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A tragic history of Britain's polar failures: poor planning, needless suffering, death.


Sara Wheeler in Cherry (A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard) has provided a wonderful service to those avid, hungry readers of Antarctic adventures. The author has filled in the life of one of the important personalities from the heroic age of arctic exploration in such a way as to deepen the understanding of the men how took this challenge, particularly both before and after the adventure of their lives. Cherry, of course, wrote the classic and indispensable, The Worst Journey in the World, the finest book written by an actual explorer himself.
Shackelton never made any records in exploration. In scientific, geographic terms he accomplished nothing. But English people find him an adorable failure and can't seem to get enough of his misery, sinking his ship, eating is dogs, and cheering on his crew of chaps to a whaling station to be rescued. Again proof that successful men such as Peary and Amundsen are pushed aside in favor of "brave English lads" screwing up.
Fiennes "reignites
..a race row..."
Polar Racism?
Peary Diary
Fiennes defibrillates
Polar Failure
Man-hauling vs dogs
World's Greatest
Fiennes explorer or travel writer?
Who found Ubar?
Fiennes and Stroud polar suffering
Guinness backs Peary
Guinness history?

$ Titles of nobility

Bartlett went the farthest of any other North Pole support team.  Bartlett remained very good friends with Matthew Henson all his life.
Ross Marvin was on the support team to build the trail and haul supplies. If he had been a British subject the English would still be complaining that Peary didn't take him to the Pole in place of the "Negro."
Matthew Henson was the top man in the field. Everyone admired him and praised his skill. Peary took Matt to the Pole because he was the best person—the one he could count on no matter what. His friend, Macmillan (below) said that about him.
Donald MacMillan later made his own series of arctic explorations. He did not go all the way to the Pole because he froze the heel of his foot. Peary sent him back with the first team.
Dr. Goodsell was on the first support team that returned to land with Macmillan.
George Borup led the second team to go back.
Britain's  hastily executed man-hauling expedition killed everyone.
Some people find it shocking that England actually named the Scott Polar Research Institute after someone who killed all his men by ignoring the advice of more experienced polar travelers. An Amundsen Polar Research Institute, named for the successful explorer, would be more appropriate.
Scott has been described by historians as a "bungler" whose arrogant incompetence doomed his expedition. Scott did everything wrong in a rush to try and beat the Norwegian team to the South Pole.

Peary and Henson, in contrast, planned carefully and perfected their equipment over 18 years of valuable arctic field experience. The 1909 expedition was their 3rd such attempt on the Arctic Ocean and they got it right. They used sledges Peary designed and Matt Henson built; pulled by the finest Eskimo Huskies, powerful wolf-like animal. Norway's Roald Amundsen used such dogs to similar success at the South Pole. Only the British tried to walk to the Pole, dragging their supplies.

The Scott expedition deaths are a tragedy
, but the British need to move on—being bitter towards Amundsen or Peary & Henson is mean spirited. In fact, the English wrote Amundsen out of their history books for many years to spite him for "making it look too easy with dogs" and for "killing Scott." But no amount of British history re-writing will ever change what really happened. I believe that it is time to stop trying to replace Amundsen, Peary, and Henson with Fiennes and Wally Herbert. Just because a beer company prints a book that declares recent British polar adventurers the "Greatest in the world" does not mean anything outside of their tiny island. Yet the British, as expressed in what I feel were the mean spirited sentiments of Fiennes, ("I doubt that Henson and Peary ever got to the North Pole") still can not accept that Peary and Henson went to the Pole without taking along a British passenger.

This long standing grudge against Peary for taking Negro Matt Henson, instead of British subject Robert Bartlett is so poorly known to the public that it has to be brought up, discussed, and explained.
From Peary's Diary "Bartlett has done good work and been a great help to me. I have give him this post of honor because he was fit for it, because of his handling of the (ship) Roosevelt because of his saving me hundreds of petty annoyances, & because I felt it appropriate in view of England's magnificent Arctic work covering [blank] years that it should be a British subject who could boast that next to an American he had been nearest to the Pole."

