Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Larson (History/Pepperdine Univ.; A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign, 2007, etc.) sheds new light on the famous three-way race to the South Pole.
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the pole, in 1912—returning in triumph to tell the tale—while British standard-bearer Robert Scott lagged behind by two weeks and perished on the ice. However, writes the author, this was not a defeat for Britain. While the Norwegian's primary aim was to “bag poles,” the primary mission of the two British adventurers, Scott and Ernest Shackleton, was to carry out scientific research. This they did admirably, laying the groundwork for modern research in such diverse fields as marine biology, meteorology and glaciology. The story is not only about science, writes Larson, but “also about power and politics, culture and commerce; hubris and heroism at the end of the Earth.” At the close of a London lecture sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society where Amundsen was the featured speaker, a cheer was raised for his dogs, “without whom,” in the words of Lord Curzon, “Captain Amundsen would never have got to the Pole.” In fact, Larson writes, the British ethos at the time centered on its imperial grandeur. The shock of defeat in the Boer war was counterbalanced by tales of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and the three major expeditions by Scott and Shakleton, during which the explorers suffered terrible privation wintering on the ice with seal meat as their only food.
A satisfying tale of adventure and exploration.