Robert Falcon Scott

Scott was born on 6 June 1868, the third of six children and elder son of John Edward, a brewer and magistrate, and Hannah (née Cuming). John Scott’s prosperity came from the ownership of a small Plymouth brewery which he had inherited from his father so Scott’s early childhood years were spent in comfort. In accordance with the family’s tradition Scott and his younger brother Archie were predestined for careers in the armed services and Scott having passed his exams began his naval career in 1881, as a 13-year-old cadet.

In July 1883, Scott passed out of naval college and went to South Africa followed by the West Indies and in St Kitts he had his first encounter with Clements Markham, then Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. He took a shine to Scott and would loom large in Scott’s later career. That career progressed smoothly until 1894 when Scott learned of a financial calamity that had overtaken his family. His father, John, had sold the brewery and invested the proceeds unwisely,lost all his capital and was now virtually bankrupt. Aged 63, and in poor health, he was forced to take a job as a brewery manager and move his family but three years later died of heart disease. His mother and her two unmarried daughters now relied entirely on the service pay of Scott and the salary of younger brother Archie, who had left the army for a higher-paid post in the colonial service But he died a year later of typhoid so the whole financial responsibility for the family rested on Scott.

Promotion, and the extra income this would bring, now became a matter of considerable concern to Scott. In the Royal Navy however, opportunities for career advancement were both limited and keenly sought after by ambitious officers. However in June 1899, while home on leave, he had a chance encounter in a London street with Clements Markham, who was now knighted and President of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), and learned for the first time of an impending Antarctic expedition with the Discovery, under the auspices of the RGS. It was the opportunity for an early command and a chance to distinguish himself! Scott volunteered to lead the expedition and Markham supported him.

The British National Antarctic Expedition, later known as the Discovery Expedition, was a joint enterprise of the RGS and the Royal Society. A long-cherished dream of Markham’s, it required all of his skills and cunning to bring the expedition to fruition, under naval command and largely staffed by naval personnel. Scott was given overall command,and was promoted to the rank of commander before Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 6 August 1901.Edward VII, who showed a keen interest in the expedition, visited the day before the ship left British shores and during the visit appointed Scott a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO), his personal gift.

Experience of Antarctic or Arctic waters was almost entirely lacking within the 50-strong party and there was very little special training in equipment or techniques before the ship set sail. Dogs were taken, as were skis, but the dogs succumbed to disease in the first season. Nevertheless, the dogs’ performance impressed Scott, and, despite moral qualms, he implemented the principle of slaughtering dogs for dog-food to increase their range. The expedition had both scientific and exploration objectives; the latter included a long journey south, in the direction of the South Pole. This march, undertaken by Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson took them to latitude about 530 miles from the pole. The second year showed improvements in technique and achievement, culminating in Scott’s western journey which led to the discovery of the Polar Plateau on which the South Pole is located. This has been described by one writer as “one of the great polar journeys”. At the end of the expedition it took the combined efforts of two relief ships and the use of explosives to free Discovery from the ice in 1904.

Discovery returned to Britain in September 1904. The expedition had caught the public imagination, and Scott became a popular hero. He was awarded a cluster of honours and medals, including many from overseas, and was promoted to the rank of captain. The King invited him to Balmoral and promoted him a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Scott’s next year was crowded. He was occupied with public receptions, lectures and the writing of the expedition record. In January 1906, he resumed his full-time naval career becoming a flag-captain.

Scott, who because of his Discovery fame had entered Edwardian society, first met Kathleen Bruce early in 1907 at a private luncheon party. She was a sculptress, socialite and cosmopolitan who had studied under Rodin. Her initial meeting with Scott was brief, but when they met again later that year, the mutual attraction was obvious. A stormy courtship followed; Scott was not her only suitor and his absences at sea did not assist his cause. However, Scott’s persistence was rewarded and on 2 September 1908, at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, the wedding took place. They had one child, Peter Markham Scott, born 14 September 1909, who was to found the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Shackleton had returned from the Antarctic having narrowly failed to reach the Pole, and this gave Scott the impetus to proceed with plans for his second Antarctic expedition. In December he was released on half-pay, to take up the full-time command of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910, to be known as the Terra Nova Expedition from its ship, Terra Nova.

It was the expressed hope of the RGS that this expedition would be “scientific primarily, with exploration and the Pole as secondary objects” but, unlike the Discovery Expedition, neither they nor the Royal Society were in charge this time. In his expedition prospectus, Scott stated that its main objective was “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”. Scott had, as Markham observed, been “bitten by the Pole mania”.

On 15 June 1910, Scott’s ship Terra Nova, an old converted whaler, set sail from Cardiff. Scott meanwhile was fundraising in Britain and joined the ship later in South Africa. Arriving in Melbourne in October, Scott received a telegram from Amundsen stating: “Beg leave to inform you “Fram” proceeding Antarctic Amundsen”, possibly indicating that Scott faced a race to the pole!

The expedition suffered a series of early misfortunes which hampered the first season’s work and impaired preparations for the main polar march. Deteriorating weather conditions and weak, unacclimatised ponies affected the initial depot-laying journey, so that the expedition’s main supply point was laid 35 miles (56 km) north of its planned location. Lawrence Oats, in charge of the ponies, advised Scott to kill ponies for food and advance the depot which Scott refused to do. Oates is reported as saying to Scott, “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.” The ponies that had been chosen proved mostly of poor quality, and ill-suited to prolonged Antarctic work. Four ponies died during this journey either from the cold or because they slowed the team down and were shot.

On its return to base, the expedition learned of the presence of Amundsen, camped with his crew and a large contingent of dogs in the Bay of Whales, 200 miles (320 km) to their east Scott conceded that his ponies would not be able to start early enough in the season to compete with Amundsen’s cold-tolerant dog teams for the pole, and also acknowledged that the Norwegian’s base was closer to the pole by 60 miles. Oats was right the ponies were a mistake!

