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Captain Scott Biography And Visits


Scott Memorial in Roath Park, Cardiff

Countries have their national myths, which aren't the same as history. The controversy that surrounds the story of Captain Scott is a good example. At the time of his death in 1912 Scott was considered a hero. Extravagant memorials were built in Cardiff in 1915, and at Devonport in 1925. But all this was to change. Some writers, Ranulph Fiennes for example, continue to defend Scott, but the accepted version of the Scott story today, is a tale of incompetence and arrogance. It is almost as though the change in Britain's status away from that of a world power had to be marked by new myths of failure. This interpretation of Scott's journey to the South Pole as a humiliating disaster was mainly the result of Roland Huntford's book Scott and Amundsen. Usually acknowledgements in a book are not the most interesting bit, but for Huntford the acknowledgements reveal a story in themselves. Both the director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Scott's family gave help, but wanted it known that they totally disassociated themselves from the book which resulted. This bitter dispute reveals much about the writing of history, and its continual reinterpretation in the light of contemporary concerns.






Scott Memorial at Mount Wise Park, Devonport

The future Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott was born in Devonport on 6th June 1868. Robert, the eldest son, was brought up in a Victorian nursery, taught by a governess until he was eight, and then sent to a day school. His father who at that time lived off the proceeds of an inherited brewery business, decided that Robert should go into the navy. After being sent to a cramming school establishment to prepare him for the entrance exams, Robert entered Dartmouth naval college in 1881. A regular career progression then followed, proceeding in 1883 to midshipman, then to lieutenant by 1889. At this point automatic progression stopped, and Huntford describes a frustrated man in a career cul de sac, thinking that polar exploration might revive his career. Fiennes does not agree with this interpretation, but for whatever reason Robert Scott, a man with no previous interest in polar exploration, approached Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. The Society was putting an Antarctic expedition together, and Scott applied for the position of its leader. The British had a long history of exploration in Antarctica. In 1769 James Cook was sent by the Royal Navy on a secret mission to discover a fabled southern continent. Failing to find anything, he tried again in 1772, travelling even further south in HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure before being forced back by pack ice. It wasn't until 1819 that a British merchant ship, the Williams, blown off course round Cape Horn, stumbled on the South Shetland Islands. Returning in the Williams to investigate in 1820, Edward Bransfield landed briefly on the Graham Land peninsula, making the first landing on the Antarctic continent. With Antarctica discovered exploration in the name of national prestige then became important. The ultimate challenge was to reach the South Pole, and of course the British wanted to be there first. With an empire based on overseas possessions, this kind of exploration was ingrained in British culture.

The naval men on the RGS committee did not want Scott to lead an Antarctic expedition, thinking quite reasonably that he did not have any relevant experience. However, in the Huntford account they had to deal with the fearsome Markham, who had some strange ideas about polar travel. Markham gave lectures romanticising the suffering of polar explorers. He seemed to have an implacable hostility towards all expeditions not organised by the RGS, and had no time for the experience or expertise of foreigners. Huntford makes much of this, portraying Scott and the British in general as arrogant imperialists. Markham wrote that dogs were "useful to Greenland Eskimos and Siberians" (Memorandum on Sledging 1899), with the implication that dogs used by lesser races were not suitable for Englishmen. Fiennes answers these charges, making the reasonable point that Eskimos and Siberians did not make long journeys into unknown areas far from food supplies, over territory which may or may not be suitable for dogs. He also points out that the contemporary expert in polar exploration, Fridtjof Nansen had chosen to man haul his way across the Greenland icecap, and was far from certain whether dogs were always the best answer in changeable unknown terrain.



Scott's cabin on the Discovery

Under pressure from Markham, Scott was appointed to lead an Antarctic expedition. Fiennes says Scott worked hard in limited time to get to grips with research on Antarctica. Huntford suggests that Scott did no research of his own, simply adopting the president's views. Using generous funds a ship called the Discovery was built, a ship which survives and can be visited in Dundee. Once again there is controversy, with Huntford condemning Discovery out of hand as a hopelessly shoddy ship. Meanwhile, Fiennes talks of faults, a tendency to leak and use coal heavily, whilst praising Discovery's sea going capabilities from his own experience of ships in polar seas. Discovery sailed from Cowes for the Antarctic on March 21st 1901. The British party reached Antarctica in January 1902, and Huntford dwells on the idea that they had arrived with no proper training. Establishing a base at McMurdo Sound on the Ross Ice Shelf, the winter was apparently wasted playing games of football and engaging in amateur dramatics. Huntford paints a picture of incompetence, describing a disastrous trip into the interior during the following summer, where poor planning endangered the party of three, Scott, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton. With no margin for error allowed, the group would reach a resupply depot almost as food and fuel were exhausted. One awkward blizzard would have killed them. Once again Fiennes answers these charges of lack of preparation from his own experience. Fiennes himself prepared for a polar journey by learning cross country skiing for many months with Scandinavian experts, only to begin his journey and realise that cross country skiing techniques were useless when pulling heavy sledges. The plodding technique required, according to a man who must be considered an expert in the subject, could be learnt in a few hours. As for the use of dogs, the Norwegians were more experienced, but at the time no one knew what the terrain to be covered would be like, and the suitability of dogs was still in question. Fiennes quotes the modern dog driving expert Geoff Summers, who has made a 3,760 mile Antarctic crossing with dogs: "In recent times monumental traverses have been accomplished by teams pulling their own supplies (with no dogs)... there have been failed dog sled trips and man haul treks... In Scott's day the greatest dog journeys had only been carried out in the northern hemisphere where dogs were run in their home environment, food was plentiful and the useful sledging seasons longer" (quoted in Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes P 66).



