Two sides of 'Scott of the Antarctic'
When we study history, we have to recognise there is always a human story behind the text book. If we look at any number of pioneers, we will find there were often downsides to their achievements.
Marie Curie died because of a result of what she was doing in terms of scientific experimentation. And Plymouth-born explorer, Robert Falcon Scott is effectively in this same bracket. As historians we have to accept that different versions of events can be true.
‘Scott of the Antarctic’ is one of Plymouth’s most famous sons. Born in 1868, Scott was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic: the Discovery expedition of 1901–1904 and the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910–1913. The beautiful Scott memorial now stands at Mount Wise to commemorate Scott’s untimely death in 1912.
What Scott did was really encapsulate a pioneering sensibility. He was one of a minority who were going to the farthest reaches of the planet, trying to get to grips with unexplored territories and understand it from scientific and military points of view.
Scott considered it to be his patriotic duty to push the boundaries of science and understanding, devoting himself to the polar exploration and unfortunately dying in the process.
No more heroes?
Many view Scott as a hero and a true pioneer. While some have since viewed him as a man who was ill-organised and displayed faulty judgement – Scott and his companions perished 150
miles from their base camp and 11 miles from the next depot. Effectively with historical revisionism, we have to accept both sides of this story are true.
But to be a pioneer it usually involves some form of risk, which inherently can bring tragedy into the hero story. Antarctica is still one of the few areas of the world where human beings haven't
settled. Scott was a real pioneer in being one of the first to try and live and understand that environment. Simply the sheer human endeavour of trying to explore this icy continent which people hadn't really done before, is fascinating.
If we look at another Antarctic explorer in Ernest Shackleton, ultimately what he did, and what the history books state, was to bring everybody back in the midst of adversity, unlike Scott. But it's unfair to compare two individuals in quite this way. We have to recognise the achievements and the instincts of both. Scott certainly has his place in history, so does Shackleton.
To quote The Stranglers' lyric ‘no more heroes anymore’, the problem is when we approach any history we have to accept there is a popular history, there is myth-making, and then there are the realities which lie somewhere in-between.
We can choose any individual, whether it's Scott or Winston Churchill, and find plus points and negatives. While at the time we might seek to remember only the good things, within history as a professional discipline, it’s warts and all.
If we only focus on their good points, we are only telling half the story. When we focus on the negatives as well, achievements become so much greater. The fact you can be a pioneer and still have personal problems, you can still have things that don't go right and be a hero, shows a real honesty.