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Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott CVO (6 June 1868 – 29 March 1912) was a British Royal Naval officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions: the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13. During this second venture Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, to find that they had been forestalled by Roald Amundsen's Norwegian expedition. On their return journey Scott and his four comrades all perished from a combination of exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold.

Before his appointment to lead the Discovery Expedition, Scott had followed the conventional career of a naval officer in peacetime Victorian Britain, where opportunities for career advancement were both limited and keenly sought after by ambitious officers. It was the chance for personal distinction that led Scott to apply for the Discovery command, rather than any predilection for polar exploration. However, having taken this step, his name became inseparably associated with the Antarctic, the field of work to which he remained committed during the final twelve years of his life.

Following the news of his death, Scott became an iconic British hero, a status maintained for more than 50 years. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, however, in a more sceptical age, the legend was reassessed. From a previously unassailable position, Scott became a figure of controversy, with questions raised about his competence and character.

Scott was undoubtedly capable of commanding great personal loyalty. Some were prepared to follow him anywhere and did so. "He wouldn’t ask you to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself", said Terra Nova stoker William Burton. Tom Crean, the Irishman who accompanied Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions, was more effusive: "I loved every hair of his head". But his relations with others, including Ernest Shackleton, Lawrence Oates, and his expedition second-in-commands, were less easy. Despite his considerable exploration experience, something of the resourceful amateur remained with him until the end. For example his reluctance to rely on dogs, despite the advice of expert ice travellers such as Nansen, has been cited as a critical factor that lost him the race to the pole and, ultimately, the lives of all his party.

Early life

Family background

Scott was born on 6 June 1868, the third child of five and elder son of John Edward and Hannah (née Cuming) Scott of Stoke Damerel, near Devonport, Devon. Although his father was a brewer and magistrate, there were naval and military traditions in the family, Scott's grandfather and four uncles all having served in the army or navy. John Scott's prosperity came from the ownership of a small brewery in Plymouth, inherited from his father, Robert, and which he subsequently sold. In later years, when Scott was establishing his naval career, the family would suffer serious financial misfortune, but his early childhood years were spent in comfort. In accordance with the family's tradition the two boys, Robert and Archibald, were predestined for careers in the armed services. Robert was educated first in the nursery at home, then for four years at a local day school before being sent to Stubbington House School, Hampshire, a cramming establishment preparing candidates for the entrance examinations to the naval training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth. Having passed these exams Scott, aged 13, began his naval career in 1881, as a cadet.

Early naval career

In July 1883 Scott passed out of Britannia as a midshipman, seventh overall in a class of 26. By October he was en route to South Africa to join HMS Boadicea, the flagship of the Cape squadron, the first of several ships on which he served during his midshipman years. While stationed in St Kitts, West Indies, on HMS Rover, he had his first encounter with Sir Clements Markham, then Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), who would loom large in Scott's later career. On this occasion, 1 March 1887, Markham observed Midshipman Scott's cutter winning that morning's race across the bay. Markham's habit was to "collect" likely young naval officers with a view to their undertaking polar exploration work in the future. He was impressed by Scott's intelligence, enthusiasm and charm, and the 18-year-old midshipman was duly noted.

Later that year, Scott attended the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and in March 1888 passed his examinations for Sub-Lieutenant, with four First Class certificates out of five. His career progressed smoothly, with service on various ships and promotion to Lieutenant in 1889. In 1891, after a long spell in foreign waters, he applied for the two-year torpedo training course on HMS Vernon, an important career step. He graduated with First Class certificates in both the theory and practical examinations. A small blot occurred in the summer of 1893 when, while commanding a torpedo boat, Scott managed to run it aground, which earned him a mild rebuke.

