5. Scott Had a Tough Early Adulthood
Unlike many other famous explorers during earlier periods of history, Robert Falcon Scott did not grow up as part of the privileged class. His father was a brewer, and Scott and his siblings lived a comfortable life. Following a long history of military service in his family, Scott began training for the British Navy as a cadet at age 13, and then served two years as a midshipman. Scott served without distinction for more than a decade before tragedy struck his family. Scott’s father suffered a series of devastating financial setbacks, then died of heart problems when Scott was 29. A year later, Scott’s younger brother, Archie, died of typhoid fever, leaving Scott as the sole provider for his mother and two unmarried sisters. Scott sacrificed greatly to provide for his family; in later years, he wrote that his self-induced poverty and personal sacrifice had made him feel isolated from his peers.
4. Scott was a Hero in Great Britain Even Before His Fatal Expedition
At age 31, Scott volunteered to lead a polar expedition, even though he later wrote, "I may as well confess that I had no predilection for polar exploration.” After much bickering among the British naval elite, Scott was promoted to the rank of commander and put in charge of the ship Discovery for an expedition to the Antarctic. The highlight of the journey featured a three-month march across the polar ice by Scott and two shipmates, including Ernest Shackleton, who would later become Scott’s rival in polar exploration.
The trio closed within about 500 miles of the South Pole, and made some interesting scientific findings. When Scott returned from the three-year voyage, he was greeted as a hero in Great Britain. He was promoted to captain, conducted lectures before thousands of people and wrote a book, Voyage of the Discovery. In retrospect, the fame set him on the path for the expedition that would end his life.
3. Scott Didn’t Know He Would Be “Racing” to the Pole
Scott was the natural choice to lead another polar mission, this time aiming to reach the South Pole and, as Scott put it, “… secure for Great Britain the honour of that achievement.” Finding a crew was not a problem — thousands applied to join the expedition — but Scott had a difficult time raising funds. Eventually, the expedition’s ship, Terra Nova, departed Great Britain for the pole in June 1910, with Scott staying behind to raise more money. He joined the ship in South Africa in mid-August. Two months later, when the ship reached port in Australia, Scott received a telegram from the Norwegian explorer Amundsen, sent several weeks earlier: "Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen." Scott was stunned to learn that he was now in a race. Amundsen had publicly announced a polar expedition, but his stated goal was the North Pole. When news arrived that American Robert E. Peary had reached that milestone in 1909, Amundsen literally told his crew that instead of heading for the Arctic, they were now bound for the South Pole. The race was on — against Scott’s wishes.
Scott and his crew battled adversity as they sailed toward the pole. A storm flooded the Terra Nova at one point. Later, the ship pushed through a thick ice pack for several weeks, greatly slowing its progress. Eventually, the expedition reached land and the crew spent several months doing research, placing supply depots for the polar walk and preparing for the final assault on the pole.
Just before beginning his march to the pole on Nov. 1, 1911, Scott penned a letter to his wife, admitting he would probably not beat Amundsen to the pole: "I don't know what to think of Amundsen's chances. If he gets to the Pole it must be before we do, as he is bound to travel fast with dogs, and pretty certain to start early. On this account I decided at a very early date to act exactly as I should have done had he not existed. Any attempt to race must have wrecked my plan, besides which it doesn't appear the sort of thing one is out for ... After all, it is the work that counts, not the applause that follows."
2. Some Historians Blame Scott for the Expedition Failure
Scott and a party of four other men reached the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912, only to find that Amundsen’s party had been there five weeks earlier. Despite earlier hints that he knew Amundsen would win the race, Scott was upset. “Great God! This is an awful place,” Scott complained in his diary. Thus began the depressing, 800-mile walk back to base camp. They never made it. Halfway through the return march, one expedition member, Edgar Evans, weakened and died after a fall. Another member of the party, Lawrence Oates, unable to walk anymore, famously declared “I am just going outside and may be some time,” sacrificing himself so the others could continue. Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers hiked three more days before stopping for the final time. A blizzard roared in, and the men were stranded as their supplies ran out — less than a dozen miles from a supply depot. Scott was believed to be the final one alive, writing in his diary on March 29, “For God’s sake look after our people.” A search party discovered the three explorers almost eight months later.
Upon news of their demise, Scott and his fellow explorers were honored as heroes. Dozens of monuments and memorials were erected in Great Britain and elsewhere commemorating the tragic journey. For more than a half-century, Scott was universally regarded as a hero. But in the latter half of the 20th century, many historians began attacking Scott’s legacy. Roland Huntford’s 1979 book, Scott and Amundsen, questioned Scott’s tactical decisions, blamed him for the fatal return march and labeled him a “heroic bungler.” A 1996 book, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, by British writer Francis Spufford, didn’t mince words: the book suggested the journey showed “devastating evidence of bungling,” and noted that “Scott doomed his companions, then covered his tracks with rhetoric.” It goes without saying that Scott’s descendants and other supporters were not happy with this revisionist version of Scott’s legacy.
1. Some Historians Say Weather, Factors Beyond His Control Doomed Scott
Supporters of Scott’s legacy can take heart in the fact that research in recent years has cast him in a much more favorable light. In 2004, British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, regarded by the Guinness Book of the World Records as the “World’s Greatest Living Explorer,” published a strong rebuttal to the attacks on Scott. An exhaustive meteorological study of the polar weather during that period, Susan Solomon’s The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition, concluded that unexpectedly fierce weather during Scott’s return march doomed the expedition. Today, on the 100th anniversary of both his greatest achievement and worst disappointment, Scott’s legacy seems to have come full circle among scholars, in what one historian ironically labels “a revision of the revisionist view.” Among the public, however, Scott's reputation took a beating for so long, it may take some time to recover. In a 2002 BBC poll to determine the 100 Greatest Britons, Scott finished a middling 54th, two spots ahead of pop singer Sir Cliff Richard, but far behind Sir Ernest Shackleton, who placed 11th despite never reaching the pole.