Thirteen years before he became the first person ever to reach the south pole in 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen experienced his first merciless taste of winter in the Antarctic. Stuck onboard the Belgian expedition ship Belgica, which was grounded in pack ice, he and the rest of the crew contracted scurvy and faced certain death.
That is when, according to a new book published later this month, Amundsen started eating raw penguin meat – and discovered a secret that would later give him a huge advantage over Captain Robert Falcon Scott in the race to the south pole.
“If you eat almost any kind of meat, as long as it’s raw enough, you can get the vitamin C that the body requires to avoid scurvy,” said Julian Sancton, author of the forthcoming book, Madhouse at the End of the Earth.
This was the great insight, he said, of the Belgica’s American doctor, Frederick Cook. “He had spent time among the Inuit and observed that although their diet consisted largely of fresh game, they didn’t get scurvy. The food the crew of the Belgica had brought along on the voyage was not working – so he assumed, partly because he had no other choice, that eating fresh penguin and seal would do the trick. And he was right.”
Unfortunately for the Belgica’s crew, the chef who was in charge of preparing the meat was an inexperienced cabin boy. “He was absolutely incompetent and his preparations of penguin and seal were inedible. And that’s one reason a lot of people on board initially refused to eat it and kept suffering from scurvy.”
The cabin boy’s lack of cooking skills didn’t matter to Amundsen, who was prepared to eat the penguins completely raw. “He pronounced it ‘the most delicious steak you could wish for’ while everybody else found it absolutely repulsive. I think he equated suffering with accomplishment – he loved being able to do what other people didn’t have the courage to do or felt incapable of doing.”
The penguin flesh, even cooked a little, did not appeal to every palate. “Imagine a piece of beef, an odoriferous codfish, and a canvasback duck, roasted in a pot, with blood and cod liver oil for sauce,” was how Cook described it later.
The crew of the Belgica all finally accepted the need to eat the meat. They discovered the penguins loved music, so one crew member would play tunes on a cornet, a brass instrument similar to a trumpet, when they wanted to kill them. Sancton said: “Apparently, it was like the Pied Piper. They would just come right up and serve themselves up. And so it was very easy to trap them and kill them.”
Eventually, Amundsen and the crew managed to break their ship out of the ice, using three hand saws. “They ended up sawing more than a mile of ice, three feet thick at its thinnest. These were men in a pitiful physical shape, withered and weakened by almost a year of entrapment in the ice. It’s absolutely remarkable that they should find the strength to do this – and the way they managed it was by just scarfing down five or six penguin steaks a day. The penguin allowed them to rebuild their bodies and regain their hope.”
It was thanks to these experiences on board the Belgica that Amundsen understood how important it would be to constantly eat fresh meat when he set off for the south pole in 1911. “His diet was absolutely one of the key reasons he managed to beat Scott,” said Sancton.
Scurvy ravaged Scott and his team in 1912. “It’s not clear that Scott died of scurvy,” said Sancton. “Ultimately, he died of cold, exhaustion and hunger. But his body was certainly weakened by it.” Unlike Scott, Amundsen and his team successfully avoided contracting scurvy. They did this by regularly eating not only seals and penguins but also the weaker dogs that pulled their sled.
The book reveals for the first time that Amundsen, Cook and the captain of the Belgica, Georges Lecointe, first came up with this extraordinary strategy while they were all stuck in the ice together. Sancton discovered a letter Lecointe wrote on board the Belgica tucked away in the archive of the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Belgium. “The plan was for Lecointe to make a dash for the south magnetic pole with Cook and Armundsen and to go there by dog sled, and to eat the dogs as a matter of strategy to save on weight and on food,” he said.
In the end, they did not attempt it. “It was a ruthless strategy but it turned out to inspire Amundsen’s own sledging strategy in his race to the south pole against Scott.”
Scott, meanwhile, dismissed the idea of eating dogs as cruel and unsportsmanlike. He wrote: “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.”
Instead, he used Manchurian ponies, “which all died”. Scott and his men then famously suffered the same fate, while Amundsen returned home from the south pole a hero. But he never forgot who had first taught him how to survive in the Antarctic. “He later described Cook as a genius and the finest traveller he ever saw,” said Sancton. “And he credited him with saving his life.”