'Goodbye to you': one of Captain Scott's last letters

My dear Sir Edgar
I hope this may reach you – I fear we must go and that it leaves the expedition in a bad muddle – But we have been to the Pole and we shall die like gentlemen – I regret only for the women we leave behind – I thank you a thousand times for your help & support and your generous kindness – If this diary is found it will show how we stuck by dying companions and fought this thing out well to the end – I think this will show that spirit of pluck & the power to endure has not passed out of the race – If recognition of this fact can be given by people will you please do your best to have our people looked after those dependent on us I have my wife & child to think of – the wife is a very independent person but the country ought not to let my boy want an education & a future...Wilson the best fellow that ever stepped who has sacrificed himself again
& again to the sick men of the party leaves a widow entirely destitute. Surely something ought to be done for her and for the humble widow of Edgar Evans. I write to many friends hoping the letters will reach them sometime after we are found next year we very nearly came through and it's a pity to have missed it but lately I have felt that we have overshot our mark – No one is to blame and I hope no attempt will be made to suggest that we lacked support.
– Goodbye to you and your dear kind wife
Yours sincerely
R Scott

Heroes are easy to knock down. Dead ones even more so. Those perceived to represent imperialism and patriotism are the easiest targets, which is why Robert Falcon Scott has proved such a controversial figure.

Captain Scott, interested in natural science and exploration, wanted to be the first to reach the South Pole and research the Antarctic. Roald Amundsen, thwarted by Peary and Cook in his quest to be first to the North Pole, decided instead to join the race to the South Pole. He succeeded, on 14 December 1911, with nothing to distract him from his goal. Scott reached the icy podium in second place on 17 January 1912, with much, and not all of it science, to distract him. Amundsen returned safely to Norway, only to disappear mysteriously in 1928. Scott died on his way back from the Pole, marooned for ten days with Wilson and Bowers in a tent only 11 miles from the relative safety of One Ton Depot, a huge cache of food and fuel.

These snippets make Amundsen and Scott, and the men who accompanied them, heroes. Amundsen's shore party consisted of only eight men, Scott's of more than 30. Different management propositions altogether. Scott was the product of the British class system and of the Navy; he was from a damp, mild and occasionally miserable country, the end of Empire imminent. Amundsen was the product of a young, newly-independent country, of a culture without a class system, used to nine-month winters and appallingly low temperatures. Comparing the two men in depth, as some have done, is misguided.
Whether Amundsen was a better leader than Scott is arguable. He built his base camp on floating sea ice and was lucky not to be swept into the sea; he set out for the Pole much too soon in September 1911 and almost killed himself and all his men, fleeing back to base in a panic and without due consideration for his men. He then proceeded to divide and rule, excluding those who questioned him from the final push. He caused the suicide of one of his men (Johansen, whom he sent home from Hobart after the Pole adventure with barely enough money to get back to Oslo).

Scott, on the other hand, managed to bring his men together as a team despite the prejudices of the age and the British system, and, though he made mistakes (of which not taking enough dogs was certainly the gravest, as they would have helped with scientific experiments as well as the academic race for the Pole), as a result of which he was second to the Pole, his death, and that of Wilson and Bowers, is subject to much guesswork.

Scott's base at Cape Evans is much now as it was then, thanks to the conservation work of the Antarctic Heritage Trust New Zealand. I was lucky enough to visit the wooden hut in 2008. The atmosphere inside is bleak, though I often wonder if that is because we know that five of the men who lived here did not return. I prefer to imagine it being a warm and cheerful place, filled with the sounds of the blubber stove going full pelt. Scott and his men did not leave in November 1911 expecting to die. They left hoping to return with tales of a marvelous adventure. Instead, they died more than 160 miles south of Cape Evans, just short of the now infamous One Ton Depot. The depot is an irony in itself. Originally planned to be pitched at 80 degrees south, it was actually sited at 79 degrees 28 and a half south, more than 30 miles further north. Scott and his men were only 11 miles from it when they died. The maths is simple. If the weather hadn't stopped Scott from pushing on to 80 degrees when depot laying, he and his men might have, would have, survived, albeit in need of the amputation of severely frost-bitten extremities. As for Evans and Oates, they would have been lost anyway, due to a lack of calories, fuel and the unusually severe temperatures of that March in 1912. For a close analysis of the Antarctic weather that year, read the superb The Coldest March by Susan Solomon, by far the most scientific of all non-fiction books on Scott's expedition.

