Scott of the Antarctic
Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) led two expeditions to the Antarctic, with wildly differing success. Prior to his expeditions, Scott served in the Royal Navy, which he joined as a cadet aged just 13. He eventually reached the rank of lieutenant in 1889, but during his time in the navy he had been marked as a potential polar explorer by the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Clements Markham. When his family met with financial difficulties, Scott saw little opportunity of promotion within the navy, and meeting Markham again by chance on the street in London changed his life forever.
The pair met early in June 1889, and on the 11th of that month Scott knocked at the door of Markham’s house, volunteering to lead the now-President of the Royal Geographic Society’s Antarctic expedition. Despite some within the Society advising against putting an inexperienced Royal Navy officer in charge, Scott was made commander of the ship Discovery, which set sail in 1901. On the expedition, Scott and his men, including Ernest Shackleton, undertook a punishing march to within 530 miles of the South Pole, and made important zoological, biological, and geological discoveries, though their meteorological and magnetic readings were amateurish.
Discovery also had to be freed from the ice with explosives and two relief vessels, but Scott returned to Britain to a hero’s welcome and numerous accolades in 1904. In 1910, he was given command over another Antarctic mission, the Terra Nova Expedition. His aim was to reach the South Pole and to claim it for the British Empire. Scott purchased sled-dogs, motorised vehicles, and Manchurian ponies to achieve his ambitious aim. En route, however, Scott found out that he was involved in a race to the pole with Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, who was also on his way.
The expedition was beset by disaster from the start. The Terra Nova, a converted whaler, nearly sank off the coast of New Zealand, which meant Scott had to rush through preparations upon reaching the Antarctic. A motor sledge was lost, and six of the unsuitable ponies died. Scott remained confident, however, and he marched south with three others supported by a caravan of dogs, ponies, and provisions. His plan was to reach the pole and use the dogs to get him back as quickly as possible. They made it, only to find that Amundsen had beaten them by 5 weeks.
They now faced an 800-mile return journey. The first half went well, but one man, Edgar Evans, died after a fall. An intended rendezvous with a dog-team never happened due to a lack of dog food and terrible weather conditions. One member, Lawrence Oates, bravely sacrificed himself when he realised that he was a hindrance, leaving the tent with the immortal words: âI am just going outside and may be some time’. Suffering from frostbite, and with supplies running out, the surviving men realised they were doomed, and spent the last days of their lives writing farewell letters.