Scott outlined his plans for the southern journey to the entire shore party, leaving open who would form the final polar team, according to their performance during the polar travel. Eleven days before Scott’s teams set off towards the pole, Scott gave the dog driver precise written orders at Cape Evans dated 20 October 1911 to secure his speedy return from the pole using dogs. These orders were not complied with!

The march south began on 1 November 1911, a caravan of mixed transport groups (motors, dogs, horses), with loaded sledges, travelling at different rates, all designed to support a final group of four men who would make a dash for the Pole. The southbound party steadily reduced in size as successive support teams turned back. Scientific work continued as Scott’s party discovered plant fossils, proving Antarctica was once forested and joined to other continents. By 4 January 1912, the last two four-man groups had reached 87° 34′ S. Scott announced his decision: five men (Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oats and Edgar Evans) would go forward, the other three would return. The chosen group marched on, reaching the Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by five weeks. Scott’s anguish is indicated in his diary: “The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

The deflated party began the 800-mile (1,300 km) return journey on 19 January. The party made good progress despite poor weather, and had completed the Polar Plateau stage of their journey, approximately 300 miles (500 km), by 7 February. In the following days, as the party made the 100-mile (160 km) descent of the Beardmore Glacier, the physical condition of Edgar Evans, which Scott had noted with concern as early as 23 January, declined sharply and two falls within 10 days caused his death.

Meanwhile, back at Cape Evans, the Terra Nova arrived at the beginning of February, but Scott’s orders for meeting him with the dogs did not take place. Scott reached the meeting point for the dog teams, three days ahead of schedule, noting in his diary for 27 February 1912 “We are naturally always discussing possibility of meeting dogs, where and when, etc. It is a critical position. We may find ourselves in safety at the next depot, but there is a horrid element of doubt.” By 10 March the temperature had dropped unexpectedly to below −40 °C (−40 °F), and it became evident the dog teams were not coming: “The dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed. Meares [the dog-driver] had a bad trip home I suppose. It’s a miserable jumble.”

With 400 miles (670 km) still to travel across the Ross Ice Shelf, Scott’s party’s prospects steadily worsened as, with deteriorating weather, a puzzling lack of fuel in the depots, hunger and exhaustion, they struggled northward. On 16th March, Oates, whose toes had become frostbitten, voluntarily left the tent and walked to his death. Scott wrote that Oates’ last words were “I am just going outside and may be some time”.

After walking 20 miles farther despite Scott’s toes now becoming frostbitten, the three remaining men made their final camp on 19 March, 11 miles (18 km) short of the next depot and 150 miles from their base camp. The next day a fierce blizzard prevented their making any progress. During the next nine days, as their supplies ran out, and with storms still raging outside the tent, Scott and his companions wrote their farewell letters. Scott gave up his diary after 23 March, save for a final entry on 29 March, with its concluding words: “Last entry-. for God’s sake look after our people”. He left letters to Wilson’s mother, Bowers’ mother, a string of notables, his own mother and his wife. He also wrote his “Message to the Public”, primarily a vindication of the expedition’s organisation and conduct in which the party’s failure is attributed to weather and other misfortunes, but ending on an inspirational note, with these words:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for”.

Scott is presumed to have died on 29 March 1912 or possibly one day later. The positions of the bodies in the tent when it was discovered eight months later on 12th November 1912 suggested that Scott was the last of the three to die. Their records were retrieved! Their final camp became their tomb; a high cairn of snow was erected over it, topped by a roughly fashioned cross. A century of storms and snow have now covered the cairn and tent, which are now encased in the Ross Ice Shelf as it inches towards the Ross Sea.

The world was informed of the tragedy when Terra Nova reached New Zealand, on 10 February 1913. Within days, Scott became a national icon. A nationalistic spirit was aroused. A memorial service at St Paul’s was held on14 February. The expedition’s survivors were suitably honoured on their return, with polar medals and promotions for the naval personnel. In place of the knighthood that Scott must have received had he survived, Kathleen Scott was granted the rank and precedence of a widow of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. In 1922, she married Edward Hilton Young, later Lord Kennet (rendering her Lady Kennet), and remained a doughty defender of Scott’s reputation until she died in 1947.

The response to Scott’s final plea on behalf of the dependents of the dead was enormous by the standards of the day. The Mansion House Scott Memorial Fund closed at £75,000 (2009 approximation £5.5 million). This was not equally distributed; Scott’s widow, son, mother and sisters received a total of £18,000 (£1.3 million). Wilson’s widow got £8,500 (£600,000) and Bowers’ mother £4,500 (£330,000). Edgar Evans’s widow, children, and mother received £1,500 (£109,000) between them.

In the dozen years following the disaster, more than 30 monuments and memorials were set up in Britain alone. These ranged from simple relics (e.g., Scott’s sledging flag in Exeter Cathedral) to the foundation of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge. Many more were established in other parts of the world, including a statue sculpted by Scott’s widow for his New Zealand base in Christchurch. However, in the closing decades of the 20th century, Scott became a figure of controversy, with questions raised about his competence and character. Commentators in the 21st century have regarded Scott more positively after assessing the temperature drop below −40 °C (−40 °F) in March 1912, and after re-discovering Scott’s written orders of October 1911, in which he had instructed the dog teams to meet and assist him on the return trip.

Steve Welsh

p.s.

A perfectly preserved fruitcake taken to Antartica by team members in Captain Scott’s expedition 106 years ago has been found near the South Pole.  Baked by former Reading-based biscuit makers Huntley & Palmer, it was on a shelf in a remote hut at Cape Adare still wrapped in paper and inside a tin.   12/7/17

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