Remembering Scott’s Antarctic tragedy

By Beau Gamble 7 November 2013
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One of the greatest, and most tragic, polar expeditions of all time is showcased at a new exhibition in Sydney.

IT IS ONE OF THE great second-place stories of all time: Robert Falcon Scott and his men fighting through intense cold and violent blizzards on their expedition to the South Pole in 1912, only to discover Amundsen’s team had reached it first.

Facing frostbite, starvation, and some of the harshest weather ever recorded in the region, all the men lost their lives on the journey back to base camp.

Nearly 100 years on, Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition has been showcased at a new exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

Lindsey Shaw, Senior Curator at the museum, told Australian Geographic that despite the team’s failed attempt to reach the pole first, their journey was not in vain.

The expedition also brought together leading zoologists, geologists and meteorologists to study the most unexplored land on Earth – and indeed they made some surprising discoveries. Most significantly, the scientists found plant fossils that showed Antarctica once had a warm climate and was part of a massive supercontinent.

“The remains of leaves helped to go towards the theory of Gondwanaland – of Antarctica, Australia, Africa and South America once being one land mass,” says Lindsey.

Scott’s Antarctic downfall

On 1 November 1911, Scott and his team set out from base camp on the 1450km journey to the South Pole. But Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had begun his own expedition two weeks earlier.

After 10 weeks of trudging through thick snow to reach the pole, Scott and his men would have set eyes on a black patch floating on the landscape – a flag left by Amundsen to signal his arrival 34 days prior.

“It must have been really heartbreaking,” says Lindsey. “They were already physically debilitated by the time they got there, and then to be mentally debilitated on top of that…It must’ve been really, really hard.”

Unlike Amundsen, Scott had decided not to use dogs to pull his sledges, putting an immense physical strain on the men. “They were expending more energy pulling the sledges and staying alive than they were taking in from food,” says Lindsey.

But there was another major factor that contributed to the death of Scott and his men. The fuel they had stored at supply depots along the way – to heat their food and drink on the return journey – had somehow evaporated. “You can’t eat frozen food, and there wasn’t enough fuel to heat the cocoas and the teas,” says Lindsey. “So they weren’t getting any warm liquids into their body.”

Weak with malnutrition and exhaustion, the last of the men perished sometime around 30 March 1912. Lawrence Oates, the second to die, crawled out of his tent uttering the famous last words: “I am just going outside and may be some time”.

Scott a competent Antarctic leader

Scott was widely regarded as a polar hero until the 1970s, when critics began to question the treatment of his team, and whether he was responsible for his men’s deaths. However, Lindsey believes Scott was a competent leader who cared for his team, even providing the crew at base camp with activities to keep them stimulated.

“He brought things like chess; he took a gramophone so they had music; he got scientists to give lectures to everybody three times a week. So they had events during the evenings to keep the mind active, which is really important,” says Lindsey. “Really, I think the weather just conspired against them.”

The current exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum brings together artefacts, photographs and scientific specimens collected during the trip. Previously, the material was housed at the Natural History Museum of London, The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, and the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.

“It’s the first time in 100 years that the material has been back together again,” says Lindsey. “And Australia’s the first to see it.”