The Making of a Hero

By now most Canadians are familiar with Sir John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage that ended in his death, the loss of his ships and starvation. Ironically, far less is known about Roald Amundsen, the young Norwegian adventurer who, at the age of 31, set out to sail through the passage in a 22-metre fishing boat with a crew of six and succeeded—a stark contrast to the British Admiralty’s decades of failed attempts led by seasoned commanders in their large, heavily crewed ships.

Stephen R. Bown’s new book, The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, addresses the gap in Canadian knowledge with a riveting tale of adventure, political intrigue and achievement. This handsome volume is exceptionally well researched and eminently readable, complete with maps and photographs to give visual clarity to the detailed descriptions. Not surprisingly, its appeal gains momentum on second and third reading. Furthermore, this is not your average biography of a polar explorer. Instead, Bown has looked beyond the man and his accomplishments to examine the manipulative forces in the early 20th century that made an international celebrity out of a relatively unknown Norwegian adventurer. The subtitle might well have read “The Making of a Polar Hero.”

In this context, our attention is drawn to the times in which Amundsen lived, an era when polar exploration had become an industry that required careful management of appropriate publicity and financial compensation from writing, interviews and public lectures. Success became a matter of national pride and prestige, not only for Britain, the United States and Norway, but even Italy at the behest of the ambitious Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party. As a result, the race to achieve the last remaining honours in polar exploration took on Olympic proportions and, as a “super-achiever,” Amundsen would acquire a growing number of critics, especially among the British for whom polar exploration was tantamount to a birthright.

Bracketed by a prologue and an epilogue, the body of the narrative is organized into five sections. The first four cover Amundsen’s major achievements: navigation of the Northwest Passage; first to reach the South Pole; full traverse of the Northern Sea route from Norway to Alaska; and, finally, the first flight by airship over the North Pole. Although the South Pole expedition attracted more attention and lasting interest, Amundsen’s navigation through the Northwest Passage is generally considered of greater importance.

The prologue begins in May 1928 with the incident that led to Amundsen’s disappearance and presumed death, then goes on to describe the reputation he had acquired over the years. Clearly, Amundsen was an enigma—described by some as cold and austere, by others as a flamboyant storyteller who enjoyed the limelight; he was adored by his close friends and shipmates, but reviled by his critics; he was a man who sought challenge and action, yet an intensely private and secretive individual whose three love affairs with married women somehow escaped public attention. At times, he appeared arrogant and rude, but was overly sensitive to criticism. In his early years, he was meticulous in planning and preparation, a key factor in his success. Impulsiveness in later years led to failure.

The first section begins with a dramatic paragraph describing the imminent departure for his first expedition on June 16, 1903:

The single-masted fishing smack Gjøa was moored to the pier in Christiania Fjord. The deck of the small ship was pounded by a “perfect deluge of rain” as a terrific storm whipped the waves into dangerous cross-currents. The captain of the ship was an exhausted, worry-worn thirty-one-year-old dreamer and schemer named Roald Amundsen.

Then just before midnight with winds and rain in full force, Amundsen cut the hawsers and set the tiny craft adrift to evade the creditors and bailiff who were waiting to impound his ship for non-payment of debts.

The author then goes back in time to describe Amundsen’s family, his childhood and the influences that inspired his dreams of polar exploration, especially his fascination with stories about Sir John Franklin and later his admiration for fellow Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen. Dreams of navigating the Northwest Passage began as a 15-year-old, with subsequent activities focused on acquiring the physical stamina, skills, knowledge and credentials to achieve his goal. At the age of 29, he spent his entire inheritance on the purchase of the Gjøa, which weighed only 47 tonnes.

The voyage took three years to complete, but his learning experience was ongoing. Critical to his success were two winters spent with Netsilik Inuit, studying their means of survival in the harsh and unforgiving climate. His detailed documentation of their culture included matter-of-fact comments on the “amorous liaisons between the crew and local women.” In the summer of 1905, the ship was finally set free from its icebound prison and the expedition continued westward. Although sailing through previously unknown waters of the Northwest Passage was completed by late August, once again they found themselves caught in the ice just east of Herschel Island. Impatient to announce his achievement to the world, Amundsen travelled over 800 kilometres on skis to the trading post at Eagle City in Alaska, where he discovered more reason to celebrate. Norway had finally gained its independence from Sweden. Meanwhile, another year would pass before the expedition reached Nome.

The next section begins in 1906 with Amundsen’s whirlwind lecture tours throughout the United States and Europe, initiating “a pattern that would shape the rest of his life: his home was on rail cars, in hotels and aboard ships.” Once reluctant to seek publicity, the Norwegian adventurer began “the slow transformation into that particularly American creation, the celebrity.” For the most part, this was facilitated by his brother Leon, who managed his affairs and acted as an agent to ensure that the public received the appropriate commentary and “quotable quotes” expected of a famous explorer. As Bown explains, Amundsen’s “expeditions were merely one part of a large, ongoing business enterprise, and his public persona had to be managed with this in mind.” He quickly learned that the only means to raise funds for further exploration was by charging for interviews and public lectures, and by writing books. Once having achieved fame, he sought more.

His next objective was to be the first to reach the North Pole, using Nansen’s Fram as a springboard. Upon learning that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were both claiming the honour, Amundsen quickly changed his plans without notifying anyone but a few select officers—not even his financial backers, Nansen or his crew—lest the Norwegian government might withdraw its support. Thus it was not until September 10, 1910, when the ship was about to depart from Madeira, that he announced to his men that they would be heading not to the North Pole, but to Antarctica in an attempt to reach the South Pole ahead of the much publicized expedition led by British explorer Robert F. Scott. Once again he succeeded, arriving at the pole a month ahead of Scott.