During the research for his dual biography of Scott and Roald Amundsen, Roland Huntford got wind of a possible scandal in Scott's early naval career, but was unable to pin it down. He focuses on the period 1889–90 when Scott was a lieutenant on HMS Amphion. According to him Scott "disappears from naval records" for eight months, from mid-August 1889 until 24 March 1890. Huntford hints at involvement with a married American woman, of cover-up, and protection from senior officers. David Crane reduces the missing period to eleven weeks, but is unable to throw much more light other than scorning the notion of protection by senior officers, on the grounds that Scott was not important or well-connected enough to warrant this. Documents that may have offered explanations are missing from Admiralty records.

In 1894, while serving as Torpedo Officer on the depot ship HMS Vulcan, Scott learned of the financial calamity that had overtaken his family. John Scott, having sold the brewery and invested the proceeds unwisely, had lost all his capital and was now virtually bankrupt. At the age of 63, and in poor health, he was forced to take a job as a brewery manager and move his family to Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Just three years later, while son Robert was serving as torpedo lieutenant aboard the Channel squadron flagship HMS Majestic, John Scott died of heart disease, creating a fresh family crisis. The family – mother and two unmarried daughters – now relied entirely on the service pay of Scott and the salary of younger brother Archie, who had left the army for a post in the colonial service in order to increase his income. Archie's own death in the autumn of 1898, after contracting typhoid fever, thrust the whole financial responsibility for the family on to Scott.

An ambitious officer, Scott now had an additional weight of domestic responsibility. The main thing that concerned him now was promotion, and the extra income this would bring. Early in June 1899, while home on leave, he had a chance encounter in a London street with Sir Clements Markham (now the RGS President), and learned for the first time of a pending Antarctic expedition. It was an opportunity for early command and a chance to distinguish himself. Markham remembered him from St Kitts, and presumably said something encouraging, because a few days later, on 11 June, Scott appeared at the Markham residence and volunteered to lead the expedition.

Discovery Expedition 1901-1904

The British National Antarctic Expedition, as it was officially known until its association with the ship, was a joint enterprise of the RGS and the Royal Society. It represented a long-cherished dream of Markham's, and it required the deployment of all of his considerable skills and cunning to bring it to fruition under naval command and largely staffed by naval personnel. Scott may not have been Markham's first choice as leader but, having decided on him, his support remained constant. There were committee battles over the scope of Scott's responsibilities, with the Royal Society pressing to put a scientist in charge of the expedition's programme while Scott merely commanded the ship. Eventually, however, Markham's view prevailed. Scott was promoted to the naval rank of Commander before Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 31 July 1901.

Despite an almost total lack of Antarctic or Arctic experience within the 50-strong party, there was very little special training in equipment or techniques before the ship set sail. Dogs were taken, as were skis, but hardly anyone knew how to use them. Professionalism was considered less praiseworthy, in Markham's view, than "unforced aptitude", and possibly Scott was influenced by Markham's belief. In the first of the two full years which Discovery spent in the ice this insouciance was severely tested, as the expedition struggled to meet the challenges of the unfamiliar terrain. The expedition was not a quest for the Pole, but a long march south was a major objective. This march, undertaken by Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson, was a physical ordeal which took them to a latitude of 82°17'S, about 530 miles (853 km) from the Pole, followed by a harrowing journey home which brought about Shackleton's physical collapse.

The second year showed improvements in technique and achievement, culminating in Scott's western journey which led to the discovery of the Polar Plateau, and which has been described by one writer as "one of the great polar journeys". The scientific results of the expedition included important biological, zoological and geological findings. Some of the meteorological and magnetic readings, however, were later criticised as amateurish and inaccurate. At the end of the expedition it took the combined efforts of two relief ships and liberal use of explosives to free Discovery from the ice. Nevertheless Scott could feel satisfied that he was returning in good order, with much to show for his efforts. In contrast to his naivety at the expedition's commencement he was now a seasoned Antarctic traveller, although with many of his prejudices intact. He remained unconvinced that dogs and ski were the keys to efficient ice travel, and continued to laud the British preference for man-hauling (the practice of propelling sledges by manpower, unassisted by animals), a view he maintained until very late in his Antarctic career. His insistence on Royal Navy formalities made for uneasy relations with the Merchant Navy members of the expedition, most of whom departed with the first relief ship in March 1903. However, the question of Scott's relationship with Ernest Shackleton, Third Officer on Discovery and later his polar rival, has been muddied by speculation. The claim that it was personal animosity on Scott's part, rather than Shackleton's physical breakdown, that resulted in the latter being sent home on the supply ship in January 1903 seems largely to have been concocted by Scott's second-in-command, Albert Armitage. There would be tensions later between Scott and Shackleton, when their polar ambitions clashed, but mutual civilities were always preserved.

