A century ago, Britons reacted to the news of the deaths of pioneering Antarctic explorers with an outpouring of national grief. In the aftermath of his death, Robert Falcon Scott became an iconic hero in Britain – his story of self-sacrifice and the elegant clipped phrases of his diary were used as a kind of encouragement for sacrifice in the two world wars that followed. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
“I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.” − From Robert F Scott’s journal
A decade after British explorer Robert Falcon Scott perished on 29 March 1912 in his quest to be the first man to plant a flag and take azimuth readings at the South Pole – and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten him to it – it was yet another British explorer, the mountaineer George Mallory, who should receive credit for the definitive explanation of what drove such men on to their respective, secular holy grails. Asked, “Why do you want to climb Mt Everest?” Mallory is popularly said to have answered, “Because it’s there!” Well, maybe he did say it, and maybe he didn’t. Regardless, this answer goes right to the core of things.
“Because it’s there.” It is that need to know what is over the next hill; at the upper source of the river; across that wide, seemingly boundless ocean. It is one of two paired impulses that helped goad early man to move out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago and on the Middle East, Asia, Europe and then on to the Americas, Polynesia and Australasia. The other impulse was then, and remains now, the urge for exploitation, rather than simply curiosity. Maybe there are more abundant herds or fertile lands beyond the next hill; there will be gold in the hills where the river begins; and the fabled riches of the East across the oceans in the new lands.
If the voyages at the beginning of the Age of Exploration from the 15th century onward somehow combined both motives, by the end of the nineteenth century, more altruistically, explorers were poised to fill in those final blank spaces on the map – to plant that flag finally at the top- and bottom-most places on the globe, to climb the highest mountains, to carry out exacting surveys of the remaining spaces on the planet – labelling and cataloguing every bird, animal, bug and fish along the way. In fact, one purpose of Capt. James Cook’s 1772-74 expedition into the Pacific was to survey the seas near the still-unseen but posited great southern continent – the first scientific effort to understand the land eventually called Antarctica.
In our own age, of course, motivations for geographical discovery have swerved sharply towards the commercial. Even the triumphant solo descent by filmmaker James Cameron to the abysmal depths of the Marianas Trench the other day – naturally documented for television documentaries – was designed to coincide with the worldwide release of the new 3D version of his film, Titanic.
In our time, too, the new rush to the Arctic and the Antarctic are buoyed by commercial opportunities – untapped petroleum and natural gas reserves, fishing rights to as yet un-fished-out waters, and establishment of new northern shipping lanes that will cut down travel costs for Asian-European trade. While an international treaty now limits activities in the Antarctic to scientific ones, that treaty had to be negotiated under the gun so as to prevent commercial exploitation of this vast space. Even manned space exploration has wound down to nearly nothing – it’s too costly and there is no immediate commercial payoff. “Because it’s there” is becoming marginalised into an excuse for the circumnavigation of Madagascar in a one-man kayak or an octogenarian’s sailing around the globe in a 16-foot ketch. Thrills.
But in the decade before the War to End All Wars – in the last 10 years of that long, hundred-year peace in Europe from 1815-1914, human progress seemed unhindered by more earthly limitations. Robert Peary and Matt Henson (and Frederick Cook) claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909, even if those rival claims are now in growing dispute. Nonetheless such a claim left only the southern pole as the ultimate limit of human exertion. And thus a race between the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott was set in motion. The man who reached, but failed to gain the prize of being first became the avatar of intrepid British “have a go” amateurism, and through his death he earned the love of a nation for his well-bred, gallant failure.
Robert Falcon Scott was born on 6 June 1868 and he became a naval cadet at the age of 13, serving on Royal Navy ships through the 1880s and 1890s. Gaining the support of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society, he was appointed to lead Britain’s 1901-04 National Antarctic Expedition.
One task of this first trip was to carry out explorations of the Ross Sea, to examine the animals, weather and geology of that Antarctic region. Dr Edward Wilson, zoologist for both of Scott’s expeditions, collected embryos of Emperor penguins so he could carry out an examination of these birds more intensively than had ever been done before. This expedition – which also included another famous explorer, Ernest Shackleton, duly reached further south than anyone had ever done previously and Scott came home to national adulation.
Scott was truly in thrall to exploring fever and he began to plot a new effort to become the first man to reach the South Pole. He spent years fundraising for the trip because this second expedition was going to have less government support. It became a national cause celebre as students all over Britain raised money to help purchase the dogs and ponies needed for Scott’s expedition.
Photo: Scott planned his effort to reach the South Pole meticulously.
This new expedition’s ship, a former whaling ship, the Terra Nova, left Cardiff, Wales on June 1910. In the Antarctic spring the weather improved and Scott, Dr Wilson (the penguin man) and the team set off across the Ross Sea Ice Shelf towards the Pole. Eventually, however, the mechanical sledges and ponies couldn’t deal with the Antarctic conditions and so the expedition carried on without them, stiff upper lip-style, in the increasingly difficult weather and rough terrain. By mid December, the dog teams had turned back, leaving the remaining men to face the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier and onto the polar plateau on foot, carrying – or dragging – their own supplies. By January 1912, only five of the original party was still on the way for the prize: Scott, Dr Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Edgar Evans.
