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Robert Falcon Scott

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Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott
Robert Falcon Scott in full regalia: this was reproduced as a frontispiece for Scott's The Voyage of the Discovery (London 1905)
Born (1868-06-06)6 June 1868
Plymouth, Devon, England
Died 29 March 1912(1912-03-29) (aged 43)
Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica
Education Naval cadet programme, HMS Britannia
Occupation Royal Navy officer and Antarctic explorer
Spouse(s) Kathleen Bruce
Children Peter Markham Scott
Parent(s) John Edward Scott
Hannah Scott
Awards RGS Patron's Gold Medal (1904)
Vega Medal (1905)
Cullum Geographical Medal (1906)

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, CVO, RN (6 June 1868 – 29 March 1912) was an English Royal Navy officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions: the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13. On the first expedition, he set a new southern record by marching to latitude 82°S and discovered the Polar Plateau, on which the South Pole is located. During the second venture, Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that they had been preceded by 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.[1] At a distance of 150 miles from their base camp and 11 miles from the next depot, Scott and his companions died from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold.

Before his appointment to lead the Discovery Expedition, Scott had followed the conventional career of a naval officer in peacetime Victorian Britain. In 1899, he had a chance encounter with Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, and learned for the first time of a planned Antarctic expedition. A few days later, on 11 June, Scott appeared at the Markham residence and volunteered to lead the expedition.[2] Having taken this step, his name became inseparably associated with the Antarctic, the field of work to which he remained committed during the final twelve years of his life.

Following the news of his death, Scott became a celebrated British hero, a status reflected by the many permanent memorials erected across the nation. In the closing decades of the 20th century, the legend was reassessed as attention focused on the causes of the disaster that ended his and his comrades' lives. From a previously unassailable position, Scott became a figure of controversy, with questions raised about his competence and character. Commentators in the 21st century have on the whole regarded Scott more positively, emphasising his personal bravery and stoicism while acknowledging his errors and, more recently, errors by his team members,[3] but ascribing the expedition's fate primarily to misfortune.

Early life


Scott, aged thirteen

Scott was born on 6 June 1868, the third child out of six and elder son of John Edward and Hannah (née Cuming) Scott of Stoke Damerel, near Devonport. Although Scott's father was a brewer and magistrate, there were naval and military traditions in the family, Scott's grandfather and four uncles all having served in the army or navy.[4] John Scott's prosperity came from the ownership of a small Plymouth brewery which he inherited from his father and subsequently sold.[5] In later years, when Scott was establishing his naval career, the family would suffer serious financial misfortune, but his early childhood years were spent in comfort.[6]

In accordance with the family's tradition, Robert and his younger brother Archie were predestined for careers in the armed services. Robert spent four years at a local day school before being sent to Stubbington House School in Hampshire, a cramming establishment preparing 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 cadet, only aged 13 years old.[7]

Early naval career

Scott as a young man

In July 1883, Scott passed out of Britannia as a midshipman, seventh overall in a class of 26.[8] By October, he was en route to South Africa to join HMS Boadicea, the flagship of the Cape squadron, the first of several ships on which he served during his midshipman years. While stationed in St Kitts, West Indies, on HMS Rover, he had his first encounter with Clements Markham, then Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, who would loom large in Scott's later career. On this occasion, 1 March 1887, Markham observed Midshipman Scott's cutter winning that morning's race across the bay. Markham's habit was to "collect" likely young naval officers with a view to their undertaking polar exploration work in the future. He was impressed by Scott's intelligence, enthusiasm and charm, and the 18-year-old midshipman was duly noted.[2]

In March 1888 Scott passed his examinations for sub-lieutenant, with four first class certificates out of five.[9] 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.[10]

During the research for his dual biography of Scott and Roald Amundsen,[11] polar historian Roland Huntford investigated a possible scandal in Scott's early naval career, related to the period 1889–90 when Scott was a lieutenant on HMS Amphion. According to Huntford, Scott "disappears from naval records" for eight months, from mid-August 1889 until 26 March 1890. Huntford hints at involvement with a married American woman, of cover-up, and protection by senior officers. Biographer David Crane reduces the missing period to eleven weeks, but is unable to clarify further. He rejects the notion of protection by senior officers on the grounds that Scott was not important or well-connected enough to warrant this. Documents that may have offered explanations are missing from Admiralty records.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

