Scott of the Antarctic: A Doomed Expedition

Robert Falcon Scott is one of Britain’s historical legends. Enduring the terrors of the Antarctic was what brought him fame.

Apr 18, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
robert falcon scott antarctic doomed expedition

 

Of all the dangerous places on earth, the icy wastes of Antarctica are some of the most perilous and formidable. It is a continent that provided even more dangers than its northern counterpart, the Arctic, upon which countless explorers had lost their lives.

 

In November 1910, a team of intrepid British explorers led by Robert Falcon Scott set out on an expedition to Antarctica, wanting to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole. They knew the journey would be long and arduous, fraught with dangers and experiences that none had encountered before, but they were determined. They also knew that time was not on their side, for the Norwegians were planning an expedition of their own.

 

The race was on, but it would bring disaster and turn Robert Falcon Scott into a legend. This is the story of how his life led him to this point and beyond.

 

Early Career of Robert Falcon Scott

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Captain Robert Falcon Scott, via Royal Museums Greenwich

 

On June 6, 1868, Robert Falcon Scott was born into a family with a strong naval tradition. He and his younger brother, Archie, were destined for careers in the armed forces. By the age of 13, Robert Falcon Scott was already serving in the British Navy. In the 1890s, a series of calamities hit the family. The family business went bankrupt, Robert’s father died, and his younger brother, Archie, passed away from typhoid fever. The entire family’s income was now dependent on Robert Falcon Scott and his salary from the navy.

 

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Promotion, and the salary increase that came with it, was highly competitive in the Royal Navy, and Scott found himself at odds with how to proceed. In 1899, a chance encounter with Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographic Society, would put Robert Falcon Scott on a different career path. The Royal Geographic Society, together with the Royal Society, funded an expedition on the RRS Discovery, and Scott was put in charge of the team that would sail to Antarctica.

 

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Scott takes to the air in a tethered balloon during the Discovery Expedition, via coolantarctica.com

 

This expedition gave Robert Falcon Scott invaluable experience and made him aware of the dangers of Antarctic travel. He encountered problems with sled dogs dying, a man falling off a precipice to his death, frequent blizzards, and scurvy. This expedition also included Ernest Shackleton, a famous explorer in his own right. Tension later arose between Shackleton and Scott, but the two managed to keep their professional feelings civil, and supported each other in the fields of science and exploration.

 

In 1904, the expedition returned to England, and Scott was treated like a hero. The expedition had captured the imagination of the British public. Scott was awarded many honors and began a life in elevated social circles, even keeping correspondence with the monarchs of Europe.

 

In 1907, Robert Falcon Scott met Kathleen Bruce, a wealthy socialite and artist. The two got married and had a single child, Peter Markham Scott, who went on to create the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

 

The Terra Nova Expedition

robert falcon scott antarctica
A modern map of Antarctica showing the South Pole in the center, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Sir Ernest Shackleton attempted to reach the South Pole in 1907, but failed just 97 miles short of the objective. Robert Falcon Scott decided that he would lead a team in an attempt to achieve what Shackleton could not. Unlike with Discovery Expedition, this new expedition, dubbed the Terra Nova Expedition, would be fully under the command of Robert Scott. He determined that the primary objective would be to reach the South Pole to claim the honor for the British Empire.

 

Along with a specially designed vehicle with motor traction for the snow, Scott selected skis, sled dogs, and surprisingly, Manchurian ponies for the task ahead. The latter would prove to be unsuited to the Antarctic conditions.

 

robert falcon scott pony
One of the ponies on the Terra Nova Expedition, via mylearning.org

 

On June 15, 1910, the Terra Nova, an old converted whaling ship set out from Cardiff and sailed to Cape Town. Robert Falcon Scott stayed in Britain to raise more funds, and then met up with the ship in Cape Town. They then sailed east, and upon arrival in Australia, Scott received a telegram informing him that Norwegian Roald Amundsen was attempting to reach the pole. Scott realized that he was in a race.

 

The expedition met with bad fortune early on. The ship nearly sank in a storm near New Zealand, and soon thereafter got stuck in pack ice for 20 days. This pushed the schedule back significantly and made the rest of the mission more dangerous, as there would be less time to prepare for the Antarctic winter.

