Captain Robert Falcon Scott – Heroic Leader or Tragic Bungler?

No one is exactly sure when Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his four of his fellow explorers died on their failed Antarctic expedition.  Today is observed as the centenary of the deaths because March 19, 1912 was the last entry in Scott’s journal.  Since his death, Scott has been both lionized and roundly condemned.  Depending on who one listens to, Scott was a heroic explorer or a tragic bungler.  A commemorative service at St Paul’s Cathedral today is expected to draw 2,000 Scott admirers from all over the world, while Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the South Pole by a month and returned without losing a man, is largely forgotten outside of Norway.  Scott is also far better remembered than his colleague and rival Ernest Shackleton. See our recent post, Recreating Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Epic Lifeboat Voyage.

Captain Scott centenary: Storm rages around polar explorer’s reputation

The private Scott is hard to pin down. His face in portraits and photographs is rather blank. Sara Wheeler, author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, points to his neuroses. “He’s quite neurotic about himself and whether he’s going to achieve anything in life,” she says. “Doubt is a real hallmark of Scott, and that’s quite atypical of figures like him.”

She argues that Scott chose the charismatic, voluble sculptor Kathleen Bruce as his wife – they married in September 1908 and had a son, Peter, a year later – because she was the galvanic force he wasn’t and could draw him out of himself. 

She also contrasts him with Shackleton, volcanic, Anglo-Irish, far more of an adventurer than Scott. Though no gambler. Shackleton had got to within 97 miles of the south pole on his own expedition in 1909 before turning back as his provisions ran low. “Are you a lion or a donkey?” his wife Emily asked him. “Better a live donkey than a dead lion,” Shackleton replied. By 1910 Scott and Shackleton were rivals, and in death Scott was able to out-lionise him.

The bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were left in the tent in which they were found. Oates and Evans were never discovered. The search party who happened on the tent built a cairn of snow around it, and photographed it. That photograph – and the ones found inside the tent of the five exhausted, bleary-eyed men at the pole – came to define the expedition.

The cairn was then abandoned, and its location is now unknown. It is estimated to be under 20-odd metres of impacted snow on the slowly drifting Ross ice shelf. In a couple of centuries the ice which encloses it will slip into the ocean, and Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN will finally get the burial at sea he would have wanted.


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