Between expeditions

Popular hero

Discovery returned to Britain in September 1904. The expedition had caught the public imagination, and Scott became a popular hero, awarded with a cluster of honours and medals (including the Officer of the Legion of Honour), promoted to the Royal Navy (RN) rank of Captain, and invited to Balmoral for investiture by King Edward VII as a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO). Scott's next few years were crowded. For more than a year he was occupied with post-expedition duties – public receptions, lectures and the writing of the expedition record The Voyage of the Discovery. In January 1906 he resumed his full-time naval career, first as assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty and, in August, as Flag-Captain to Rear-Admiral Sir George Egerton on HMS Victorious. He was now moving in ever more exalted social circles – a telegram to Markham in February 1907 refers to meetings with the Queen and Crown Prince of Portugal, and a later letter home reports lunch with the Commander-in-Chief and Prince Heinrich of Prussia.


By early 1906 Scott had sounded out the RGS about the possible funding of a future Antarctic expedition. It was therefore unwelcome news to him that Ernest Shackleton had announced his own plans, to travel to Discovery's old McMurdo Sound base and launch a bid for the South Pole from there. Scott claimed, in the first of a series of letters to Shackleton, that the area around McMurdo was his own "field of work" to which he had prior rights until he chose to give them up, and that Shackleton should therefore work from an entirely different area. In this he was strongly supported by Edward Wilson, who appeared to believe that Scott's rights extended to the entire Ross Sea sector. This Shackleton refused to concede. Finally, to end the impasse, Shackleton agreed, in a letter to Scott dated 17 May 1907, to work to the east of the 170°W meridian and therefore to avoid all the familiar Discovery ground. It was a promise that, in the event, he was unable to keep after his search for alternative landing grounds proved fruitless. He based his Nimrod expedition at Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound, and this breach of agreement strained relations between Scott and Shackleton thereafter. It has been said that the promise "should never ethically have been demanded", Scott's intransigence on this matter being compared unfavourably with the generous attitude of Fridtjof Nansen, who gave freely of his advice and expertise to Shackleton, and indeed to all-comers, whether potential rivals or not.


Scott, who because of his Discovery fame had entered Edwardian society, first encountered Kathleen Bruce early in 1907, at a private luncheon party. She was a sculptor, socialite and cosmopolitan who had studied under Auguste Rodin and whose circle included Isadora Duncan, Picasso and Aleister Crowley. Their initial meeting was brief, but when they met again later that year mutual attraction was obvious. A stormy courtship followed – Scott was not her only suitor and his absences at sea did not assist his cause – but his persistence was rewarded and, on 2 September 1908, at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, the wedding took place. Their only child, Peter Markham Scott, was born on 14 September 1909.

By this time Scott had announced his plans for his second Antarctic expedition. Shackleton had returned, having narrowly failed to reach the Pole, and this gave Scott the impetus to proceed. On 24 March 1909 he had taken the Admiralty-based appointment of Naval Assistant to the Second Sea Lord which placed him handily in London. In December he was released on half-pay, to take up the full-time command of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910, to be known as the Terra Nova Expedition from its ship, Terra Nova.

