One hundred years ago this evening, Captain Scott lay half out of his reindeer sleeping bag, Bowers on his right and the scientist, Wilson on his left. Both of Scott’s comrades had already drifted into ‘a kind of sleep’ according to Trygge Gran, one of the rescue party. In some accounts, Scott had his arm around Wilson. This then, was the final scene in Scott’s extraordinary life – in which achieving the South Pole had been the last frontier. Their suffering had been extraordinary: blizzards, temperatures below minus 40 F, an inexplicable lack of fuel in their depots and shortage of food. And yet Scott kept up his diary to the end – and his last harrowing entry: ‘For God’s sake look after our people.’
Having just read Edward Evans South with Scott (gritty, elegantly written and totally loyal to Scott) I am in nothing but awe of the men that joined Scott on his Terra Nova expedition. They were to a man, the most cheerful, patriotic, cultured and loyal bunch you could ever imagine, and remained so in the most desperate of circumstances. The flickering images of the Polar party cheerfully sharing Fry’s cocoa before heading south was not just for the benefit of Ponting’s camera.
What stands out in Evan’s account is not just the heroism; it is the commitment to art and especially to science. Less than a month from their death, the Polar party were still collecting geological specimens and hauled 35lb of scientific samples back with them on the sledge, despite their suffering. The Terra Nova expedition was not a mad dash for the pole (how much happier for them if it had been). Rather it was a considered, meticulously planned expedition, with the noblest of aims: to claim the pole for king and country; to further scientific knowledge and in the writings and images to create a poetic account of their voyage. They succeeded in all but one of their goals.
The Natural History Museum are currently staging a fine tribute to these gentlemen explorers. They have recreated the expedition hut, assembled much of the original paraphenalia including their gramaphone, supplies and skis; they have even marked out their bunks on the ground. But quite rightly they have placed the emphasis on the scientific legacy of the expedition – the Emperor penguin eggs Cherry-Garrard and co fought suffered so much to retrive and countless other specimens. Visit the exhibition, read some of the other tributes written today and saltute these fine men still lying out there somewhere in the snow.
‘On the outside grows the furside;
on the inside grows the skinside.’
Herbert Ponting, Antarctic photographer
You made them ghosts before their time
silver figures on the pack ice, like chess men
scattered across a tabletop; that year
you banished rainbows, your lens like a moonstone
impressing their spirits on the glass.
You established your aesthetic in a soft hat,
goggles and frozen moustache. Yours was
the all-seeing eye, the Terra Nova in the distance,
the dog in the mouth of a gramophone
and Scott in his study, plotting his fate.
You watched their prints disappear south
and would not look up at the copper moon.
In the darkroom, you printed the blankness
of midnight across the great white silence.