Scott and his team at the geographic South Pole, January 18, 1912. National Library of Australia
On February 11, 1913, the world woke to the headline “Death of Captain Scott. Lost with four comrades. The Pole reached. Disaster on the return”. A keenly anticipated, privately funded scientific venture “off the map” had turned to tragedy.
Previous reports had described the polar party of the British Antarctic Expedition striking out confidently just 2.5º latitude from their objective: the geographic South Pole. The journals and letters recovered from the bodies, however, told a tale of heartbreak and desperation: the explorers were shattered to find themselves beaten to the pole by Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, and weakened terribly during their journey back to base.
Of the five men in Captain Robert F. Scott’s party, Petty Officer Edgar Evans was the first to die, while descending from the high-altitude Antarctic Plateau. Then, while searching in vain on the vast Ross Ice Shelf for the dog sleds ordered to speed their return to base, Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates realised that his ever-slowing pace was threatening the others, and famously walked out into a blizzard with the parting words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Pushing on with limited supplies, the remaining men (Scott, Dr Edward Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers) found themselves trapped by a nine-day blizzard. All three wrote messages to friends and loved ones while waiting, until eventually their food ran out on about March 29, 1912.
Their deaths were put down to the fickleness of Antarctic weather, bad luck or, most controversially, poor leadership on the part of Scott.
But my new research, published in the journal Polar Record, has uncovered new evidence about this ill-fated journey. I have identified major contradictions in the testimony of Scott’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Edward “Teddy” Evans, who survived the expedition after being rejected from Scott’s party.
Was Scott scuppered by Evans?
Evans’s actions raise the possibility that he played a role in the deaths of the five men. Furious at not being included in the attempt on the pole, Evans was returning to base when he collapsed with scurvy. Evans was the only expedition member to develop scurvy, most probably due to his refusal to eat fresh seal meat, a known preventive measure.
His companions Tom Crean and William Lashly heroically saved Evans’s life, a tale made famous in no small measure by expeditioner Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic book on the expedition, The Worst Journey in the World.
Buried in the British Library, I found a crucial piece of evidence about Evans’s trip back to camp. Seven pages of notes detail meetings held in April 1913 between Lord Curzon, president of the Royal Geographical Society, and Scott’s and Wilson’s widows, both of whom had read their late husbands’ diaries and correspondence.