Was Robert Scott an archetypal hero or amateurish bungler? History has judged the explorer as many things but the impact of his doomed trek continues to resonate a century later.
A century on, Scott of the Antarctic's tragic legacy still intrigues
On the evening of February 18, 1912, Kathleen Scott, sitting at home in England, was struck by a sense of foreboding. "I was taken up with you all evening," she wrote in her diary, which in the absence of her husband Robert took the form of a letter to him. "I wonder if anything special is happening to you." Between nine and 10pm, she added, "something odd" had happened to the clocks in the house.
Approximately 16,000 kilometres away in the wastes of Antarctica, something special was indeed happening to Robert Falcon Scott, a 49-year-old captain in the British Royal Navy and a polar explorer for whom time was running out.
Disaster was overwhelming his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. As his wife sat and pondered, he and his four comrades, beaten to the prize by their Norwegian rival, Roald Amundsen, and now battling in deteriorating conditions against hunger, exhaustion, dehydration and frostbite, were in the process of trading their lives for a kind of immortality.
On the eve of a world war that would claim the lives of 10 million combatants, including more than a million men from Britain and its empire, Scott was about to be frozen in time and place as Scott of the Antarctic - no longer a man but a symbol whose courage in the face of adversity and death would be held up in recruiting drives around the country as an example of how true Englishmen were supposed to die, in the service of duty and honour.
On the very day of Kathleen's premonition, the first of the five men had already slipped through the gateway from life to legend. At 12.30 in the morning, Edgar Evans, a Royal Navy petty officer widely regarded as the toughest member of the team, was unexpectedly the first to succumb. The others - at the very limits of their strength and running low on supplies - would not be far behind.
Scott had been here, or hereabouts, before. In 1901, as leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition, a joint venture between the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society, he had led a team of 50 men south aboard the Discovery to spend two years collecting scientific data on the white continent.
He returned to England in 1904 to find himself famous. In 1907, now moving in elevated social circles, he met Kathleen Bruce, a British socialite and sculptor, whom he married in September 1908. The following year Kathleen gave birth to their son, Peter, but the couple would have less than two years together; in June 1910 Scott sailed south again, as leader of the Terra Nova expedition. This time, his objectives would include reaching the South Pole.
A century later, the story of the tragedy that unfolded on the ice is told through the written words of the dying men in These Rough Notes, an exhibition of last letters and journal entries on display until May 5 in the museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, England. The yellowed pages and faded ink of these documents, recovered from Scott's last camp by a search party eight months after the deaths of their authors, tell a moving story of courage in a time before the safety net of easy communications.
Reading the words, it is not hard to imagine the dying men, together in the snow-besieged tent that would become their tomb, but each alone with his thoughts, forcing their suffering hands to write the words they could only hope would be found after their deaths.
But the exhibition does more than merely stir the heart. It has the effect of restoring to its original, human components a story long since petrified into myth and symbolism. "That is one of the things that comes over very strongly when you work here and look at the material that came back," says Kay Smith, a senior administrator at the institute. "Can you imagine ... knowing they are dying and writing letters to their families and friends and doing it in a manner which is totally brave. I think that's stunning."
It was not, she says, about some essentially English quality, as was believed unquestioningly at the time in patriotic Edwardian Britain, but a reflection of the noble potential of all human nature.
And on Antarctica 100 years ago, the quality of human nature was to be tested most harshly.
Setting out from their winter base camp at Cape Evans on November 1, 1911, Scott and his team reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, but found they were not the first to do so. "The worst has happened, or nearly the worst," Scott wrote the day before, despite his oft-stated distaste for the race. That morning, certain they would reach their destination the following day, they had been in high spirits, but just two hours into their afternoon march they spotted a black speck ahead in the whiteness. It was a flag.
They had been beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen, who had used dogs instead of men to haul his loads and had reached his target on December 14. In England, where Amundsen was considered in some way to have "cheated", his achievement remains utterly eclipsed by Scott's heroic failure.
In Amundsen's tent they found a letter to the king of Norway, and a note asking Scott to see he got it. "As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you kindly to forward this letter to King Haakon VII," Amundsen had written. "I wish you a safe return."
The implied demotion of Scott's status from polar hero to postman must have felt like insult added to the injury of defeat.
"This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority," Scott wrote. "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it."
The answer seemed to be etched in the faces of the team as they posed at the Pole for their last photograph, a bleak, haunting image of five doomed, unsmiling men: Scott, his eyes downcast and with the British flag at his back, stands flanked by PO Evans, 35, and the army captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, 31. At their feet sit Royal Navy lieutenant Henry "Birdie" Bowers, 28, and team doctor Edward Wilson, 39.
In a little over two months, all five would be dead. But there was much suffering to be endured before that merciful release.
Weary and discouraged, they spent just one night at the Pole before rising early and turning north again. Ahead of them lay a return journey of some 1,300km across the bleak vastness of the Antarctic wastes, and a losing battle against exhaustion, hunger, cold and, in Evans' case, injury.