Peary did not take Bartlett to the Pole.
The reasons are well known, and perfectly understandable. But still the British will not let it rest.

Only the Commander, Robert E. Peary, USN, and his best men with the best dogs went all the way to the Pole. The other 18 men in the team did not, and never were supposed to go all the way. Although some, such as Sir Walrus Herbert or Mr. Robert Headland (Archivist and Museum Curator; Scott Polar Research Institute), may say Peary left behind his last reliable witness in Bartlett—that is not true.

Peary had no need for Bartlett as a "navigator" as they claim. Peary was Bartlett's superior in the navigation arena in every way. "Peary was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Bowdoin College who won surveying positions with the Coast Survey and with the Naval Engineers, based on nationwide competitions against hundreds of applicants. His work surveying a proposed canal route in Nicaragua was highly praised. His longitude and compass variation observations of lands discovered in Greenland were accurate." [Doug Davies]

Peary did not need Bartlett
to travel the extra 266 nautical miles to and from the Pole with him. Peary only needed Henson to break trail on a vector due north for the correct distance.

How did they know north? They used a compass and knew the correct variations, and they always used the position of the moon and/or sun. How? The same way polar adventurers do today—by time of day.

Henson also used the expedient method, for faster travel, of crossing sastrugi (wind cut snow ridges) at right angles when he knew they ran due east–west.

It is an ongoing deception made to the public by anti-Peary authors that Bartlett was a "navigator" and could have helped Peary find the Pole by determining their longitude position or some such nonsense. That is a ridiculous, ignorant comment. No such longitude fix is necessary.

Even today polar expedition leaders (Paul Landry, Matty McNair) find the Pole the same way Henson did; by shooting a vector due north as determined by compass (sun not visible) or by the sun & time of day method when the sun is visible. [Yes they carry a GPS but it is NOT used for vectoring towards the Pole. Like a sextant it only fixes position—it is not used to set a course.]

Lines of longitude converge at the Pole so taking a sight to fix a longitude position 100 miles from the pole, for example, is of no use—lines of longitude are only a few miles apart, not the 60 miles apart a single degree is at the Equator! Being 2 miles or even 20 miles east-or-west of the line of longitude one assumes oneself to be traveling on while heading towards the Pole is insignificant and utterly useless information. Why? Because one is setting a course due north.

Note that Scott wasted precious time taking longitude sights while trekking to the South Pole. Amundsen, like Peary, realized there was no need to take longitude sights. Why? Because the goal is a point of latitude (90 degrees north or 90 degrees south) precisely where there is no longitude.

Peary envy/hatred
After losing the North Pole to Peary, and the South Pole to Amundsen the British had zero polar honors. In 1910 they awarded to Peary the "special Great Gold Medal" of the Royal Geographical Society (London, England). But after the tragedy of Scott dying at the South Pole the English were bitter towards both the Americans and Norwegians who had used dog sledges to achieve their success. The ease with which Amundsen reached the Pole was a humiliation that made them angry. It has been said by numerous experts that this feeling then turned to Peary.

The colossal polar fraud, Dr. Cook, wrote a viscously vindictive book about his phony trip to the Pole. In the back sections he wrote a considerable amount of slander against Peary. This anti-Peary sentiment influenced other anti-establishment prone individuals such as Thomas Hall and then, in the late 1920s England's Reverend Hayes. Hayes was an ill informed "arm chair expert" who decided Peary's trip was impossible.

Over time the British began to resent Peary for not dragging along an English subject (Bartlett) to the North Pole. But Peary and Henson had worked together for 18 years in the Arctic. There was never a plan to take any other people to the Pole. The support teams, of which Bartlett was a part, were there to pioneer trails, make igloos, haul supplies for the elite team of Henson, Peary and their 4 expert Inuit friends. No one else was ever intended to make the final dash.
"South Pole Easy" says  expedition leader Paul Landry
Shackelton dashed off in a big hurry to meet with disaster. He had the wrong type of ship. It sank. His expedition was nothing more than an marathon survival mission.
Amundsen and team did everything right and were first at the Pole. But this was so boring to the English that they virtually wrote Amundsen out of their history books in favor of their own failures. Proof that bad behavior gets attention.

