Fortune favours the brave: the forgotten polar explorers

The story of polar exploration begins in classical times with Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek geographer and astronomer. Inspired by Greek tales of the divinely blessed land of Hyperborea in the far north, he set forth from the Mediterranean, first circumnavigating the British Isles and then venturing further north, where he became the first man to visit and describe the Arctic around 300BC. It would not be until two millennia later, when explorers such as Captain Cook were roaming the world stage, that humanity would again turn its attention to exploring the furthest reaches of the globe, and not until the 20th century when humans would first set foot on either pole. These early days of polar exploration saw hundreds of intrepid expeditions venture forth. Many of them returned with compelling stories to tell, having made significant scientific and geographical discoveries, and yet their stories are largely overshadowed by Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole. While the fame of this contest is unsurprising, for it captures the imagination in a manner which is hard to emulate, the way in which it totally eclipses the efforts of other explorers is surprising. Many people struggle to name any polar explorers beyond the familiar names of Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton, raising the question: why is so much of the history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration shrouded in obscurity? This is a question without an easy answer, and to address it properly we must journey back in time to the dawn of polar exploration – to understand the world from which explorers set forth towards the poles and give a voice to the forgotten polar explorers of that age. Our story begins in the early 19th century, with the British Empire at the height of its power. Tensions between Britain and Russia were rising, and both nations had growing geopolitical and commercial ambitions. This catalysed the British Admiralty to begin a renewed search for the Northwest Passage, believed to be a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans lying to the north of Canada, in the hopes of strengthening trade links with East Asian nations such as China, and in 1818 the Royal Navy officer John Ross led the first of a series of British expeditions into the Arctic Circle. While this marked a step into the unknown for European explorers, the lands they were charting in northern Canada had been home to Inuits for hundreds of years. Added to the fact that it took more than 80 years before the Northwest Passage was first fully navigated, early Arctic exploration was characterised by a gritty determination in pursuit of a utilitarian goal rather than loftier ideals. The passage which was eventually discovered also fell far short of expectations: with a combination of pack ice, notoriously bad weather and icebergs proving a barrier to the route becoming an established shipping lane.

This was not the only problem to plague these early Arctic explorers, with inclement conditions, poor planning and ineffective leadership driving many explorers to extreme lengths to survive, perhaps most notably Captain John Franklin who – facing starvation – resorted to eating his own boots. While this is hardly the stuff of legends, perhaps the key reason why these early Arctic explorers have steered clear of the public eye is that most of their expeditions were nationally funded, for example in Britain the Admiralty very much provided the impetus spurring Arctic exploration to strengthen Britain’s presence at sea. Not only did this mean that expeditions’ goals were dictated by a geopolitical agenda, rather than appealing to the desires of the scientific community or even the public, but also it meant that explorers didn’t need to publicise their achievements to win funding from private donors – in stark contrast to Antarctic explorers whose expeditions were almost entirely privately funded. This has meant that many early Arctic explorers have flown under our radar as they made incremental contributions towards larger overarching goals, with expeditions which were carefully recorded in naval logs rather than being cemented in public media and memory.

However, those few Arctic explorers who dared to dream a little bigger and sought to reach the North Pole itself have faced similar obscurity, although for different reasons. The key figures in this arena were two Americans: Frederick Cook and Robert Peary. Building on his experience as part of previous Arctic expeditions, Cook set out from Greenland in 1908 towards the pole, asserting he reached it later that year. Meanwhile, Peary led his own expedition in early 1909, claiming the same feat. Upon their return, Peary challenged Cook’s claim and, following a lengthy dispute, Peary became widely accepted as the first man to have reached the North Pole. However, more recently, a re-examination of his navigational logs suggests that he too in this endeavour. Even if it hadn’t been discovered that both men had taken (rather outrageous) navigational liberties, their bitter dispute mired not only their legacies but also those of more honest explorers. While Cook and Peary’s expeditions signalled an end to this age of Arctic exploration, with the (supposed) capture of the North Pole, their dispute cast a long shadow over the achievements of the many Arctic explorers before them.Turning our gaze southwards, exploration in the Antarctic presents a strikingly different picture. The landscape itself is harsher: Antarctica, unlike the Arctic, is surrounded by open ocean and is guarded be the fearsome Antarctic Circumpolar Current – the strongest ocean current in the world. This continually batters the continent’s vast coastline, which is surrounded be icebergs that, as Sir David Attenborough put it, “[a]re measured in miles not metres”, whilst inland the Transantarctic Mountains, rising over 4,500m in places, split the continent in two. The challenge this posed to would-be explorers was monumental, but the potential rewards were great too: here lay an unexplored continent to be charted and claimed and it seemed that the Antarctic also held the key to scientific quandaries in fields as diverse as archaeology and meteorology. This captured the imagination of a great many explorers: some motivated by the allure of claiming the last great geographical trophy, the South Pole; some keen to study and learn from the Antarctic; and some a mixture of the two. But to get there, these explorers had to undertake a fundamentally different type of expedition to their northern counterparts. By the late 19th century, many sovereignties were unwilling to fully fund dangerous, and often speculative, expeditions, to the poles and explorers were forced to turn to seeking private funding, and through promises of sensational stories to print, abundant resources to mine and new land to give one’s name to, explorers were able to scrape together just enough cash from private sponsors to propel themselves southwards. This thrust expeditions into the public limelight before they had even set sail, and the booming popularity of Antarctic exploration coincided perfectly with the rise of photography and film – which provided a medium to communicate an expedition’s success to the public. This was the platform from which Scott and Amundsen both launched their attempts on the South Pole, which secured their places in the history books, but why was the same immortality not afforded to so many of their contemporaries?

