An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
By Edward Larson
Hardcover, 326 pages
Yale University Press
List Price: $28
Chapter 1: Three Cheers for the Dogs
He stood in triumph and trepidation. It was the evening of November 15, 1912. A proud, plain-speaking Norwegian adventurer, Roald Amundsen rose to address a packed house at London's elite Royal Geographical Society after having bested better-equipped and better-funded British explorers in attaining a long-prized goal. He had reason to tremble. Some in the audience saw him as a jackal in a den of lions.
His talk would be modest, focused more on technical details of the journey than on the end accomplishment — but it could not be modest enough to please many of his British listeners. They, in turn, could not avoid insulting him even had they wanted to do so. For the second time in his life, he had achieved what Britain's greatest heroes could not, but he had done it in a way that they disdained to attempt.
In 1912, when Amundsen made this second triumphal appearance before the society, London reigned over the most extensive empire in the history of the world. For three centuries, British explorers had led Europe in the discovery of other lands and seas. The Royal Geographical Society, or RGS, traced its origins to 1788, as the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, and had succeeded famously in its original goal through its support of David Livingston, Richard Burton, John Speke, Henry Stanley, and other renowned explorers. Under the patronage of Queen Victoria, it extended its reach to the ends of the earth. Antarctica, the last large blank space on world maps, had by 1900 become a focus of its ambitions. The South Pole took on aspects of a holy grail.
British geographers of the late Victorian and Edwardian era viewed themselves as scientists and their expeditions as grand enterprises of science. Simply reaching the head of the Nile, the high Himalayas, or the South Pole was not enough. An RGS explorer had to conduct research along the way. A series of RGS-endorsed expeditions had been opening the way to the pole for more than a decade when, late in 1911, Amundsen stole a march on a team already in the field to capture the prize by questionable means. Hailed for this achievement throughout most of the Western world, Amundsen was all but required to address the leaders of British geographical science and receive their validation of his effort. He did not want to come but could scarcely decline their summons. The Royal Geographical Society's status as the arbiter of world geography was well learned.
The British boasted a long history of exploration and claimed a certain province over the far south, where early geographers thought a large landmass must exist to counterbalance the continents of the north. During the 1770s, the Admiralty launched a scientific expedition under the command of James Cook to look for this hypothesized southern land. "January 17th, 1773, was an epoch in the world's history," RGS Librarian Hugh Robert Mill declared in 1905, "for just before noon on that day the Antarctic circle was first crossed by human beings." The intrepid Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle twice more on the same voyage but retreated each time before dense pack ice without sighting land. By circumnavigating the globe at roughly latitude 60 degrees south, he established that, if an Antarctic continent existed, it must lie in the far south behind a daunting blockade of sea ice. "I will not say it was impossible any where to get farther to the South; but attempting it would have been a dangerous and rash enterprise," Cook wrote in his journal. "It was, indeed, my opinion, as well as the opinion of most on board, that this ice extended quite to the pole, or perhaps joined to some land, to which it had been fixed from the earliest time."
Later British explorers thought otherwise. In 1839 the Admiralty commissioned a second expedition to Antarctic waters. James Clark Ross, already famous as the first European to reach the wandering North Magnetic Pole, was given two sturdy wooden ships, HMS Ere-bus and Terror, and a charge to make magnetic observations throughout the deep southern seas. By this time, sealers, whalers, and expeditions from various countries had probed the edges of the ice pack and returned with reports of isolated bits of land.
"Impressed with the feeling that England had ever led the way of discovery in the southern as well as in the northern regions," Ross commented, "I considered it would have been inconsistent with the pre-eminence she has ever maintained, if we were to follow in the footsteps of the expedition of any other nation." Instead he plowed through the ice pack south of New Zealand and found a vast open sea with a mountainous western coast that he named Victoria Land for his young queen. "It was an epoch in the history of discovery," the RGS's Mill later wrote, "the magic wall from before which every previous explorer had to turn back in despair, had fallen into fragments at the first determined effort to break through it."
Sailing south along the Victoria Land coast in the sea later named for him, Ross encountered at about latitude 78degrees south what he described as "a perpendicular cliff of ice between one hundred and fifty and two hundred feet above the level of the sea, perfectly flat and level on top, and without any fissures or promontories on its even seaward side." The awestruck captain found that this "Great Ice Barrier" extended eastward from the Victoria Land coast for hundreds of miles. He realized it would prevent anyone from sailing farther south. Despite this obstacle in the way to the pole, Ross had found an exposed coastline with majestic mountains and, jutting from the Ice Barrier across the Ross Sea's McMurdo Sound, a large island that was later named for him. He never set foot on the Antarctic mainland, but his namesake island became the base for many later efforts to probe the southern continent.
In 1901, after years of prodding by its president, Clements R. Markham, the RGS cosponsored the first British land expedition to the southern continent. Aboard the purpose-built wooden ship Discovery, which wintered over for two years at Ross Island's Hut Point with a select team of scientists, officers, and sailors under Royal Navy commander Robert Falcon Scott, the British National Antarctic Expedition became the first to send parties south across the Ice Barrier and east over the Victoria Land mountains. A team consisting of Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson set a new farthest south record on the last day of 1902 before turning back at the extreme end of their endurance, at just over latitude 82degrees south. They had covered almost five hundred miles on foot with heavy sledges. "Whilst one cannot help a deep sense of disappointment in reflecting on the 'might have been' had our team remained in good health," Scott wrote in his published journal, "one cannot but remember that even as it is we have made a greater advance towards a pole of the earth than has ever yet been achieved by a sledge party."
Shackleton returned to Antarctica five years later leading a privately funded expedition aboard the forty-year-old converted sealer Nimrod. Accompanied by a small land party that included several scientists, he wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island before heading south with three men across the Ice Barrier, up a glacial pass through the mountains of South Victoria Land, and onto the vast Polar Plateau. They man-hauled their sledge to within 120 miles of the pole before being forced to turn back or face certain death by starvation. "We have shot our bolt, and the tale is latitude 88 degrees 23' South, longitude 162 degrees East," Shackleton wrote on January 9, 1909. "We hoisted her Majesty's flag and the other Union Jack afterwards, and took possession of the plateau in the name of his Majesty," King Edward VII.
Excerpted from An Empire of Ice by Edward J. Larson. Copyright 2011 by Edward J. Larson. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.