Scott of the Antarctic: Final words of a hero

Published Jan 11, 2007


By Ed Caesar

Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole took place 95 years ago. To mark the occasion, Cambridge University is putting some of his last correspondence on display for the first time.

"To my widow" is an ominous beginning to a letter. One can only wonder at the effect those three words had on Kathleen Scott, the wife of the polar explorer Captain Robert Scott. Of course, she already knew the worst news: that not only had her husband been beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, but that, along with his expedition party, he had died on the return.

If it was difficult to write ("because of the cold - 70 degrees below zero and nothing but the shelter of our tent"), it must have been shattering to read.

Now, Scott's final correspondence to his wife, written in instalments over several weeks in February and March 1912, will go on display for the first time at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. It contains some sanguine reflections on the great explorer's final days in the Antarctic.

In the first section, Scott begins by saying: "We are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through." As history would show, Scott was not indulging in hyperbole. Indeed, over the weeks in which the letter was written, hope among Scott's party - which had originally consisted of Scott, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Dr Edward Wilson, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Army Captain Lawrence Oates - dipped to rock bottom.

The odds always seemed to be stacked against them. On 17 January, the expedition party had reached the South Pole only to discover evidence that Amundsen had beaten them by a month. Then, with dwindling supplies and hideous weather to contend with, the party had struggled to make the journey from the pole to their southernmost camp, One Ton Depot. And, exactly one month after they had reached the pole, the group suffered its first casualty.

By the time Scott began writing his letter, Petty Officer Evans - who had suffered a bad fall, and subsequent psychological breakdown near the foot of the Beardmore glacier - was already dead. "Titus" Oates followed on 17 March (his 32nd birthday), when, in the knowledge that his frostbite had dangerously slowed the group's progress, he left the tent with the immortal line: "I am just going outside and may be some time."

At this point, though, Scott retained some hope. "Poor Titus Oates has gone," he reported. "He was in a bad state. The rest of us keep going and imagine we have a chance to get through but the cold weather doesn't let up at all."

The cold weather never let up - Scott and his remaining two colleagues died agonisingly short of One Ton Depot in their tent. In a final remark in his letter, he writes: "We have got to within 11 miles of our depot with one hot meal and two days' cold food and we should have got through but have been held for four days by a frightful storm. I think our best chance has gone. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last for that depot but in the fighting there is a painless end so don't worry."

How did it come to this? Robert Falcon Scott was born to John Edward Scott, a brewer and magistrate, in Stoke Damerel on the south coast, in 1868. He only ever wanted to go to sea. At 13, he joined HMS Britannia at Dartmouth to begin his naval training, eventually joining the Navy as a midshipman on HMS Boadicea, and rising to the rank of first lieutenant on HMS Majestic.

Scott appears to have made friends in high places during his rise through the ranks, and, in 1901, Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society (and a former polar explorer himself) personally requested that Scott captain the forthcoming Discovery expedition to Antarctica. The three-year mission was a huge success. Not only did Discovery see land to the east of the Ross Sea (which the expedition named King Edward VII Land), but the Polar Plateau was discovered and a new "furthest south" was reached. The trip also marked a photojournalism world first, when Discovery's chief engineer, Reginald Skelton, discovered an emperor penguin breeding colony and photographed emperor chicks.

On returning to England in 1904, Scott was immediately anxious to return to Antarctica. Not only had he had enjoyed the pioneering scientific aspect to his adventure, but he had also developed an unflinching ambition to be the first man to the South Pole.

But, even in the golden age of polar expedition, Scott faced an uphill battle to reach the bottom of the world. He was beset by personal financial difficulties and but the public's imagination had been captured by the race to reach the North Pole - which seemed, then, a more attainable goal - and funding for an Antarctic expedition was hard to come by. More significantly, Scott met, and fell in love with, a sculptor named Kathleen Bruce, whom he married in 1908. Indeed, it was only after the birth of his only son, Peter, in 1909, that Scott put his final preparations together for what would become the Terra Nova expedition.

Scott's expedition was supposed to be unique. The Englishman's crew would sail to the Antarctic, and spend a year conducting geological and zoological studies of the area, as well as laying the preparations for the forthcoming expedition to the South Pole. But, on his way to join his ship in South Africa, Scott was informed that the well-known Norwegian explorer, Amundsen, was also heading for the South Pole. Amundsen had originally intended to make for the North Pole on his ship, Fram, but, after the American Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909 (a claim that was later dismissed) Amundsen changed his mind. Both Scott and Amundsen were up to their necks in debt, and getting to the South Pole first was one way of recouping some of that money.

Scott was immediately at a disadvantage in the "race for the South Pole", because Terra Nova was not as strong as Fram, and therefore could not break the rigid ice further south. For this reason, Scott's party was forced to anchor 60 miles north of Amundsen. But, although Scott predicted his rival would reach the pole before him, he was bitterly disappointed when his fears became reality. And, if losing the race was bad, losing the battle to return from the Pole was terminal.

Of course, many of the facts of Scott's last journey have been known since his journal was discovered, six months after he and his two colleagues died in the tent. But, while historians have argued over why Scott failed and Amundsen succeeded, the public display of these last, intimate documents, has allowed us closer to the emotions of a man dying in a snowy wilderness. Not that Scott is a gushing correspondent. Indeed, because we know the facts of Scott's struggle, his last letter's sanguine tone is uncomfortably poignant. He asks his wife to "cherish no sentimental rubbish about remarriage", and to remarry "when the right man comes along". Elsewhere in the letter he writes that "if anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart."

Scott's last words of advice for his three-year-old son, Peter, are equally studied. "It is a satisfaction," he wrote, "to feel that he is safe with you. I think both he and you ought to be specially looked after by the country for which, after all, we have given our lives with something of spirit which makes our example."

The explorer does, presciently, go on to ask that his wife "make the boy interested in natural history if you can - it is better than games". Peter would grow up to be Sir Peter Scott, a distinguished ornithologist, conservationist and painter who helped to found the World Wildlife Fund, and whose statue now adorns the London Wetlands Centre. He would also inherit his father's adventurous streak, winning a bronze medal at the 1936 Olympic games for sailing, and becoming the British gliding champion in 1963.

Scott only lets his emotions run riot for short passages. He tells Kathleen, for instance: "You know I have loved you; you know my thoughts must have constantly dwelt on you ... quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again - the inevitable must be faced."

The curator of the exhibition, Heather Lane, says it is impossible not to be moved by Scott's last correspondence. "He was very stoical," she said. "You get this sense of a man who has resigned himself to the fact that the fuel and the food has gone. They are trapped in a blizzard and too weak to get out. The letters offer a very human face."

Scott's letters also offer a portrait of a unique period in history, only a century ago, when intrepid men dreamed of conquering the planet's last continent with tools unfit for purpose. For these men, heroism alone sufficed. It was certainly enough for Scott, who said to his wife that "certainly the end is nothing for you to be ashamed of". Two years after his demise, the battlefields of Europe would witness many more men, like Scott, whose only comfort was that they died heroically.

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