The Rescue of Captain Scott

By Don Aldridge

Tuckwell Press, 1999

ISBN 1 86232 070 5

"Rescue of Captain Scott? Well that wasn’t hugely successful" might be the first thought to cross the mind on seeing this title, until a closer look reveals this to be the account of the 1904 rescue of Scott at the end of his now largely unregarded first expedition to the Antarctic, in the ship Discovery. A brief episode towards the end of a little-remembered expedition may seem unpromising material for a book, but the author makes it bear a symbolic weight far beyond its narrative outline, only in part succeeding.

The events are simple to summarize. Discovery became stuck in the ice at its wintering spot in McMurdo Sound. A relief expedition in 1903 in the ship Morning under William Colbeck did not have the resources to free it, and a second relief expedition, in which the Morning was joined by the bigger and more powerful Terra Nova, a whaling ship under Harry McKay, was sent the following year. Its success turned on McKay’s long experience in using guncotton explosive to blast the ice, and his ship to butt and nudge it away, floe by floe. Over seven weeks of round-the-clock work McKay succeeded in blasting through 18 miles of ice, freeing Scott and his crew.

A heroic effort leading to back-slapping all round, you might think, but reading Scott’s journal of those seven weeks, and his published version in The Voyage of the Discovery, would lead you to believe that explosives were ineffective and their release was the result of a providential "Great Swell" which broke up the ice and cleared a path before them; the Morning, Terra Nova, and their crews are barely mentioned. Scott realized his career was on the line for his incompetence at becoming stuck, and was smarting from the humiliation of the Admiralty going over the head of Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society and Scott’s mentor, to organize the second relief expedition and ordering Scott to come out of the ice or abandon ship. Without offending the admirals, he had to give the impression that their help had been unncessary - hence the cover up, in which his Royal Navy subordinates acquiesced for fear of harming their careers. The Merchant Navy men and whalers, who were willing to tell the real story, were dealt with by being ignored and socially ostracized.

That the true story was freely told in some of the press in New Zealand (where the three ships stopped on their way home), in Dundee (home port of Discovery and Terra Nova), in the Illustrated London News, and even, though in truncated form, in the book of the expedition by Scott’s second-in-command, Albert Armitage (Two Years in the Antarctic), helps put the term "cover-up", now loaded with grassy-knoll associations, in perspective. But Aldridge seems justified in his contention that it was only the account in The Times, engineered by Markham, that mattered to those who had influence over Scott’s career, and to posterity, since no full-scale biography, even Roland Huntford’s clear-eyed and ruthless Scott and Amundsen (1979), has yet picked up on the deception (though Huntford, presumably relying on Aldridge’s research, did correct the oversight in the course of his magisterial biography of Nansen in 1997).

The book’s greatest strength and most important achievement is in laying out the events of those seven weeks, carefully researched from some 25 journals written by sailors of all three ships and buttressed by press interviews and photographs of the ice blasting (many published for the first time), in such a way that no future writing about Scott or his expeditions can ignore them. There are also major faults. The first four chapters meander frustratingly as the author attempts to summarize too much background information, too much of it irrelevant or just inaccurate - Aldridge clearly wants to write a history of Dundee and its industries, but his editor should have told him this is not it and used the red pen accordingly.

It is in these chapters too that, in trying to untangle the various currents of tradition, prejudice, and social mores that contributed to the deception, Aldridge comes partly unstuck. He is right to note, as many have before, that Scott stood at the end of a long line of Royal Navy explorers who wilfully failed to apply what any impartial observer could see was best practice in the polar regions, as evolved by Inuit who had lived in such conditions for millennia and as adopted by explorers, such as the great John Rae, who worked for the fur-trading companies: travel in small groups not large; use dogs instead of man-hauling sledges; build igloos rather than carry heavy canvas tents; wear furs not wool naval uniforms - the list goes on. He is also right to point out that part of the thinking behind the naval attitude was an assumption of cultural and racial superiority that we now properly find repellent. And it is surely unarguable that concepts of a racial pecking order were mirrored by the class pecking order and a professional one, with Merchant Navy men being acceptable to the Royal Navy if they kept quiet and knew their place, and whalers being barely tolerated.

Yet Aldridge is so keen to ram home these points that he allows his scholarly thoroughness to be partly undermined by a pamphleteering tendency to overstate, and in the process falsify, his case. He insists on a specious conflation of naval tradition and caste-consciousness with Englishness, rangeing professional, well-accomplished exploration with Scottishness against it. A cursory glance at nationalities makes this untenable: the naval exploring tradition encompassed such notables as the Irishmen McClure and McClintock, the Welshman Parry, and the Scots Ross and Nares (the Royal Navy’s British, remember?), while the fur-trading professionals included the Englishmen Kelsey, Henday, and Hearne among Rae’s predecessors - and what an Inuit would make of igloo-building and snowshoe-wearing being labelled "Scottish techniques", as Aldridge does, you can probably guess. Another problem is that his animus against the naval tradition, and seemingly against Scott personally, is so strong that he cannot allow it to have any merit at all. Man-hauling is inefficient and physically exhausting, yet it could also be interpreted as an expression of self-reliance and uncomplaining endurance - not in themselves contemptible qualities. And an insistence on using technology to overcome, rather than adapt to, the environment seems hubristic, but who could argue that successful polar travelling today owes more and more to high technology, not less? An approach that acknowledged shades of grey would have made the book much stronger.

For its subject matter, groundbreaking research, and thorough documentation, this is essential reading for anyone with an interest in polar exploration and its history, but although it is an important book, it should, and could, have been a better one.

Jonathan Dore