Promotion, and the extra income this would bring, now became a matter of considerable concern to Scott.[16] 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 the 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.[17] 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.[2]

Discovery Expedition 1901–1904

Partial view of a ship moored to a quayside. Prominent visible features are a mast with three crossbeams, two smaller masts, a funnel, a lifeboat and rigging. Packing cases are lined up on the quay, and a gangplank with
Discovery in 2005 at its home port of Dundee

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.[18] 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 programme while Scott merely commanded the ship. Eventually, however, Markham's view prevailed;[19] Scott was given overall command, and was promoted to the rank of commander before Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 6 August 1901.[20] 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,[21] and during the visit appointed Scott a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO), his personal gift.[22]

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.[23] Dogs were taken, as were skis, but hardly anyone knew how to use them. In Markham's view, professionalism was considered less praiseworthy than "unforced aptitude",[24] and possibly Scott was influenced by Markham's belief. In the first of the two full years which Discovery spent in the ice, this insouciance was severely tested, as the expedition struggled to meet the challenges of the unfamiliar terrain. 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.[25][26]

Wooden structure with door and two small windows. To the left is an open lean-to. In the background are partly snow-covered mountains.
The Discovery hut at Hut Point

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.[27] 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".[28] The scientific results of the expedition included important biological, zoological and geological findings.[29] Some of the meteorological and magnetic readings, however, were later criticised as amateurish and inaccurate.[30]

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.[31] Afterwards, Scott remained unconvinced that dogs and ski were the keys to efficient ice travel. In the following years he continued to express the British preference for man-hauling (the practice of propelling sledges by manpower, unassisted by animals),[32] a view he maintained until very late in his Antarctic career. 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.[33] 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.[34] Although there were later tensions between Scott and Shackleton, when their polar ambitions directly clashed, in public mutual civilities were preserved;[35] Scott joined in the official receptions that greeted Shackleton on his return in 1909 after the Nimrod Expedition,[36] and the two were exchanging polite letters about their respective ambitions in 1909–10.[37]

Between expeditions

Ernest Shackleton, Scott, and Edward Wilson before their march to the South Pole during the Discovery Expedition, 2 Nov 1902
Scott pictured by Daniel A. Wehrschmidt, 1905. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Popular hero

Discovery returned to Britain in September 1904. The expedition had caught the public imagination, and Scott became a popular hero. He was awarded a cluster of honours and medals, including many from overseas, and was promoted to the rank of captain.[38] He was invited to Balmoral Castle, where King Edward VII promoted him a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO).[39]

Scott's next few years were crowded. For more than a year he was occupied with public receptions, lectures and the writing of the expedition record, The Voyage of the Discovery. In January 1906, he resumed his full-time naval career, first as an Assistant Director of HMS Victorious.[40] He was now moving in ever more exalted social circles — a telegram to Markham in February 1907 refers to meetings with the Queen and Crown Prince of Portugal, and a later letter home reports lunching with the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet and Prince Heinrich of Prussia.[41]

Dispute with Shackleton

By early 1906, Scott had sounded out the RGS about the possible funding of a future Antarctic expedition.[42] It was therefore unwelcome news to him that Ernest Shackleton had announced his own plans to travel to Discovery‍ '​s old McMurdo Sound base and launch a bid for the South Pole from there.[43] Scott claimed, in the first of a series of letters to Shackleton, that the area around McMurdo was his own "field of work" to which he had prior rights until he chose to give them up, and that Shackleton should therefore work from an entirely different area.[44] In this, he was strongly supported by Discovery‍ '​s former zoologist, Edward Wilson, who asserted that Scott's rights extended to the entire Ross Sea sector.[45] This Shackleton refused to concede.

Finally, to end the impasse, Shackleton agreed, in a letter to Scott dated 17 May 1907, to work to the east of the 170° W meridian and therefore to avoid all the familiar Discovery ground.[46] In the end it was a promise that he was unable to keep after his search for alternative landing grounds proved fruitless. With his only other option being to return home, he set up his headquarters at Cape Royds, close to the old Discovery base.[47] For this he was roundly condemned by the British polar establishment at the time.