Scott at work in the Antarctic hut.

Scott was then supposed to return home, but by accident or design he allowed Discovery to become frozen in and had to spend a second winter in Antarctica. The second winter is portrayed by Huntford as a time of lassitude on Discovery. Shackleton was sent home on a relief ship, supposedly following physical collapse on the sledge journey. Huntford suggests his competence was probably a threat to Scott's fragile authority. Fiennes, inevitably, disagrees, contrasting British survival through Antarctic winters with the collapse of contemporary Swedish and German expeditions in similar circumstances

Two relief ships arrived in the spring, Discovery escaped from the ice, and the expedition returned home. Scott then applied for, and was granted, leave to write a book. Markham provided a room in his house, and the result was published in 1905 as The Voyage of the Discovery. Huntford allows that Scott was a very good writer, and he produced a stirring tale. But in the long tradition of confusion over Antarctic exploration Scott is then accused of bending the truth to make himself look good. Shackleton, for example, objected to the portrayal of himself as a weakling.






Sandringham - The Union Jack flag Scott carried to the pole is kept here (although not always on display)

Meanwhile out in the real world life went on. Frederick Cook claimed to reach the North Pole in 1908. When doubts were cast on this claim, the American William Edward Peary claimed the North Pole in 1909. The experienced Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen had been planning a journey to the North Pole, but with that goal now reached he turned his attention south. Others were also in the running for the South Pole. In 1909 Shackleton got within ninety seven miles of the pole. He turned away because as he said to his wife: "I thought you would rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." (Quoted Huntford P245)

Scott was supposedly jealous of his former colleague's achievement, and remained impatient with his career. Since publishing The Voyage of the Discovery he had been captain on a number of battleships, but a collision involving one of his ships is supposed to have put him under a cloud. The Huntford story has polar exploration offering the way to enhanced promotion, and to prove himself against Shackleton. Fiennes has Scott as the youngest captain of a British battleship, simply continuing the path he had set himself. Another expedition was organised, and in the spring of 1910 Scott's new ship the Terra Nova left Cardiff for the Antarctic. Scott carried a Union Jack given to him by Queen Alexandra, which he intended placing at the pole. Roald Amundsen, meanwhile, kept quiet. He had organised his own expedition to the South Pole, and he knew that if his plans became common knowledge the British would be spurred on in their efforts. In secret he continued his own meticulous preparations. His ship, the Fram, left Christiania in June 1910. The race for the pole was on, although Scott didn't know it yet. Amundsen landed on the western side of the Ross Ice Shelf, ninety miles nearer the pole than Scott. However, he took a risk in establishing his base on the ice, which could have broken up. Scott returned to his old base at McMurdo Sound, on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf, on the solid ground of Ross Island.




Items from the Terra Nova expedition on display at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge

In the Huntford version Amundsen quickly built on his advantage. Setting up resupply depots for a journey to the pole, his men averaged twenty miles a day, twice that of Scott. Norwegian depots were generously supplied, and were clearly marked by lines of flags set up for six miles on either side. Scott's depots were marked by a single flag. Fiennes drawing on his own experience suggests that the effort of marking depots by miles of poles could well outweigh any benefit gained. All the flag poles have to be carried and then placed; and in bad weather it is impossible to see more than a few feet, making all marker poles fairly redundant anyway. He also points out that Scott never missed a depot while he was travelling, and never had to turn back to find one: Amundsen actually missed one of his depots completely and had to turn back to find it.

Once summer came, the journeys for the pole began. After a false start the Norwegians set out on October 20th 1911. Once the ice shelf had been crossed the Transantarctic Mountains had to be negotiated. This was a feat of mountaineering expertise. Then beyond the mountains Amudsen's route took him over the Devil's Glacier, a mass of dangerous crevasses. Soon they were up on the Antarctic Plateau and heading for the pole. Meanwhile Scott was crossing the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf, heading for a route through the Transantarctic Mountains up the Beardmore Glacier. Exhausted ponies were shot at the bottom of the Beardmore Glacier. As it turned out dogs were the best option, although it is only with hindsight that we know that. From the bottom of the Beardmore Glacier Scott and his men were pulling their own sledges, two hundred pounds per man.




