Sunday, 22 January 2012

Celebrating Captain Scott

Hundred years ago this month, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and four other members of his British Antarctic Expedition 1910, reached the South Pole. What should have been triumphed as a great achievement of effort, bravery, knowledge and exploration, was diminished when it was realised that Scott's expedition had been 'beaten' to the Pole first by the Norwegian expedition lead by Amundsen.

What followed after Scott reached the Pole was a decreasing circle of fate. Upon reaching the South Pole and the crushing reality that they had been beaten to the race, Scott and his small team began the even more exhausting 800 mile return to their base in constantly deteriorating weather and ill health.

By March 1912, Scott and his team had lost their lives; perishing in the horrifyingly frozen temperatures. They had been hungry, frost bitten and fatigued for weeks. Captain Scott, Captain Oates, Lieutenant Bowers, Edward Wilson, and Petty Officer Evans had all passed away in their final battle.

Growing up I had long been interested in the tale of the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. Cardiff's Roath Park lake has a memorial to Captain Scott's team, and visiting the park, I often asked to hear the tragic story. It both intrigued and horrified me; the marvel of exploration counter-acted with the death and sickening end. To me, the romance of real hero adventurers was there in plain view - these were not comic book heroes, they were real people who took on challenges of enormous height. And unlike the hollywood heroes I saw on screen, there was not always a happy ending.

The Terra Nova expedition ship set sail from Cardiff in 1910, with the aim of being the first to reach the South Pole; although it had a secondary aim of scientific exploration. By the 1970s, criticism of Scott had seen his name rather tarnished - criticism of leadership and judgement. A cloud of blame hung around the story. TV adaptations of Shackleton - Scott's contemporary explorer - had raised the profiles of these early twentieth century explorers, and yet Scott was left to still flounder amidst the blizzard of shame. Rumours churned about rivalries between Scott and Shackleton, innuendos and soap opera stylee myths that were leaving behind the real story.

The new exhibition traveling around the country and to celebrate the 100 years since Scott's reaching the South Pole, does much to help champion and pay respects to the bravery of these men, as well as highlight the fact the expedition did much to aid scientific knowledge with the data and artifacts collected.

Criticism of Scott was wonderfully batted away for 6 (and over the pavillion and into the car park) by the epic modern-day adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes in his fantastic book, Captain Scott. As easy as it is for academics and historians to criticise Scott and the expedition from the comfort of their warm desks, Fiennes has done it himself - he has braved the harsh realities of the Antarctic, experienced the battles and extremities, the stresses, the pain. In a nut-shell, he has lived what he's talking about. Fiennes writes that Scott achieved so much, that Scott should be championed for these as victories. The expedition was one of huge scientific importance.

Scott and his team should be remembered as true heroes. It's through the bravery of people like them that man learns and develops. Gaining scientific progress; discovering the limitations of the human body alone. It is why I admire explorers/astronauts and pioneers - they try new things, experience what there is; see life as a quest to discover, to learn. Otherwise what is the point.

And that is their legacy.

"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 ... 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."
Captain Scott's last diary entry, March 1912

The Captain Scott expedition is on at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff until May 2012.

No comments: