100-year-old fruit cake has been found in Antarctica

By AG Staff 11 August 2017
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The fruit cake belonged to early explorer, Robert Falcon Scott.

A 100-YEAR-OLD fruit cake, wrapped in paper inside a rusty old tin, has been discovered in relatively good condition in Antarctica’s oldest building in Cape Adare, likely to have been brought to the ice continent by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott during the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913).

The fruit cake was found by a group from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust who work to conserve and care for items discovered across the continent left behind by famous Antarctic explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary.

According to the conservators, “Conservation treatment involved rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating of the tin remnants. Deacidification of the tin label and some physical repair to the torn paper wrapper and tin label was also carried out.”

As for the cake itself, they say it’s in perfect condition. “Although the tin was in poor condition, the cake itself looked and smelt (almost) edible.”

100 year old fruit cake

The fruit cake tin after it was re-stored (Image Credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust)

Fruit cake —high in sugar and fat is an ideal ration for those enduring the harsh climates of Antarctica. Even today, the cake remains an important addition to modern explorers’ diets.

This particular fruit cake was made by Huntley and Palmers, a British biscuit company favoured by Robert Falcon Scott, whose Terra Nova expedition is recognised as a great Antarctic tragedy.

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. 

Unlike Amundsen, Scott had decided not to use dogs to pull his sledges, putting an immense physical strain on the men. 

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.

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”.

100 year old fruit cake

Starving and frostbitten, Scott’s team reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, 34 days after Amundsen’s team. Left to right: Captain Lawrence Oates, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Dr Edward Wilson, Petty Officer Edgar Evans. (Image Credit: University of Cambridge)

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, the senior curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum explained that 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.”