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Captain Francis Leopold McClintock’s searching party (combining a dog team and
a man-hauling crew) below the remains of Simpson’s cairn; Cape Herschel,
King William Island, May 1859 Drawing: McClintock
British Explorers Dogged by Myths
by Robert Burton
It has become part of the mythology of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration that British explorers preferred dragging their sledges themselves to entrusting the task to dogs, and that their predecessors, searching for Franklin's expedition lost in the Arctic, persistently refused to learn from Inuit. As a result, Scott and Shackleton man-hauled on their South Pole trips but foreigners, i.e. Amundsen, used dogs to pull their sledges.
Peter Schlederman wrote in a review of Marget Florio's Run Until Dead: "…the British … were steadfastly determined not to take advantage of the dog-drawn transportation used so proficiently by the indigenous people they encountered." Pierre Berton wrote in The Arctic Grail: "… to the English (he means British, a common mistake) there was something noble, something romantic, about strong young men marching in harness through the Arctic wastes, enduring incredible hardships with a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts". (I suspect that Berton had never witnessed the verbal response of Royal Navy sailors, who made up these expeditions, when called on to endure even a slight hardship!) As usual with such myths, the situation was in reality rather more complex.
A few years ago, William Barr put the widely-held notion that British failed to use dogs in the Arctic into a better perspective in his paper “The Use of Dog Sledges during the British Search for the Missing Franklin Expedition in the North American Arctic Islands, 1848–59”. (Arctic: 62:257-272. 2009). He shows that, while man-hauling was the primary method of travel for the main search parties, over 11,000 km. were covered by dog teams, not counting local journeys in which dogs were commonly used for hunting trips and for fast courier work between ships. This amounted to about one fifth of the distance covered. The preference for man-hauling on longer journeys was not for romance but because men had superior motivation and skill when manoeuvring heavily-laden sledges through the enormously difficult terrain of hummocked, pressure ice. Here are two relevant quotes:
" … directly any hummocks were encountered, the dogs with their usual instinct not to drag a sledge unless it run freely, would lie down and oblige Captain Young and his two men to unload and carry the packages over the obstacle, upon their own backs." McClintock.So the British did take advantage of dogs for transportation but they recognised certain limitations. When the attention turned to the Antarctic, Amundsen had the advantage of having previously visited the Canadian Arctic and watching Inuit dog teams at work. His British counterparts, Scott and Shackleton, had never been north. Scott's mentor, the driving force behind his first Antarctic Expedition (of which Shackleton was a member), was Clements Markham who was opposed to the use of dogs as beasts of burden. Dogs were taken on this expedition but, through a combination of inexperience in their use and a poor diet, they were not a success. To be fair to Scott, his agent in Russia who had previously procured dogs for Nansen and other explorers, bought some poor specimens. It is not surprising that, after a very promising start, Scott's dogs quickly failed and he was subsequently prejudiced against them.
Scott discussed the use of dogs for Antarctic sledging extensively in The Voyage of the Discovery, the account of his first expedition. He wrote: "Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which dogs may be used – they may be taken with the idea of bringing them back all safe and sound, or they may be treated as pawns in the game, from which the best value is to be got regardless of their lives." Then: "Difficult as it is to ascertain the reason exactly, the fact remains that no very long journey has ever been made in the Arctic Regions, from which the animals returned alive" (emphasis mine). And so: "One cannot calmly contemplate the murder of animals which possess such intelligence and individuality, which have frequently such endearing qualities, and which very possibly one has learnt to regard as friends and companions." It should be noted that, even without considering their suffering, using dogs to pull sledges would have meant a change of mindset for Scott and his men because, under English law (I don't know about Scottish law, which is distinct), it is illegal to use dogs for haulage or for pack-carrying.
Scott was later to write: "Both men and dogs like a light load, but the former are much less easily dispirited by a heavy one." Men know the object of the effort and also that they have to keep going or fail. Or worse, perish.
Starting the Exploring Parties; April 2, 1859 Drawing: McClintock
For the long, arduous journey to the South Pole and back, with an ascent and descent of the long, steep Beardmore Glacier, reliable "traction", as Shackleton called the motive power for the sledges, was paramount. So, given the experience with dogs on the Discovery Expedition, one can see why he and Scott were reluctant to trust to dogs on their long-distance journeys.
Amundsen, as is well-known, whizzed to the Pole and back. But at what cost to the dogs? He wrote "We had some work indeed, those first days, to get the dogs to obey us ... More than once it cost us a wet shirt to convince them we were really the masters. It was strenuous work, but it succeeded in the end. Poor dogs! They got plenty of thrashing in those days." And "The whip had long ago lost its terrors. When I tried to use it, they only crowded together, and got their heads as much out of the way as they could; the body did not matter so much." As well as being thrashed with whips, Amundsen's dogs were being starved: given the chance they devoured whips, leather lashings and anything conceivably edible. Read Carl Murray's paper “The use and abuse of dogs on Scott's and Amundsen's South Pole expeditions” (Polar Record 44: 303-310. 2008) and decide which man's attitude to dogs you would be comfortable with!
Amundsen was famously upset when, at a dinner in his honour at the Royal Geographical Society, London, the President, Lord Curzon, proposed, "Three cheers for the dogs." Why not? They were the foundation of his success. But Amundsen regarded this recognition of their core role as an insult. He had been warned before he came to England to omit all mention of what he called the 'butchery' of the dogs. I suspect that, if the public had been aware of the full story that Carl Murray has revealed, Amundsen would not have been allowed even to set foot in such a famously dog-loving country.
Bob Burton wintered in Antarctica 50 years ago and has been interested in polar history ever since. In the 1990s, he was Director of the Museum at South Georgia where Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried. He continues to visit Antarctica and South Georgia as a lecturer on cruise ships. He lives near Cambridge, England.