Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration: Sir Robert Falcon Scott

Ok, following on from Amundsen we have a little bit about Robert Falcon Scott, his great rival and leader of the second team to make it to the Pole. Instead of returning home in triumph like Amundsen, Scott had a more unfortunate (and more famous) end and will be forever remembered as a tragic hero.

Sir Robert Falcon Scott

Sir Robert Falcon Scott

Sir Robert Falcon Scott, commonly known as Scott of the Antarctic, was a naval officer in the Royal Navy and had no particular fascination with polar exploration. He applied for, and gained, command of the Discovery mission in order to further his career. Once he went south, however, he would forever be associated with Antarctica.

The first of his two missions was the Discovery mission in 1901-04. Scott, who was looking for personal distinction and career advancement in a Navy full of ambitious men, learned of the South Pole expedition from the Royal Geographical Society President Sir Clements Markham, whom Scott had met earlier in his naval career. This was the opportunity for command Scott had wanted and he eagerly volunteered for the mission.

Scott was made leader of the mission and promoted to the rank of Commander.  The fifty expedition members onboard the Discovery were relatively unskilled with the dogs, ponies and skis they took with them and the first two years of the mission were spent trapped on the ice and stuck in camp. Markham held the view that professionalism was less of a virtue than “unforced aptitude” and this attitude seemed to have influenced Scott.

Scott, along with Ernest Shackleton (who I’ll post about later) and Edward Wilson, set off to the Pole and got to within 530 miles of their target before retreating. The return journey took such a toll on Shackleton that he had to sent home from the mission.

The mission was not purely about reaching the Pole however and a great deal of scientific work was done whilst on the continent in the fields of biology, geography and zoology.

On the mission Scott cemented his views that dog sleds and skis were inferior to man-hauling, the method of pulling the cargo on sleds by man-power alone, something he held with later in his career.

He returned home a hero and found his mission had caught the imagination of the public. He was awarded many distinctions and honours and promoted to the rank of Captain. Between his two mission to the Antarctic he fell out with his fellow explorer Ernest Shackleton who had announced his own plans to return for a second go at reaching the Pole. Shackleton had planned to use the base at McMurdo sound to launch his expedition. Scott  claimed the rights to this area  until he chose to give them up, including the entire Ross sea region. Shackleton reluctantly agreed ,though on the Nimrod mission Shackleton was unable to keep his promise after searching for other landing areas. This was something which was condemned in the British polar community at the time.  Today it is Scott that is judged in a more negative light for his insistence on Shackleton searching elsewhere for a base camp.

The second, and most famous, of Scott’s missions South was the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition of 1910–1912.  Whilst planning, Scott was unaware that the expedition was a race until he received a telegram from Roald Amundsen informing him of his aims to reach the Pole in October 1910.

Scott determined to use a mix of transportation, including motor sledges, ponies, skis and much man-hauling. From the off things went wrong, with the ship stuck in ice for twenty days en route to the start of the attempt. A motor sledge broke through the ice and sank and the ponies struggled to acclimatise to the conditions. With these difficulties the main supply dump, one tonne depot, was laid 35 miles north of its planned location. Scotts companion Captain Lawrence Oats suggested to Scott that he kill and eat some of the ponies and put the depot where it should be. Upon Scotts refusal Oates  was said to comment “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.” Six of the ponies would die on this journey from the cold or because they were shot for delaying the team due to deteriorating health

The attempt began on 1 November 1911,  with mixed transport groups including dogs, motor sledges and ponies pulling loaded sledges. These groups were travelling at different speeds and were all designed to provide support for a final four-man team who would push on for the final stage to the pole, with successive teams dropping back as the expedition neared it’s target.

In early January Scott announced a five man team, including Oates to make the final leg to the pole. They  reached the pole on 17 January 1912, only to discover, to their horror, the tent and flags that Amundsen had left there 5 weeks earlier. Scott’s diary has the following written about his feelings on his discovery:

“The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

Scotts Party at the South Pole

Scott’s Party at the South Pole

The team then faced an 800 mile journey north. The party made good progress in poor weather along the first 300 mile part of their  journey across the Polar plateau but the following stage of the trip, the 100-mile  descent of the Beardmore Glacier, Edgar Evans began to deteriorate. Evans fell on the 4th of February leaving him injured and incapable and then suffered another fall on the 17th and died near the foot of the glacier.  The four remaining men continued to travel the 400 mile journey across the Ross ice shelf in worsening conditions suffering frostbite, exhaustion, hunger and snow-blindness.

On 16 March, Oates, who was now barely able to walk, realising he was hindering the progress of his team made the decision to leave the tent to face certain death. Uttering, according to Scott perhaps the most famous last words ever recorded:

“I am just going outside and may be some time”.

Captain Lawrence Oates

Captain Lawrence Oates

On March the 19th the remaining three men made their final camp just 11 miles south of the one tonne depot (but 24 miles beyond where the depot was originally meant to have been located). They stayed there for 9 days in atrocious conditions unable to travel and with their supplies rapidly running out. Scotts words in his diary as he accepted the inevitable were:

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.

It is though that Scott and his companions died around the 29th of  March 1912. The position of the bodies, when found, indicated that Scott was the last of the men to die.

Upon news of the tragedy reaching Britain, Scott became a national icon and a symbol of British bravery and values. The surviving members of the expedition were all awarded honours with many monuments and memorials across the country and as, per Scotts final request a huge amount of money was collected and divided amongst the families of the team.

1915 statue of Scott in Portsmouth

1915 statue of Sir Robert Falcon Scott in Portsmouth

Although Scott was considered a hero for many years after his death his reputation began to be questioned in the latter half of the twentieth century.  People began to question his methods and leadership and he began to be seen as amateurish and unprepared, especially when compared to the professionalism of Amundsen (who, around the time of his triumph was considered to have been un-sportsmanlike due to his meticulous planning and training) and was also overtaken in the public consciousness by Shackleton for sheer heroism. Scotts attempt was full of seemingly avoidable mistakes, both in planning and execution and suffered catastrophic breakdowns in communication. However, in later years this again, was re-questioned and Scott is now looked upon more favourably with many viewing one of the biggest factors in the events being the especially bad weather on his return journey. Whilst Scott’s reputation will perhaps always be  tarnished by the very things that his contemporaries considered so worthy, though we now see things with different eyes, he is again thought of as a Hero, who bravely fought for distinction and honour in the one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

For an insght into Scott’s last journey, and an amzing read, you can find his diary below at the Scott Polar Research Institute Website- which is an amzing source of information.




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