16 January 2012
On 17th January one hundred years ago, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and a small team of five naval and army officers and scientists reached the South Pole. The story is well known: how the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had won the race to the Pole to the bitter disappointment of the British expedition; how Scott and his party perished in cruel conditions on their way back to their base camp; the self-sacrifice of Captain Lawrence Oats; the rest of the group’s final days in a blizzard only 11 miles from the depot of provisions that would have saved them. We know all this because Scott and several of his men kept detailed diaries of their experiences which were found with their bodies some eight months later.
Scott’s failure was, in a way, a triumph which overshadowed the achievement of Amundsen.The romantic myth of the doomed expedition has inspired films, TV series and books, and the arguments over who or what bears the responsibility continue to this day, indeed it has entered in some way the national psyche, as Scott himself predicted. In his last letter to his wife, written on 29 March 1912, he wrote:
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.
The expedition is up there with other spectacular failures: the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Retreat from Dunkirk come to mind. The sheer courage, pluck or stiff upper lip involved has, with the benefit of hindsight, rendered these otherwise unmitigated disasters examples of true British grit and has inspired others to succeed where their forebears did not. If you want to gain a little understanding of this peculiarity of the national character, The Polar Museum in Cambridge, one of Context’s cities, is hosting an exhibition until 5th May dedicated to the 1910-12 Terra Nova exploration of Antarctica, These Rough Notes: Capt. Scott’s last expedition. For the first time rare and fragile letters, diaries and photographs have been put on show in order to chart, in intimate detail, the fortunes of all those involved, including the horrendous conditions endured by the ‘Northern Party’, a group of six men who had to shelter in a cave dug out of the snow for over a year and a half, cut off from their supply ship.
As well as letters and diaries the exhibition includes objects associated with the expedition: watercolours made by Scott’s chief scientist, Edward Wilson; the makeshift newspaper which the trapped Northern Party put together on a typewriter, including humorous sketches, poems and snatches of news; Lawrence Oats’ reindeer-skin sleeping bag abandoned when he walked out into a brutal night; the Christmas decorations made by the shore party and a penguin-shaped menu for a Midwinter’s Day dinner. They bring a touch of humanity to the written accounts as well as illustrating how the men attempted to bring some comfort and familiarity to ‘the worst journey in the world’.
But it is the diaries and letters which make up the most poignant and illuminating part of the show. Disputes between the expedition’s members – Oats’ opinion of Scott, ‘He is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere’ – and Scott’s lament at not reaching the Pole first – ‘Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority’ – as well as touching letters to loved one’s and accounts written by survivors bring a completeness to our understanding of exactly what happened a century ago and why it all went so terribly wrong. As the Museum’s archivist has written, ‘We know the story – we know how it ends – but they didn’t, so from the storms that beset the ship through to the party in the hut and on to the march to the South Pole we can go with them on their journey’.
For details of the exhibition, see http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/exhibitions/theseroughnotes/