Robert Falcon Scott
1868 - 1912
The English naval officer and polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott
(1868-1912) made monumental scientific findings in Antarctica,
and his geographical discoveries were extensive. He failed in
his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.
F. Scott was born on June 6, 1868, at Devonport. In 1880 he
entered the naval college, H.M.S. Britannia, and 2 years later
became a midshipman. He was promoted to first lieutenant in
1897. As early as 1887 Scott had come to the attention of Sir
Clements Markham, the principal promoter of British exploration
in the late 19th century. In 1899, after Markham had won partial
government backing for the intended dash to the pole, Scott was
chosen to head the National Antarctic Expedition.
Leaving England in August 1901, the Discovery, with Scott as
commander, sailed south and reached the Ross Sea in January
1902. For 2 years the ship remained off Hut Point, Ross Island,
in McMurdo Sound, and it was from here that many sledge
journeys, including two led by Scott himself, began. On Dec. 30,
1902, Scott and two of his associates reached latitude
82°16'33"S over the Antarctic Plateau; this was then the
southern record. A year later Scott reached latitude 77°59'S,
longitude 146°33'E. A general reconnaissance of the area around
South Victoria Land and the Ross Sea and Ross Shelf Ice was
undertaken, and the findings added much to man's knowledge of
Antarctica. The expedition ended when the Discovery, with the
relief ships Morning and Terra Nova, reached New Zealand in
April 1904. Promoted to captain on his return to England in
1904, Scott commanded, in turn, three warships and in 1909
became a naval assistant at the Admiralty. Scott recorded his
impressions of his first expedition in The Voyage of the
Enthusiasm for Antarctic explorations had waned after 1904, but
in 1909 Scott announced plans to reach the South Pole. British
and Dominion governments gave financial support, and the Terra
Nova sailed in June 1910. While at sea, Scott learned that Roald
Amundsen and his Norwegian party were also attempting to reach
the pole. The race was on. From winter headquarters at Cape
Evans (latitude 77°38'24"S), Scott began his sledge journey on
Nov. 1, 1911. He had placed much faith, too much as events were
to prove, on motor sledges and ponies. The former broke down;
the latter either died in crevasses or were shot for food.
Consequently, the strength of Scott and his men was taxed even
before they left the last supporting party at latitude 86°32'S
on Jan. 4, 1912, for the attempt on the pole. On January 18 the
party, composed of Scott and four others, reached the South Pole
and found there the Norwegian flag, a tent, and a note left for
Scott by Amundsen, who with his excellent knowledge and use of
dogs, had reached the goal on December 14, 1911.
Heartbroken and weary, the party now turned for base camp. But
weakened by the strain and lack of warm food, which brought on
frostbite, the men became involved in a "race against time to
reach one depot after another" before their strength gave out.
At latitude 79°40'S, 11 miles from One Ton Depot, the remaining
three members of the party made camp for the last time. On March
29 Scott made his last journal entry. Eight months later a
relief expedition found the tent, bodies, journals, and records.
In 1964 an account of this expedition was published as Scott's
Last Expedition: From the Personal Journals of Captain R. F.
When news of the tragic and heroic end reached London and
Europe, admiration was forthcoming from many quarters. A lasting
action was the opening of a fund to commemorate the explorers
which enabled publication of their scientific results and the
opening of the great Scott Polar Research Institute in
Robert Falcon Scott, CVO, RN, (6 June 1868, "Outlands" – 29
March 1912) was a British Royal Navy officer and Antarctic
explorer. In the so-called "Race to the South Pole" Scott was
second, behind the winning Norwegian Roald Amundsen; he and his
four companions died whilst trying to return to their base.
Scott has become one of the most famous, and tragic,
personalities of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Scott was the third eldest son of a large family at "Outlands",
Stoke Damerel, near Devonport in England, to John Edward Scott,
a brewer and magistrate, and Hannah née Cuming. He had two elder
sisters and a younger brother named Archibald. In 1881, Scott
briefly attended Stubbington House School, in Hampshire, before
he left home at the age of 13 to join the naval training ship
HMS Britannia at Dartmouth and began his training.
There was a significant naval tradition in Scott's family and
Scott joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1882, aged 13 years. He
first sailed on HMS Boadicea, the flagship of the English
Channel Fleet at that time. He transferred to HMS Rover in 1887.
He was promoted to sub-lieutenant on his transfer to HMS Spider.
