I’ve recently returned from my holiday in Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands.
While I was topping up my tan between taking swims in the hotel’s pool, I discovered a book that I’d downloaded on my kindle and forgotten about. The journals of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition. Scott was a British Antarctic explorer who entered a race against the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to see who could reach the South Pole first. Scott perished on his return journey having lost the race by a month and when news of his death reached Britain the country had an outpouring of grief. At the time, Scott was treated as a tragic hero but following World War One and after the public’s sense of nationalism had faded, historians began to question some of Scott’s decisions. We know a great deal about Scott’s journey to and from the South Pole because he made very detailed journal entries. These journals were found in Scott’s pocket when he died and the final line has been called the most haunting line in non fiction:
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.
Robert Falcon Scott – March 29 1912.
I’m aware that there is a sense of irony reading about the Antarctic while in the Canaries but the Artic and Antarctic fascinate me. I’ve toyed with the idea of setting a novel in the Antarctic and I’ve even looked into cruises around the continent (which I’ll be able to afford once I’ve published that best seller!) What surprised me, and spurred the idea for this review, was how emotional I became was reading Scott’s letters. You really get a sense of who he was as a person and his letters to his team’s family members informing them of their loved ones approaching deaths is heart breaking. I sheded a tear on the sun bed as I read and it’s not often I find a book with that much power.
Here are my thoughts on Robert Falcon Scott’s journals.
For some background information, Scott’s first venture into the Antarctic was in 1901 when he was chosen to lead the National Antarctic Expedition. When the expedition arrived in Antarctica Scott, the team’s doctor Edward Wilson, and the third in command Ernest Shackleton made an attempt to reach the South Pole. Although their attempt failed due to Shackleton’s ill health, the three men were the first ever humans to reach such a southerly point on Earth. Scott returned to England in 1904 as a British hero.
(Fun side-note: When Scott’s letters of this expedition were published he heavily criticised Shackleton which led to a falling out between the two men. Scott claimed Shackleton was reckless with his own health which was later proven true. In 1922, while on his own attempt to return to Antartica, Shackleton called the ship’s doctor to his cabin and complained about back pains. When the Doctor suggested he “lead a more regular life” Shackleton responded: You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up? to which the Doctor said: Chiefly alcohol, Boss. A few moments later Shackleton died of a heart attack, caused by alcohol.
Scott’s infamous Terra Nova Expedition reached Antarctic on 4th January 1911. While in Melbourne, the last stop before the Terra Nova reached Antartica, Scott learned he was in a race with Roald Amundsen, something he was ill prepared for. The dogs and ponies he had brought suffered during the voyage and later most of them had to be killed for food. When the crew tried to use their motor-powered sledges on the ice, later in the year, they quickly failed and the expedition’s progress was continuously hampered by poor weather. On 4th January 2012, while the rest of the team returned north to collect supplies, Scott and four others Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans made the trek to the South Pole.
After reaching the South Pole on 11th January and finding a Norwegian flag, the disheartened team attempted to return to the Terra Nova. Although they made good process at first, in February Evens, who had been suffering frost bite and a hand and head injury, collapsed at the bottom of a glacier and died.
The next to perish was Oates who was suffering severing frostbite in his left foot and as a result of this was slowing down the whole team. He tried to persuade Scott to leave him in his sleeping bag to die but when Scott refused, Oates committed suiside by walking out into a blizzard.
He was a brave soul. This was the end… It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.
Robert Falcon Scott – March 1912
On 29th March 1912, only 20 km from a pre established supply station, Scott, Wilson and Bowers died of starvation and exposure. Their bodies were found eight months later by Tryggve Gran a Norwegian sledger. He wrote the following:
“It has happened – we have found what we sought – horrible, ugly fate – Only 11 miles from One Ton Depot – All gastsly. I will never forget it so long I live – a horrible nightmare could not have shown more horror than this.”
Tryggve Gran – 1912
Scott was found half out of his sleeping bag as though fighting off death, his skin yellow and pale. When Gran took Scott’s journals, Scott’s left arm snapped like a twig where the bones had become brittle. Gran and his team recovered Scott’s, Wilson’s and Bowers’ personal possessions, collapsed the tent and buried them under the snow.
Although Scott was at first treated as a tragic national hero, his reputation was tarred by Roland Huntford’s 1979 biography. Huntford presented Scott as a fool and criticised Scott’s decision not to utilise dogs more as well as accusing the explorer of favouritism resulting in the prolonged death of Evans and Oates. He also questioned Scott’s confusing and contradicting orders and besmirched his character by painting him as aloof and sentimental.
Although several authors such as Diana Preston and Sir Ranulph Fiennes have defended Scott, the matter of Scott’s reputation has become a moot point. Scott has become one of Britain’s forgotten heroes, albeit a tragic one, and most members of the general public do not recognise his name.
I, for one, think that is a great shame.