The Last Place on Earth

This tendentious work has split the community of Antarcticans woefully, with attacks on all sides: against Amundsen, particularly against Scott by the Huntford adherents, and fighting malice with malice, against Huntford himself. Few are wholly objective in this war, but it can be said that Huntford does present useful information when he stays away from anti-Scott speculation. Here are excerpts about reading on the various expeditions he covers.

p. 53: Christmas found Belgica at Lapataia, in the Beagle Channel, near Cape Horn. As Christmas presents for the officers and scientists, De Gerlache gave novels, carefully selected according to the tastes of each. For Amundsen, there was Pierre Loti’s Pecheur d’Islande [An Iceland Fisherman.]

In Big Yann, the hero of Loti’s novel, Amundsen saw a little of himself. Big Yann is a Breton fisherman, completely absorbed in his calling, not for what he earns, but for sheer pleasure in the harvest of the sea and the battle of the elements.

p. 86, Amundsen on his transit of the Northwest Passage meets two Danes from the Danish Greenland Literary Expedition, Knud Rasmussen and Mylius-Erichsen: The two Danes never forgot that meeting with Amundsen. They had lost their books and faced a winter without anything to read. Amundsen gave them a spare set of Goethe’s works that he had on board. The pleasure of that unexpected gift in the Polar darkness was a delighted memory for the rest of their lives. [Is this story believable in lack of any evidence from Rasmussen?]

p. 156: At the eleventh hour, Scott had to read up Polar literature of which, three years since offering himself for command of the Discovery, he was, in his own words, still ‘woefully ignorant.’ For over a year, whilst preparing for the expedition, he had worked in the next street to the Royal Geographical Society, whose incomparable library contained in English all the latest books of Peary, Nansen, and the other founders of modern Polar exploration. But Scott, somehow, had not found the time to read these useful works. On board, he did not have much to choose from. Those who selected Discovery’s library had made certain he would not be troubled by the latest experience. The medieval charlatan Sir John Mandeville was included, and the records of British Naval expeditions of fifty years before, but not Nansen’s Farthest North and other modern works.

Following p. 237: 6th page of plates includes picture of Scott’s book lined shelves in the base at Cape Evans, McMurdo Sound.

p. 298-301, on Fram with Amundsen: Some of the crew, notably Beck, the ice pilot, had persuaded Nielsen to start a refresher course in English, so that they could consult the main works in Fram’s Polar library. That included The Voyage of the ‘Discovery, and The Heart of the Antarctic, Shackleton’s story of the Nimrod expedition. Both were read, re-read, and avidly discussed.

It was a commonplace to the Polar experts gathered on Fram, that most pack ice has clearly defined contours, shaped by wind and current. Unfortunately, since Ross first went that way there had only been eight voyages; hardly enough to give a pattern. However, carefully analyzing the published records—all of which were on board—led Amundsen to two conclusions: that there was a clear passage inthe ice where the pack was slackest and narrowest, and that at that time of the year, it was probably a few degrees west of the 180th Meridian. He acted on this… to make one of the fastest passages through the pack ice to that date.

p. 364: By a ludicrous mistake, the Nautical Almanac for 1912 had been forgotten, the 1911 edition only being landed, and a single copy to boot. One night it was set on fire by an oil lamp. The flames spontaneously extinguished themselves as they reached the page before the vital tables. Amundsen took this as an omen. In any case, he was now obliged by the Almanac to reach the pole before the end of the year.

p. 369: For the rest, there was a little reading—mostly Polar literature, of which a small but comprehensive library had been brought—some desultory card playing and, craze of the early winter, darts.

p. 377-8: The timetable for the Polar dash with which Scott began his exposition was based not on an estimate of his own capabilities, but on Shackleton’s figures in 1908. Since Scott and Shackleton were hardly on speaking terms, the figures came not from Shackleton himself, but from The Heart of the Antarctic. It is typical of the expedition, that this indispensable work had been omitted from the library, and if Griffith Taylor had not happened to bring his own copy, it would not have been there for Scott to consult.

p. 383, re Oates: About the only books he was observed to read were the five volumes of Napier’s Peninsular War. This, too, caused some teasing….

p. 409: Shackleton [‘s book] was their pilot. Scott had with him a copy of Frank Wild’s diary of Shackleton’s Southern Journey obtained through Priestley. Also he had extracts from Shackleton’s book The Heart of the Antarctic typed by Cherry-Garrard. Scott mentions them to sneer at Shackleton or bolster his own self-confidence….”

p. 442: references to In Memoriam.