Mappa.Mundi Magazine
Brook Ellingwood worked as a producer for Mappa.Mundi Magazine, and was an information miner at Invisible Worlds. Previously, he was a writer and producer for Mr. Showbiz and the Walt Disney Company's GO Network. As the owner of Mootkat Studios, Brook worked on sound designs for live theatre and multimedia projects, including titles for the Discovery Channel and Scholastic Book Services.

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Related Links

For further reading:

» The Endurance an excellent pictorial essay at

» The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition.

» ABCNEWS: Scott's Big Chill.

» Live webcam at the South Pole at the Automated Astrophysical Site-Testing Observatory (AASTO).

» Virtual Tour - Life at the South Pole: Sun! from the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA).

» An extensive bio of Robert Falcon Scott on

» A map showing the 1910-1912 routes to the South Pole of Scott and Amundsen.

» Shackleton's Antarctic Odyssey on the Nova Online Adventure series.

» Virtual Antarctica, the 1995 TerraQuest expedition.

» Index to the NOAA Corps Collection of photos of the Antarctic.

By Brook Ellingwood, More Reviews »

Exploration in the Ice
Books on the British Antarctic Expeditions

     The mineralogy gallery at the Natural History Museum in London is an impressively dry display. Its thousands of rocks, labeled with composition and collection particulars, sitting in rows of wood and glass display cases drive many casual visitors, entering after an hour or so spent in the dramatically lit ambience of the dinosaur gallery, to the seemingly more exciting meteorite gallery, only to discover the meteorites themselves are numerous simply labeled rocks in wood and glass display cases.

     At the doorway between the two galleries sits a unique display, its placement calculated to catch the disinterested passerby for a moment of reflection on how the rocks inside this particular case came to London. Accompanying the rocks is a diorama depicting a small group of men, bundled against the deadly cold of an Antarctic summer, loading these same rocks onto a sledge. The men are Commander Robert Falcon Scott and his party who man-hauled their supplies to the South Pole on foot only to find that nearly a month previously Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian using dog teams and cross-country skis, had snatched this last remaining geographical prize away from the British Empire. Exhausted and malnourished, Scott's party still pulled the dead weight of these unremarkable rock samples on their northern return trip, only to perish before reaching safety. The Natural History Museum's display doesn't draw any conclusions-it merely depicts a singular moment in the story for the viewer to contemplate. Perhaps leaving these rocks behind wouldn't have saved the expedition, but then again, perhaps it would have.

     These are the sorts of issues that are still debated amongst those with an interest in the British Antarctic heyday at the beginning of the century just passed. It seems remarkable that anyone is interested in it at all, but interested they are: crowds were turned away from the book tour/slide show for 1998's Endurance, a recent meteorological study was conducted to show that Scott may have been a victim of bad weather rather than bad planning, and new books and reprints of primary sources are published monthly.

Water color by Edward Wilson.
Wilson was a member of the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott expedition.

     The expedition stories are remarkable human dramas filled with the bitter rivalry between Scott and polar rival Sir Ernest Shackleton, individual torment of both the physical and psychological kind, and striking differences in leadership style, but it can be argued that their current popularity owes itself more to a sort of fin-de-siecle resonance. The Golden Age of Antarctic Exploration began in the waning days of the Victorian era, and ended a decade-and-a-half later in the trenches at Flanders. On the cusp of our modern world, these men pursued the essentially nineteenth-century goal of exploration for the sake of personal and patriotic prestige. Investors willingly contributed funds with little likelihood of seeing them returned, in order to participate in this most glamorous of endeavors. The explorers themselves were equipped with infant versions of glorious new technologies, and found them lacking in the face of brutal reality.

     It takes little imagination to see parallels between these expeditions and the state of the Internet as the calendar once again ends in triple-zeros. In the brave new world, the hype and excitement is centered around e-commerce initiatives that seek to do nothing more than recreate the old Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog on your computer screen and day-traders can hardly contain their glee at buying these stocks, no matter what the price. The fact that a return on this investment is iffy at best is lost in the glamour of claiming a part in the future, even if the future being envisioned looks like the past with a ".com" appended.

     In the Antarctic, Scott and Shackleton had at their disposal motorized sledges that effectively only worked on flat ice with no snow covering, and radios too weak to make contact with any other radios in the world. It was clear that these were the big inventions of the time, but they weren't yet up to the task at hand. In the exploration of cyberspace, current search engines work best in predictable terrain and transferring information between point A and point B is still not a guaranteed proposition.