Among modern polar writers, Ranulph Fiennes regards Shackleton's actions as a technical breach of honour, but adds: "My personal belief is that Shackleton was basically honest but circumstances forced his McMurdo landing, much to his distress." [48] The polar historian Beau Riffenburgh states that the promise to Scott "should never ethically have been demanded", and compares Scott's intransigence on this matter unfavourably with the generous attitudes of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who gave freely of his advice and expertise to all, whether they were potential rivals or not. [49]


Scott, who because of his Discovery fame had entered Edwardian society, first met Kathleen Bruce early in 1907 at a private luncheon party.[50] She was a sculptress, socialite and cosmopolitan who had studied under Auguste Rodin[51] and whose circle included Isadora Duncan, Pablo Picasso and Aleister Crowley.[52] Her initial meeting with Scott was brief, but when they met again later that year, the mutual attraction was obvious. A stormy courtship followed; Scott was not her only suitor—his main rival was would-be novelist Gilbert Cannan—and his absences at sea did not assist his cause.[53] However, Scott's persistence was rewarded and, on 2 September 1908, at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, the wedding took place.[54] Their only child, Peter Markham Scott, was born on 14 September 1909,[55] who was later to become the founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Terra Nova Expedition 1910–1912

Map of a segment of Antarctica, identifying the polar marches of Scott and Amundsen. The track of Scott's journey shows the approximate locations of the deaths of the members of his polar party.
The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red), 1911–1912.

Map of a segment of Antarctica, identifying the polar marches of Scott and Amundsen. The track of Scott's journey shows the approximate locations of the deaths of the members of his polar party.


Shackleton returned from the Antarctic having narrowly failed to reach the Pole, and this gave Scott the impetus to proceed with plans for his second Antarctic expedition.[56] On 24 March 1909, he had taken the Admiralty-based appointment of naval assistant to the Second Sea Lord which placed him conveniently in London. In December he was released on half-pay, to take up the full-time command of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910, to be known as the Terra Nova Expedition from its ship, Terra Nova.[57]

It was the expressed hope of the RGS that this expedition would be "scientific primarily, with exploration and the Pole as secondary objects"[58] 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 honour of this achievement".[58] Scott had, as Markham observed, been "bitten by the Pole mania".[58]

In a memorandum of 1908, Scott presented his view that man-hauling to the South Pole was impossible and that motor traction was needed.[59] Snow vehicles did not yet exist however, and so his engineer Reginald Skelton developed the idea of a caterpillar track for snow surfaces.[60] In the middle of 1909 Scott realised 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),[61] and dogs and skis after consultation with Nansen during trials of the motors in Norway in March 1910.[62] Man-hauling would still be needed on the Polar Plateau, on the assumption that motors and animals could not ascend the crevassed Beardmore Glacier.[63]

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.[37] Meanwhile, Scott also recruited Bernard Day, from Shackleton's expedition, as his motor expert.[64]

First season

Man sitting cross-legged at table, pipe in hand, apparently writing. Much clutter of clothing, books and equipment is in the background.
Scott, writing his journal in the Cape Evans hut, winter 1911

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.[65]

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,[66] 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.[66] Deteriorating weather conditions and weak, unacclimatised 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."[67] Four ponies died during this journey either from the cold or because they slowed the team down so they 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.[66] 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.[68] Wilson was more hopeful,[69] whereas Gran shared Scott's concern.[70] Shortly afterwards, the death toll among the ponies increased to six, two 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".[66]

Journey to the Pole

Scott outlined his plans for the southern journey to the entire shore party,[66] but left open who would form the final polar team. 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 [71]

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 Atkinson of the order "to take the two dog-teams south in the event of Meares having to return home, as seemed likely".[72] By 4 January 1912, the last two four-man groups had reached 87° 34′ S.[66] 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".[66]

Last march

Five men(three standing, two sitting on the icy ground) in heavy polar clothing. All look exhausted and unhappy. The standing men are carrying flagstaffs and a Union flag flies from a mast in the background. Scott's party at the South Pole.  Left to right: Oates; Bowers; Scott; Wilson; Evans
Scott's group took this photograph of themselves using a string to operate the shutter on 17 January 1912, the day after they discovered Amundsen had reached the pole first.