Edward Wilson's House, Montpellier Terrace, Cheltenham

On the 15th of December 1911 Amundsen's team reached the South Pole. Three days were spent there making observations and fixing the position of the pole carefully. This was followed by an uneventful journey back to Framheim base at the Bay of Whales. Amundsen told his colleagues on his return over a celebratory breakfast: "We haven't got much to tell in the way of privation or great suffering. The whole thing went like a dream" (Diary January 26th 1912).

Scott meanwhile was suffering enough for both of them. He and four men had reached the South Pole on January 17th 1912. Their journey home then turned into a long nightmare. Exhausted with man-hauling, malnutrition and the effects of a fall, Edgar Evans died at the bottom of the Beardmore Glacier, where his colleagues buried him. Lawrence Oates died next, suffering terribly from a frostbitten foot, before crawling away to die in the snow. Scott and his two remaining men, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers lasted two more weeks, before they themselves died in their tent, trapped by a blizzard eleven miles from One Ton Camp, where a rescue party and dog team had been waiting for them. The bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson were discovered during a search the following spring. The body of Oates was never found.





The Oates Museum at Gilbert White's House, Selborne, Hampshire


So what in the end do we make of this story which has been told in such contrasting ways? Fiennes pulls many holes in Huntford's account, suggesting crucially that from his personal knowledge of Antarctic travel, perceptions become skewed, particularly in the writing of diaries or letters. These documents become safety valves to let off steam in cruelly pressured circumstances. Fiennes thinks it is laughable to base later accounts on such documents. And yet what else do we have except for these first hand accounts? Fiennes no doubt is quite right about dubious diaries, and this very much reflects on history itself, and the way it can be endlessly manipulated to support the preconceptions of the present. Not even people who lived through history can write a definitive account of it. Their perception is clouded by being there. History does not exist as a truth, but as an endlessly changing story, a kind of endless present in which anything can still happen.

Finally let's assume that Huntford's story is accurate, that Scott was a poor leader, had no experience, and made few attempts to make up for his shortcomings. Let's assume that man-hauling sledges many hundreds of miles might seem heroic, when in fact those cruelly heavy sledges constitute a "lazy man's load". Let's assume Scott did not work hard in preparation, believing that British improvisation would see him through. Let's assume that Scott's men, restrained by naval discipline, were obliged to put all their trust in their leader, and that their trust was abused. And yet, even if all this were true, I hesitate at the last to dismiss the myth of Scott. This is simply because in the end Amundsen was inspired as an explorer by the reading of the failed expedition to find the North West Passage led by the British explorer John Franklin. There is something that people value in the difficulty of getting somewhere rather than in actually getting there. Huntsford claims that Amundsen had no time for heroic suffering, but if that was so why was he inspired by the heroic suffering of John Franklin? And at the end Amundsen seemed to go the same way as Scott. Amundsen ended his days in an aircraft which he was using in an ill prepared search for his fellow explorer Umberto Nobile. On his final trip Amundsen did not prepare, and flew north without taking proper precautions for emergencies. I hesitate to dismiss the myth of Scott because his antithesis, Roald Amundsen, having no more worlds to conquer, ended his story in a similar way. People can get to the South Pole now by aeroplane with little risk and effort. Are those journeys more worthwhile because they are well organised and safe?

The Terra Nova returned to its former life as a whaling and sealing ship, and was sunk by ice off Greenland in 1943. The figurehead of Terra Nova, removed in 1913, is (as of 2009) in a storage facility at the Museum of Wales just outside Cardiff. An appointment can be made to view the figurehead. Contact National Museum of Wales.

Amundsen's ship the Fram survives as a visitor attraction in Oslo. In 1936, a year after the Fram was brought onto dry land, one of Amundsen's closest companions, Oscar Wisting, who stood with him at the Pole, asked to stay overnight on the ship. He was found dead in his old cabin the following morning.


Stained glass window telling the story of Scott's last expedition at Binton Church, Warwickshire.

The Union Jack flag carried to the South Pole by Scott's party was returned, and is now kept at Sandringham. Sledge flags used by the pole party are kept at Exeter Cathedral. Many items relating to the expedition can be seen at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, the Oates Museum in Hampshire, the Cheltenham Museum, and at the Discovery in Dundee. The Scott Memorial overlooks Plymouth Sound, at Mount Wise Park, Devonport in Devon. There are many other memorials around the country, including a bronze tablet in St Paul's Cathedral, and statues of Scott at the entrance to Portsmouth Dockyard, and at Waterloo Place, London, just south of Picadilly Circus. At Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, the fireplace in the rooms used by Wilson has an inscription of his name. At Eton College there is a plaque commemorating former pupil Lawrence Oates, and a medallion in the library section of the Memorial Buildings. Oates also has a gold memorial plaque in the church in the village of Gestingthorpe, Essex, where he grew up. His mother used to cross the road from the family home to the church every day to polish her son's memorial. The Royal Dragoon Guards Museum in York has a display dedicated to Oates, as a former member of the regiment. Finally there is a large stained glass window at Binton Church in Warwickshire, where Scott's brother in law was the vicar. Binton was one of the last places Scott visited in England before leaving for his final voyage to Antartica.