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      FACTS


        Scott was reticent, sensitive, moody, and lacked a sense of humour. In other words he was rather dull and conventional.


      Robert Falcon Scott devoted almost his entire life to the services of the Royal Navy. He became a naval cadet at thirteen, a midshipman at fifteen and a full lieutenant at twenty-three. He was reticent, sensitive, moody, and lacked a sense of humour. In other words he was rather dull and conventional. Nevertheless, to some that included his superiors he showed an intelligence and admirable personal style that marked him as a leader. He was a naval commander when he was selected to head the National Antarctic Expedition, often referred to as the Discovery expedition, which was sponsored chiefly by the Royal Geographical Society and had two main goals: geographical and scientific exploration.

      In the year Discovery sailed both Scott and Ernest Shackleton, also part of the expedition, had become Freemasons. Freemasonry was strong in the Navy. The secret society provided no small advantage to a man who would rise in the world.

      Interestingly, neither Scott or Shackleton were that interested in ice or snow or exploration as such, but both saw in the expedition a pathway to success. Each would cheerfully have done anything else that promised personal advancement. Perhaps that is the reason that neither properly prepared for ice work on this expedition or any other. It is as though neither respected or understood fully the Antarctic environment and in typical British fashion of the time, both accepted the myth that improvisation was best. In other words, they behaved like enthusiastic amateurs.

      The scientific director of the expedition was Dr. J. W. Gregory. He was one of the few men on the Antarctic expedition with any polar expedition, and incontestably the most accomplished. He summed it up thus:

        Scott ... has no experience of expedition equipment ... On questions of furs, sledges, ski etc., his ignorance is appalling ... he does not seem at all conscious of these facts or inclined to get [the] experience necessary.

      discovery Discovery, the expedition ship, was launched at Dundee. It was probaly the last big wooden sailing ship built in Britain. She had steam auxilary engines, coal fired. Polar navigation, however, still needed a wooden ship, for elasticity, to avoid being crushed in the ice. Sail was needed to eke out fuel. Because of its bulk, not enough coal could be carried, and, away from bunkers, off the shipping routes, steaming range was limited (details of visiting Discovery at its home in Dundee can be found by clicking here).

      Although Sir James Clark Ross had made landfalls at Possession and Franklin Islands in the Ross Sea in the 1840s, he made none at Ross Island, which remained untouched by man for sixty-one more years. In January 1902 the Discovery (of about 700 tons), with a crew of some fifty men, crossed the Antarctic Circle and stopped at Cape Adare. The ship then entered the Ross Sea and cruised along the Ross Ice Shelf discovering King Edward VII Land on the shelf's eastern flank. The ship then entered McMurdo sound, the first to do so since Ross in 1841. The Sound, which lies between Ross Island and Victoria Land, is forty miles wide at its entrance and is approximately fifty miles long. Its southern terminus is the Ross Ice Shelf and the ice sheet of the Koettlitz Glacier.

      One day when Discovery was brought up by the pack, all was ordered out on a convenient floe to start learning how to ski. Scott himself did not join. His steward, Clarence Hare, remarked: "We all found [the] ski (pronounced shee) ... rather awkward, which is not surprising for the first time."

      discovery During this visit to the Sound, Scott wondered about the possible advantages of setting up winter quarters to the eastward. He was seeking a sheltered place, yet one that would provide him with more than local meteorological data and that would afford him ready access to the south. He planned to explore the Ross Ice Shelf (known as the Ice Barrier or the Barrier at that time), as well as to sledge in the direction of the geographical pole. Indeed, just before departure it was officially announced that the expedition meant to reach the South Pole. Press coverage was not exactly sensational, because, as the Daily Express put it, "The South Pole has never caught the popular imagination as its Northern fellow has done":

        It is inconveniently distant from any European base. So its environment remains a kind of silence and mist and vague terrors.

      Turning north, Scott sailed around Cape Bird and Cape Crozier, examining the coastline from the ship, then proceeded eastward for several days alongside the imposing clefts of the ice shelf. On the evening of January 31, when Shackleton took over the first watch (8p.m. to midnight), he was faced with a notably unpleasant situation.

      Discovery was embayed in compacted sea ice.

      She was ringed by icebergs. Scott was below, although in such circumstances he ought to have stayed on the bridge. He had simply left orders to carry on east. Barne, the previous officer of the watch, had, in the naval manner of the day, blindly obeyed. In the process, he had lost his bearings. He knew he had sailed in through a narrow entrance. He could no longer say where he was. In the treacherous, shifting world of ice, drifting mysteriously in unknown currents, an entrance might no longer exist.