Scott rose to become an engineering lieutenant in 1891 on HMS
Amphion, specialising in torpedoes. He became a First Lieutenant
in 1892 aboard HMS Majestic, at the time the flagship of the
In 1893, his father was forced to sell the brewery in Plymouth
and, in 1895, relocate the family to Somerset where he managed a
brewery until his death in 1897.
Discovery expedition 1901-1904
At the request of Sir Clements Markham, the former polar
explorer and then President Royal Geographical Society, Scott
commanded the National Antarctic Expedition, which began in
1901, in Discovery. The major achievements of the expedition
were an exploration of the Ross Sea; the land to the east of the
ice sea being sighted for the first time and named "King Edward
VII Land" in honour of the then British monarch; the Polar
Plateau was discovered; and a new "furthest south" was achieved.
Scott and Dr Edward Wilson reached 82°17' S on December 31 1902.
Ernest Shackleton did not reach this far south, having been
ordered to stay behind with the dogs at 82°15 ' S. Shackleton
was Scott's third lieutenant on the expedition.
Many biographers of both men have written of an intense personal
animosity and rivalry between the two. However, Ranulph Fiennes,
in his 2003 biography of Scott, writes that there was little
evidence of this and that the two were friendly on the
expedition. Fiennes dismisses the autobiography of Albert
Armitage, Scott's navigator and second-in-command, whose account
provides most of the primary source data of the split between
Scott and Shackleton, because Armitage, Fiennes says, felt
slighted by Scott. Fiennes wrote that Shackleton was sent home
early, on the first relief ship, from the Discovery expedition
because he was ill, as Scott claimed, rather than because of a
strained relationship between the two, as others have suggested.
Scott and Shackleton both organised and led further expeditions,
and found themselves in competition for experienced personnel
and financial support.
The Chief Engineer, Reginald Skelton, who was in charge of
photography, was the first person to discover an Emperor Penguin
breeding colony and to photograph Emperor Penguins.
Terra Nova expedition 1910-1913
Scott was keen to return to Antarctica, and it was evident that
he had enjoyed the command and the involvement with scientific
endeavour, and had a strong personal desire to be the first to
the South Pole. It took nearly eight years for him to mount a
second expedition because of problems raising public interest
when the North Pole was a much more immediate challenge, and in
handling financial difficulties in his family.
After his marriage to Kathleen Bruce on September 14 1908, and
the birth in 1909 of his only son, Peter, he embarked on his
second polar expedition. His ship, Terra Nova, left London on
June 1 1910, sailing via Cardiff, which it left on June 15.
Scott sailed with the ship only as far as Rotherhithe and then
returned to London to continue raising money for the expedition,
and departed a month later to join the ship in South Africa.
Scott was informed en route that Roald Amundsen, who had
appeared to have been preparing an expedition to the North Pole,
was instead heading south. It has been suggested that Amundsen
did not mean to deceive Scott, but that Nansen had lent him the
unique ship Fram specifically for the Arctic journey. Like
Scott, Amundsen had borrowed heavily to fund his expedition, and
having been beaten to the North Pole by Robert Peary in 1909,
turned to the South Pole in an attempt to recoup his costs.
Amundsen sent word to Scott, and hosted a party of Scott's men
at his camp in Antarctica, offering them a site next to his as a
base. This amity aside, in the public mind there was certainly
now a 'race to the Pole'. Scott could not have avoided it: a
large part of the interest and funding for the expedition was
based on priority, and Scott could not have been unaffected
personally by a desire to be first.
Scott's expedition had a very large scientific component that
went well beyond the observations (primarily geographical and
meteorological) that were expected of exploration parties at the
time. Scott carried equipment and had a programme of work for
extensive geological and zoological study. Partly for this
reason, and also because Terra Nova did not have the strength of
the Fram to withstand the ice further south, he elected to set
up his base camp on Ross Island, some 100 km north of Amundsen's,
who had set up base on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, called
the Ice Barrier at the time, hundreds of miles from the nearest
South Pole and return
After a year spent undertaking science work, and laying
provisions along the route of the party who were to make the
journey to the South Pole, a five-man party (Scott, Lieutenant
Henry Bowers, Dr Edward Wilson, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and
army Captain Lawrence Oates) was selected for the final stretch
to the pole itself. On arriving at the South Pole on January
17-January 18, 1912, Scott found that Amundsen had been there a
month earlier - Scott had predicted some months before this
would probably be the case. Amundsen returned to his base in
good order, while Scott's entire party perished on the return
journey. Scott acknowledged that there had been no margin for
error or delay in his calculations and his party succumbed to
injury, frostbite, malnutrition and exhaustion. As their
progress slowed the worsening and unusually cold weather further
reduced their pace.
