By Gayne C. Young
His expeditions to Antarctica proved the continent was once forested and part of a much larger landmass. Unfortunately, that proof came after his lifeless body was pried from the ice.
Robert Falcon Scott was born in Devon, England on June 6, 1868, into a long lineage of military service. He prepped to follow that path by attending Stubbington House School in Hampshire then entering the navy in 1881, as a 13-year-old cadet. In March 1887, while assigned to the HMS Rover, he was observed by then Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Clements Markham. The Secretary was impressed by Scott and noted such in his records. Markham remembered Scott and his thoughts on him when he had a chance encounter in London with the young man some 18 years later in 1899. During that meeting the now knighted and thus Sir Clements Markham told Scott of the impending British National Antarctic Expedition with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) of which he was now President. Scott volunteered to lead the expedition a few days later. Markham agreed.
It was a decision he had to defend for quite some time.
As the now named Discovery Expedition came together, sponsors became uneasy with Scott’s lack of experience and his military—rather than scientific—background. Many suggested Scott simply be made captain of the ship Discovery rather than the entire expedition but Markham held to his decision.
The Discovery was seen off on August 6, 1901, by a host of dignitaries including King Edward VII who appointed Scott a Member Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order as a personal gift. The expedition hit the southernmost continent with little trouble. Once on land however several issues proved problematic. The first was that many dogs died and while losing a few dogs wasn’t totally unexpected Scott’s decision to feed dead dogs to the other dogs and slaughter the weaker animals for food as well didn’t go over so hot with the rest of the expedition. Scott justified his action by saying, “It is a case, if ever there was one, where the end justifies the means. There is no real reason why the life of a dog should be considered more than that of a sheep, and no one would pause to consider the cruelty of driving a diminishing flock of sheep to supply the wants and aid the movements of travellers in more temperate climes.”
Other problems with the expedition included the death of expedition member George Vince who died traveling in a blizzard and with many of the team suffering from scurvy. Despite these issues, Scott returned to Britain a hero in September 1904. Under his watch the expedition discovered King Edward VII Land and the Polar Plateau and the snow-free Dry Valleys, charted the Transantarctic Mountains, completed multiple coastal surveys, and more. As such, Scott was promoted to the rank of captain, awarded the Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII, presented with an array of medals and honors, and spent more than a year lecturing and reading from his successful book, The Voyage of the Discovery.
Scott returned to military duty in January 1906, met and married sculptor and socialite Kathleen Bruce in 1908, and had a child, Peter Markham Scott, in 1909. Also in 1909 was news that former Discovery Expedition member and rival explorer Ernest Shackleton failed to reach the South Pole during the just-returned Nimrod Expedition. Scott capitalized on this failure to begin the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 to 1913. Scott stated that the now named Terra Nova Expedition’s purpose was “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement.”
Unlike with the Discovery Expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition faced problems almost immediately. The ship nearly sank in a storm in between New Zealand and Antarctica then got trapped in pack ice for 20 days. This latter situation meant a later arrival time and less prep time before the Antarctic winter. The expedition lost one of its motor sledges during offloading at Cape Evans, Antarctica when the vehicle broke through the ice and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Bad weather wreaked havoc on the ponies brought to take supplies overland to the point that the man in charge of the animals suggested they be put down. Scott refused and many ponies died slow agonizing deaths upon the ice. Some fell through the ice and drowned. Others were finally put down to avoid such a fate.
Scott made his push to the pole on November 1, 1911, with a caravan of motor sledges, dogs, and the remaining ponies. The group reached their destination on January 17 only to find that they had been beaten to the prize by explorer Roald Amundsen in the form of a tent. Inside the abandoned shelter was a letter dated December 18. Scott conveyed his disappointment in his diary: “The worst has happened […] All the day dreams must go […] Great God! This is an awful place.”
Scott and his men began the 862-mile trek back to base on January 19. Scott wrote, “I’m afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous.” Despite this prediction the team did well, for a time.
On February 4, member Edgar Evans fell and injured himself. On February 17, he fell over dead. The weather grew worse, and the men realized they were running dangerously low on food and fuel. On March 2, member Lawrence Oates succumbed to frostbite and became unable to do anything other than barely trudge forward. On March 10, the temperature dropped to −40 °F. Six days later, Oates gave up and walked outside his tent to die. His last words according to Scott were, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
The remaining three men made what would be their final camp on 19 March. They became stranded there in an unrelenting storm that lasted more than nine days. With their food almost at an end the men accepted their fate. Scott wrote on March 29, “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 each and every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies 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 died one or two days later. Their bodies were discovered on November 12. Given the position of his body, it is believed that Scott was the last to die. Found among their remains were 35 pounds of Glossopteris tree fossils which were the first ever discovered fossils on the continent. These proved that Antarctica once had a temperate climate and was connected to other continents.
The world learned of Scott’s fate on February 10, 1913. On February 14, Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell stated, “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.”