      Shackleton grasped that the ship was in a trap. Orders or no, his only concern was to escape. He took Discovery right round the bay in search of the way out. When Scott appeared on deck at the end of the watch, Shackleton still had not succeeded.

      Shackleton was now astounded to find Scott dissolve into something uncomfortably like panic. It was impossible to make him understand what was happening. Only at 7.30, as Royds, who'd relieved Shackleton on watch, put in his diary,

        there was a panic ... & at last managed to convince the capt; so we again turned back & at last got out of what at one time looked a very nasty position, as young ice was forming thickly & very quickly.

      So they journeyed on. Finding no satisfactory harbour, Scott returned to McMurdo Sound, where on February 8 he decided to winter at Hut Point, the southwestern extremity of Ross Island. The Discovery hut was constructed during February and the early part of March although their ship, stuck in the ice, served as accommodation. The men endured the winter with the comfort of windmill-powered electric lights, their own Royal Terror Theatre, and the production of Antarctica's first periodical, the monthly South Polar Times (a more ribald version, The Blizzard, was concurrently produced).

      discovery In the spring of 1902 came the real work: Shackleton, Scott, and Edward A. Wilson (pictured left-right), the expedition's junior surgeon took off for the South Pole with 19 dogs and five supply sledges. In Scott, Shackleton, for the first time, was faced with a weak captain; or at any rate a captain with a conspicuously weaker personality than his own. Shackleton responded by dominating Scott. While Scott seemed somehow to shrink into the background Shackleton obviously, too obviouly, took the lead.

      The tensions between the two soon surfaced. One day Wilson and Shackleton were packing up after breakfast when Scott called out: "Come here you bloody fools."

      They went over, and Wilson quietly asked Scott whether he was speaking to him.

        "No, Billy," was the answer.
        "Then," said Shackleton, "It must have been me."
        There was silence.
        "Right," Shackleton continued. "You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back."

      The journey continued poorly. Not only was their skiing skills amateurish but they had not driven sledge dogs before and their inexperience was telling. Despite this, they reached a record 82 degrees 16.5' south before they turned back, but the return trip was awful. The dogs were now useless - they were actually hitched behind the sledges which were pulled by the three exhausted men. Shackleton became too ill to pull at one point. All suffered scurvy. As the dogs weakened they were shot and fed to the others. They made it back to the Discovery to find that the relief ship Morning had arrived. The Discovery was still frozen solid in the ice and Scott decided to send eight men home (including, to him, the troublesome Shackleton) aboard the Morning and spend yet another winter on the continent. The following summer Morning returned with another ship and orders from the British government that if Discovery couldn't be freed in six days then she should be abandoned. Scott and the crew worked furiously to free the vessel with cutting implements and explosives and, eventually, she sailed away.

      Despite poor preperation and arguments, during the expedition Scott introduced a number of Fridtjof Nansen's arctic techniques into antarctic work and opened the era of full-scale land exploration of the continent, using sledding traverses. He made many geographical discoveries, among them Edward VII Land, which much later was found to be a peninsula and was renamed accordingly. He also discovered and named Mount Discovery, the Royal Society Range, and many more important landmarks among the "Western Mountains." The Western Mountains was the name often used by him for the chain of mountains (part of the Transantarctic Mountains) beautifully visible from McMurdo Station, on the western side of McMurdo Sound. Scott also made the first flight in Antarctica in a tethered balloon called Eva, reaching a height of 240m.

      In October 1905 Scott published the utterly self-serving and seriously misleading The Voyage of the "Discovery". Basically, Scott forgot his Freemason oath of "on no account to wrong" other Freemasons and made Shackleton and his illness the reason for their poor southern record. Shackleton's immense contribution to the expedition Furthest South was conveniently forgotten by Scott in his account in which, naturally, Scott came out of with flying colours. The pursuit of Scott's personal ambition was inexorable.

      For some time, Shackleton had managed to regard Scott with indifference. The Voyage of the "Discovery" turned that to smouldering scorn and dislike. Satisfaction would only come from a return to the Antarctic and an attempt to outdo Scott.


      Further Reading

    • The Voyage of the "Discovery": Scott's First Antarctic Expedition: v. 2
    • Discovery Illustrated: Pictures from Captain Scott's First Antarctic Expedition (Walkabout S.)








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