     Whatever it is about the British Antarctic expeditions that still resonates a century later, there's no shortage of excellent books on the subject. Here are a few recommendations for anyone wanting to learn more:

For Further Reading

Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals
by Robert Falcon Scott, introduction by Beryl Bainbridge

      The spring after Scott's party failed to return from the pole, a search party found the tent where he and the two remaining members not previously killed finally succumbed to cold and starvation. They had been pinned down by a blizzard for over a week only eleven miles from a cache of food named "One Ton Depot." The recovery and publication of Scott's diary made him a posthumous martyr, but in the intervening years many have come to consider it a record of foolhardy amateurism and poor leadership. Still, there's no denying the power of the tragedy, and this is the essential record of it. In her introduction to the journals, Beryl Bainbridge wisely points out that this edition was edited for publication by Scott's widow, Kathleen, and Sir Clements Markham, who sponsored the expedition. The edits consisted largely of removing unseemly and vindictive comments that Scott made not only about other explorers, but also his own men, that may well provide insight into other causes for his ultimate failure.

by Sir Ernest Shackleton

      Shackleton's third trip to the Antarctic was both an utter failure and a remarkable triumph of survival. Leaving England the day in 1914 that war was declared on Germany, his ship, the Endurance became frozen into the ice pack of the Weddell Sea and drifted with the ice for 11 months before finally being crushed and sinking. Shackleton and his crew then camped on the drifting ice for five more months before conditions allowed them to take to the water in lifeboats and land on a desolate island. The subsequent journey of Shackleton and four others across 800 miles of storm-tossed sea and the uncharted mountainous interior of South Georgia Island in search of help is told in plain, yet highly effective prose. In a painful afterward, Shackleton details those of his crew who, immediately on their return to England, saw service in World War II. It's a clear appeal for recognition from a country that, faced with a great tragedy, no longer cared for polar explorers.

The Birthday Boys
by Beryl Bainbridge

      One of Britain's more intriguing novelists, Bainbridge takes as her inspiration Scott's last expedition and retells it in five chapters, each from the point of view of one of the doomed men who made it to the South Pole, but never returned. Although the book is fiction and some of the psychological portraiture is speculative, Bainbridge knows her stuff-she wrote the introduction to the current edition of Scott's Last Expedition-and her writing is superb. The schoolgirl's map at the beginning of the book speaks volumes about the pantheon of fallen heroes to which Scott was elevated by a Britain drifting through a time of immense social change.

Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition
by Caroline Alexander

      This odd little book is something of a companion piece to Alexander's The Endurance. Both are concerned with Shackleton's time spent in trapped in the ice, but Mrs. Chippy views the events through the eyes of the Endurance carpenter's cat. Nicely illustrated with pictures by Expedition Photographer Frank Hurley and drawings by Able Seaman Walter How, the book seems geared for an early-teens audience, yet is cleverly enough written to satisfy adults. Be warned however, the tragic ending of Mrs. Chippy's expedition is the saddest thing since Charlotte's Web.

by Roland Huntford

      Huntford wrote the acclaimed-though unfortunately out-of-print Scott and Amundsen (released in paperback as The Last Place on Earth), and by his own account "... at every other turn the shadow of Ernest Shackleton fell across my path." A genuinely larger-than-life figure, Shackleton makes for great material in Huntford's biography. His social-climbing motivations for exploring the southernmost continent led to such situations as having the King and Queen inspect his ship, even as his brother Frank was under investigation for involvement in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. Through all the questionable finances, the bitter rivalry with Scott, and every other uncovered wart and blemish, Shackleton emerges as both a singular leader and an unforgettable character.

The Endurance
by Caroline Alexander

      By publishing a coffee-table volume on Shackleton's Endurance expedition, Alexander re-introduced Frank Hurley's remarkable photographs to the world. Hurley's photos of the little ship captured in the ice are fine examples of documentation-as-art, and his ghostly image of the immobilized craft rimed with iced and illuminated with flares during the months of polar night is nothing short of a masterpiece. Alexander's text tells the story of the Endurance very effectively and the book is an excellent introduction to the topic, though Hurley's photos are the true centerpiece. Unfortunately, none of his early color-process photos are reproduced here.

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