The first to die was Evans, who suffered a swift mental and
physical breakdown near the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The
reasons for this and actual cause of death shortly afterwards
remain uncertain. One theory that has been advanced is that he
suffered a head injury that went unnoticed during a minor fall.
Other theories as to the cause of his death have included scurvy
owing to vitamin deficiency, effects of starvation and weight
loss, hypoglycaemia and hypothermia. Oates, afflicted by
frostbite, had lost the use of one foot, which made it very hard
for him to keep up. Because the party would not abandon him to
die, their progress was critically slowed. Oates' condition
deteriorated, until at a point some 30 miles short of the One
Ton supply depot he came to the view that he could not go on and
his disability was endangering the remainder of the party.
Waking on the morning of March 17, 1912, Oates left the tent,
stepping out into the blizzard with the memorable words "I am
just going outside and may be some time." It was his 32nd
birthday. His body has never been found.
The tent containing the bodies of the remaining three members of
the South Pole party was found six months later by a search
party led by Atkinson, which included amongst others Apsley
Cherry-Garrard - the last camp was only 11 miles (20 km) from
the One Ton supply depot. With them were found their diaries,
letters to family and friends and a "Message to the Public"
written by Scott. In January 2007, Scott's family released the
content of his final letter to his wife, entitled, To my widow.
Their sled was still loaded with rock samples from the Queen
Alexandra Range. Scott's journal said:
Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood,
endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred
the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead
bodies must tell the tale...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. For God's
sake, look after our people.
– Scott's journal
Cherry-Garrard records that after retrieving the diaries and the
rock samples, the tent was collapsed over the bodies of Scott,
Wilson and Bowers and a cairn of ice and snow erected to mark
the place. Atkinson knew that the place they made this burial
was part of the Ross Ice Shelf, moving north towards the open
sea at 500 metres a year, and that effectively they were
committing the bodies to the sea. The search party also looked
further south for Oates' body, but found only his sleeping bag.
They erected a cairn near the spot in memory of "a very gallant
Scott famously left instructions to his wife, regarding their
son, to "try and make the boy interested in natural history if
you can". Peter Scott went on to found the Wildfowl and Wetlands
Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Posthumous "Scott of the Antarctic" legend
News of Amundsen's success reached Europe before Scott's fate
was known. When the deaths of Scott and his companions became
known grief was expressed throughout the British Empire. Cherry-Garrard
described the sombre mood as the Terra Nova returned to New
Zealand with the remaining expeditioners. Scott's eloquent diary
became a best-seller, and through it the public became
acquainted with the story of Oates and Scott. Books, art,
sculpture, film and poetry subsequently developed the tragic and
heroic aspects of the story. Streets, churches and towns
throughout the British Empire were named after Scott and his
Amundsen's achievement was eclipsed in the British Empire by
Scott's reputation. There were accusations that Amundsen had
breached convention by intruding into the Ross Sea, which had
since James Clark Ross's discovery in 1841 been - in the public
mind - an area of exclusively British endeavour. Conventions in
exploration of that time gave subsequent exploration rights to
the nation that had discovered an area. The public (but not
Scott) was unaware that Norway had undertaken significant
exploration work at the invitation of the British in the Ross
Sea in 1893 and 1898, and on the later expedition discovered the
Bay of Whales that Amundsen used as his base in 1911.
The mythologising of Scott, particularly after Cherry-Garrard's
publication of The Worst Journey in the World took on an extra
dimension - that of Scott as the flawed but very human character
compared with Amundsen. Amundsen was portrayed in the British
press as a professional explorer in an age where the amateur was
seen as morally superior, and as a man pursuing personal
ambition rather than national glory or the advancement of
science. In fact, Amundsen was not unlike Scott, a highly-driven
amateur who had at times difficult relations with his men and
was uncomfortable in the public spotlight.
Scott's widow Kathleen Scott (later Baroness Kennet) was granted
the rank (but not the style) of a widow of a Knight Commander of
the Order of the Bath, but Scott was not knighted posthumously,
there being no such provision in English law. It has been
suggested in recent times that Kathleen, as Scott lay dying, was
conducting an affair with the famous polar explorer Fridtjof
Nansen, who had hired his ship, the Fram, to Amundsen. Kathleen
Scott had a reputation for being independent and strong willed,
and never more formidable than when defending the reputations of
Robert Scott and their child, Peter.
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This web page was last updated on:
15 December, 2008