Terra Nova Expedition 1910-1913


It was the expressed hope of the RGS that this expedition would be "scientific primarily, with exploration and the Pole as secondary objects" but, unlike the Discovery Expedition, neither they nor the Royal Society were in charge this time. In his expedition prospectus Scott stated plainly that its main objective was "to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement". Scott had, as Markham observed, been "bitten by the Pole mania". Thus, despite its having "the largest and most efficient scientific staff that ever left England", Scott had made it clear that, on this second expedition, the priority lay with the Pole, and with getting there first. Later, however, claims would be made that the race to the pole was lost because Scott refused to compromise his scientific programme

Scott did not know that he would be in a race for the Pole until he received Amundsen's telegram in Melbourne, in October 1910. Before this he had set about fashioning the expedition according to his own preferences, without the restraints of a joint committee. In the decisions that he made with regard to the expedition's methods of travel on the ice he showed that his prejudices against dogs had not faded. They were to be merely one element in a complicated transport strategy that also involved horses and motor sledges and much man-hauling. Scott knew nothing of horses, but felt that as they had seemingly served Shackleton well, he ought to use them. Dogs expert Cecil Meares was going to Siberia to select the dogs, and Scott ordered that, while he was there, he should deal with the purchase of Manchurian ponies. Meares was not an experienced horse-dealer, and the ponies he chose proved mostly of poor quality, and ill-suited to prolonged Antarctic work. Meanwhile Scott spent time in France and Norway, testing motor-sledges, and recruited Bernard Day, from Shackleton's expedition, as his motor expert.

First season

The expedition itself suffered a series of early misfortunes, which hampered the first season's work and impaired preparations for the main polar march. On its journey from New Zealand to the Antarctic, Terra Nova was trapped in pack-ice for 20 days, far longer than other ships had experienced, which meant a late-season arrival and less time for preparatory work before the Antarctic winter. One of the motor sledges was lost during its unloading from the ship, disappearing through the sea ice. Deteriorating weather conditions and weak, unacclimatised ponies affected the initial depot-laying journey to the extent that the main supply point, One Ton Depot, was laid 35 miles (56 km) north of its planned location at 80°S. Six ponies died during this journey. The expedition also learned of the ominous presence of Amundsen, who was camped with a large contingent of dogs in the Bay of Whales, 200 miles (320 km) to their east.

Despite these trials Scott refused to amend his schedule to deal with the Amundsen threat. While acknowledging that the Norwegian's base was closer to the pole and that his experience as a sledge driver was formidable, Scott still had the advantage of travelling over a known route (that pioneered by Shackleton). During the 1911 winter his confidence increased, to the extent of recording, after the return of the Cape Crozier party from their winter journey, that "I feel sure we are as near perfection as experience can direct".

Journey to the Pole

The march south began on 1 November 1911, a complex caravan of mixed transport groups (motors, dogs, horses), with loaded sledges, travelling at different rates, all designed to support a final group of four men who would make a dash for the Pole. Scott had earlier outlined his plans for the southern journey to the entire shore party, without being specific as to precise roles – no one knew, for instance, who would form the final polar team. There was continuing uncertainty about how he proposed to use the dogs, a variety of different orders being issued which left it unclear whether they were to be saved for future scientific journeys, or were to assist the polar party home. The consequence was that his subordinates back at base were confused and uncertain as to how they should act, and failed to use the dogs in a concerted attempt to relieve the returning polar party when the need arose.

The southbound party continued, steadily reducing in size as the support teams turned back. By 4 January 1912 the last two four-man groups had reached 87°34'S. Scott announced his decision: five men (Scott, Edward Wilson, H. R. Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans) would go forward, the other three (Teddy Evans, William Lashly and Tom Crean) would return. The chosen group marched on, reaching the Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by five weeks. Scott's anguish is indicated in his diary: "The worst has happened"; "All the day dreams must go"; "Great God! This is an awful place".

