‘A kind of suicide’? Comments on Roland Huntford’s account of the last days of Scott’s polar party

31 Jan

Karen May and George Lewis have produced a forensic analysis of Huntford’s conclusion that, at the end of his life Scott  ‘probably’ had no reason to wish to survive and that he ‘persuaded’ Edward Wilson and ‘Birdie’ Bowers to remain with him in the doomed tent when they could have gone on. (Polar Record, p.1-9 @Cambridge University Press 2013. doi:10.1017/S0032247413000041).

The paper is a ‘must’ for anyone who felt the injustice of Huntford’s negative, subjective assessment of Scott’s expeditions in his work ‘Scott and Amundsen’

The authors challenge Huntford’s statement that Scott’s writings read ‘like a long suicide note’. Scott did not write at the Pole (as is regularly quoted); ‘Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it’. This quotation was posthumously edited. Scott actually wrote ‘Now for the run home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it’, hardly a suicidal intent. They state that although the party had opium there is no evidence the tablets were taken, Wilson and Bowers were committed Christians, Scott wrote that he would face death naturally.

Huntford remarkably appeared to believe that the possibility of social stigmatisation would have made Wilson and Bowers decide not to live. The authors argue that the two friends, modest and with few social aspiration, could and would have faced the social stigma of surviving Scott who had a severely frostbitten right foot; the reason the two men did not attempt the final journey to One Ton Camp and onwards was not because they were held back by Scott, but that they were simply too weak to make it.

They also question Huntford’s assertion that at the end Scott was ‘almost certainly in the early stages of scurvy. Here I agree with Huntford. By this stage the team had been without significant vitamin C for four months. It is inevitable that they had sub-clinical scurvy as well as other vitamin deficiencies. What the team did not have was overt scurvy (both Wilson and Scott had had the disease before and were not shy about recording its effects). But the vitamin deficiency probably caused a breakdown of Oates’ Boer War injury; his shattered femur and this slowed the return.

May and Lewis dismiss the suggestion that if Scott had lived he would have had to answer for the men he has lost.  Why would he have had to? They list numerous examples of men dying on Antarctic sorties without the expedition leader being called to account– most notably Mawson who last his two companions on his ‘Far Eastern Party’ of 1912/13.  They write compellingly that Scott, having reached the Pole and played the game’ (in contra distinction to Amundsen), would have returned to honour and acclaim.

This is  compulsive

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