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Gilbert: Centenary

01/02/12 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert tells us a true story of great suffering, disappointment, and pathos that's one hundred years old this month.

(Gilbert) It's rare that the story of the loser in a race is remembered more than the winner, but that's what happened with the race to the South Pole, which was the great prize for glory-seeking explorers and nations after the North Pole was claimed.

On January 17th , 1912, a hundred years ago this month, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, an officer in the British Navy, reached the South Pole with four other men - only to discover that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, had gotten there five weeks earlier. Scott and his men had pulled their own sledges, Amundsen had used dogs.

Scott wrote in his journal, "The worst has happened, or nearly the worst. . . .The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. . . .All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return."

They took photos of themselves for the record wearing heavy anoraks and overmitts, but no smiles. Scott wrote, "Great God! This is an awful place."

The return trip was more than wearisome; it was horrific. After a month, one of them died. Another month later, Lawrence Oates, who could barely walk due to the terrible condition of his feet, apparently felt he was slowing the party down, and so, according to Scott's journal, he left their tent for the last time, telling his companions, "I am just going outside and may be some time."

The three remaining men were just 11 miles from their resupply depot when a blizzard kept them tent-bound for nine days. To his last journal entry, Scott added a postscript: "For God's sake look after our people."

Scott also wrote letters to his wife and mother, his companions' mothers, and a number of prominent people. He also left a "Message To The Public," in which he wrote that their disaster had not been caused by "faulty organization, but [by] misfortune in all risks which had to be undertaken."

In recent decades, scholars have argued whether their deaths were in fact caused by Scott's poor leadership, planning, and execution, or, by among other things, weather that was dramatically worse that year than Antarctica's typically horrific weather.

Scott's message to the public ended with these words,

". . . for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. . . .

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale . . ."

When news of his death reached England, Scott was lionized and idealized as the heroic embodiment of England's indomitable spirit.
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