Five men(three standing, two sitting on the icy ground) in heavy polar clothing. All look exhausted and unhappy. The standing men are carrying flagstaffs and a Union flag flies from a mast in the background. Scott's party at the South Pole.
Left to right: Oates; Bowers; Scott; Wilson; Evans

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.[73] However, 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.[66] A fall on 4 February had left Evans "dull and incapable",[66] and on 17 February, after another fall, he died near the glacier foot.[66]

Meanwhile, back at Cape Evans, the 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.[74] When Atkinson finally did leave south for the planned rendezvous with Scott, he encountered the scurvy-ridden Edward ("Teddy") Evans who needed his urgent medical attention. Atkinson therefore tried to send 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 Cherry-Garrard on 25 February, who was not able to navigate, only as far as One Ton depot (which is within sight of Mount Erebus), effectively cancelling Scott's orders for meeting him at latitude 82 or 82.30 on 1 March.[3]

On the return journey from the Pole, Scott reached the 82.30°S meeting point for the dog teams, 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." By 10 March 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." 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.[66] 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."[75] On the same day, Oates, whose toes had become frostbitten,[76] voluntarily left the tent and walked to his death.[66] Scott wrote that Oates' last words were "I am just going outside and may be some time".[66]

After walking 20 miles farther despite Scott's toes now becoming frostbitten,[77] 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.[66] 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".[66] He left letters to Wilson's mother, Bowers' mother, a string of notables including his former commander 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.[78]

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.[79]

The Observation Hill cross, erected in 1913 as a memorial to Scott and his party

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.[66] 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.[66]

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.[80]



The world was informed of the tragedy when Terra Nova reached Oamaru, New Zealand, on 10 February 1913.[81] Within days, Scott became a national icon.[82] A fierce nationalistic spirit was aroused; the London Evening News called for the story to be read to schoolchildren throughout the land,[83] to coincide with the memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral on 14 February. 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".[84] 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![85]
1915 statue of Scott at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, sculpted by his widow, Kathleen Scott.[86]

The survivors of the expedition were suitably honoured 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.[87][88] In 1922, she married Edward Hilton Young, later Lord Kennet (she becoming Lady Kennet), and remained a doughty defender of Scott's reputation until her death, aged 69, in 1947.[89]

An article in [24] Scott was much 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.[91] Even before Scott's death was known, Amundsen had been offended by what he felt was a "sneering toast" from RGS President Lord Curzon, at a meeting held supposedly to honour the polar victor. Curzon had called for "three cheers for the dogs". According to Huntford's account, this slight caused Amundsen to resign his honorary RGS fellowship.[24][92]

The response to Scott's final plea on behalf of the dependents of the dead was enormous by the standards of the day. The Mansion House Scott Memorial Fund closed at £75,000 (2009 approximation £5.5 million). This was not equally distributed; Scott's widow, son, mother and sisters received a total of £18,000 (£1.3 million). Wilson's widow got £8,500 (£600,000) and Bowers's mother £4,500 (£330,000). Edgar Evans's widow, children and mother received £1,500 (£109,000) between them.[93][94]

In the dozen years following the disaster, more than 30 monuments and memorials were set up in Britain alone. These ranged from simple relics (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 crafted by his widow for his New Zealand base in Christchurch.[95][96]

Modern reaction

Three figures are depicted in coloured glass, standing by a cairn of snow topped by a large cross. The scene is framed by a decorative arch.
Memorial window in Binton Church, Warwickshire, one of four panels. This one depicts the cairn erected over the site of Scott's last tent.

Scott's reputation survived the period after World War II, beyond the 50th anniversary of his death.[97] 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.[98] Evans and 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,[97] although Pound continued to endorse his heroism, writing of "a splendid sanity that would not be subdued".[99] Within the following decade, further books appeared, each of which to some degree challenged the prevailing public perception.

