In the race to the South Pole, history was not written by the victors

A new exhibition dedicated to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen highlights how attention has largely focused on the doomed mission led by Britain's Robert Falcon Scott

Roald Amundsen's journey to the South Pole was the culmination of years spent honing his craft and leaving nothing to chance. AP Photo
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At first glance, a museum space across the water from Oslo’s vibrant city centre in Norway might seem an odd place to find a fresh evaluation of the Churchillian notion that history is written by the victors.

But this summer, alongside the main exhibits at the Fram Museum, another examination of the 1911-1912 race to the South Pole between Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the British adventurer Robert Falcon Scott is under way.

The museum is named after the robust wooden ship that gave Amundsen and his crew safe passage to their base at the Bay of Whales. The Fram is permanently housed in Oslo at the polar museum.

Acknowledging the often-skewed perception of the twin expeditions more than a century ago, the pop-up exhibition is titled Lessons from the Arctic: How Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole. An associated and well-received book by Geir Klover has also been published.

Why then is there so much fascination outside Norway with Scott’s story?

In part, it is because his doomed expedition to the South Pole is seared into the British psyche as a shining example of noble failure and epic adventure. This certainly helps explain why the exhibition refers to the misconception that Amundsen was “the man who stole the Pole”.

Their story is neatly encapsulated by Captain Oates who, realising he may have become a wounded liability to his colleagues on the treacherous return journey from the South Pole, told them: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He then stepped outside their tent into a raging blizzard and certain death. Oates gave up his life in an attempt to save the three remaining men, only for them to perish nine days later.Scott’s journey with four other men has, over the past century, been held up as representing the epitome of English stoicism.

Scott’s diary of the journey is also an exercise in dutiful understatement. A few weeks before the expedition fatally unravelled, he wrote that “things were beginning to look a little serious”.

Almost forgotten in all of that is that Scott and his team had been beaten to the Pole by Amundsen by a month. The Norwegian team arrived at the South Pole on December 14, 1911, while the British made it to their destination on January 17, 1912.

How did they do it?

Amundsen’s victory was a triumph of preparation and dedication to task. His eye for detail was unrivalled by contemporaries and, crucially, he had learnt from the mistakes he had made on previous expeditions to the Arctic. The journey to the South Pole was the culmination of years spent honing his craft and leaving nothing to chance.

He would later say: “Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

Amundsen’s comments were made in response to those in Britain who sought to obfuscate his achievements by calling him fortunate or by saying that he had somehow cheated his way to the Pole. He had, of course, done nothing of the sort.

It also makes me wonder whether the idea that history is written by the victor is false

So, in Britain at least, the story of the race to the South Pole has always focused on the man who finished second.

There are good reasons for this, of course. The binary nature of the contest set up the prospect of a winner and a loser. The tragedy of the Scott mission naturally promoted a grand narrative arc, even though Amundsen’s expedition should always be hailed as an epic feat of planning and perseverance.

It also hasn’t helped that there is an element of caricature to both the portrayal of Scott as the stoic adventurer and Amundsen as the scheming planner. Neither picture is entirely right, but both portraits have appeared to endure.

It also makes me wonder whether the idea that history is written by the victor is false. The voices of the defeated and deflated are magnetic, offering insight and natural shade that are rarely apparent in the moment of victory. As regards the cold war for the South Pole in the early 20th century, it is the voice of the doomed that has most often been heard.

Nick March Is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National