University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Polar Exploration and the Imperial Imagination: the social influences that drove arctic explorers to risk all

A cross in front of a polar landscape.

Most histories of polar exploration focus on the biographies and psychologies of heroic, driven individuals.  Matthew Voyce’s UoP BA history dissertation, Polar Exploration and the Imperial Imagination 1845-1922: Race, Science and Competing Approaches, sought to go beyond this to understand the complex ways in which these events connected with the broader social influences and ideas of their time, including imperialism, and the impetus towards scientific advancement.  Matthew’s supervisor was Dr Matt Heaslip. Below Matthew writes about his approach to the topic, and his experience of the process of writing the dissertation.

Captain Scott’s grave is a lonely place. A solitary cross, hastily nailed together from pine board, watches the endless, unsettling Antarctic plain from its home on Observation Hill. This isn’t where Scott is buried. He’s buried underneath the drifting snow and shifting ice of the Ross Ice Shelf, forever part of the continent.

Of course, Scott wasn’t the first man to die during one of the myriad British expeditions to both the north and the south pole. He knew better than most the risks he was running, the suffering he would have to endure. So why did he, and countless others, go?

This is ultimately what my dissertation is about. Traditional orthodoxy places the primary motives for polar exploration in something deeply ingrained within these explorers, a certain attraction to the desolation of the poles. I believe there is some truth to this. I do not dispute the drive and ferocious bravery of every soul who ventured their lives for these voyages. But they were human. They lived in complex social systems riddled with doubt and contradictions. Focus solely on the forces at play within the minds of explorers is simply not a satisfactory answer when trying to understand why generations of Briton’s gave so much in pursuit of the poles.

When I began reading in October, two things were immediately obvious. Firstly, historians have barely scratched the surface of what polar study has to offer to the study of history. The vast majority of polar histories are biographical, choosing to portray expeditions not as part of the fabric of their era but as stand-alone curiosities. Secondly, those historians who had combined polar exploration with the broader strands of British society (naturally) did not agree with each other. One strand saw polar exploration as a product of imperial thought, and all its associated evils. The other champions scientific advancement and industrial impetus.

I knew my dissertation needed to address both of these points. It had to try to tie polar expeditions into the prevailing themes and concerns of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, whilst acknowledging the ongoing debate between imperial drive and scientific determination. After what felt like a lifetime agonising about how I could manage this in only 10,000 words, I decided to compare the two competing debates. As these two themes connected polar exploration the broad streams that made the zeitgeist of the time, I reasoned that by comparing the ongoing debate I could both demonstrate analytical skills and contextual knowledge.

But here the methodological reasoning ended. As I began to read more and more, I understood less and less. It was like drowning in paradox. The concepts I was dealing with were even more complicated than I first realised. Elements such as social Darwinism and British morality kept figuring in both the secondary literature and primary sources. Eventually, I was trying to grapple with the twisting contradictions that propped up British society. It was a lot.

But luckily, I had help. My dissertation supervisor, Matt Heaslip, was always available for questions, pointing me in the right direction on subjects such as Pax Britannica. I also had my teaching to fall back on. Over my three years of undergraduate study, I had studied the British Empire in depth, particularly its seedy underbelly. Because of this I already knew something of the driving forces underneath the empire and such I had a launch pad into an incredibly dense and difficult subject. That, I think, is the key. It is important to fall back onto what you know and have confidence in that base rather than fixating on what you don’t know. Only after I learnt this could I begin to dive into the substance of my dissertation.

What I found took me by surprise. The dual forces of racialised thinking and scientific endeavour were littered throughout the primary sources. You could see it in the press, you could see it in expedition publications. Underneath everything there was a perplexing blend of pseudoscience  that sought to justify the human and financial expense undertaken by the likes of Scott. It was a peculiar blend of social influences that seemed to take on another dimension every time I took another look at my evidence. Explorers themselves didn’t necessarily embody originality. Yes, demonstrated bravery that is vanishingly rare in this world. But instead of being pulled to the poles by internal personalities they were pushed by the conditions of Britain at the time.

The true balance between internal drive and external pressure is difficult to understand and would require far more than 10,000 words. But looking back it is clear to me that these men themselves were products of their time in the most Victorian way. I do worry that perhaps this is unnecessarily dismissive of Scott, Shackleton and company. After all, they risked everything the most hostile environment of all, and someone doesn’t do that with extraordinary determination. But I also realise that by showing the conflicted nature of both explorers and society alike we achieve a fuller and more complete picture of this imperial niche.

I’m not ashamed to say I loved writing my dissertation. It was my first foray into history not shaped by an essay question of characterised by casual interest. It was also difficult. It was frustrating and at times agonising. But at the end of the day, I believed in my ability and knew I had 10,000 words to write and no amount of giving up would get them written. My advice to anyone reading this is three-fold. Firstly, work to your strengths. You cannot build without foundations. And secondly, keep ploughing on no matter what. You might only manage twenty minutes a day, but it all counts as progress even when it doesn’t feel like it. And lastly, try not to lose the passion. Watch films, read stories and keep that interest in your topic ignited. If you manage all three, then you will succeed no matter what gets thrown at you.

Good luck and go well.

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