The most critical of these was David Thomson's Scott's Men (1977); in Thomson's view, Scott was not a great man, "at least, not until near the end";[100] his planning is described as "haphazard" and "flawed",[101] his leadership characterised by lack of foresight.[102] Thus by the late 1970s, in Jones's words, "Scott's complex personality had been revealed and his methods questioned".[97]

In 1979 came the most sustained attack on Scott, from Roland Huntford's dual biography Scott and Amundsen in which Scott is depicted as a "heroic bungler".[24] Huntford's thesis had an immediate impact, becoming the new orthodoxy.[103] Even Scott's heroism in the face of death is challenged; Huntford sees Scott's Message to the Public as a deceitful self-justification from a man who had led his comrades to their deaths.[97] After Huntford's book, debunking Captain Scott became commonplace; Francis Spufford, in a 1996 history not wholly antagonistic to Scott, refers to "devastating evidence of bungling",[104] concluding that "Scott doomed his companions, then covered his tracks with rhetoric".[105]

Travel writer Paul Theroux summarised Scott as "confused and demoralised ... an enigma to his men, unprepared and a bungler".[106] This decline in Scott's reputation was accompanied by a corresponding rise in that of his erstwhile rival Shackleton, at first in the United States but eventually in Britain as well.[107] A 2002 nationwide poll in the United Kingdom to discover the "100 Greatest Britons" showed Shackleton in eleventh place, Scott well down the list at 54th.[107]

The early years of the 21st century have seen a shift of opinion in Scott's favour, in what cultural historian Stephanie Barczewski calls "a revision of the revisionist view".[108] Meteorologist [109]

In 2004 polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes published a biography which was a strong defence of Scott and an equally forthright rebuttal of Huntford; the book is dedicated "To the Families of the Defamed Dead".[108][110] Fiennes was later criticised by the reviewer of another book for the personal nature of his attacks on Huntford, and for his apparent assumption that his own experiences as a polar explorer gave him unique authority.[80]

In 2005 David Crane published a new Scott biography which, according to Barczewski, goes some way towards an assessment of Scott "free from the baggage of earlier interpretations".[108] What has happened to Scott's reputation, Crane argues, derives from the way the world has changed since the heroic myth was formed: "It is not that we see him differently from the way they [his contemporaries] did, but that we see him the same, and instinctively do not like it."[111] Crane's main achievement, according to Barczewski, is the restoration of Scott's humanity, "far more effectively than either Fiennes's stridency or Solomon's scientific data."[108] Daily Telegraph columnist Jasper Rees, likening the changes in explorers' reputations to climatic variations, suggests that "in the current Antarctic weather report, Scott is enjoying his first spell in the sun for twenty-five years".[80] The New York Times Book Review was more critical, pointing out Crane's support for Scott's discredited claims regarding the circumstances of the freeing of the Discovery from the pack ice, and concluded "For all the many attractions of his book, David Crane offers no answers that convincingly exonerate Scott from a significant share of responsibility for his own demise."[80]

In 2012, Karen May published her discovery that Scott had issued written orders, before his march to the 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".[3]

Scott's journals provide the basis for a book of blank verse sonnets by Kim Roberts, Fortune's Favor: Scott In Antarctica (Poetry Mutual, 2015).[112]