Norway beat England to the South Pole easily with dog teams. They returned in such good health that England hated them for it.

Shackelton took the wrong type of ship to Antarctica that was easily crushed in the pack ice, stranding them 180 miles from land. Amundsen and Peary designed ships, the Fram and the Roosevelt respectively that were immune to this obvious hazard.

Why did Peary allow an employee, Bob Bartlett, the "Nearest to The North Pole" team position?

Peary did not want him at the Pole because he saw no reason to make any employee his equal as an explorer; it would only benefit Bartlett by forever tying his name to Peary's great geographic prize. Bartlett was technically a "British subject" even though he lived in Newfoundland (it was a British colony then).

Peary was running a 100% American expedition for the United States, paid for by the citizens and government of the United States. To have made provisions for an employee to share the polar achievement, and make it an international affair with England is purely revisionist "what if" history. Peary wanted to share the honor with "no other man" and that was his prerogative.

Bartlett certainly understood it and he and Matt Henson remained friends for life. In fact, my father first met Henson at Bartlett's funeral.

Like MacMillan, Bartlett always spoke highly of Matt and explained many times to the less enlightened why Peary took Matt to the Pole instead of himself. That is factual. (VR)

Peary and Amundsen used the field tested techniques they learned from the Eskimos to travel in polar regions. The English thought it was "uncivilized" to learn from indigenous people—such as wearing fur cloths and using arctic Huskies. Instead the English learned how uncivilized the polar regions truly are when their men died from exhaustion and exposure.

Peary photographed
his North Pole camp. Henson and the 4 Eskimos set up the igloos. Later Peary went on a lightly loaded sled and took sextant readings at several points to confirm the location as best he was able to.
But the sore polar losers in England won't mention that fact. Can you guess why? Taking passengers to the Pole was a very bad idea. It is too dangerous to travel on the arctic ocean (Fiennes, for example, had to be air rescued during his last attempt and had his finger tips amputated) even for highly experienced men—forget hauling the bloody Queen! Henson fell in the ocean, almost drown, and was barely rescued just miles form the Pole. Peary also fell in. Marvin fell in and drowned. Borup fell in, too, and almost had his entire dog team dragged to the bottom of the ocean! If a storm had blown in, as they had in previous attempts...they might have easily died. How? Storms blow the ice apart and it can drift many miles, leaving one stranded by open ocean. Cut off from land and supplies people starve. (No cell phones and GPS to order up a helicopter rescue, you know?) That is why Peary was not about to take along a passenger such as Bartlett.
Henson photographed Peary at the Pole making this sextant reading. As a point of interest, Henson had his own camera and took his own set of pictures on the 1909 expedition. The collection of some 120 films is at the Museum of Natural history in New York City.
These still smoldering anti-Peary sentiments are expressed in what I believe are the mean spirited remarks of Fiennes that may be typical from those who read Wally Herbert's Noose of Laurels and chose to believe his conclusions. Some people still can not accept that Peary and Henson went to the Pole without taking a British passengers. Only the Commander, Robert E. Peary USN, and his best men with the best dogs went all the way. The other 18 men in the team did not, and were never supposed to. That is a fact, because that was the plan all along.

Wally Herbert, in his book Noose of Laurels, said that when Peary left Bartlett and went on with Henson to the Pole he left behind his last credible witness. I believe, and many others do as well, that it is hateful and possibly racist for anyone to state that Peary should have taken a white man (Bartlett) instead of his most capable assistant, Matthew A. Henson.

Henson was the man who had saved Peary's life twice before. He was the only man Peary knew he could depend on to get him back alive. Henson was the best choice. Bartlett knew that, and remained friends with Matt for life. Bartlett always spoke highly of Matt as the right man to go to the Pole.

Want to here more of this story?
Listen to the 1/2 hr. BBC production.
[requires RealAudio]

Copyright © 2002 Lord Vernon Russell-Twittledorf Robinson, MCE (Member of the California Empire)