Robert Falcon Scott
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, CVO, RN (6 June 1868 – 29 March 1912) was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions: the Discovery Expedition (1901–1904) and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition (1910–1913). On the first expedition, he set a new southern record by marching to latitude 82°S and discovered the Polar (Antarctic) Plateau, on which the South Pole is located. On the second venture, Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, less than five weeks after Roald Amundsen's Norwegian expedition. On their return journey, Scott's party discovered plant fossils, proving Antarctica was once forested and joined to other continents. A planned meeting with supporting dog teams from the base camp failed, despite Scott's written instructions, and at a distance of 150 miles from their base camp and 11 miles from the next depot, Scott and his companions perished.
Before his appointment to lead the Discovery Expedition, Scott had followed the career of a naval officer in the Royal Navy. In 1899, he had a chance encounter with Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, and thus learned of a planned Antarctic expedition, which he soon volunteered to lead. Having taken this step, his name became inseparably associated with the Antarctic, the field of work to which he remained committed during the final 12 years of his life.
Following the news of his death, Scott became a celebrated hero, a status reflected by memorials erected across the UK. 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, 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.
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) Scott of Stoke Damerel, near Devonport. There were also naval and military traditions in the family, Scott's grandfather and four uncles all having served in the army or navy. John Scott's prosperity came from the ownership of a small Plymouth brewery which he had inherited from his father and subsequently sold. Scott's early childhood years were spent in comfort, but some years later, when he was establishing his naval career, the family would suffer serious financial misfortune.
In accordance with the family's tradition, Scott and his younger brother Archie were predestined for careers in the armed services. Scott spent four years at a local day school before being sent to Stubbington House School in Hampshire, a cramming establishment that prepared candidates for the entrance examinations to the naval training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth. Having passed these exams Scott began his naval career in 1881, as a 13-year-old cadet.
In March 1888 Scott passed his examinations for sub-lieutenant, with four first class certificates out of five. His career progressed smoothly, with service on various ships and promotion to lieutenant in 1889. In 1891, after a long spell in foreign waters, he applied for the two-year torpedo training course on HMS Vernon, an important career step. He graduated with first class certificates in both the theory and practical examinations. A small blot occurred in the summer of 1893 when, while commanding a torpedo boat, Scott ran it aground, a mishap which earned him a mild rebuke.
In 1894, while serving as torpedo officer on the depot ship HMS Vulcan, Scott learned of the financial calamity that had overtaken his family. John Scott, having sold the brewery and invested the proceeds unwisely, had lost all his capital and was now virtually bankrupt. At the age of 63, and in poor health, he was forced to take a job as a brewery manager and move his family to Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Three years later, while Robert was serving with the Channel squadron flagship HMS Majestic, John Scott died of heart disease, creating a fresh family crisis. Hannah Scott 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. Archie's own death in the autumn of 1898, after contracting typhoid fever, meant that 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. Early 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 Discovery, under the auspices of the RGS. It was the opportunity for early command and a chance to distinguish himself, rather than any predilection for polar exploration which motivated Scott, according to Crane. What passed between them on this occasion is not recorded, but a few days later, on 11 June, Scott appeared at the Markham residence and volunteered to lead the expedition.
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 may not have been Markham's first choice as leader but, having decided on him, the older man's support remained constant. There were committee battles over the scope of Scott's responsibilities, with the Royal Society pressing to put a scientist in charge of the expedition's program while Scott merely commanded the ship. Eventually, however, Markham's view prevailed; Scott was given overall command, and was promoted to the rank of commander before Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 6 August 1901. King Edward VII, who showed a keen interest in the expedition, visited the Discovery the day before the ship left British shores in August 1901, 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. During an early attempt at ice travel, a blizzard trapped expedition members in their tent and their decision to leave it resulted in the death of George Vince, who slipped over a precipice on 11 March 1902.
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 a latitude of 82° 17′ S, about 530 miles (850 km) from the pole. A harrowing return journey brought about Shackleton's physical collapse and his early departure from the expedition. The second year showed improvements in technique and achievement, culminating in Scott's western journey which led to the discovery of the Polar Plateau. This has been described by one writer as "one of the great polar journeys". The scientific results of the expedition included important biological, zoological and geological findings. Some of the meteorological and magnetic readings, however, were later criticized as amateurish and inaccurate.
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. His insistence during the expedition on Royal Navy formalities had made for uneasy relations with the merchant navy contingent, many of whom departed for home with the first relief ship in March 1903. Second-in-command Albert Armitage, a merchant officer, was offered the chance to go home on compassionate grounds, but chose to interpret the offer as a personal slight, and refused. Armitage also promoted the idea that the decision to send Shackleton home on the relief ship arose from Scott's animosity rather than Shackleton's physical breakdown. Although there were later tensions between Scott and Shackleton, when their polar ambitions directly clashed, in public mutual civilities were preserved; Scott joined in the official receptions that greeted Shackleton on his return in 1909 after the Nimrod Expedition, and the two were exchanging polite letters about their respective ambitions in 1909–10.
