One hundred years since Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole, but who was the real victor in Antarctic discovery?

Empire of IceThis year marks the centenary of the first expeditions to reach the South Pole, a momentous challenge, and one that is still considered dangerous today. To coincide with the anniversary of these expeditions, Yale University Press has published An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science by the Pulitzer-prizewinning historian Edward J. Larson. Larson’s book looks beyond the glory of the race to the South Pole and focuses on the larger scientific, social, and geopolitical context. We take a look at this exciting new title as well as some of the key players in the treacherous Antarctic exhibitions.

One hundred years ago the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat Robert F. Scott in a race to the South Pole. Efficient, well prepared, and focused solely on the goal of getting to his destination and back, Amundsen has earned his place in history as the victor in an epic race. Scott, meanwhile, has been reduced in the public mind to a dashing incompetent who stands for little more than relentless perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat.

What is less widely known is that Scott had big scientific ambitions for his trip, which he largely fulfilled, despite losing out in the more publicised race to the South Pole. As Edward J Larson explained in a recent article in Scientific American:

In February 1911 a small band of Scott’s men were trying to reach the virtually unknown King Edward VII Land on the Ross Ice Shelf’s eastern side and ran into another group encamped on the shelf’s sea edge, about 350 miles away. These nine men hailed from Norway, and their leader was Roald Amundsen, an expert Arctic skier and dogsledder who in 1905 had been the first to traverse the Northwest Passage above Canada. Amundsen was supposed to be heading for the North Pole, more than 12,000 miles away, but he had secretly shifted his goal to the southern pole in what appeared to Scott to be an effort to catch the British explorers off guard. Amundsen’s men traveled light—no scientific ambitions for them. With sled dogs and skis, they planned to make a dash to the pole from a base already 60 miles closer than Scott’s base on Ross Island. What started for Scott as a deliberate march to the pole had suddenly turned into a race.

As Larson explains in his book Empire of Ice Scott and his team has a difficult choice to make: abandon the scientific research and focus on the race, or forfeit the glory of being the first to reach the South Pole in favour of maintaining the original agenda of scientific exploration. Scott chose the latter, choosing to make several side trips to search for fossils and other scientific evidence, despite competition from Amundsen. “The proper, as well as the wiser, course for us is to proceed exactly as though this had not happened,” Scott wrote in his diary about Amundsen’s challenge. Larson argues that rather than merely coming second in a Antarctic race, Scott’s expedition was in fact a scientific success (one of Scott’s most significant finds was fossils of an ancient plant, Glossopteris, that proved to be important evidence in support of Darwin’s theory of evolution).

An Empire of Ice offers a new perspective on the Antarctic expeditions of the early twentieth century by looking at the British efforts (including those of Ernest Shackleton) for what they actually were: massive scientific enterprises in which reaching the South Pole was but a spectacular sideshow.

About the Author
Edward Larson is University Professor of History and holds the Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. His numerous books include Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in History. Read more about Edward Larson on his Wikipedia page.

An Empire of Ice is available now form Yale University Press

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  • It was Amundsen who made it a race. Scott continued about his expedition deliberately, as was his way. The Pole was the more exciting goal, as far as the general public was concerned, but science was the more important. Let that record speak for itself. Scott’s expeditions laid the foundation of modern Antarctic meteorlogy upon which so much of our understanding of global climate change depends. Geology, biology, terrestrial physics and magnetology–there was so much more to discover than an abstract point on the spinning globe.

    “It is all,” as Tom Crean said,”for the good of science.”

    David Hirzel

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