5 Must Read Books on Antarctic History

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Antarctica is a long way from anywhere, and thank goodness, as you’ll need all the reading time you can get. Considering that this continent has no indigenous human population, it has a disproportionately large library of historical inspiration.

5 Must Read Books on Antarctic History

Antarctica is a long way from anywhere, and thank goodness, as you’ll need all the reading time you can get.  Considering that this continent has no indigenous human population, it has a disproportionately large library of historical inspiration.  To start with, two compendiums should be in your hand luggage.

Let Heroes Speak by Michael H Rosove uses direct quotations from explorers diaries to provide a flavour of many different adventures.  Rosove begins with Cooks early encounters with icebergs in 1772 and continues through to the ‘Heroic Age’.  This period, 1899-1916, covers the adventures of Amundsen, Mawson, Scott and Shackleton.  Rosove’s volume will allow you to select those stories you might like to follow up with more in-depth reading.

Forgotten Footprints by John Harrison is a well told history primer focussed on visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula.  Harrison details the efforts of first winterer De Gerlache, lucky Otto Nordenskjöld whose ship was lost and men scattered, and poor old William Smith.  Smith was the first man to see Antarctica, yet he is not remembered or celebrated: Harrison champions his cause!

The Race to the Pole and the Battle for the Biography

Captain Scott’s reputation oscillates with each new biography published.  In the decades after his death, he was held as a hero until a stir was caused by the 1979 publication of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford.  Huntford’s research for this double biography was meticulous, but his selective use of evidence leads to some odd conclusions and obvious bias.  If you’ve not got much time, read it with a pinch of salt.  If you are blessed with comfy chair and it’s still raining, then Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes puts the other side of the case, while The Last Viking by Stephen R. Brown is the best book on Amundsen.

Books on the Boss

Interest in Ernest Shackleton peaked many years after his death, partly as a result of a rush of books in the 1990s using his story and leadership skills as a model for business men.  

For his own account of his attempt to sledge across the continent, and their hopes of rescue following the crushing and sinking of their ship Endurance, then South is a good read.  It’s a slow burn of preparations, hopes and building energy which then sink with the ship, causing a reshaping of the mission as the men struggle for months to get home.

I use Shackleton’s life-long love of poetry to get inside his mind in my book Shackleton – A Life in Poetry.  This new biography publishes for the first time new documents that a shed light on significant mile stones in his life and adventures.  It’s a love story, a new interpretation of the familiar Boy’s Own adventures and a poetic exploration.

So my top five has ended up being seven titles, but I did tell it was going to be difficult!  And if none of these titles excite you, then the go-to resource for south polar bibliophiles is antarctic-circle.org

The details

  • Let Heroes Speak: Antarctic Explorers 1772 – 1922, by Michael H. Rosove (2000). 320 pages, ISBN 1557509670 (currently out of print, but plenty of second hand copies available)
  • Forgotten Footprints, by John Harrison. Parthian Books, 460 pages, ISBN 1906998213
  • Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford (1979) This is also out of print but available.  It has been republished under the title The Last Place on Earth (ISBN 978-0-375-75474-6).
  • Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes, published in 2004 by Coronet ISBN 978-0-340-82699-7.
  • The Last Viking by Stephen R. Brown
  • South by Ernest Shackleton
  • Shackleton A Life in Poetry, by Jim Mayer, published 2014 by Signal Books, ISBN 978-1-909930-10-0

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