This dramatic and colorful lithograph celebrates one of the great feats of exploration accomplished in the 20th century, namely the reaching of the South Pole. It was composed and printed in Italy, a product of the global nature of polar exploration. Reaching the South Pole, and the intense struggle between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to accomplish it first, had become the stuff of legend: a story that enthralled and engaged people of all ages, across the world. The lithograph was initially issued in 1913, though this particular edition was printed in 1956. It measures a charming 46 x 56 cm (18 x 22 in) and is, in light of its stylish composition and dramatic execution, one those rare sheets that bridges the divide between map and artwork.
The illustration is essentially composed of four images and a title, although the background coloring also contributes to the poster’s dramatic atmosphere. The primary image is a simple map of Antarctica that includes a number of labels, as well as flags to denote spheres of national interest. We shall return to this map shortly. The secondary images consist of two large vignettes depicting our heroes in action.
In the upper left corner we see Amundsen and his team placing the Norwegian flag at the South Pole during their conquest of it on December 14th, 1911. The weather seems to be fair and the men are cheerfully celebrating their success. This contrasts sharply with the second image in the lower left corner, where we find Scott and his men braving an Antarctic blizzard and towing all of their equipment up and down the ice sheaths. The final vignette is perhaps the least symbolic, although the inclusion of a waddle of penguins (in this case, Adélie) always adds something special to a polar composition.
Returning to the map itself, we are treated to a full outline of the icy continent. Major physiographic features, such as the Ross and Weddell Seas, Graham Land, and the Great Ice Barrier (today known as the Ross Ice Shelf) have been noted on the map, just as the location of the magnetic South Pole is indicated. Other than this, the only toponym consists of “Little America,” which refers to the station built by Robert Byrd, an American explorer who would lead the first successful flight over the South Pole in November of 1929. Even though the station is located in a zone that eventually would belong to New Zealand (as certified in the Antarctic Treaty System of 1961 and indicated on this map), this was the first US base on the continent.
Since its scientific discovery in the late 18th century, Antarctica has been subject to various claims made by powers both great and small. Some of the oldest claims date to around the 1830s and were made by the French. Over time, a range of nations have added theirs to it. Some, like Norway, base their claim on efforts of exploration and discovery (in addition to Amundsen, two of the first Antarctic explorers were Norwegians Henrik Johan Bull and Carsten Borchgrevink). Others, like Argentina and Chile, base it more on geographic proximity, relying on tenuous historical claims like the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) as the only historical means of backing their claims.
This situation has led to a number of international negotiations and treaties, which in sum are known as the Antarctic Treaty System. These generally recognize the claims of seven nations: France, Britain, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina. On the poster, only six nations have claimed spheres of interest, as denoted here by their flags. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the United States, along with many other countries, has never recognized the claims of any nation on Antarctica. What is more, while the U.S. maintains a permanent presence on Antarctica, it has itself made no formal claim. The State Department’s formulation is “While the United States maintains a basis to claim territory in Antarctica, it has not made a claim” (https://2001-2009.state.gov/g/oes/ocns/c6528.htm).
Context is everything: The Race for the South Pole
This incredible broadside ticks all the boxes for those excited about the history of polar exploration. Despite a long history of exploration and the countless discoveries made by courageous pioneers, no goal, no ambition can be really compared to conquering the South Pole. It was a feat that required almost superhuman strength and endurance, and which ended up being so laced with drama and emotion that it captivated the imaginations of the entire world. By the early 2oth century, as the Victorian Age of discovery was drawing to an end, the notion of becoming a great explorer had been firmly anchored in society. In Africa, Stanley and others had helped open up a continent to European influence and power, and in the Arctic, great explorers such Nordenskiöld and Nansen followed in the footsteps of British forebears like Ross and Franklin.
By the dawn of the 20th century, there were a number of adventurers vying for the position of first man to reach the pole – either one really. Early reports suggested that the North Pole had been reached on a number of occasions (e.g. by Frederick Cook and Robert Peary), although each time the evidence to support their claim ended up being problematic. The South Pole, on the other hand, had not yielded much to the early explorers, who either got caught in ice flows or were forced to return to their base camps; that is, if they did not perish. Even though others were engaged in the race as well, at the dawn of the 20th century, the two greatest players were the British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen.