Terra Nova Expedition 1910–1912
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 honor of this achievement." Scott had, as Markham observed, been "bitten by the Pole mania."
In a memorandum of 1908, Scott presented his view that man-hauling to the South Pole was impossible and that motor traction was needed. Snow vehicles did not yet exist however, and so his engineer Reginald Skelton developed the idea of a caterpillar track for snow surfaces. In the middle of 1909 Scott realized that motors were unlikely to get him all the way to the Pole, and decided additionally to take horses (based on Shackleton's near success in attaining the Pole, using ponies), and dogs and skis after consultation with Nansen during trials of the motors in Norway in March 1910.Man-hauling would still be needed on the Polar Plateau, on the assumption that motors and animals could not ascend the crevassed Beardmore Glacier.
Dog expert Cecil Meares was going to Siberia to select the dogs, and Scott ordered that, while he was there, he should deal with the purchase of Manchurian ponies. Meares was not an experienced horse-dealer, and the ponies he chose proved mostly of poor quality, and ill-suited to prolonged Antarctic work. Meanwhile, Scott also recruited Bernard Day, from Shackleton's expedition, as his motor expert.
On 15 June 1910, Scott's ship Terra Nova, an old converted whaler, set sail from Cardiff, South Wales. Scott meanwhile was fundraising in Britain and joined the ship later in South Africa. Arriving in Melbourne, Australia in October 1910, 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. On its journey from New Zealand to the Antarctic, Terra Nova nearly sank in a storm and was then trapped in pack ice for 20 days, far longer than other ships had experienced, which meant a late-season arrival and less time for preparatory work before the Antarctic winter. At Cape Evans, Antarctica, one of the motor sledges was lost during its unloading from the ship, breaking through the sea ice and sinking. Deteriorating weather conditions and weak, unacclimatized ponies affected the initial depot-laying journey, so that the expedition's main supply point, One Ton Depot, was laid 35 miles (56 km) north of its planned location at 80° S. Lawrence Oates, in charge of the ponies, advised Scott to kill ponies for food and advance the depot to 80° S, 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." 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. Wilson was more hopeful, whereas Gran shared Scott's concern. Shortly afterwards, the death toll among the ponies increased to six, three drowning when sea-ice unexpectedly disintegrated, casting in doubt the possibility of reaching the pole at all. However, during the 1911 winter Scott's confidence increased; on 2 August, after the return of a three-man party from their winter journey to Cape Crozier, Scott wrote, "I feel sure we are as near perfection as experience can direct."
Journey to the Pole
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 Meares the following written orders at Cape Evans dated 20 October 1911 to secure Scott's speedy return from the pole using dogs:
About the first week of February I should like you to start your third journey to the South, the object being to hasten the return of the third Southern unit [the polar party] and give it a chance to catch the ship. The date of your departure must depend on news received from returning units, the extent of the depot of dog food you have been able to leave at One Ton Camp, the state of the dogs, etc ... It looks at present as though you should aim at meeting the returning party about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30.
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. Scott reminded the returning Surgeon-Lieutenant Atkinson of the order "to take the two dog-teams south in the event of Meares having to return home, as seemed likely." 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 Oates and Edgar Evans) would go forward, the other three (Teddy Evans, William Lashly and Tom Crean) 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. "I'm afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous," wrote Scott on that day. 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. A fall on 4 February had left Evans "dull and incapable," and on 17 February, after another fall, he died near the glacier foot. 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.
Meanwhile, back at Cape Evans, Terra Nova arrived at the beginning of February, and Atkinson decided to unload the supplies from the ship with his own men rather than set out south with the dogs to meet Scott as ordered. When Atkinson belatedly left for the planned rendezvous with Scott, he was delayed at Hut Point by bad weather from 13-18 February, when Tom Crean arrived through a blizzard with news of the collapse of Teddy Evans. After effecting a rescue of Evans who needed urgent medical attention, Atkinson tried to assign the experienced navigator Wright south to meet Scott, but chief meteorologist Simpson declared he needed Wright for scientific work. Atkinson then decided to send the short-sighted Apsley Cherry-Garrard on 25 February, too late to reach the original rendezvous at latitude 82 or 82.30 on 1 March. Cherry-Garrard reached One Ton Depot, on March 4th and was left to make his own decision on whether to proceed further. He had just enough dog food to run to the next depot and then dash for home but Scott's original timetable would have made it possible to pass Scott travelling in the opposite direction, if he attempted to proceed further. Cherry-Garrard decided that it was better to wait for Scott rather than risk failing to meet him on the march. At the limit of his supplies he turned for home on 10 March barely making it through the worsening weather, reaching Hut Point on 16 March with both men and dogs unfit for further travel.
