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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reading List: Journals

Scott, Robert Falcon. Journals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1913, 1914, 1923, 1927] 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-953680-1.
Robert Falcon Scott, leading a party of five men hauling their supplies on sledges across the ice cap, reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912. When he arrived, he discovered a cairn built by Roald Amundsen's party, which had reached the Pole on December 14th, 1911 using sledges pulled by dogs. After this crushing disappointment, Scott's polar party turned back toward their base on the coast. After crossing the high portion of the ice pack (which Scott refers to as “the summit”) without severe difficulties, they encountered unexpected, unprecedented, and, based upon subsequent meteorological records, extremely low temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf (the “Barrier” in Scott's nomenclature). Immobilised by a blizzard, and without food or sufficient fuel to melt ice for water, Scott's party succumbed, with Scott's last journal entry, dated March 29th, 1912.

I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
R. Scott.

For God's sake look after our people.

A search party found the bodies of Scott and the other two members of the expedition who died with him in the tent (the other two had died earlier on the return journey; their remains were never found). His journals were found with him, and when returned to Britain were prepared for publication, and proved a sensation. Amundsen's priority was almost forgotten in the English speaking world, alongside Scott's first-hand account of audacious daring, meticulous planning, heroic exertion, and dignity in the face of death.

A bewildering variety of Scott's journals were published over the years. They are described in detail and their differences curated in this Oxford World's Classics edition. In particular, Scott's original journals contained very candid and often acerbic observations about members of his expedition and other explorers, particularly Shackleton. These were elided or toned down in the published copies of the journals. In this edition, the published text is used, but the original manuscript text appears in an appendix.

Scott was originally considered a hero, then was subjected to a revisionist view that deemed him ill-prepared for the expedition and distracted by peripheral matters such as a study of the embryonic development of emperor penguins as opposed to Amundsen's single-minded focus on a dash to the Pole. The pendulum has now swung back somewhat, and a careful reading of Scott's own journals seems, at least to this reader, to support this more balanced view. Yes, in some ways Scott's expedition seems amazingly amateurish (I mean, if you were planning to ski across the ice cap, wouldn't you learn to ski before you arrived in Antarctica, rather than bring along a Norwegian to teach you after you arrived?), but ultimately Scott's polar party died due to a combination of horrific weather (present-day estimates are that only one year in sixteen has temperatures as low as those Scott experienced on the Ross Ice Shelf) and an equipment failure: leather washers on cans of fuel failed in the extreme temperatures, which caused loss of fuel Scott needed to melt ice to sustain the party on its return. And yet the same failure had been observed during Scott's 1901–1904 expedition, and nothing had been done to remedy it. The record remains ambiguous and probably always will.

The writing, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was done, makes you shiver. At the Pole:

The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.

… Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.

and from his “Message to the Public” written shortly before his death:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

Now that's an explorer.

Posted at February 28, 2013 23:51