The Endurance and a First-Rate Tragedy

Scott Sutherland reviews 'The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition' by Caroline Alexander and 'A First-Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole' by Diana Preston.


Scott Sutherland
December 4, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

In November 1902, a young Royal Navy officer named Robert Falcon Scott and two companions left their boat Discovery and set off across the Antarctic ice pack to explore the snowy and desolate continent, which in Edwardian England was considered the last great prize in the heady realm of global exploration. The trio bungled along through nasty weather and forbidding terrain with sled dogs they didn't know how to use or care for. When the dogs proved incapable of pulling or simply died in their tracks, the men pulled the heavily laden sledges themselves, a practice known unglamorously as "manhauling." Three months later, starving, frostbitten and decimated by scurvy, the trio staggered back to Discovery never having left the ice shelf, nor gotten anywhere near the South Pole, the implied goal of what was billed as a scientific voyage. It was hardly an auspicious start to what would become known as the Heroic Age of exploration.

One of Scott's ice-shelf companions was a young Irish-born seaman named Ernest Shackleton, who suffered immensely during the excursion -- at one point, no longer able to stand, he had to be hauled on a sledge -- and was forced to leave the expedition to recover back in England. Far from souring him on polar adventure, the Discovery episode only served to whet Shackleton's appetite; he became one of Scott's chief rivals, mounting expeditions of his own in 1908 and 1914, the former nearly achieving the pole and the latter providing one of the hairiest tales of survival and derring-do known to man.

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Two new books detail not only the expeditions led by Scott and Shackleton, but the distinctly different characters of the explorers as well. "A First-Rate Tragedy," by British historian and journalist Diana Preston, is a condensed biography of Scott that focuses on his Antarctic expeditions of 1902-03 and 1911-12, the latter of which ended in the deaths of Scott and four companions after they reached the pole -- a feat they achieved only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to their destination by 34 days. "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," meanwhile, concentrates on the 1914-16 trip that was to have been a transcontinental crossing but became an epic struggle for survival when the expedition's boat, the Endurance, became trapped in pack ice.

"A First-Rate Tragedy" is the pricklier of the two, since Preston has made it her mission to cast Scott as a hero of classical proportions. For most of this century, Scott's ill-fated and ill-executed polar assault has been a model of exploratory ineptitude, British-style, and Preston's task of manhauling Scott's reputation over dicey critical terrain proves wearying at times. To elevate her hero, she rarely misses an opportunity to slag Shackleton -- she notes that he left the 1902-03 expedition "in tears," conjectures that Scott later found the bravery, resourcefulness and toughness of other expedition members "a relief after dealing with Shackleton" and barely mentions Shackleton's remarkable 1908 expedition that came within 100 miles of bagging the pole -- and has nothing but disdain for the "professional explorer" Amundsen, clearly casting her lot with "gifted amateurs" like Scott.

The book is most compelling when Preston simply presents Scott the man rather than trying to cast him in bronze. Self-described as "obstinate, despondent, pigheaded, dejected," Scott could be maddeningly autocratic one minute, touchingly gallant the next. The depiction of Scott's between-expeditions wooing of his wife-to-be, Kathleen, is chock-full of choice detail, gleaned from letters and journal entries, that shows him chafing against his middle-class, buttoned-down-navy background. Similarly, Preston's liberal use of the extensive journals kept by Scott and other members of his final polar push lend a gripping narrative and an immense humanity to an undertaking too often characterized as merely a botched exercise in logistics. In the end, despite Preston's best efforts at canonization, Scott comes across as neither hero nor goat, but rather as a man firmly and fully of his time.

In "The Endurance," Caroline Alexander tells a riveting saga of high adventure, biblical suffering and almost unbelievable resourcefulness and luck. Shackleton's 1914 expedition ended when his boat became frozen in pack ice 85 miles from his destination on the Antarctic mainland. He and his crew of 27 spent the next 20 months camping, variously, on the Endurance (which the ice eventually crushed and sank), ice floes and, after a harrowing week-long journey in 20-foot open boats in heavy seas, a storm-strafed hunk of rock called Elephant Island. Their only hope of rescue lay in dispatching a small crew to the whaling stations at South Georgia Island, 800 miles away across the world's most tempestuous stretch of ocean, and sending help back to rescue the Elephant Island party. Alexander's recounting of the subsequent (and miraculously successful) voyage, made by Shackleton and five of his crew, will leave you feeling cold, damp and seasick for days afterward.

Alexander, a contributor to the New Yorker, Granta and Outside, wrote "The Endurance" as part of her curatorial duties for a forthcoming American Museum of Natural History exhibition titled "Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Expedition." As such, she has access to a treasure of source documents like journals and letters, which she uses as effectively as Preston, and paints Shackleton as warm, generous, wizened and extraordinarily cool-headed, a sharp contrast to Preston's Scott. The book also features dozens of striking images by Frank Hurley, the expedition's photographer, which capture the beauty and ferocity of Antarctica as well as the details of the crew's daily task of survival.

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But Hurley could not capture the sad epitaph that awaited Shackleton and his expedition. The England they returned to in 1917 was weary and depleted by war, its romantic notion of heroism smashed on the killing fields of Flanders. The English had already made a hero of Scott and were unable to accommodate Shackleton's achievements, and the public's lack of interest spelled the end of the Heroic Age of exploration. In "The Endurance," though, Alexander gives her subject his due; 80 years on, in these weird, hero-starved millennial times, Shackleton appears to us as the genuine article, the kind of hero we secretly long for but aren't sure we'll ever see again.


Scott Sutherland

Scott Sutherland is a writer in Portland, Maine.

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