He [Captain L.E.G. Oates] ... must know that he can never get through. [He] is the greatest handicap

        CAPTAIN SCOTT, Terra Nova Exhibition

      For well over half a century, the legend of Scott of the Antarctic grew and grew. The stiff upper lip after their superhuman efforts were overwhelmed by the forces of nature, was uncritically celebrated in books and films, notably in the movie Scott of the Antarctic (1948), where Scott was portrayed by John Mills, a man who epitomised all that was great in 1940s Britain and, as such, loved by British audiences like no other actor before or since. Scott, by association, was John Mills.

      But the most notable reason for the 'legend' was the posthumous publication of his diaries, Scott's Last Expedition, first published in 1913 some 19 months after his death. It was a mean contrast to Amundsen's The South Pole. The book purported to be Scott's unexpurgated diaries. In fact his widow Kathleen Scott, with the connivance of Sir Clements Markham (President of the Royal Geographical Society) and Reginald Smith, the publisher, had censored the text. Excisions numbered seventy at least. They were dishonestly concealed. For example: "As we advance," Scott had written on 17 December 1911, climbing on the Beardmore Glacier,

        we see that there is great & increasing error in the charting of the various points. Shackletons watch must have greatly altered its rate which throws everything out including his variation - If we can keep up this pace we gain on him.

      "If we can keep up this pace we gain on him" was all that actually appeared. The cuts all concerned Scott's denigration of his predecessors, brutal attacks on his companions, and admissions of incompetence. The aim was to prettify Scott's image, conceal blunders and project the myth of a perfect martyred hero.

      One of the few to question the official version of events was Mrs Caroline Oates, the mother of Captain L. E. G. Oates, the man who walked out of the tent (and described by Scott in the quote above). Oates was presented as a devoted follower of Scott who had sacrificed himself to give his companions a chance; a supporting role, as it were, in a b urgeoning heroic myth. Mrs Oates found that unconvincing. She declined to join in the national hysteria. Letters from her son convinced her that his life had been thrown away by Scott. She refused to go to Buckingham Palace to receive from the King the polar medal awarded posthumously to her son. (further reading on the real Scott can be found in the book Shackleton, by Roland Huntford).

      Over time, gradually, the legend has been stripped away. It was at the very least severly questioned by the 1979 book publication Scott and Amundsen : Last Place on Earth. From those on the expedition came tales that Scott could be very rude and could treat his men badly in the extreme.

      The Kenneth Branagh 2002 film, Shackleton - The Greatest Survival Story of All Time (3-Disc Collector's Edition), on Scott's up to then half-forgotten rival, reveaing, conversely, a leader who put his men before glory, not only made many consider Shackleton to be the great legend of Antarctic exploration but also made people re-examine Scott and conclude that his mistakes and disregard for the lives of his expedition party were not heroic but stupid and recklessly incompetent. Moreover, Shackleton embraced and warmly congratulated Amundsen on getting to the Pole first; Scott was at best arrogantly sniffy and, later, his acolytes just plain obnoxious and ungracious.

      scott The facts on the life of Robert Scott are thus: he was born in Devonport into a navy family and became a cadet at the age of 13. He soon attracted the notice of the Royal Geographical Society, which appointed him to command the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901 - 04. The expedition reached further south than anyone before them and Scott returned to Britain a national hero. He had caught the exploring bug and, by 1906, was planning an expedition to reach the South Pole.

      The whaling ship Terra Nova sailed from New Zealand in November 1910 and the expedition set off from base the following October, with mechanical sledges, ponies and dogs. However, the sledges and ponies could not cope with the conditions and the expedition carried on without them, through appalling weather and increasingly tough terrain. In mid December, the dog teams turned back, leaving the rest to face the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier and the polar plateau. By January 1912, only five remained: Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans.

      In mid January, they reached the pole, only to see that a Norwegian party, led by Raoul Amundsen, had beaten them there. They started the 1,500 km journey back. Evans died in mid February; by March, Oates could also go no further and knew he was holding back his companions. Scott wrote: 'One morning he said, 'I am just going outside and may be some time'. He went out [of the tent] and we have not seen him since.'

      The final blizzard caught them in late March, trapping them in their tent, running out of food but only 20 km from a pre-arranged supply. Eight months later, the search party found the tent, the bodies and Scott's note-books. His final diary entry, on 29 March, read: '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.'

      The relief party that found Scott and his comrades six months after they died built a cairn to mark the spot where they perished. Scott and his colleagues died on a glacier which inched its way towards the sea. In the 1970s, Sir Peter Scott, the only son of Capt Scott visited the cairn. As of 2001, glaciologist Charles Bentley estimated that the tent with the bodies was under about 75 feet (23 m) of ice and about 30 miles (48 km) from the point where they died; he speculated that in about 275 years the bodies would reach the Ross Sea, and perhaps float away inside an iceberg.

      Further Viewing/Reading

    • Herbert Ponting's The Great White Silence Dvd Review/Gallery
    • Captain Scott
    • Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals of Captain R.F.Scott
    • I Am Just Going Outside: Captain Oates - Antarctic Tragedy
    • Scott and Amundsen : Last Place on Earth


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