Notes and references

  1. ^ "Four things Captain Scott found in Antarctica", BBC, accessed 11 October 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Crane, p. 82.
  3. ^ a b c May 2013.
  4. ^ Crane, pp. 14–15.
  5. ^ Crane, p. 22.
  6. ^ "Scott's Expedition", American Museum of Natural History, accessed 15 June 2014.
  7. ^ Fiennes, p. 17.
  8. ^ Crane, p. 23.
  9. ^ Crane, p. 34.
  10. ^ Crane, p. 50.
  11. ^ Scott and Amundsen, later republished as The Last Place On Earth. See Sources section.
  12. ^ Huntford, The Last Place on Earth, pp. 121–123, and Crane, pp. 39–40.
  13. ^ Fiennes, p. 21.
  14. ^ Fiennes, p. 22.
  15. ^ Fiennes, p. 23.
  16. ^ Crane, p. 59.
  17. ^ Crane, p. 84.
  18. ^ Crane, p. 90.
  19. ^ Preston, pp. 28–29.
  20. ^ Crane, p. 63.
  21. ^ "The Discovery – Inspection by the King and Queen" The Times (London). Tuesday, 6 August 1901. (36526), p. 10.
  22. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27346. p. 5409. 16 August 1901.
  23. ^ Scott, p. 170, Vol I: "Our ignorance was deplorable."
  24. ^ a b c d Huntford, Shackleton, p. 134.
  25. ^ Scott, pp. 211–227.
  26. ^ Crane, pp. 161–167.
  27. ^ Preston, pp. 60–67.
  28. ^ Crane, p. 270.
  29. ^ Fiennes, p. 148.
  30. ^ Huntford, The Last Place on Earth, pp. 229–230; Crane, pp. 392–393.
  31. ^ Preston, pp. 78–79.
  32. ^ Jones, p. 71, quoting from The Voyage of the Discovery.
  33. ^ Preston, pp. 67–68.
  34. ^ Crane, pp. 240–241.
  35. ^ Crane, p. 310.
  36. ^ Crane, pp. 396–397.
  37. ^ a b Preston, p. 113.
  38. ^ Crane, p. 309.
  39. ^ Preston, pp. 83–84.
  40. ^ Preston, p. 86.
  41. ^ Crane, p. 334. The telegram related to a collision involving Scott's ship, HMS Albemarle. Scott was cleared of blame.
  42. ^ Preston, p. 87.
  43. ^ Shackleton publicly announced his plans to the RGS on 7 February 1907. Scott had enjoined RGS Secretary Keltie to secrecy about his own intentions. Crane, p. 335.
  44. ^ Crane, p. 335.
  45. ^ Riffenburgh, pp. 113–114.
  46. ^ Crane, pp. 335, 341.
  47. ^ Barczewski, pp. 52–53.
  48. ^ Fiennes, pp. 144–45.
  49. ^ Riffenburgh, p. 118.
  50. ^ Crane, p. 344.
  51. ^ Preston, p. 94.
  52. ^ Crane, p. 350.
  53. ^ Crane, pp. 362–366.
  54. ^ Crane, pp. 373–374.
  55. ^ Crane, p. 387.
  56. ^ Preston, pp. 100–101.
  57. ^ Fiennes, p. 161.
  58. ^ a b c Crane, pp. 397–99.
  59. ^ RF Scott (1908) The Sledging Problem in the Antarctic, Men versus Motors
  60. ^ Roland Huntford (2003) Scott and Amundsen. Their Race to the South Pole. The Last Place on Earth. Abacus, London, p224
  61. ^ Preston, p. 107. Also Crane, pp. 432–433.
  62. ^ Roland Huntford (2003) Scott and Amundsen. Their Race to the South Pole. The Last Place on Earth. Abacus, London, p262
  63. ^ The modern South Pole Highway for tracked motors avoids the glacier.
  64. ^ Preston, p. 112.
  65. ^ Crane, pp. 425–28.
  66. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Huxley, Scott's Last Expedition, Vol. I, pp. 30–71.
  67. ^ Crane, p. 466.
  68. ^ Scott's diary, 22 Feb 1911: "The proper, as well as wiser, course for us is to proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honour of the country without fear or panic. There is no doubt that Amundsen's plan is a serious menace to ours. He has a shorter distance to the Pole by 60 miles — I never thought he could have got so many dogs safely to the ice. His plan for running them seems excellent. But above all he can start his journey early in the season — an impossible condition with ponies."
  69. ^ Wilson's diary "As for Amundsen's prospects of reaching the Pole, I don't think they are very good...I don't think he knows how bad an effect the monotony and the hard travelling surface of the Barrier is to animals", cited from Ranulph Fiennes Captain Scott Hodder and Stoughton, London 2003 p219f
  70. ^ Tryggve Gran's diary "If we reach the Pole, then Amundsen will reach the Pole, and weeks earlier. Our prospects are thus not exactly promising. The only thing that can save Scott is if an accident happens to Amundsen." cited from Ranulph Fiennes Captain Scott Hodder and Stoughton, London 2003 p219f
  71. ^ Evans 1949, pp. 187–188.
  72. ^ Cherry-Garrard, pp. 424.
  73. ^ Scott's diary, 19 January 1912
  74. ^ "Karen May & Peter Forster on Cherry-Garrard's 1948 postscript", The Telegraph, accessed 12 October 2014.