Last march

The deflated party began the 800-mile (1287 km) return journey on 19 January. "I'm afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous", wrote Scott on the next day. However, the party made good progress despite poor weather, and had completed the Polar Plateau stage of their journey, approximately 300 miles (500 km), by 7 February. During the following days the 100-mile (161 km) descent of the Beardmore Glacier saw the increasing decline of Edgar Evans, whose condition Scott had noted with concern as early as 23 January. A fall on 4 February had left Evans "dull and incapable", and on 17 February, after a further fall, he died near the glacier foot. From then on, with 400 miles (670 km) still to travel across the Ross Ice Shelf, the party's prospects steadily worsened, with deteriorating weather, and handicapped by frost-bite, snow-blindness, hunger and exhaustion, they struggled northward. On 16 March, Oates, whose condition was aggravated by an old war-wound to the extent that he was barely able to travel, voluntarily left the tent and walked to his death, in the hope that this sacrifice would save the others. Scott wrote that Oates' last words were, "I am just going outside and may be some time." After walking a further 20 miles, the three remaining men made their final camp on 19 March, 11 miles (18 km) short of One Ton Depot, but 24 miles (38 km) beyond the original intended location of the depot. The next day a fierce blizzard prevented their making any progress. During the next nine days, as their supplies ran out, with frozen fingers, little light, and storms still raging outside the tent, Scott wrote his final words, although he gave up his diary after 23 March, save for a final entry on 29 March, with its concluding words: "Last entry. For God's sake look after our people". He left letters to Wilson's mother, Bowers's mother, a string of notables including his former commander Sir George Egerton, his own mother and his wife. He also wrote his "Message To The Public", primarily a defence of the expedition's organisation and conduct in which the party's failure is adduced to weather and other misfortunes, but ending on an inspirational note, with these words:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last [...] 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, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

Scott is presumed to have died on 29 March 1912, possibly a day later. The positions of the bodies in the tent, when it was discovered eight months later, suggested that Scott was the last of the three to die.



The bodies of Scott and his companions were discovered by a search party on 12 November 1912 and their records retrieved. Their final camp became their tomb; a high cairn of snow was erected over it, topped by a roughly fashioned cross. In January 1913, before Terra Nova left for home, a large wooden cross was made by the ship's carpenters, inscribed with the names of the lost party and Tennyson's line from his poem Ulysses: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield", and was erected on Observation Hill overlooking Hut Point. The world was informed of the tragedy when Terra Nova reached Oamaru, New Zealand, on 10 February 1913. Within days Scott had become a national icon. A fierce nationalistic spirit was aroused; the London Evening News called for the story to be read to schoolchildren throughout the land, to coincide with the memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral on 14 February. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts Association, asked: "Are Britons going downhill? No!...There is plenty of pluck and spirit left in the British after all. Captain Scott and Captain Oates have shown us that". 11-year-old Mary Steel wrote a poem which ended:

::::Though naught but a simple cross Now marks those heroes’ grave,
Their names will live forever!
Oh England, Land of the Brave!

The survivors of the expedition were suitably honoured on their return, with polar medals and promotions for the naval personnel. In place of the knighthood that might have been her husband's had he survived, Kathleen Scott was granted the rank and precedence of a widow of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. In 1922 she married Edward Hilton Young, later Lord Kennet (she becoming Lady Kennet), and remained a doughty defender of Scott's reputation until her death, aged 69, in 1947. Amundsen was lecturing in the United States in 1913; on learning the details of Scott's death he is reported as saying, "I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death". Scott was much the better wordsmith of the two, and the story that spread throughout the world was largely that told by him, with Amundsen's victory reduced in the eyes of many to an unsporting stratagem. There also seems to have been some disconnect in the coverage of his first reaction. An article in the Times reporting on the glowing tributes paid to Scott in the New York press claimed both Shackleton and Amundsen were "[amazed] to hear that such a disaster could overtake a well-organized expedition".

Even before Scott's death was known, Amundsen's feat was reportedly the object of a sneer from RGS President Lord Curzon, at a meeting held supposedly to honour the polar victor, prompting Amundsen to resign his honorary RGS fellowship.

