Scott of the Antarctic
Posted on 21st March 2021
Robert Falcon Scott was born in Devonport near Plymouth on 6 June, 1868, to a prosperous middle class family and his father who was the owner of a local brewery instilled in his son a strong sense of patriotism from an early age.
Even though his father's ambitions were focused on his older brother Archie, Robert who was always competitive was just as determined to succeed and make his him proud and like a great many ambitious young men from his region Robert opted for a life at sea and he joined the Royal Navy being commissioned a Lieutenant in March 1888.
His Navy career was steady rather than spectacular however, and he did not make the rapid progress he had hoped for. Meanwhile, things had taken a turn for the worse at home.
In 1894, his father went bankrupt, and the family were forced to sell up and move to Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Though the family's poverty was relative rather than absolute the need for Robert to advance his career and earn more money increased and when his father died soon after the responsibility for the maintenance of his mother and two younger sisters fell upon him and Archie. When Archie died four years later of typhoid fever while abroad the responsibility fell upon Robert's shoulders alone, but then he had never been afraid of responsibility.
For a number of years Scott had been a close personal friend of Clements Markham, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1899, he learned that the society intended to finance an expedition to the Antarctic. On 11 June, he visited Markham in his London home and volunteered to lead it. Scott knew nothing of Antarctic exploration, or indeed exploration in general, and there were others involved in the expedition far more qualified than him to lead it. As a result, there was an attempt to place him only in command of the expedition ship Discovery. But he remained insistent that he be put in overall command.
Despite the opposition of others his friend Markham secured the command for him, but it was a decision that caused a great deal of resentment.
The Discovery Expedition set sail on 31 July 1901, and was to be far from an unqualified success. The ship became stuck in the ice for the best part of two years and in the end had to be dynamited free and its scientific discoveries were limited.
Scott also had a fractious relationship with another leading member of the expedition who would later find fame in his own right, Ernest Shackleton. They were often at loggerheads and their disagreements were heated. In the end Scott sent Shackleton home on the pretext that he was physically exhausted. Though their relationship was to improve over the years, Scott always treated Shackleton more as a rival than a colleague.
Despite all its problems and lack of any tangible results the Discovery Expedition had caught the public imagination and Scott returned a popular hero. He enhanced his reputation further by embarking upon a lucrative speaking tour and addressed the Royal Geographical Society to a standing ovation. He may even have begun to believe his own publicity as the Great Antarctic Explorer.
On 2 September 1906, he married the artist and socialite, Kathleen Bruce. He was now not only a celebrity but was moving in the highest social and artistic circles. He had become part of the Edwardian Establishment. Over the next few years however his fame diminished as the spotlight fell upon his old rival, Shackleton.
On 19 October 1908, Shackleton began his Nimrod Expedition but despite repeated requests to do so Scott refused to co-operate with the expedition and indeed appeared to put impediments in the way of its success. Though Shackleton failed to reach the South Pole the expedition was deemed an epic of derring-do and upon his return he was not only praised by everyone but was knighted by the King. This rankled with Scott, but it also provided him with the impetus to try again.
In 1910, he announced his own expedition to the Antarctic. It was to be called Terra-Nova, after the ship that was to transport them to the icy wastes.
The Royal Geographical Society expressed its hope that it would be undertaken for scientific purposes, but Scott soon made it plain that he wanted to be the first man to reach the South Pole. As he said: "I intend to reach the South Pole and to secure for the British Empire this great achievement."
Scott had learned lessons from his previous expedition but alas they appear to have been the wrong ones. He chose the members of his Terra-Nova Expedition for reasons of sentiment and compatibility rather than expertise and reliability; the ponies he chose were not up to the task while distrusting dogs he became over-reliant on motorised sledges which tended to break down in adverse weather conditions. He also placed too much faith in his men to overcome any difficulties they might encounter.
Although he was criticised for his preparations it was a streak stubborn and his refusal to listen to advice that were to cause the greatest problems.
In 1910, whilst in Melbourne, Australia, he received a telegram informing him that he was now in a race to be the first man to reach the South Pole with the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen. He informed his team that this changed nothing and that they would proceed as planned but the news had made him reckless.
The expedition seemed ill-fated from the start when not long after reaching the Antarctic his ship Terra Nova became stuck in pack ice for twenty days, one of the motor-sledges was lost overboard and the ponies became sick, and many died. When Captain Laurence Oates, who oversaw the ponies reported to Scott that they were worse than useless and suggested they be killed for food. Scott refused forcing Oates to reply: "Sir, I think you will regret not taking my advice."
Oates later wrote that he found Scott's ignorance about marching with animals colossal.
He also did not heed the advice to move his main supply post One Ton Depot, 35 miles further south.