While Amundsen had extensive experience from the Arctic and had even spent the winter of 1898 caught in the Antarctic Ice shelf on board the expedition ship Belgica, Scott was better prepared, funded, and equipped for the daunting Antarctic trek. Being a Royal Navy officer, Scott had already led one expedition to Antarctica in the purpose-built and now legendary ship, RRS Discovery (1901-04). During this voyage, Scott and his team traveled overland to within four hundred miles of the pole, before they had to turn back because all of their dogs had perished. One of the two men that accompanied Scott on this perilous first journey was Ernest Shackleton, who some years later (1907-09) would lead his own attempt to reach the South Pole. While Shackleton came considerably closer the second time – less than a hundred miles in fact – this expedition was also forced to turn back and nearly cost Shackleton his life.
Unlike Scott, whose eye had always been on the South Pole, Amundsen’s initial goal was to be the first to reach the North Pole. To accomplish this, he borrowed Fridtjof Nansen’s famous ship FRAM for the expedition and enjoyed both financial and political support from the Norwegian government. However, shortly after having set off, news came in of Peary’s claim to have reached the Pole. In Amundsen’s eyes, this meant that their mission had lost its value, so without informing Nansen, the Norwegian government, or even his crew at first, Amundsen decided to turn FRAM south and head for Antarctica instead. The race was on.
Robert Falcon Scott sailed from Cardiff in June of 1910, on his ship the Terra Nova. Amundsen left later in the summer, steering FRAM out of Kristiansand harbor in early August. But despite his head start, Scott’s expedition was a larger venture that required more preparation and supplies. Thus, Amundsen was able to begin his overland march (using dog sleighs) in mid October 1911. Scott would not set out until a few weeks later. It would prove too late. Amundsen and his crew of four arrived at the South Pole on the afternoon of December 14th, the first humans in history to do so. Overjoyed by their success, they left supplies and a letter for Scott before turning around and heading back to FRAM. Scott and his crew would also make it, but not until mid January. As they approached, the exhausted men saw the profile of Amundsen’s tent and the Norwegian flag waving in the wind and knew that they had lost the race. Dismayed at their defeat, and worn out from the month long ordeal, Scott and his men also turned around and headed back to base.
For Amundsen and his team, that Christmas was spent on the ice, but on January 26th all five expedition members returned safely to their vessel. The dogs had not fared as well. Of the 52 that started, only twelve were left, having succumbed to both cold and their masters’ hunger underway. Sadly, Scott and his team did not fare as well. After a month of marching across the frozen expanse, the first officer, Edgar Evans, died. A month later, Captain Oates walked into the wild never to be seen again. Struggling to move on ever fewer rations, the three remaining men, Lieutenant Bowers, Dr Wilson (who had been with Shackleton and Scott on the first expedition), and Scott himself, all died of cold and exhaustion in their tents. Their bodies – and expedition diaries – were found by a rescue operation seven months after they had perished, just 20 kilometers from their One Ton Depot. Despite the tragic end to Scott and his crew, their names would be honored for posterity. From 1914 to 1917, Shackleton would lead the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which many historians consider the last great voyage in the so-called ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.’
Building on his immense fame and popularity, Amundsen found new stomping grounds in the Arctic after his return from the South Pole. In 1926, he lead an expedition on the airship Norge, which overflew the North Pole and to this day constitutes the official first arrival of humans there. This makes Amundsen the first man to visit both the North and the South Pole. Norge was an airship designed and flown by the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile. When Nobile crashed another airship, Italia, in an independent attempt to reach the pole two years later, Amundsen, who had since become quite the aviator, insisted on leading an airborne search and rescue attempt for Nobile and his crew. Amundsen’s plane went down somewhere in the Barents Sea and his body was never recovered.
Despite the many tragedies associated with polar exploration, the world was spellbound by the tales of brave men that dared to venture into the icy expanse. Men like Amundsen and Scott were celebrated for their incredible achievements for decades after the deed was done. Until the age of space travel, the extraordinary quest to reach the South Pole was seen as the single greatest exploratory achievement in the 20th century, and this broadside is testament to precisely that popularity.