Dear Captain Scott

As prints recording your ill-fated expedition go on sale at Christie's, a supporter defends your reputation as a scientist against those who now deride you as an embarrassing amateur
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The Independent Online
"Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority." On 16 January 1912 you reached the South Pole in the company of Captain Oates ("Soldier"), Dr Wilson ("Uncle Bill"), Lt Bowers ("Birdie") and Seaman Evans ("Teddy") to find that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer and his team of men and dogs had beaten you by 34 days. The photograph you took of yourselves at the Pole is one of the most tragic of all photographs, because we know (you didn't) that you and your four frostbitten companions were to freeze to death in your 800-mile struggle back to base.

Evans gave up the ghost first. Oates followed, walking into the dictionary of quotations: "I am just going outside and may be some time." You, Wilson and Bowers died together, out of food, fuel and luck, 177 miles from the safety of winter quarters.

That photograph was one of the very few not taken on your expedition by Herbert Ponting ("Ponco"). It is the combination of Ponting's haunting prints and your own heartbreaking diaries that have imprinted the British Antarctic expedition of 1910-13 so indelibly in the imagination.

Today albums of those images are expected to fetch pounds 30,000 when they go on sale at Christie's, London. They were made by Ponting at a time when you were a hero. Your death came at a good moment for national propaganda; although you failed to get to the Pole first you were held up as a model of British pluck and fortitude for soldiers setting out to be mown down on the Western Front.

Even so, the memorabilia of your effort have become exponentially valuable. Scott's Last Expedition (the diaries of 1910-12) remains a popular classic as does The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, at 24 one of the youngest members of your team.

Meanwhile, down at the Pole, the British Antarctic Heritage Trust is battling to save your base camp hut from the ravages of weather and Antarctic tourism.

"Last year," says Captain Pat MacLaren of the Trust, "there were 8,000 visitors to the Antarctic and the number is growing. Of course, only a tiny band of scientists and explorers actually get to the Pole, but something like 3,000 people were able to visit Scott's hut, virtually unchanged since it was abandoned in 1913." Sadly, their curiosity threatens the hut, still, quite literally, frozen in time.

Despite this interest I have to tell you that you have sadly become an ambiguous figure in British life. It is commonplace to hear your expedition belittled as a shameful, amateurish shambles.

Yet that expedition, if ill-starred, was the starting point for the vital work of the British Antarctic Survey, which confirmed the hole in the ozone layer in the early Eighties and forced us to think urgently about global warming. That is, in a sense, a continuation of your work. Your expedition was first a scientific one; the race to the Pole was of secondary concern.

That is born out by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. After a five-week trek from Scott's hut to Crozier Bay and back to study the breeding habits of the Emperor Penguin in painful temperatures of up to -77.5F, he remarked: "Polar expedition is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised." He added: "It was not a sense of misplaced masculinity that had fuelled Scott's expedition and driven them onward. It was the desire for knowledge." This scientific curiosity shines through the pages of the diaries (22.12.1911: "Atkinson has discovered a new tapeworm in the intestines of the Adelie penguin"), as does your great humanity and capacity for dealing with great emotional and physical highs and lows. Ponting's camera did not lie, and those who look today for doubts and divisions among the members of the expedition are doing so with the questionable wisdom of hindsight. If you had succeeded and "fetched through" in March 1912, cod pyschologists would have had a less easy time.

Looking at "Birdie", "Uncle Bill", "Soldier", "Teddy" and yourself staring out from Ponting's prints, one hears your telling words over one's shoulder. "We are all adventurers here, I suppose, and wild doings in wild countries appeal to us as nothing else could do. It is good to know that there remain wild corners of this dreadfully civilized world."

Good to know, too, that although your grave has disappeared with a shift in the great Polar glacier, the photographs and diaries and the scientific discoveries - your real heritage - survive.

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