  75. ^ Karen May 2012, Could Captain Scott have been saved? Revisiting Scott's last expedition, Polar Record, p. 1-19.
  76. ^ "Oates disclosed his feet, the toes showing very bad indeed, evidently bitten by the late temperatures" Scott diary entry, 2 March 1912. "The result is telling on ... Oates, whose feet are in a wretched condition. One swelled up tremendously last night and he is very lame this morning" Scott diary entry 5 March 1912. "Titus Oates is very near the end" — Scott diary entry, 11 March 1912.
  77. ^ "My right foot has gone, nearly all the toes – two days ago I was proud possessor of best feet. These are the steps of my downfall. Like an ass I mixed a small spoonful of curry powder with my melted pemmican – it gave me violent indigestion. I lay awake and in pain all night; woke and felt done on the march; foot went and I didn’t know it. A very small measure of neglect and have a foot which is not pleasant to contemplate." Scott's diary 18 March 1912
  78. ^ From "Scott's Message to the Public", Huxley, Scott's Last Expedition, Vol. I, pp. 605–607.
  79. ^ Huxley, Scott's Last Expedition, Vol. I, p. 596; Jones, p. 126. Huntford, The Last Place on Earth, p. 509 says that Bowers was probably the last to die, citing evidence on p. 528.
  80. ^ a b c d USA Today 16 January 2001.
  81. ^ Crane, pp. 1–2.
  82. ^ Preston, p. 230.
  83. ^ Jones, pp. 199–201.
  84. ^ Jones, p. 204.
  85. ^ Jones, pp. 205–206.
  86. ^ Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
  87. ^ Preston, p. 231.
  88. ^ This honour did not entitle Kathleen Scott to call herself "Lady Scott". Although both Fiennes, p. 383, and Huntford, The Last Place on Earth, p. 523, refer to her as "Lady Scott", this is not in accordance with The Times announcement, 22 February 1913.
  89. ^ Preston, p. 232.
  90. ^
  91. ^ Amundsen, publisher's note, 1976 edition.
  92. ^ Jones, p. 90.
  93. ^ Jones, pp. 106–108. £34,000 (2009 = £2.5m) in total went to relatives, £17,500 (£1.2 million) to the publication of the scientific results, £5,100 (£370,000) to meet expedition debts, and the balance to the creation of suitable monuments and memorials.
  94. ^ All present-day values calculated on RPI basis per Measuring Worth.
  95. ^ See Jones, pp. 295–96 for a full listing of British memorials.
  96. ^ Captain Scott Memorial.
  97. ^ a b c d Jones, pp. 287–289.
  98. ^ "BFI Scott of the Antarctic 1948 film", accessed 21 October 2014
  99. ^ Pound, pp. 285–286.
  100. ^ Thomson, pp. Preface, xiii.
  101. ^ Thomson, pp. 153 and 218.
  102. ^ Thomson, p. 233.
  103. ^ Jones, p. 8.
  104. ^ Spufford, p. 5.
  105. ^ Spufford, pp. 104–105.
  106. ^ Quoted in Barczewski, p. 260.
  107. ^ a b Barczewski, p. 283.
  108. ^ a b c d Barczewski, pp. 305–311.
  109. ^ Solomon, pp. 309–327; see also Barczewski, p. 306.
  110. ^ Fiennes's book was published in the United States as Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism and Scott's Antarctic Quest. Barczewski, p. 378.
  111. ^ Crane, p. 11.
  112. ^ "The Literary Hill" columm, Hillrag Magazine, May 2015, page 102.




Further reading

  • Caesar, Adrian: The White: Last Days in the Antarctic Journeys of Scott and Mawson 1911–1913 Pan MacMillan, Sydney, 1999, ISBN 978-0-330-36157-6
  • Tally, Ted: Terra Nova: a play [1], Dramatist's Play Service, 1981

External links

  • Works by Robert Falcon Scott at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Robert Falcon Scott at Internet Archive
  • Works by Robert Falcon Scott at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Scott's original expedition diaries Read digital copies online using the British Library's Turning the Pages system.
  • Robert Falcon Scott collection
  • Herbert Ponting Portfolio and platinum prints
  • Scott of the Antarctic Original reports from The Times
  • Dennis Rawlins (2002), "Scott's Navigational Math", DIO, volume 2, number 2, pages 74ff. (Refutes the charges that Scott's navigation was inferior to or essentially differed from Amundsen's.)
  • The Voyages of Captain Scott at Project Gutenberg
  • Letter from Scott to his wife
  • British Services Antarctic Expedition 2012 – In the Spirit of Scott
  • Scott Memorial in Exeter Cathedral
  • "To Britannia", poem by Florence Earle Coates
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