On December 31, Evans had cut his hand while working on a sledge and within days the wound had started to fester, adding to the suffering of a man whose frostbitten nose and fingers were deteriorating alarmingly.
Ten days before they reached the Pole, Scott had written of his admiration for Edgar Evans, the "giant worker" who had been responsible for all of the expedition's vital equipment, such as the tents, sledges and the ski shoes and crampons he had designed and made. "It is only now I realise how much has been due to him," Scott wrote on January 8. "What an invaluable assistant he has been."
But in just under a month the invaluable assistant had become a liability. Early in February Scott wrote that Evans was "the chief anxiety now; his cuts and wounds suppurate ... altogether he shows signs of being played out".
Evans managed to stagger on. "A very terrible day," Scott wrote in his sledging diary on February 16. Evans, sick and giddy after a week of struggling to keep up with the others, had collapsed. For a group of men battling deteriorating conditions and failing strength in a life-or-death march towards a seemingly impossibly distant supply depot, this was an extremely serious development.
The next morning, Scott wrote, Evans had declared, "as he always did, that he was quite well", but he again fell far behind on the march and the others turned back to help him. Scott was "the first to reach the poor man and shocked at his appearance. He was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes."
Confused and speaking slowly, Evans - almost certainly dangerously dehydrated, starving and in the final stages of hypothermia - said he thought he must have fainted. Fetching the sledge, they got him back to the tent, but by then he was "quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30am."
They prayed and waited with him for two precious hours before pressing on, leaving the snow to shroud his body.
Oates would be the next to die but, in contrast with Evans' passing, the manner of his death was to earn him posthumous glory.
For Evans and his family, there was a dreadful and unintended consequence of the discovery of Scott’s journal, as a new book published to mark the centenary of his death reveals. The extracts made public in England focused attention on Evans’ deterioration “as a most significant contribution to the failure and death of the whole party”, writes the author, Isobel Williams. The polar party, the dying Scott had written in his “message to the public”, would have returned “in fine form and with a surplus of food, but for the astonishing failure of the man whom we had least expected to fail”.
Nutrition was then poorly understood. Evans, the largest, most muscular man in the party, would undoubtedly have been the first to feel the effects of the malnutrition, and towards the end was doubtless out of his mind thanks to a combination of a head injury, his infected wound, dehydration and hypothermia.
The resulting stigmatisation, which doubtless distressed Evans’ wife and children and would have horrified Scott, reached shocking proportions. When Player’s cigarettes produced a series of memorial cards, Evans was excluded from the set. A contemporary poem dedicated to the “Antarctic Heroes” had only this to say of him: “Ah, well for him he died, nor ever knew / How his o’er wearied stumbling forward drew / Death’s snare about his friends to hold them fast.”
In Scott’s Invaluable Assistant, Williams also lays to rest a persistent rumour, which first surfaced in a Welsh television documentary in 2002, that “Scott, pushed beyond his limits by Edgar’s incapacities and convinced that the team would do better without him, shot Edgar as he lay confused and helpless on the snow”. Absurd, she says – not least because the party carried no firearms.
On March 2, the four survivors made it to Middle Barrier Depot but there “suffered three distinct blows”, wrote Scott. The first was a serious shortage of oil: “With most rigid economy, it can scarce carry us to the next depot”, some 114km away – an objective made even less attainable by a gale that had driven the temperature below minus 40 degrees. Worse, Oates revealed just how badly his feet had been damaged by frostbite.
They trudged on, but by March 11 Oates, suffering terribly with a now gangrenous leg, was “very near the end”, wrote Scott. “What he or we will do, God only knows.”
By March 15 or 16 – by then Scott was losing track – “poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on”. Oates knew he was reducing the others’ already slim chance of survival. That night he slept, “hoping not to wake”, but in the morning he woke to a raging blizzard. “He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’,” Scott wrote. “He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.”
They knew he was walking to his death, “but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.”
But far enough; for the three remaining survivors the ordeal would continue for another 12 days.
On March 18, it was the turn of Scott’s son to have a premonition. “I woke up having had a bad dream about you,” Kathleen wrote in her diary, “and then Peter came very close to me and said emphatically, ‘Daddy won’t come back’ ...”
By March 21, the three men were within 17km of One Ton Depot and salvation but, with very little food and no fuel left to make water, were trapped in their tent by the conditions. The depot might just as well have been on the Moon. “Must be near the end,” Scott wrote. “Have decided it shall be natural – we shall march for the depot ... and die in our tracks.”
In the event, they were to be denied even that bleak comfort. They were never able to leave the tent and spent their last days writing letters to loved ones.
“I should like to come through for your dear sake,” Bowers wrote to his mother on March 22. “It is splendid to pass, however, with such companions as I have.”
Scott was also at work, penning notes to “my wife/widow” and Wilson’s wife: “If this letter reaches you,” he wrote to Mrs Wilson, “Bill and I will have gone out together. We are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end.”
The last chance had gone, he told Kathleen. They had decided “to fight to the last ... a painless end, so don’t worry.” The worst aspect of the whole thing, he said, “is the thought that I shall not see you again”.