One such contemporary, who is widely unknown today, is Nobu Shirase, the leader of the Japanese Antarctic Expedition. A former army officer who always dreamed of polar exploration, his team landed on King Edward VII land – something which both Scott and Shackleton had failed to do – and undertook a ‘Dash Patrol’ into the Antarctic interior, becoming only the fourth group to travel beyond 80°S. Although the expedition made no major scientific or geographical discoveries, it returned to general acclaim in Japan for establishing a Japanese presence on the world stage following decades of isolationist foreign policy. Why then, is he so little known – even in modern-day Japan? The answer lies in unfortunate timing: just six weeks after his return, the death of the Japanese Emperor drew the public spotlight away from Shirase. It was sadly never to return, and he was to spend the remainder of his life in poverty repaying his expedition’s outstanding debts. Perhaps more surprising, is the relative obscurity of Sir Douglas Mawson, who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. His expedition was the most scientifically ambitious of its time: mapping almost 3,000km of coastline alongside wide-ranging meteorological, magnetic, and oceanographic observations that took over 30 years to completely publish. However, this noble purpose was not enough to secure immortality for the expedition: the breadth of its scope and complexity of its overarching objective have failed to captivate those outside of scientific circles.

This was a common problem faced by Antarctic explorers, and one which was often sidestepped by interweaving an attempt on the South Pole into an expedition’s aims, to garner publicity, which inevitably subsided when this attempt fell short. That is, until the expeditions of Scott and Amundsen. In reaching the South Pole they had shown exceptional grit and resolve but, more importantly, they triumphed over the failures of so many before them, attracting public acclaim which spoke not just to their own achievements but to the challenges faced by their predecessors. This fame transcended both Scott and Amundsen personally: it is not them as explorers whom we remember, rather it is their epic race towards the South Pole – characterised by their courage, the harshness of their environment and the drama of their contest – which has solidified itself in our memories. Few could describe Scott’s Discovery expedition less than a decade earlier, and even fewer can remember Amundsen’s unfortunate death in a plane crash over the Barents Sea, but their immortality as protagonists in the race to the South Pole remains, reflecting the permanence in our minds of stories rather than the characters within them, for the dramatic spark ignited by the interaction of two adversaries is impossible to replicate by oneself – even over the course of a lifetime.

And so, perhaps, we have arrived at our answer: Scott and Amundsen’s fame lies not in their own personal courage, determination, and endurance, but rather in their involvement in what is surely one of the most thrilling contests to take place on the world stage in the early 20th century. As humans, we are hardwired to respond to stories, and Scott and Amundsen’s race strikes a particular resonance with us, which the tales of other expeditions can’t emulate. That is not to say that the achievements of other polar explorers aren’t impressive – for they are – but rather that a combination of historical, environmental, and societal factors have consigned them to the depths of history books. This is a recurrent feature of human history, characterising how we perceive events such as the Space Race of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and one which promises to shape our perception of future pioneers, as they continue to push the frontier of human expansion. And perhaps all we can hope for is that their contributions become part of a greater narrative so that they are not overlooked, as those of so many of the early polar explorers seem to have been to have been.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *