Share This Article

Though Robert Falcon Scott was not born until 1868, the most insightful and succinct description of his career may have been written in the 16th century, when Shakespeare observed that’some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Robert Scott was of the third sort. The adventures that made him a national hero were planned by others who selected him for their purposes; and his reputation, many of his biographers have suggested, owes as much to his accidental and highly romantic death as to his personal accomplishments. If, however, Scott was not a man of heroic vision nor one who was habitually successful in his endeavours, there is no doubt that his steadfast dedication in the face of the challenges that were placed in his path entitled him to the fame he achieved.

Scott completed his naval cadet instruction on the Royal Navy’s training ship Britannia and entered the service as a midshipman in 1883. After serving for four years on various ships, he joined the West Indies Training Squadron as a torpedo officer in 1887. While there, his quiet competence caught the attention of Sir Clements Markham, the squadron commander’s cousin, who was Honorary Secretary to the Royal Geographical Society.

Sir Clements was already formulating plans to send a British expedition to explore Antarctica, which he saw as the last great frontier on earth and the ideal place to demonstrate Britain’s continuing leadership in scientific exploration and individual achievement. He knew that the man chosen to lead such an adventure would have to be a young, energetic and intelligent officer, and he privately compiled a list of candidates from among the Royal Navy officers he had met.

As the years passed, Robert Scott’s name remained on Sir Clements’ list while, one by one, the other candidates were eliminated. The two men crossed paths several more times during the next decade. Each time, Sir Clements was more thoroughly impressed by the young officer and more certain that he would be the one to someday lead the Antarctic explorations, but he did not mention a word of his plans to Lieutenant Scott until June, 1899. The young officer was then in London and, he later remembered, chancing one day to walk down Buckingham Palace Road, I espied Sir Clements on the opposite pavement, and naturally crossed, and as naturally turned and accompanied him to his house. That afternoon I learned for the first time that there was such a thing as a prospective Antarctic expedition; two days later I wrote applying to command it, and a year after that I was officially appointed.

As if to confirm that his application for the post had been at Sir Clements’ urging, Scott admitted that I have no predilection for polar exploration. Nevertheless, he began to prepare himself for the task ahead. He was pleased to hear that the ship being constructed for his use was to be called Discovery, because he observed that none of the five previous British research vessels bearing that name had ever been connected with failure or disaster. Scott apparently overlooked the death of Captain James Cook at the hands of Polynesian natives in 1778, while visiting Hawaii with the ships Resolution and Discovery.

While commander Scott prepared himself, others hammered out the details of the expedition. The adventure was to be a joint effort by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society. The collaboration was not an easy one, however, and one of the foremost disputes was over how to delegate responsibilities between the naval officers, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, and the civilian scientists of the Royal society. In particular, the Royal Society did not have much confidence in Commander Scott’s abilities, and argued that he should be in command only of those members of the expedition who were Royal Navy officers, while a co-leader oversaw the non-military men. When Scott heard of these discussions, he repaid Sir Clements’ faith in him by insisting that he be given sole command of the expedition or be excused from it entirely. The Royal Society grudgingly relented, but it was not the last time the young officer with no predilection for the job would overrule the judgement of the prestigious Society.

The co-sponsors were equally divided about the expedition’s priorities. Sir Clements’ group believed that the Antarctic wilderness was an ideal proving ground on which to demonstrate British fortitude to the world, and thought it vital that the first expedition to reach the South Pole should be British. The Royal Society was more interested in practical scientific research. The orders that were finally drafted for Commander Scott instructed him to pursue neither geographic exploration nor scientific research at the expense of the other. Despite the Commander’s refusal to be firmly bound by instructions from London, his actions, on the whole, admirably fulfilled this fundamental mission.

On 16th August, 1901, Discovery left for New Zealand, where she was supplied and overhauled prior to her long trek beyond the Antarctic Circle. After making these preparations, Discovery departed on the final southward leg on 21st December, the start of summer in the southern hemisphere. On 3rd January, 1902, the ship crossed the Antarctic Circle and began grinding its way even farther south through pack ice.

The Royal Society had long debated the wisdom of letting Commander Scott spend the winter in the Antarctic, and had only reluctantly given him permission to stay if circumstances made it necessary. The Commander, however, knew that an early departure would not give him enough time to reach the Pole, and had already made his decision. Only about two weeks after crossing the Antarctic Circle, he wrote that We were now in a latitude where it was most desirable that we should make a diligent search for safe winter quarters for the ship.

For another two weeks, Discovery crept back and forth along the edge of the ice, exploring both the extent of the Great Ice Shelf, first seen by James Clarke Ross in the 19th century, and the coast of the continent to the east of the ice shelf, using instruments to study the Southern Magnetic Pole.

Finally, on 8th February, Commander Scott began preparing for the winter. The ship was secured to the edge of the ice shelf until the bay froze over and locked it firmly into a block of ice. The crew set up huts, practiced working with dog teams, and learned to ski. With the arrival of the Antarctic night came constant dangers. Crewmen frequently became lost when snowstorms overtook them or a misplaced step sent them sliding down ledges. Blizzards were so intense that in one case two men got hopelessly lost while marching the 200 yards between the ship and the huts. Search parties hunted for nearly two hours before locating them just 30 yards from the camp. Most of the incidents ended without tragedy, but on 11th March Able Seaman George Vince slipped, careened down a slope and disappeared into the sea.

When spring arrived, Commander Scott, with a small party, set off on his attempt to reach the Pole. The three men who were to make the attempt were Scott himself; Dr. Edward Wilson; and Discovery’s third mate, Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton was a surprise choice, since he was a member of the Merchant Marine, rather than the Royal Navy, and the jealousies between the two services made him and Commander Scott rivals of a sort.

The odds against the three pioneers quickly became apparent. The dogs selected to pull their sleds were of an insufficiently hardy breed and poorly handled. Scott never mastered, or even fully appreciated the necessity for, the skill of managing dog teams. On his trek to the Pole, the animals died one by one, in some instances killing each other, and leaving the explorers to haul their supplies themselves. The three could move only half the provisions at a time, and so were forced to continuously retrace their steps and recover what they had left behind. But despite the obvious futility of this effort, they advanced southward, at the rate of only three or four miles a day towards a goal more than 800 miles distant. Not until the last day of the year did they finally turn back. On the return trip Shackleton became terribly ill with scurvy and suffered a nearly complete physical collapse.

When the party reached Discovery after a 93-day-long trek, Scott learned that a relief ship, the Morning, had arrived to check on the expedition’s condition. The commander decided that Shackleton was too weak to remain aboard Discovery and ordered him back to England with the relief ship and several other non-essential crewmen. Discovery itself could go nowhere. The Antarctic summer had not been mild enough for the ice in which she was trapped to break up, and so Commander Scott decided that he would spend yet another winter on the ice shelf.

It was late September, 1903, before the long Antarctic night ended and conditions again permitted Scott to venture on another long trek. I am not sure that a polar night is not worth the living through for the mere joy of seeing the day come back, he noted.

A number of parties set off in various directions at the start of the new sledging season and during the course of the summer the expedition achieved further successes in mapping and studying glaciers, geology, and the local population of penguins. None of the parties, however, ventured any nearer the Pole than Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson had the previous year.

As of the first days of 1904, the ice that held Discovery in place appeared as if it would outlast yet another Antarctic summer. On 5th January, another relief expedition arrived, bringing news that the Admiralty had had enough of both the expedition and the unexpectedly high costs attached to it. Commander Scott was ordered to either free Discovery and bring her home, or to abandon her. As the deadline approached, the ice finally began to break up, and on 16th February Discovery at last headed towards England.

A hero’s welcome greeted Commander Scott in England, but his arrival was also a time of personal troubles. While the public idolized him, the Government and scientific community were critical of his handling of the expedition. He himself was disappointed over his failure to reach the Pole, and he began to plan for a second expedition. To his annoyance he learned that his former subordinate, Ernest Shackleton, was launching his own mission to Antarctica. More fortunately, another potential rival, the famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, announced that his sights were set instead on the North Pole.

In August 1907, Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, headed south. From start to finish his expedition upstaged Scott’s and in January, 1909, he reached a new furthest south. But while his achievement stole the spotlight from his rival it left him still 112 miles short of the Pole.

Meanwhile, the recently promoted Captain Scott’s second expedition was proving to be in complete contrast to the first. This time the voyage was a personal quest and the man who previously had no predilection for exploration spent a full year tirelessly raising money, though he had little liking for such work. He attempted to buy Discovery, but to his frustration its new owners refused to sell her and he settled for the whaler Terra Nova.

Despite Scott’s efforts to find financial support for the mission, there was barely enough money to pay the crew and fuel the ship when the time came to get underway. The biggest discouragement of all, however, was a telegram that awaited him when Terra Nova stopped in Melbourne. It was sent by Roald Amundsen to inform Scott that the Norwegian had changed his plans and was heading south.

The expedition had become a race, and Terra Nova got off to a slow start. Unexpectedly bad weather and thick ice delayed her arrival at the ice shelf, but by the end of December a camp had been established. The following month teams set out across the ice to set up supply caches the would be used by the Pole party the following year. They named the most important of the caches One Ton Depot. Scott had planned to locate it at latitude 80 degrees south, but severe storms stopped him short of that location, and he reluctantly left the stores 20 miles north of the intended site.

On the return trip, word arrived that Amundsen had set up camp in the Bay of Whales, which was 60 miles nearer the Pole than Scott’s camp at Cape Evans. Due to the climate of their home country, the Norwegians were much more experienced in working on the ice and in handling dog teams. Scott, remembering his own fiasco with dogs during his first attempt to reach the Pole, actually placed greater reliance on ponies, which ultimately proved entirely unsuitable for polar conditions. Hopeful but realistic, Scott remarked: I think two parties are very likely to reach the pole next year, but God only knows which will get there first.

During the Antarctic winter, Scott concentrated on the scientific goals of the expedition and only planning the strategy for the trek to the Pole. By spring he had privately decided that a race was hopeless and that, rather than risk disaster by rushing ahead, he would be methodical and hope that Amundsen , by racing onward with less preparation, would fall short of his goal.

The British expedition’s advance party set out on 24th October, 1911. The one innovation that Captain Scott might have counted on to offset Amundsen’s many advantages was a pair of motorized tractors, primitive and small but capable of hauling supplies up steep slopes. These proved a complete failure, however, breaking down only a few days out from camp. The ponies and dogs kept going somewhat longer, but for most of the 1,600-mile round trip Scott and his companions again dragged the supplies along themselves. The weather was particularly severe during the first half of the trip, but despite the conditions, Scott reached Ernest Shackleton’s furthest south on 6th January. He had outdone his old rival, but grew pessimistic about his progress in relation to the Norwegians.

The final supporting party turned back north on the third day of 1912, leaving five men to make the final trek to the Pole–Scott, Captain Lawrence Oates, Dr. Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, and Petty Officer Edgar Evans. For two more weeks these five marched on alone, fatigued but heartened by their proximity to the Pole. Then, on 16th January, just a day’s march from their goal, Scott’s pessimism turned to despair. The worst has happened, he recorded in his journal. About the second hour of the day Bowers’ sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn….We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the pole.

Scott’s party scrambled across the last few miles between themselves and the Pole and examined the remains of Amundsen’s camp. Among the items left behind by the Norwegians, Captain Scott found a letter from Amundsen to the Norwegian king. As a precaution that was to prove tragically ironic, Amundsen had left it for Scott to deliver in case the Norwegians did not survive their return journey. By the time Scott found the letter, his rival was nearly back to his base camp, but the five-man British party was 800 miles from safety. Before setting off on the return trip, the five British explorers posed for a photograph, which clearly shows the disappointment in their faces despite their heroic achievement.

The wind was at their backs as they headed north and they fixed a sail to the sledge to make the going easier, but the epic journey took a terrible toll on all of them. On 7th February, they reached the top of the glacier that connected the Antarctic continent to the frozen surface of the ice shelf. When they had traversed about half the length of the glacier, and were thus about halfway back to camp, Petty Officer Evans died from the effects of the cold.

The survivors continued on, struggling to get from one supply depot to the next before exhaustion and hunger overwhelmed them. By the beginning of March, Scott’s party was halfway across the ice shelf, but was now averaging only six or seven miles a day and the Antarctic winter was drawing near. All four knew their chances now were slim. Captain Oates, the most severely afflicted, knew he was holding the others back and voluntarily sacrificed himself by wandering off into a blizzard. On severely frostbitten legs, the remaining three pushed on, through high winds and temperatures reaching 40 degrees below zero, to within 11 miles of One Ton Depot, the large supply cache Scott had prudently established the previous year, but which he had been forced to place 20 miles north of its intended location. Here, within a few miles of safety, a blizzard prevented them from going any farther. Day after day they remained confined in their tent while they depleted all their supplies.

At the Cape Evans camp, the realization that the five members of the Pole party were not going to return took hold by early April, but throughout the long Antarctic winter the crew of Terra Nova could do nothing but wait. The following spring, a search team found the Pole party’s tent. The bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers were interred beneath a cairn of ice, but their scientific records, as well as 35 pounds of geological specimens that Scott had refused to abandon even at the end, were recovered. His journals were also brought back.

Despite losing the race to the Pole, Scott did perhaps achieve part of Sir Clements’ mission after all, by demonstrating that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.

This article was written by Bruce Heydt and originally appeared in the June/July 1999 issue of British Heritage.

For more great articles, subscribe to British Heritage magazine today!