The response to Scott's final plea on behalf of the dependents of the dead was enormous by the standards of the day. The Mansion House Scott Memorial Fund closed at £75,000 (2008 approximation £3.5 million). This was not equally distributed; Scott's widow, son, mother and sisters received a total of £18,000. Wilson's widow got £8,500 and Bowers's mother £4,500. Edgar Evans's widow, children and mother received £1,500 between them.

In the dozen years following the disaster more than 30 monuments and memorials were set up in Britain alone. These ranged from simple relics (Scott's sledging flag in Exeter Cathedral) to the foundation of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge. Many more were established in other parts of the world. The popularity of the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic showed that the public perception of Scott as hero had continued into the post-war era. The US scientific base at the South Pole, founded in 1957, is called the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, to honour the memories of both polar conquerors.

Modern reaction

Scott's reputation survived the period after World War II, beyond the 50th anniversary of the disaster in 1962. A few years after that, Reginald Pound, the first biographer given access to Scott's original sledging journal, revealed personal failings which cast a new light on Scott, although Pound continued to endorse his heroism, writing of "a splendid sanity that would not be subdued". Within the following decade further books appeared, each of which to some degree challenged the prevailing public perception. The most critical of these was David Thomson's Scott's Men (1977); in Thomson's view Scott was not a great man, "at least, not until near the end"; his planning is described as "haphazard" and "flawed", his leadership characterized by lack of foresight. Thus by the late 1970s, in Jones's words: "Scott's complex personality had been revealed and his methods questioned." In 1979 came the most sustained attack on Scott, from Roland Huntford's dual biography Scott and Amundsen in which Scott is depicted as a "heroic bungler". Huntford's thesis had an immediate impact, becoming the new orthodoxy. Even Scott's heroism in the face of death is challenged; Huntford sees Scott's Message to the Public as a deceitful self-justification from a man who had led his comrades to their deaths. After Huntford's book, debunking Captain Scott became commonplace; Francis Spufford, in a 1996 history not wholly antagonistic to Scott, refers to "devastating evidence of bungling", concluding that "Scott doomed his companions, then covered his tracks with rhetoric". Travel writer Paul Theroux summarised Scott as "confused and demoralised ... an enigma to his men, unprepared and a bungler". This decline in Scott's reputation was accompanied by a corresponding rise in that of his erstwhile rival Shackleton, at first in the United States but eventually in Britain as well.. A 2002 nationwide poll in the United Kingdom to discover the "100 Greatest Britons" showed Shackleton in eleventh place, Scott well down the list at 54th.

However, the early years of the 21st century have seen a shift of opinion in Scott's favour, in what cultural historian Stephanie Barczewski calls "a revision of the revisionist view." Meteorologist Susan Solomon's 2001 account The Coldest March ties the fate of Scott's party to the extraordinarily adverse Barrier weather conditions of February and March 1912 rather than to personal or organizational failings, although Solomon accepts the validity of some of the criticisms of Scott. In 2004 polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes published a biography which was a strong defence of Scott and an equally forthright rebuttal of Huntford; the book is dedicated "To the Families of the Defamed Dead". Fiennes was later criticised for the personal nature of his attacks on Huntford, and for his apparent assumption that his own experiences as a polar explorer gave him unique authority.

In 2005 David Crane published a new Scott biography which, according to Barczewski, goes some way towards an assessment of Scott "free from the baggage of earlier interpretations." What has happened to Scott's reputation, Crane argues, derives from the way the world has changed since the heroic myth was formed: "It is not that we see him differently from the way they [his contemporaries] did, but that we see him the same, and instinctively do not like it." Crane's main achievement, according to Barczewski, is the restoration of Scott's humanity, "far more effectively than either Fiennes's stridency or Solomon's scientific data." Daily Telegraph columnist Jasper Rees, likening the changes in explorers' reputations to climatic variations, suggests that "in the current Antarctic weather report, Scott is enjoying his first spell in the sun for twenty-five years."

List of honours

Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Polar Medal
Officier de la Légion d'Honneur (France) (Wikipedia)

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