Exploring is all very well in its way, but it is a thing that can be very easily overdone.
Goodness me. What a ride this autobiographical book was as it follows the (true) travels of a well-meaning (but rather poorly trained) crew of men trying to reach the South Pole of Antarctica. It was heart-breaking to read of their efforts knowing that, in the end, a significant portion of them would die of hideous things such as starvation, frost-bite, and other causes.
I had read Volume I of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book earlier, and had been mesmerized by its details, so happily picked this volume up to continue the journey. Volume I had clearly shown how challenging the expedition had been for the crew, and Volume II, now including excerpts from the journals of some of the other expedition members, was absolutely harrowing in terms of hardship and misfortune for these well-meaning men.
“We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.” Excerpt from one of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s more modest entries in his journal.
The expedition had had two goals, neither of which really supported the other, a situation which could be argued to be one of the fundamental reasons why it went so haywire in the end. Let me explain:
The ship, Terra Nova, in 1911 when it first arrived in Antarctica.
The two competing goals were both very focused on England taking the lead in both the scientific world and the exploring world – to be the first team to officially reach the South Pole (and thus “claim” for the Empire) and to also engage in some serious scientific research thought to help further understanding of the still fairly young idea of evolution. Funding had been short, and so the months before the expedition had been spent traveling around looking for financial donors, all of whom expected to have a stake in the outcome, and with only a small government grant to support them, they were heavily dependent upon the private sector.
The media at the time was very focused on which country would reach the South Pole first, a focus that has been compared to the media frenzy of the Space Race between USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had tried to reach the South Pole on two earlier attempts without success, and indeed, this particular expedition’s leader, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, had attempted to reach it just a few years before. (Shackleton was a third officer on Scott’s 1901-04 unsuccessful Discovery expedition, and in fact, was interested in making a bid to reach the South Pole around the same time as Scott. He and Scott had a pretty big argument about this and treading on each other’s toes on the southern continent and this led to all kinds of ramifications for both of them, including who had the most honorable intentions. Scott won that battle, but really, I think Shackleton wasn’t a bad guy.)
This was also just before the start of WWI, and so England had not yet been exposed to the huge mass casualties and psychological damage of losing an important war and large swathes of its young men. England was still supreme in the world, the “sun never set on the empire”, and it seemed that there was absolutely nothing that an Englishman could not do if he applied himself.
Map showing both Scott’s (green) route and Amundsen’s (red) route to South Pole. (Credit: Wikipedia.)
Combine this with the fact that Norway (the upstarts! :-)) were also in the race for the South Pole, and things were a bit fraught all around. When the Scott Expedition left England to sail for the Antarctic (via New Zealand), they left with loads of optimism and with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s team was not going for the South Pole but would be, instead, heading for the North Pole. All seemed to be running smoothly with little competition, until, around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, Scott was informed that Amundsen’s team had done a switcheroo and were instead racing his team to Antarctica. (Not very good sportsmanship, what ho?)
So, two expeditions were hurrying seaward towards Antarctica, both with the weight of their countries hanging heavily around their necks. Scott’s ship almost sunk at one point in a terrible storm losing some of their ponies and dogs overboard (a detail which would become important later on), and it was all rather awful.
Keep in mind that few people had ever been to this continent, and so it was almost the equivalent of going to the moon. No one really knew the terrain that well or its seasonal weather, so there was a lot of guesswork going on with regards to equipment and life experience. The equipment was also technically terrible (although cutting-edge at the time), with plenty of wool, cotton, leather, canvas and fur (for boots, gloves, sleeping bags etc.) None of this helped.
Siberian ponies on board the Terra Nova prior to arrival.
They finally landed in Antarctica after being stuck in pack ice for a delay of 20 days which affected food supplies, and meant that the expedition would land later in the year than planned which meant less prep time and more bad weather. Unloading the ship meant other calamities, including losing one of their motorized sledges which fell off during the landing process and upon which the expedition had been banking on. The weather was terrible (not surprising when it’s close to the Antarctic winter months) and the expedition were also intent on using ponies as pack animals to haul supplies around. With such obstacles to their planned time line, Scott was advised to kill some of the ponies for food, but Scott refused to do that.
