Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and science backgrounds) on a primarily scientific mission. Scott was no scientist himself, but he did not stand aloof from the experiments carried out by his team members. When the crew ‘over-wintered’ on the ice, as overland trips could only be done in the summer, Scott arranged a full programme of mostly scientific lectures to educate his crew to see their surroundings afresh.
Scott’s often put down for having ‘lost the race’ to the South Pole, but this stems from a misjudgement of his character and his motives. Scott was not intending to race in the first place, and in fact had openly approached Amundsen, his supposed competitor, for skiing tips. In contrast to Scott’s open nature, Amundsen was secretive and took care not to meet Scott, so as not to lie to his face about his polar intentions. Amundsen’s campaign was a lean one, calculated to reach the pole first at any cost, whereas Scott had a more balanced smell-the-scientific-roses angle on his expedition.
I like Scott’s lack of pretence and his unsentimental view on his achievements. On reaching the South Pole, he famously said, ‘The Pole... Great God! This is an awful place.’ Quantifying social impact is like counting ripples in pond., but despite Scott’s ultimate failure to guide his party back to safety from the South Pole in 1912, there’s no denying the great legacy that Scott left behind, whether in the research of the Scott Polar Research Institute set up in his memory or the inspiration that his diaries and story has served to countless people in the past century. He was acknowledged in yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, in recognition of the trail of scientific discovery he left behind, as well his courage and fortitude (http://bit.ly/jNwMqC).