A week later, some time after Scott’s last diary entry, dated March 29, it was finally all over. “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more,” he had scrawled across the page. “Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.”
The Antarctic winter that had been snapping at their heels all along fell finally upon them and it was eight months before a search party found their bodies. They spotted the tent on November 12, 1912. They left the three undisturbed, collapsed the tent and covered it with a cairn.
It would be three more months before the news got to the outside world. When Scott’s last words reached Britain on February 11, 1913, the nation was electrified by “one of the most heroic exploits of the British race”. Schoolchildren were assembled to listen to The Immortal Story of Captain Scott’s Expedition. The dead were mourned by King George V at a memorial service in a packed St Paul’s Cathedral, outside which a crowd of 10,000 stood in silence.
A public appeal quickly raised enough money to ensure that the families of the men were looked after, as Scott had pleaded. So much was donated, in fact, that enough was left over to found the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. This carries on the scientific work of Scott and other early polar explorers – work the true value of which, in an age when climate change has become such a vital issue, has only recently become apparent.
Scott’s science, says Smith of the institute, was “an important part of his work” that has been obscured by the mythmaking. The vast amount of meteorological data the expedition amassed explains “how we know today’s world is warming up. Some of this material forms the standard baseline for much of the modern research that goes on today.”
Scott has been many things to many people since his death: hero, villain, archetypal Englishman and amateurish bungler. The expedition as a whole, and the sacrifices it demanded – sacrifices at times seen as noble and inspiring, and at others pointless – has been both celebrated and derided.
And Scott’s reputation, says Smith, has swung with the times; in an age when revisionism is de rigueur for authors of historical biography, heroes are no longer fashionable and Scott was a prime candidate for re-examination. That came in 1979, when Roland Huntford, a British author, published Scott and Amundsen, a damning reappraisal of the hero as bungling amateur.
But Scott survived Huntford; for the dead, reputation is a long game. Today, says Smith, “I think Scott is now regarded as a man of his time, and someone who was like all men: he had good and bad sides.”
The disappointment of having been beaten to the Pole would have been hard to bear. But despite the “race” of public imagination – a notion Scott had rejected from the outset – science was always the core purpose of the expedition and, in the final analysis, it was science, not glory, that was the lasting legacy of Scott and his comrades.
For proof of that one need look no further than Scott’s journal entry for January 20, made three days after the crushing disappointment at the Pole, at a time when both Evans and Oates were fading and it was clear they were all facing insurmountable problems.
After “a beastly morning”, Scott decided they should “camp and spend the rest of the day geologising” in the vicinity of Mount Darwin. “It has been extremely interesting,” he wrote. In cliffs, Wilson, a naturalist as well as a doctor, had found “several plant impressions [and] in one place we saw the cast of small waves in the sand”.
All the specimens and data collected by the men were later recovered; despite their hopeless weakness, they refused to abandon the samples they had collected, and dragged 20kg of rock with them on the sledge to the very end.
In the event, writes Williams, the specimens collected on January 20 were later found to contain the fossilised remains of Glossopteris, an extinct fernlike plant that flourished millions of years ago in warm climates. “These would give incontestable proof of profound changes in the earth’s climate and show that Antarctica had once formed part of a great, warm, southern continent.”
From one beach, albeit a fossilised remnant from millions of years ago, to another: “Tonight I went for a long walk along the beach, to where you and I once went,” Kathleen wrote in her diary that very same day. Once again, she seemed to have caught an echo of her distant husband’s thoughts. “I wonder if you will be here with me next year?”
He would not. Kathleen finally learnt the news of his death on February 19, 1913, more than a week after much of the rest of the civilised world. She was on board a ship, travelling from England to meet her husband in New Zealand, when the captain, who had been contacted by radio, broke the news to her. “The poor old chap’s hands were trembling,” she wrote in her diary.
After going to her usual Spanish lesson and lunch (“determined to keep my mind off the whole subject until I was sure I could control myself”), she stayed on the deck for the rest of the day. She was watched carefully by the officers, who feared she would throw herself overboard (“not knowing that I did not believe I could find the dead by doing so”).
The suffering and courage of the loved ones the dead left behind remains another forgotten element of the story: “Let me maintain a high, adoring exaltation, and not let the contamination of sorrow touch me,” Kathleen wrote in her diary that night. Later, she was to read her husband’s journal, written in the tent as he was dying, and would take great strength from it.
“One would be a poor creature if indeed one could not face one’s world with such words to inspire one,” she wrote. “If he in his weakness could face it with such sublime fortitude, how dare I possibly whine. I will not. I regret nothing but his suffering ...”
In 1915, at the height of the First World War, she was asked by Scott’s fellow naval officers to sculpt a statue of the man she had loved and took great comfort in immortalising him through her art. To this day the imposing statue of Scott, dressed in his polar gear and with sightless eyes gazing southward, stands in Waterloo Place, London. Its plaque bears these words from Scott’s journal: “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 bodies must tell the tale.”
Jonathan Gornall is a senior features writer at The National.