Great Places, Great Explorers (cont.)
The 19th and 20th centuries are full of stories of Geographers and Adventurers traveling round the earth seeking to understand our planet and discover her secrets. As the sciences of geology and geography were developed the more developed countries of the world wished to know things like what were the highest mountains and longest rivers in the world. Nations competed to reach these faraway places first, for national glory and economic advantage too. The most powerful nation on earth for most of the 19th century and part of the 20th century was Great Britain and they believed it to be their god-given right to reach these destinations before all others.
At the beginning of the 20th century the British set their sights on being first to reach the South Pole situated in the middle of the newest continent discovered, Antarctica. But being first wasn’t all that mattered. The British also wished to understand the lands they traveled through, and the people they might meet. British expeditions were usually operated by the Royal Navy and their crew members were naval officers but there was always a scientific group alongside including biologists, botanists and artists. Probably the most famous scientific-expedition of all time was the Voyage of the Beagle from 1831-1836 and the development of the theory of natural selection (or evolution) by Charles Darwin, then a young scientist.
At the end of the 19th century Robert Falcon Scott was Britain’s most decorated sea commander and he led a series of expeditions to Antarctica between 1900 and 1912. Bit by bit be made his preparations to cross the frozen landscape and claim the South Pole for his country.
But little did Scott know but the explorer Roald Amundsen had also set his sights on reaching the South Pole first. Amundsen sought the pole only for the glory of the conquest. To him it was to be a race to the pole. And Amundsen was actually a more experienced and prepared explorer than Scott. On previous expeditions to Greenland and his native Norway he had learned how to service like the Inuit peoples who lived in these regions. He wore bear and seal skin clothing like these people. He also knew how to ski and use dogs to help him travel. Scott, on the other hand, endeavored to do everything the most modern way possible. Instead of dogs and sleds Scott planned to use horses and tractors. His clothing was produced by fashionable outfitters in London such as Burberry.
In the end Amundsen breezed over the Antarctic continent in his dogsleds, reached the pole first on December 14, 1911 and hurried back. Scott’s team suffered problem after problem. The horses died. The tractors broke. And the weather was awful. They finally reached the pole on January 12, 1912 five weeks after Amundsen and were heartbroken to find the spot marked by the Norwegian flag. On the way back Scott’s team was trapped by weather in camp and they died there from the cold and starvation in late March 1912.
After his death Scott became a national hero in Great Britain. Statues were erected everywhere. His only son Peter took his middle name from Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographic Society who had sponsored Scott’s career and Antarctic expeditions. Peter Markham Scott founded the World Wildlife Fund and gave scientific backing to the Loch Ness Monster.
Roald Amundsen was also involved in the race for the North Pole, though only for a short time. On his way to the North Pole he learned another explorer had already been there. That’s when he decided to change the direction of his ship and sail for Antarctica, catching Scott by surprise there.
The North Pole was discovered on April 6, 1909 by one of America’s greatest explorers, Robert Peary, and his partner Matthew Henson. Peary had also attempted to reach the North Pole many times before finally succeeding. And like Amundsen he also learned from the local people of the Arctic how to dress, travel and survive in the polar regions. As well he too almost had the triumph of victory taken from them by a rival explorer who said he had reached the pole first. To this day there is still some controversy whether or not Peary truly reached the geographical North Pole. Travel to the poles is affected by something called the magnetic north and south poles. These are points on the earth that compasses naturally point too but are not the true geographic poles of the earth.
Now the North Pole is quite different from the South Pole. Firstly it is not a continent. It is a frozen sea which can only be approached in summer when channels for ship passage open up and allow access to the region. As well the Arctic is inhabited by people, the Inuit and other cultures. No one lives or has ever lived on Antarctica. In the Arctic there is a great amount of wildlife including Polar Bears, Seals, Whales and Fox. On Antarctica there are only Penguins, birds and some seal species. Think of it this way…the Arctic is a frozen sea surrounded by land; Antarctica is a frozen continent surrounded by sea.
You may be interested to know that you can visit the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.
Robert Peary’s summer home in Casco, ME is a tourist attraction called the Eagle Island Historic Site.
And MacMIllan Wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts is named after one of Peary’s fellow arctic explorers, Donald MacMillan, who had a home on Cape Cod for many years.
Next week I will have a blog for you called Cold Cases…stories about explorers that in most cases disappeared while on expedition. We’ll talk about the race to reach the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, sometimes referred to as the 3rd pole. And we’ll talk about such famous explorers as George Mallory, John Franklin, Percy Fawcett and Amelia Earhart