 

When they arrived in Antarctica, the team immediately lost one of the motor sledges. While it was being unloaded, the sledge broke through the thin ice and sank into the sea. Amid severe weather conditions, the team set up a depot point as a base of operations. At this point, it was clear the ponies were a bad idea, and four of them died either from cold or were shot because they slowed the team down.

 

terra nova motor sledge
One of the motor sledges being unloaded from the Terra Nova, via coolantarctica.com

 

Included with the march to the pole were geological surveys that needed to be done in Antarctica. There were two geological expeditions. The first one took place between January and March 1911. The second one took place from November 1911 to February 1912, at the same time as Scott’s team would try to reach the South Pole.

 

During the winter of 1911, a team of three journeyed to Cape Crozier to retrieve emperor penguin eggs. While the journey was a success, there were several misfortunes which could easily have left all members of the team dead. One of the team members called it the “worst journey in the world,” which he later used as the title of the book he wrote about the events. Robert Falcon Scott, however, was in good spirits and decided that the entire expedition was in excellent shape.

 

robert falcon scott beardmore glacier
Scott’s team making camp on Beardmore Glacier, December 1911, via coolantarctica.com

 

On November 1, 1911, the march began for the South Pole. Motors, dogs, sledges and 16 men set out, and created supply caches as they went. The men would turn back when their job was done. Thus, the team slowly dwindled until eight were left. After traversing the major obstacle of the Beardmore Glacier, Robert Scott chose his team of five men, ordering the other three men to turn back. Along with Scott, Edward Adrian Wilson, Henry Robertson Bowers, Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, and Edgar Evans tried for the South Pole.

 

On January 17, 1912, Scott’s team reached the South Pole, but it was not a joyous occasion, for before them was the Norwegian flag planted in the snow, proudly exclaiming that Amundsen had gotten there first.

 

The Journey Home

robert falcon scott south pole
The team at the South Pole. From left to right: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson, Evans; via coolantarctica.com

 

Although bitterly disappointed, Robert Falcon Scott kept in good spirits. The team made good progress over the next three weeks. The physical condition of the team members was cause for concern, however. Edgar Evans had developed frostbite, and Edward Oates was suffering an ailment on his feet.

 

Evans’ condition continued to deteriorate. He had several falls on the ice, and on February 17, near the bottom of Beardmore Glacier, he collapsed and died. Things got worse from that point on. The weather worsened, creating conditions that were like trudging through thick sand. Scott’s team failed to locate any of the expected dog-sled teams, and the fuel in the depots that were left on the approach journey was not enough. Oates’ frostbitten foot began to slow them down considerably.

 

Barely achieving 5 miles per day, the situation was looking grim. On March 16, while the four explorers were in their tent, Oates told his three companions, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He never returned. His sacrifice, however, did give the other three men a fighting chance, as they could increase their speed.

 

robert falcon scott cairn
The resting place of Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Adrian Wilson, and Henry Robertson Bowers. The body of Lawrence Oates was never found.

 

The three men trudged on towards One Ton Depot, which was their main camp. Barely 11 miles from their destination, however, a fierce blizzard stopped them in their tracks. Each day, they tried to make headway, but it was no use. On March 29, Scott wrote in his diary:

 

“Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people”

 

Several relief efforts were attempted, but were frustrated by circumstance. On November 12, the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers were found. The tent had collapsed over the bodies upon which a cairn was placed, topped with a cross made from skis.

 

The Legacy of Robert Falcon Scott

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A statue of Robert Falcon Scott in Christchurch, New Zealand. This statue was toppled during the 2011 earthquake that hit the city, but it has subsequently been restored; via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 

The expeditions and adventures of Robert Falcon Scott and his teams over the Antarctic captured the imagination of the British public. Even before his last expedition, he had become a hero and a symbol of the British desire to explore the far reaches of the world.

 

After his death, his fame grew even further, as he became a tragic hero. In a sense, he martyred himself to the British cause. He remains a British hero to this day, and an inspiration to all explorers the world over.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.