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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 July, 2003, 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK
Fighting for their hero

Christine McGourty
BBC science correspondent

The legend of Captain Scott's expeditions in the Antarctic has been somewhat eclipsed in recent years, with a raft of books, TV dramas and films on rival explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Capt Scott-Mt Erebus, Scott Polar Research Institute
It has become fashionable to knock Scott
(Image by Scott Polar Research Unit)
Now Scott's supporters are on the offensive, arguing that he has been unfairly lampooned in the past for his supposed mistakes and poor judgement.

The Captain Scott Society has erected a statue to the explorer in Cardiff Bay. It stands near the spot where Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, set sail for Antarctica in June 1910 and carries a plaque with the names of all those on the expedition.

Julian Salisbury, chairman of the society, believes Scott has fallen victim to a certain cynicism: "All our heroes seem to be targets for criticism - Nelson, Churchill, Wellington even.

"People seem to like making their reputations by knocking our heroes off their pedestals. One of our aims is to put Scott back on his."

Data return

He admitted Scott had made mistakes but added: "No-one who has tried to achieve anything worthwhile hasn't made mistakes along the way."

A new biography of Scott is due out in the autumn from the explorer Ranulph Fiennes, in which he intends to correct what he sees as the misleading impression of Scott as a bungler.

I think his achievements were extraordinary, given the context of the time and the equipment available
Klaus Dodds
Fiennes says his scientific achievements have been unfairly neglected: "I don't like the name 'hero', but he is a great success."

He says that Scott has been compared to Amundsen, but adds: "They both reached the Pole. Which one should we consider greater - the one who came back with great results, or the one who came back like Amundsen, with no results?"

He also argues that Scott is often unfairly compared with Sir Ernest Shackleton: "People think that the greatest thing about Ernest Shackleton is that he never lost anybody, but that's not true. He lost at least three people on his expeditions."

Harsh conditions

Klaus Dodds, a scholar of Antarctic history at Royal Holloway, University of London, points out that our heroes and villains often change with the times: "I suspect the public probably find Scott a figure of fun.

"And if you ask the public who are they more familiar with, they would say Shackleton. That's a complete reversal from the position on the street 50 years earlier. Shackleton just would not really feature in the public imagination."

British Antarctic Expedition, 1910-13 (Terra Nova), SPRI
It was said Scott's own failings led his expedition into disaster
(Image by Scott Polar Research Unit)
Scott was hailed a national hero after his death in 1912. He died, with four of his men - Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans - on the return journey from the South Pole, having been beaten there by his rival, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. When the news reached England, there were tributes in the House of Commons and one paper described their deaths as "the noblest tragedy in history".

The 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, featuring Sir John Mills, portrayed Scott as an icon of courage and determination in an epic battle against the elements.

But as time passed, criticism of his role in the tragedy became louder. In a best-selling book from the 1970s, now published under the title The Last Place On Earth, the writer Roland Huntford concluded: "Scott had brought disaster on himself by his own incompetence, and thrown away the lives of his companion."

Male thing

Descendants and supporters of Scott were furious. Huntford does not want to comment now, but has told me he stands by everything he wrote.

Scott and his South Pole party (AP)
When the bodies of Scott of the Antarctic and his party were discovered in 1912, a collection of rocks and fossils were found by their tent
The BBC's Helen Briggs

The author Beryl Bainbridge, who wrote a novel The Birthday Boys about Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition, is an admirer of Scott.

"Before I wrote the novel, I knew nothing about him. I thought that, being female, I couldn't understand why a chap would want to go out in the cold weather and why they went through such hell.

"But the more I began to read about him, I thought he was absolutely tremendous."

But she's also an admirer of Huntford's work and says he was unfairly treated by Scott's supporters following publication of the book. Though she says his view of the explorer was very different to her own.

Low tech

"He really trounces Scott for being an absolute swine," says Bainbridge.

"In fact, Huntford once said to me that the reason why England is in such a poor state or has failed as a nation is because of the attitude that was spread by people like Scott - the idea about gentlemen, and risking your neck to do anything.

"I'm very glad I didn't read that book first because my idea of Scott would have been so different."

She is also a huge fan of his wife Kathleen, an acclaimed sculptor, and argues that a woman such as Kathleen would not have married Scott had he not been a very special man with much to commend him.

Dr Dodds says: "I think his achievements were extraordinary, given the context of the time and the equipment available. This was not a time when GPS equipment was part of your kit.

"I suspect in retrospect he made a number of mistakes regarding both the equipment and choice of personnel. But that's often one of those things that happens to people who are held in the past as some kind of hero. They get savagely dissected later on."

He adds: "What comes out of his diaries is Scott's loyalty and commitment to achieving the South Pole in the name of not only science but the greater good of Britain and the British Empire.

"And there's no doubt the final pages of the diaries are extremely moving." But he says that books about Scott often reveal the prejudices of the authors.

"A book that looked at Scott's reputation critically and at how it moved over time would be most welcome. What we don't need or want is another edition celebrating or condemning his achievements."

Antarctic Scott's lasting legacy
02 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature
Scott's hut needs urgent repair
07 Dec 01  |  Science/Nature
Science battles for Scott's reputation
10 Sep 01  |  Science/Nature

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