Society for the History of Discoveries

Yelverton, David E. Antarctica Unveiled : Scott’s First Expedition and the Quest for the Unknown Continent. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2000. xxxii, 472 p. IBSN 0870815822

Cdr. Scott, Sub-Lt. Ernest Shackleton, and Dr. Edward Wilson started north on the first day of 1903, having reached approximately 82o 10' S., the farthest south any mortal man had then reached. They completed their three-month, 600-mile journey on February 3, 1903, arriving at the ship, Discovery, ice-bound in McMurdo Sound at latitude 77o 50' S. longitude 100o 42' E. During the previous three months, they had been pinned in their tent five different days by blizzards, run low on food, fought bouts of scurvy, leaving their gums sore and legs swollen, and suffered snow blindness. Wilson, after injecting himself with morphine to relieve the pain, traveled one day blindfolded, and later sketched with one eye covered, and, even more frightening, Shackleton suffered what was probably a minor heart attack and contributed little for several days.

David Yelverton meticulously details the story of the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04, basing his work on archival sources, society journals, personal journals, and diaries. In the words of HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh, “This fascinating book could be described as long overdue. The drama of Captain Scott’s death and the failure of his party to return after reaching the South Pole has completely overshadowed the remarkable achievements of his first expedition ten years earlier.”

Yelverton spends the first 67 pages discussing the origins of twentieth-century exploration of the Antarctic and the struggle first to sell the need for a British expedition and then to fund, man and equip it. Two men, Clements R. Markham and Sir John Murray, were the driving force behind mounting the expedition. Markham first encountered the Arctic in 1850 at age twenty, when as a midshipman, he wintered over in the Barrow Strait aboard HMS Assistance, while searching for Sir John Franklin. He soon left the navy for a career as explorer and geographer. He was elected to the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) in 1855 and was appointed honorary secretary of the society in 1863. The British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1885 appointed a committee of eight, including Markham, to press the government to pursue research in Antarctica. The government rebuffed the committee, so Markham turned to the public sector; however, by 1880 the campaign for Antarctic exploration was dead. With his election as president of the society in 1893, the way was again open to pursue the one great geographical problem he believed Britain should solve: did an Antarctic continent exist? Markham soon gained a vital Scottish ally, John Murray. Murray had been aboard the globe-circling voyage of the Challenger, which in 1874 was the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Antarctic Circle, reaching 66o 40S. He spent the next nineteen years directing the production of the fifty royal quarto volumes of the Challenger report. It was Murray’s address to the society in November of 1893 that gave credence and scope to the concept of an Antarctic expedition. The Sixth International Geographic Conference in July of 1895, chaired by Markham, resolved “that … the exploration of the Antarctic Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken …” In February of 1897, the First Lord of the Admiralty agreed, in lieu of cash, to provide aid in kind. Armed with this offer, Markham persuaded the RGS to appeal to the public for funds and to donate 5,000 pounds, a third of its assets, to the project. Finally in July of 1899, the Treasury promised a grant of 45,000 pounds over four years contingent on matching funds. In the incredibly short time of two years, in spite of continuing bureaucratic squabbles, Markham succeeded in lobbying the selection of Scott to command the expedition, oversaw the building of a ship (he had actually set the construction in motion in 1897 before money or approval were in hand), and won approval of his plan for the expedition – three winters and two summers in Antarctica (the third year only if funds became available.) The principal goals of the expedition were magnetic observations leading to establishing the southern magnetic pole and exploration east, west and south of McMurdo Sound, hopefully answering the question whether the Antarctic lands were insular or continental.

Although Markham first proposed Scott in July of 1899, more than a year passed before the navy released him to begin his new duties on the first of August 1900. This left just one year for Scott to select a crew, and to learn the intricacies of arctic exploration – the use of dogs and sledges, skiing, suitable clothing, food and supplies, taking a compass magnetic course, and certainly not least of all overseeing the construction of the Discovery. That the Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 5 August 1901 is in itself remarkable; however the haste with which this was accomplished together with the paucity of funds available had many unhappy consequences. The remainder of the book, some 240 pages, is devoted to the expedition’s race to reach the Antarctic in time to establish a base before the winter of 1902, and the events that took place over the ensuing three winters and two summers.

