Robert Falcon Scott, Polar Explorer

Robert Falcon Scott was born in Plymouth on 6th June 1868. At the age of 13 years, Scott joined the Royal Navy training vessel HMS BRITTANIA, moored at Dartmouth in the South-West of England and commenced his Officer training.  After initial appointments to sea, he was sent to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich where he came top of his Lieutenants exams in 1888. By 1889 he was a Lieutenant and nine years later, he joined the flagship, HMS Majestic. In 1899, he was offered command of the expedition being organised by the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society to the Antarctic.

This expedition was to explore the South Victoria Land, the ice barrier and to extend further into the Antarctic continent. He was promoted to Commander on taking up his duties with HMS Discovery. The expedition left Cowes on 6th August 1901 and the ship eventually anchored in McMurdo Sound at Ross Island on 8th February 1902. The team made camp at a spot now known as Hut Point. This was to be their base camp for the next two years. In November 1902, Scott set off southwards to explore the Antarctic interior. The journey was hard and he returned to base camp on 3 February 1903 having been the furthest south that human beings had ever been.

In October, Scott set off on another foray. This time heading west to explore the polar ice cap. Like his previous expeditions, this one was beset by problems and hardships, not least the loss of the navigation tables. On 30th November, they turned back with little idea of where they were in relation to the base camp. They eventually arrived back at Hut Point in mid-December. Scott received orders from the Admiralty to return.

The expedition had been a tremendous success. As well as Scott's explorations, the team had been able to take soundings of the Ross Sea, investigate the structure of the continent, fix the position of the South Magnetic Pole and undertook observations on the natural life of the continent, including the colony of Emperor Penguins. Personally, Scott had showed his leadership skills and his ability to undertake scientific research. The expedition reached Britain in the autumn of 1904. Scott received many honours in recognition of his work, most notably Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) and promotion to the rank of Captain.

Scott was soon planning a second Antarctic expedition. At the same time, news came of Shackleton’s expedition having reached the magnetic South Pole, getting to within 100 miles of the South Pole. On 19 June 1909, Scott declared the intention of another expedition to claim the South Pole for Britain. An office for the British Antarctic Expedition 1910 was set up in London’s Victoria Street. The ship chosen for the voyage was the Terra Nova. Scott received the news that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was also heading south for the Pole. The race was on.

Terra Nova left New Zealand on 29th November 1910 arriving at McMurdo Sound on 5th January 1911. Scott began his journey to the Pole on 11th November, following Shackleton’s route of 1909. On 4th January 1912, the last supporting team left and Scott continued on the journey with a small team of four: Dr Wilson, Captain Oates, Lieutenant Bowers and Petty Officer Evans. The journey was an arduous one. On 16th January 1912, Scott and his party reached the South Pole, only to find a Norwegian flag and a note from Amundsen stating that his party had reached the Pole on 14th December 1911.

Discovery Hut, with Discovery at anchor behind, 1902 © R Skelton, Canterbury MuseumThe return journey began well despite the prevailing weather conditions. However, the team began to suffer from the cold and exhaustion, and frostbite was beginning to set in. On 17th February, the first member of the team met his death. Petty Officer Evans had been losing strength and was lagging. The others went back to carry him on a sledge but he succumbed and was buried in the surrounding area. The team continued on but conditions got worse and supplies were running out. Oates was becoming severely affected by frostbite. He walked out of the tent and was never seen again. Oates achieved immortality with the famous parting remark: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” On 29th March 1912, Scott made his last entry in his diary. “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 anymore.” He may have remained alive for one or two days more after that, alongside the bodies of Wilson and Bowers.

Eight months later a search party discovered the tent and bodies, along with the diaries and last letters of Scott. He had written a message to the public explaining the failure. Important glacier specimens were also found, which, being heavy, must have hindered the progress of the team, who had refused to abandon them, even in the face of their difficulties. Later, a memorial was put up at Observation Hill, at Hut Point with the words “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” Scott was posthumously awarded a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB).
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