On the return journey from the Pole, Scott reached the 82.00°S meeting point for the dog teams, 300 miles from Hut Point, 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." On 2nd March Oates began to suffer from the effects of frostbite and the party's progress slowed as he was increasingly unable to assist in the workload, eventually only able to drag himself alongside the men pulling the sledge. 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." In a farewell letter to Sir Edgar Speyer, dated 16 March, Scott wondered whether he had overshot the meeting point and fought the growing suspicion that he had in fact been abandoned by the dog teams: "We very nearly came through, and it's a pity to have missed it, but lately I have felt that we have overshot our mark. No-one is to blame and I hope no attempt will be made to suggest that we had lacked support."
On the same day, 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 One Ton Depot. 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 including his former commander Sir George Egerton, 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 suggested that Scott was the last of the three to die.
Discovery of body
The bodies of Scott and his companions were discovered by a search party on 12 November 1912 and their records retrieved. Their final camp became their tomb; a high cairn of snow was erected over it, topped by a roughly fashioned cross. In January 1913, before Terra Nova left for home, a large wooden cross was made by the ship's carpenters, inscribed with the names of the lost party and Tennyson's line from his poem Ulysses: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," and was erected as a permanent memorial on Observation Hill, overlooking Hut Point.
A century of storms and snow have covered the cairn and tent, which are now encased in the Ross Ice Shelf as it inches towards the Ross Sea. In 2001 glaciologist Charles R. Bentley estimated that the tent with the bodies was under about 75 feet (23 m) of ice and about 30 miles (48 km) from the point where they died; he speculated that in about 275 years the bodies would reach the Ross Sea, and perhaps float away inside an iceberg.
Reputation and legacy
The world was informed of the tragedy when Terra Nova reached Oamaru, New Zealand, on 10 February 1913. Within days, Scott became a national icon. A nationalistic spirit was aroused; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts Association, asked: "Are Britons going downhill? No! ... There is plenty of pluck and spirit left in the British after all. Captain Scott and Captain Oates have shown us that." Eleven-year-old Mary Steel wrote a poem which ended:
Though naught but a simple cross
Now marks those heroes' grave,
Their names will live forever!
Oh England, Land of the Brave!
- An article in The Times, reporting on the glowing tributes paid to Scott in the New York press, claimed that both Amundsen and Shackleton were "[amazed] to hear that such a disaster could overtake a well-organized expedition."
- On learning the details of Scott's death, Roald Amundsen is reported to have said, "I would gladly forgo any honor or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death." Scott was the better wordsmith of the two, and the story that spread throughout the world was largely that told by him, with Amundsen's victory reduced in the eyes of many to an unsporting stratagem.
- The London Evening News called for the story to be read to schoolchildren throughout the land, to coincide with the memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral on 14 February.
The expedition's survivors were suitably honored on their return, with polar medals and promotions for the naval personnel. In place of the knighthood that might have been her husband's 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 her death, aged 69, in 1947.
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.
Scott's reputation survived the period after World War II, beyond the 50th anniversary of his death. In 1948, the film Scott of the Antarctic was released in cinemas and was the third most popular film in Britain the following year. It portrays the team spirit of the expedition and the harsh Antarctic environment, but also includes critical scenes such as Scott regarding his broken down motors and ruefully remembering Nansen's advice to take only dogs. Evans and Apsley Cherry-Garrard were the only surviving expedition members to refuse participation in the film, but both re-published their respective books in its wake.
In 1966, Reginald Pound, the first biographer given access to Scott's original sledging journal, revealed personal failings which cast a new light on Scott, although Pound continued to endorse his heroism, writing of "a splendid sanity that would not be subdued." Another book critical of Scott, David Thomson's Scott's Men, was released in 1977. In Thomson's view, Scott was not a great man, "at least, not until near the end;" his planning is described as "haphazard" and "flawed," his leadership characterized by lack of foresight. Thus by the late 1970s, in Jones's words, "Scott's complex personality had been revealed and his methods questioned."
The 21st century has seen a shift of opinion in Scott's favor, in what cultural historian Stephanie Barczewski calls "a revision of the revisionist view." Meteorologist Susan Solomon's 2001 account The Coldest March ties the fate of Scott's party to the extraordinarily adverse Barrier weather conditions of February and March 1912 rather than to personal or organisational failings and, while not entirely questioning any criticism of Scott, Solomon principally characterizes the criticism as the "Myth of Scott as a bungler."
In 2004 polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes published a biography which was a strong defense of Scott and an equally forthright rebuttal of Huntford; the book is dedicated "To the Families of the Defamed Dead." Fiennes was later criticized for his assumption that his own experiences as a polar explorer made him "almost the only person who could write authoritatively on the subject."
In 2012, Karen May published her discovery that Scott had issued written orders, before his march to the South Pole, for Meares to meet the returning party with dog-teams, in contrast to Huntford's assertion in 1979 that Scott issued those vital instructions only as a casual oral order to Evans during the march to the Pole. According to May, "Huntford's scenario was pure invention based on an error; it has led a number of polar historians down a regrettable false trail."