Despite such problems as major leaks caused by the use of unseasoned oak in the ship’s construction, either too much or too little wind, the failure of some of the crew to perform satisfactorily, necessitating their replacement in Cape Town and Christchurch, and the need to divert from a direct course to take magnetic readings, they reached the Antarctic at Cape Adare on 7 January 1902. For the next six weeks, Scott explored south and east, reaching farther east than Ross had in 1842. The result was the discovery of new land, mountains, and islands, as well as locating possible sites to winter over. On the 17th of February they tied up to an ice foot in what Wilson described as “the most perfect little natural harbour imaginable.” This was to be their base for the next two years.
They immediately started the erection of two huts ashore to house the scientific instruments. Several reconnaissance parties explored their surroundings. Shackleton led the first such trip. The party reached the summit of a 2,300-ft crater and viewed for the first time a chain of mountains stretching off to the southwest. A second party was far less fortunate. A ferocious snowstorm coupled with unfamiliarity with the terrain led to a miscalculation leading to the only fatality for the expedition. In March, as winter approached, temperatures had already reached –40o F., leading to concerns for what lay ahead in midwinter. However, the conditions aboard ship turned out to be, if not ideal, tolerable. Scott had been intent on acquiring a sufficient stock of seals to ensure at least three meals a week of fresh meat. The diet was sufficient to ensure that the entire crew made it through the winter with no serious illnesses. The weather was so severe on only 34 of the 123 sunless days that it was impossible to leave the ship for excursions and recreation. Scott opened the spring season on September 2nd with a short trip north. For the next two months, Scott orchestrated preparations for the major explorations of their first Antarctic summer. There were exploratory trips east, west and south. They established depots to support Scott’s southern push. Through several harrowing experiences, they learned much of what horrors the Antarctic weather and terrain had in store for them. Finally, by the beginning of November all was ready. Scott, Wilson, and Shackleton started south on November 2nd, and Lt. Albert Armitage, Scott’s second-in-command, led a party of twelve, augmented by a support party of nine, westward, searching for a route through the mountains first sighted the previous fall.

Armitage’s party succeeded on a 52-day round trip, through feats of superhuman effort, in reaching the summit plateau of Victoria Land at an altitude of almost 9,000 feet. They accomplished this despite having spent their entire lives at sea level. The route included manhandling six sleds down the aptly named Descent Glacier, at times on slopes of almost 40o, to the awesome canyon cut by Ferrar Glacier. This they traversed, after dragging the sleds up numerous ice falls of 500 feet or more by block and tackle. Although time did not permit them to reach a point where they could draw a conclusion about the continental nature of Victoria Land, they had mapped a route for future exploration.

A third party led by Lt. Michael Barne started west-southwest on New Year’s Day towards three apparent straits cutting the coast of Victoria Land. They succeeded in finding that the two most northern of the three were in fact glaciers; however, weather prevented them from reaching far enough to see into the third, which would have shown it also to be a glacier and not a strait. They had extended the unbroken coast, but they were still unable to state that Victoria Land was continental rather than a series of islands.

Throughout the book, Yelverton interweaves bits and pieces relating to the concurrent German Antarctic expedition led by Professor Erich von Drygelski. He often contrasts parallel events taking place, and even devotes a chapter of ten pages to Drygelski’s progress in 1902 and 1903. I personally find these insertions distracting from the main story. They are too short to develop the German expedition properly and add little to the story of the British expedition.

The final chapters of the book detail the events of the final Antarctic summer of 1903. Scott directs further probes of the region. He himself leads a party of six onto the high plateau of Victoria Land, hoping to reach the western shore. Again, beset by terrible weather and held back by illness among his companions, he fails to reach his goal of spotting the West Coast of Victoria Land. (It is of course over a thousand miles to the west.) Because of the condition of two of the party, Scott sends them back under the command of Lt. Reginald Skelton, and he pushes forward an additional 150 miles, with the two remaining men. It was almost fatal, for he had nearly outrun his supplies for the return trip, barely reaching a depot of food in time to avert disaster. The recently graduated geologist, Hartley Ferrar, had accompanied Scott part way and then broke off to collect rock specimens, and in the process, discovered rock samples containing fossilized plants, hence proving Antarctica once had a warm if not tropical climate. At the same time, Lt. Barne pushed south and succeeded in penetrating the supposed strait that he and Scott had seen the previous year but failed to reach, and by so doing proved it glacial. Lt. Charles Royds pushed 155 miles east across the barrier ice in search of the eastern shore, and although he failed to find it, the ten compass variation readings he recorded are crucial to constructing a part of the magnetic map of the Southern Hemisphere. Wilson made three additional excursions to the Southeast – two to the Emperor Penguin rookery discovered the previous summer. These visits allowed Wilson to unravel the mystery of Emperor’s incubation, maturation, and migration cycle.

All parties had returned to the ship by Christmas. Then began the frantic effort to free the ship from the ice. The relief ship, Terra Nova, arrived by mid- January, carrying instructions to abandon the Discovery and return with her, if they were unable to free their ship. Blasting, sawing, and ramming by the Terra Nova made little headway, and much of the fittings and equipment was transferred. However, in early February a crack developed in the ice, and on the 17th the Discovery broke free, and steamed home to a heroes’ welcome and international acclaim.

There were many times while reading the book that I wished Yelverton had expanded his end notes. Too often, he only cites a book or document, when the item being annotated needs amplification. There were, perhaps, too many accounts of blizzards, bouts with scurvy, and endless sledge relays, although, I suppose, this helped to flavor the brutality of the Antarctic. Despite these minor annoyances, this is an excellent book, and certainly redefines Scott.

Robert Highbarger
Potomac MD

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