Having established his Base Camp, Scott began his journey South on 1 November 1911, with seven men. It was just about the worst possible time in respect of the weather, but then this was no longer just an expedition it was a race. His plan was to reduce his team to four men before making his final push for the Pole. In the meantime, he had left those remaining at the Base Camp with conflicting orders that left them confused.
After marching some hundreds of miles and with most of the dogs he did take with him dead and the motorised sledges out of action on 4 January 1912, he made his decision. Instead of taking three men with him he would take four. They would be Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, and Laurence Oates.
Those who were sent back to the Base Camp - Tom Crean, Edward Evans, and William Lashly were bitterly disappointed unaware that it would in fact be their good fortune.
Edward Adrian Wilson was probably the nearest thing Scott had to a friend on the expedition. He had previously been a missionary and had worked as a doctor with the poor in Battersea, London. He was a committed Christian whose deep faith served as a comfort to those around him.
Edgar Evans was a short thick-set Welshman who by the time of the expedition had begun to turn to fat. He was however immensely strong and despite his fondness for the bottle he was someone whom Scott was determined to take with him because of his always cheerful and optimistic outlook and willingness to do whatever he was told without complaint.
Henry Robertson Bowers was a short, stout man who was as strong as an ox and as tough as old boots. The decision to take him for the final push had been made at the last moment. By taking him Scott now had to split their limited rations five ways but he thought that the party would benefit from his physical strength and always cheery and positive disposition.
Laurence Edward Grace Oates was an Officer in the Royal Navy, a heavy drinker and a known womaniser who was not always thought of as reliable. But he was tough and resourceful and calm under pressure. The relationship between Oates, who had previously served in the Royal Inniskilling Dragoons and had been seriously wounded during the Boer War, and Scott, was always a tense one.
He had only got on the expedition as a result of his willingness to contribute to it financially and to say that he and Scott did not get on would be an understatement. He had written: "I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not a British expedition.” He also wrote: "He (Scott) is not straight. It is always him first and the rest nowhere."
Scott's antagonism towards Oates was always less marked though he did consider him to be somewhat pessimistic.
The party reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to discover the Norwegian flag already flying and a letter from Amundsen dated 14 December, 1911. He had preceded them by five weeks. Scott was devastated, he wrote in his journal: "The worst has happened. Great God! This is an awful place." After resting for two days the party began the 800-mile journey back to their Base Camp and with no pack animals and no transport they were reliant upon their own resourcefulness to get home.
On 4 February, Edgar Evans, who had earlier cut his hand which had since turned gangrenous sustained a heavy fall off Beardsmore Glazier that left him both physically and mentally incapable. From this point on he had to be either helped to walk or carried. Following a further fall on 17 February, he died.
Scott and his party still had more than 400 miles to travel across the Ross Ice Shelf.
The weather that was always bad at that time of year was deteriorating rapidly. They were all suffering from varying degrees of frostbite, snow-blindness and malnutrition. There was also little light, and they were travelling in at best semi-darkness.
Laurence Oates, whose old war wound was causing him problems was by now hardly able to walk. He believed that he was slowing all of them down and by doing so putting their lives in danger. On 16 March, whilst resting in their tent he rose to his feet saying: "I am just going outside and may be some time." The others knew what he intended to do and tried to dissuade him, but he went anyway. He was never seen again.
Scott was to write in his journal that he died a true English Gentleman.
Over the next two days they managed to walk barely 20 miles and on 19 March they pitched their tent for the final time. Exhausted and close to starvation they were just 11 miles short of One Ton Depot and their salvation.
Because of Scott's earlier stubbornness it was 24 miles short of where it could have been. That night Scott wrote in his journal:
"We took risks, we knew we took them, things have turned 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 would have had a tale to tell of hardihood, courage, and endurance of my companions which would have stirred the blood of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."
As the night drew in and the storms raged outside the men retired to their sleeping bags for the last time.
On 29 March, Scott wrote in his journal:
"Last entry: For God's sake, look after our people."
That night Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, and Robert Falcon Scott froze to death. Their bodies were not discovered by a search party until 12 November, eight months later.
The discovery of Scott's journal which detailed the endurance, sufferings and heroism of all those involved made him a national hero.
There is no doubt that Captain Scott made mistakes some of them even crass and stupid ones. He was also arrogant egotistical, self-regarding and vain but he also displayed the virtues of patriotism, determination, stoicism, and loyalty that he himself so admired. His journal also displayed a genuine concern for the men under his command.
In every way, he had died the hero's death in the best Edwardian tradition. A death that some have since suggested he had sought all along. But his self-sacrifice and dignity in-extremis in pursuit of man's eternal mission to conquer nature captured the imagination of a generation and has continued to serve as an inspiration to those that have followed ever since. He would forever be - Scott of the Antarctic.
Tagged as: Modern
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