With the dogs gone, the remaining men became increasingly exhausted from pulling the sledges, as well as poor nutrition and a growing lack of vitamin C leading to scurvy. This last could have been prevented if they had elected to eat more fresh seal and penguin meat – or their dogs but gentlemen do not consume their dogs. Moreover, their sleeping bags, made from reindeer fur were warm but needed to be kept dry. However, Scott’s team’s sleeping gear became wet through condensation and because the floors of their tents were not designed to be snow-tight. As a result, the bags became wet and cold when the men were in them – at best – or, worse, frozen and totally miserable.
Earlier on, while Scott was moving south on his second expedition, he learned Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was now on his way to Antarctica as well and that he was likely to try to reach the South Pole first. In fact, the Norwegian explorer only decided to head south when he learned that the Americans had already claimed the North Pole in 1909, an event that had upset his own lifelong goal.
Photo: By January 1912, only five of the original party was still on the way for the prize: Scott, Dr Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Edgar Evans.
By the time the race began, the two men were involved in two very different types of expeditions. For Amundsen, it was a pure competition to become the first person in history to reach the South Pole and so his team comprised world-class skiers and 52 sled dogs. For Scott however, there was the glory of the journey but also the goal of mapping a frozen world and the resulting scientific legacy.
Amundsen set off from a base camp at the Bay of Whales, on the ice-shelf itself, about 100km nearer to the Pole than Scott’s camp on Ross Island. Amundsen also set out significantly more depots in advance, and put them further south than Scott. As his sledges became lighter as supplies were consumed, he killed the excess dogs to feed the others (and his men). Peta and the SPCA would never have approved. The British, meanwhile, pulled the sledges themselves and Scott, who knew rather less about the proper use of skis or dogs, believed this was nobler behaviour than the kind of crass utilitarianism Amundsen would be demonstrating by being carried by (or eating) his dogs.
On 17 January 1912, Scott’s party reached their goal, only to learn Roald Amundsen’s party had beaten them to it over a month earlier. The Norwegian team had travelled nearly three times faster than Scott’s party who walked, man hauling all their gear behind them. Scott recorded this dreadful moment in his diary, “The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected,” after seeing the Norwegian flag. “Great God! This is an awful place and … to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.” There was nothing left to do but turn back to face the 1,500km return journey. Broken-hearted, perhaps Scott already sensed that they would not make it back. He wrote “All the day dreams must go … Now for the run home. I wonder if we can do it.” And another of his team wrote “I have never pulled so hard, or so nearly crushed my insides into my backbone.” Scott’s team was now burning up over 7,000 calories a day and their food rations were much too meagre to replace the tissue depletion of their exertions.
Evans died in mid-February and then, by mid March, Oates had severe frostbite. On 17 March 1912, Oates left the tent during yet another blizzard and his famous final words, as written down by Scott, were: “I am just going outside, and I may be some time”.
In these conditions and now desperately short of food, and fuel, the three remaining men died in their tent during a blizzard at the end of March. They were only about 20kms from their next food and fuel depot. Without food, fuel and now devoid of hope as well, Scott made his final diary entry on 29 March, exactly 100 years ago: “We have been ready to start for our depot … but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake look after our people.”
While they were just 20kms from their supply depot – for sick, starving men that final stretch would have been the equivalent of an 80km forced march in brutal conditions. Eight months later, a search party found the bodies of the Scott, Dr Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers. They were in their sleeping bags inside a tent covered with snow. Their journals and papers were recovered but the bodies were left, buried under a snow cairn.
News of the tragedy finally reached Britain in February 1913 and in what may have been the final act of that more sentimental age, the country held a huge national memorial service for the doomed explorers. Four days after the news arrived, a memorial service was held at St Paul’s, attended by the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the elite of British society, with more than 10,000 people gathered outside. Just as they had done when Princess Diana died 85 years later, Britons reacted to the news of the deaths of the Antarctic explorers with an outpouring of national grief. In the aftermath of his death, Scott became an iconic hero in Britain – his story of self-sacrifice and the elegant clipped phrases of his diary were used as a kind of encouragement for sacrifice in the two world wars that followed.
By the end of the 20th century, however, there was a serious backlash against Scott and what he had stood for. More recently still, more measured portrayals of Scott have restored him to good standing in the pantheon of the gods of the final era of the “Heroic Age of Exploration”. Or as Scott himself had written to sum up his ordeals: “We are weak, writing is difficult, but for myself, I do not regret this journey … We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but to bow to the will of Providence … 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.” Even though the better prepared, better organised team, led by Roald Amundsen, got there first. DM
Photo: British explorer Robert Falcon Scott.
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11