So why not push on those 11 miles? Why wait for ten desolate, desperate, dragging days to die in a tiny tent? Eleven miles in the Antarctic are more like 50 miles in a temperate climate. Add to that the consistency of the ice and snow over which they would have had to haul their sledge, the weight of the disappointment of having been beaten to the Pole, and the grief of having lost two of their comrades. Eleven miles become a hundred now. And the wind was constantly behind them. There was also a problem with a lack of fuel. They had nothing with which to heat the little food they had left, not even enough to have more than one last cup of tea a couple of days before they died. Eleven miles for three undernourished, starving men, are 11 miles too far.

What did they speak of in those last ten days? What remains is a fragment of time, stored in Scott's last few irregular diary entries, and the men's final letters. Wilson and Bowers stopped keeping diaries well before they reached their final resting point, and their last letters are just that, goodbye letters which speak not of the minutiae of waiting for death, but of those greater thoughts which find themselves into a man's mind as he prepares for the inevitable.

One of Scott's letters mentions songs and cheery conversations before moving on to speak of love and friendship. Wilson writes to his wife of his faith, his love for her, and his conviction that "we shall certainly meet again". Bowers' letter to his mother says that he and Wilson feel strong enough to make it to One Ton, then describes how peaceful death will be, and that he is "your ever loving son to the end of this life & the next".

Scott's letter to Edgar Speyer is one of the few dated letters found with the bodies. Written just days before Scott's ultimate diary scrawl, it suggests he has already given up hope of surviving, and that he wishes his diary will be found so the world realizes no one is to blame for the expedition's failure.

After Henry 'Silas' Wright, one of the search party, found the tent, almost by accident, on 12 November 1912, Atkinson, the ship's surgeon, spent hours inside with the three bodies, collecting letters, diaries and other effects. He did not examine the bodies closely for a cause of death, it was reported that he did not feel able to. Scott's diaries were in his sledging satchel, and the letters on the ground next to his body, perfectly preserved by the freezing cold. Bowers and Wilson appeared to have gone to sleep peacefully, while Scott was lying in a half-open sleeping bag, his arms thrown over his companions. That is how they were buried, the tent gently collapsed to cover their bodies, and a cairn built above them.

Anyone who wishes to surmise what actually did happen in and around that tent has to use their imagination. Scott's diary tells of a raging blizzard which set in on the day they got to their final camp, and which, according to his last entry on 29 March 1912, was still raging then. However, the mystery is that it has been scientifically shown that Antarctic blizzards can last no longer than three days, and that any such blizzard is always followed by days of calm.

What's more, Scott's final diary entry says, "Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of swirling drift. Was he hallucinating? Did Bowers and Wilson stay with him merely because of their fierce loyalty to him, or because they knew they wouldn't have the strength to walk two days to the depot to pick up fuel and then two days back into the face of the increasingly bitter and malevolent wind, forever blowing north? This is history we will never know.

The rationalist's view says that they starved to death, that they consumed too few calories over the whole of their pilgrimage to the Pole and back, that, in the days before vitamins had been discovered, they succumbed to scurvy, that they were betrayed by the leather washers on the paraffin canisters, which meant most of the canisters were less than half full at each of their depots, and which in turn deprived them of warm food, and of the ability to melt snow to keep themselves hydrated. Starvation and dehydration in the biggest desert in the world, for that is what the Antarctic is – the driest continent on the face of this planet.

An irrationalist such as myself might say that they had their hearts broken by the most fierce, most beautiful, most cold of all mistresses.

Richard Pierce is the author of Dead Men, a novel based on the discovery of Captain Scott's body and the mystery of his death to be published in March by Duckworth.

Images courtesy of The Natural History Museum

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