New Evidence Reveals Treachery May Have Doomed Scott's Antarctic Expedition

Scott and his team at the pole, with the Norwegian flag indicating Amundsen had beaten them there, before the real tragedy struck. Lawrence Oates (1880-1912) (Lawrence Oates) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

More than a century after it occurred, the tragedy of Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole remains Antarctica's most famous story. It's sad fate is usually attributed to a combination of bad luck and blundering. However, previously unstudied expedition documents lend weight to a different theory; that Scott and his men died because of the actions of his second-in-command Lieutenant Edward Evans, who survived but was never questioned about his role.

Scott's team was racing Roald Amundsen to be the first to the South Pole. Amundsen won, but Scott became more famous, his death making him an exemplar of a tragic explorer, dying in the quest to map the world. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which supported the expedition, ensured the tale had lasting fame, but never inquired too deeply into what went wrong.

On the return journey from the pole, Captain Lawrence Oates realized his frostbite and exhaustion were slowing the rest of the team. Oates' last words before walking into a blizzard – “I'm just going outside and may be some time” – have become emblems of self-sacrifice and British understatement. Oates' heroism influenced the image of everyone else involved, as did Scott's refusal to abandon their haul of rocks and fossils in an effort to lighten their load.

However, according to Professor Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales, not everyone deserved so much honor. Scott sent Evans, not to be confused with Edgar Evans, the first member of the team to die, back before the final push to the pole. He survived, but according to Turney, contributed to the disaster through failing to follow orders and taking more than his fair share of food supplies.

Turney's own research is focused on the icy continent's climate over the last 130,000 years, but he has also written books about the history of Antarctic exploration.

Turney first suspected all was not right when reading the British Library's archived papers by Lord Curzon, who was president of the RGS at the time of Scott's doomed expedition and later the Viceroy of India. Turney was astonished to read Curzon's notes of meetings with the widows of Scott and Dr Edward Wilson, who also died trying to reach the pole. In these, Curzon refers to Oriana Wilson agreeing to “keep secret” some of what she had found in her husband's diary.

Speaking exclusively to IFLScience, Turney explained this started a six-year quest, culminating in a paper in Polar Record, where he reveals that crucial details of the accepted story of the expedition were fabricated by Evans. In particular, Evans made it appear that he came down with scurvy earlier than he did, making his consumption of extra food appear to be the justifiable actions of a sick man, rather than the misbehavior of a greedy one.

Moreover, Turney found that when Evans was sent back, he was carrying instructions for a dog sled to travel south to meet the returning polar expedition. Evans failed to pass these on, probably through incompetence, but possibly as an act of revenge on Scott for denying him a shot at the pole – something his own notes reveal he was very bitter about. The failure might not have entirely surprised other members of the team, one of whom wrote that a colleague had “wanted to push Evans down a crevasse... it's a pity he didn't.”

Turney explained to IFLScience that he contacted the families of the expedition members, who had held onto documents that historians had ignored, allowing him to build a new picture of what happened. In addition, our modern knowledge of nutrition puts Evans' scurvy in a different light. Seal meat was the expedition's main source of vitamin C, but Evans refused to eat it, instead stealing additional rations of tinned food, which both lacked the vitamins he needed, and deprived the others of calories that might have saved their lives.

 

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