Captain Scott in his end of the hut in 1911. He thought it would be a good idea to organize the one hut along the same lines as a Naval ship: officers at one end and enlisted at the other. divided by a blanket. He, of course, got the better end of that deal…
Before they’d even started, three ponies had died from the cold or because they slowed the team down, three more drowned when sea-ice unexpectedly gave way, but Scott was still confident about meeting the end goal. And after reading this whole document, I’m still not sure whether Scott was too over-confident with his expedition goals. Looking back, it seems somewhat foolish to gamble with all these unforeseen misfortunes, but was there really an alternative to moving forward? Perhaps not at this point.
And so the expedition moves forward. It survives appalling weather conditions, frequent blizzards, an ever-lowering stock of pack animals (including dogs). The team receive more ponies half-way through to supplement their stock, but these new ponies have been sent from India and thus are poorly suited to Antarctic conditions. The men work closely together, and there is no mention of any insurrection among the ranks, but boy. I bet there were plenty of grumpy comments inside their heads!
“The day really lives on in my memory because of the trouble of [one of the expedition members]. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his body harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a little dazed.”*
So, I mentioned that the expedition had two feuding goals, one to reach the South Pole first and one to do scientific research work. One of the main scientific objectives was to collect some specimens of embryonic eggs from the huge Emperor Penguins who inhabited land down there. (Some penguins weighed up to 6.5 stone/88 lbs and some 45“ in height, and their embryos were believed to be important evidence in proving a point of evolution. As it turns out, theories had evolved by the time the expedition returned to England which was heart-breaking for me as the reader. Some of these men had risked their lives to get samples and to bring them back in one piece, and then when they were turned into the museum, the expedition rep was told that the specimens weren’t wanted. Yikes.)
So, anyway, as you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this read and could chat for quite some time about it, but am pretty sure that perhaps not all of you will share this new obsession. It sent me down Wikipedia rabbit holes for quite some time. There were also overlaps between this expedition and our recent trip to England, as the young author and researcher mentioned earlier (Apsley Cherry-Garrard and only 24 years old) happened to be born in Bedford (my home town), we saw one of Scott’s original journals on display at the British Library, and then at the Royal Mews, there is one of the Queen’s carriages that contains a piece of wood that was the actual hut that Scott and some of his team lived in during this expedition. It also contained some wood from the earlier Shackleton expedition as well. (Amazing how things can overlap sometimes, isn’t it?)
The Queen’s carriage at the Royal Mews. This vehicle contains a piece of Scott’s main hut during the Antarctica expedition 1910-1913. (It also contained some wood from Shackleton’s polar hut as well.)
Apsley, btw, had no polar experience, was not a scientist, had few relevant skills, but gave quite a bit of financial backing to the expedition (twice!) and thus was selected based wholly upon that. His journal entries about his novice skills can be witty, but are also heart-breaking:
“I confess I had my misgivings. I had never driven one dog, let alone a team of them; I knew nothing of navigation; and [the depot} was a hundred and thirty miles away, out in the middle of the Barrier and away from landmarks. And so we pushed our way out… I felt there was a good deal to be hoped for, rather than to be expected.”
[Very sad face.]
One very very sweet factoid about Apsley: He was rather shy and didn’t get married until he was about 50 or so, and when he first met his soon-to-be much younger wife, the first gesture of courtship he did was to give his wife a small stone. This only makes sense when you know that the first gesture of courtship between an Emperor Penguin and his mate is when he gives her a small stone with which to start building their nest. He called the stones “penguin jewels.” Awww. Sweetness.
I’ve just ordered a biography of Apsley yesterday, so very much looking forward to reading that. He seems to be one of the nicest people on the expedition now that I’ve read his journals.
*Hugely massive understatement!