Initially the British greeted the news of Amundsen’s achievement with moderate respect, as another year would pass before news of Scott’s tragic death reached London. For the British, however, polar exploration was a matter of national pride and prestige and criticism of Amundsen mounted. Some suggested he had cheated Scott out of his rightful honour and perhaps even contributed to his demise because of his failure to announce his intentions in advance. The Norwegian explorer responded by announcing a new challenge, one that would utilize the new flying machines to reach the North Pole.

Again Amundsen achieved another “first,” albeit a very minor one, when in June 1914 he became the first Norwegian to acquire a civilian flying licence. When war in Europe intervened to bring a temporary halt to his plans, the restless explorer did not remain idle. Instead he oversaw the design and construction of a new ship, named Maud after Norway’s queen. Otherwise most of the war years were spent in the United States, where he was still treated as a celebrity. “Admired by Americans for his energy and boldness, he was regarded as a successful entrepreneur—a privately financed citizen, an underdog, challenging and defeating the state-sponsored champion of the world’s greatest empire.” At one point, Amundsen even considered selling his home in Norway and applying for U.S. citizenship.

Finally in the summer of 1918, he set off on Maud’s maiden voyage from Norway to Alaska through the Northern Sea Route, with the expectation that it would take one season. This was not to be. Instead there were continuous setbacks: an accident that left Amundsen with a broken arm, an attack by polar bear, the loss of two men and adverse conditions that resulted in their being icebound for three winters. On return to America, he was allegedly “bored with ships and dog sleds” and focused his efforts on becoming the first to fly over the North Pole.

The fourth section describes a continued downturn in Amundsen’s good fortune, coupled with increasing criticism and indebtedness. The proposed flight in 1923—from Alaska to Spitsbergen over the North Pole—never got off the ground and the next year he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Renewed optimism was forthcoming, however, when he acquired a new partner, an American pilot by the name of Lincoln Ellsworth whose wealthy father promised a solution to his financial dilemma. But in 1925, their attempt to fly two planes to the North Pole ended in disaster, when one crashed short of its destination. Yet the media frenzy that followed the miraculous return of Amundsen, Ellsworth and their crews seemed to harden the resolve of the inveterate explorer to seek yet another challenge.

Amundsen’s last achievement was to fly an Italian airship over the North Pole. This time, he and Ellsworth found themselves in partnership with Colonel Umberto Nobile, the designer of the N-class Norge. In spite of attempts by Nobile to take control of the expedition as directed by Mussolini, the airship did manage to reach the North Pole and circled it before heading westward to Alaska where the ice-laden, canvas-covered airship finally collapsed in a field near the small community of Teller. While the expedition achieved its goal without loss of life, it was a public relations disaster for Amundsen and Ellsworth. Upon reaching Seattle, Nobile had arranged a separate celebration to honour Italy’s achievement, then set out on a tour across the United States, for the most part ignoring the role played by his American and Norwegian partners.

The final section, titled “Lost,” describes the growing acrimony between the Italian colonel and his former partners. Amundsen, now weary and still deeply in debt, sat down to write his memoirs, apparently in an attempt to defend himself against his critics. Unfortunately, My Life as an Explorer was full of inaccuracies and omissions, which fuelled even more criticism. Some of his friends suggested he might not have been of sound mind when writing the book.

Amundsen’s death at the age of 56 was perhaps not as ironic as it appeared, when he disappeared somewhere over the Barents Sea in an attempt to join the rescue of the devious Nobile, whose new airship Italia had crashed near Spitsbergen. Prior to departure, Amundsen was alleged to have extolled the virtues of the Far North, saying “That’s where I want to die, and I wish only that death would come to me chivalrously, that it will find me during the execution of some great deed, quickly and without suffering.” If accurately quoted, his wish was granted.

Rarely is a book without a few flaws. In this case, they are relatively minor and inconsequential. Only one is worth mentioning: the glaring absence of any photographs of Amundsen’s Gjøa or Maud, which would have added visual emphasis to a primary reason for Amundsen’s success, that is, the use of small ships to allow for easier maintenance and manoeuvrability in ice-infested waters, compared to the British Admiralty’s large expedition vessels.

Canadian readers will note that their country played no active or even passive role in Amundsen’s sail through the Northwest Passage, nor did he include Canada among those countries that promoted polar exploration to gain national prestige. True—while Amundsen was sailing through the Northwest Passage, Canada was still trying to perfect its title to the Arctic Archipelago. Moreover, our history of the Arctic has been traditionally of British origin, adopted in 1880 with Britain’s transfer of the Arctic Islands to Canada. Perhaps it is time we broaden our horizons and give more recognition to Amundsen’s role in Canadian history.

In the epilogue Bown explains that his purpose in writing the book was to correct the historical record, which he believed portrayed Amundsen as a man obsessed with pursuit of glory, “a shallow and narcissistic manipulator” and his achievements mere luck. Admittedly journalists and publishers relied on exaggeration or rumours to sell their wares, but the practice of revising history to advance national prestige raises serious questions. On this point, Bown makes a profound observation when he asks: “what do we really know about past events—and hence the present—when our understanding of those events (and the people involved in them) has been shaped, perhaps manipulated, by the political and social agendas of vested interests and longstanding prejudices?”

In this reviewer’s opinion, the author succeeded in his objective. Others may disagree. Nonetheless, The Last Viking is an important contribution to the historiography of polar exploration and should be high on Canadians’ reading lists to encourage further reflection and intellectual debate.