Thursday 29th March marked the centenary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s last entry in his diary, made on the fatal trip back from the South Pole in 1912. At some point soon after that entry Scott became the last of the five-man polar party to die.
As a child in the 1960s I grew up reading the ladybird book Captain Scott: an adventure from history. I knew by heart the names of that lost polar party: Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans. With Scott Base, Scott’s Hut and our sprinkling of Scott memorials, New Zealanders could be forgiven for feeling some sense of ownership of this story.
The dramatic tale of the escape of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition also seems to hold resonance for New Zealanders, with the added connection that the Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, hailed from Akaroa. Scott’s Discovery (1901) and Terra Nova (1910) expeditions, and Shackleton’s Nimrod (1908) expedition, all departed south from either Lyttelton or Port Chalmers, in each case to the accompaniment of massed cheering crowds. In the ensuing years neither criticisms of imperialism nor the recognition of Scott’s human flaws seem to have diminished ongoing public interest in the heroic age.
The name of Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first to the pole, does not seem as honoured in this country. Initially, he was condemned for keeping secret his intention to race Scott to the South Pole. Amundsen was briefly forgiven by the New Zealand public when, on his way back from Antarctica in 1912, he made a lecture tour of our main centres. Crowds flocked to hear him speak and to see his ‘100 moving pictures and coloured slides’ of the southern continent. At this time the fate of Scott’s expedition crew was still unknown. In February 1913 the tragic news of their demise reached the outside world. As imperial propaganda, heroic British failure trumped the Norwegian polar triumph. New Zealanders largely adopted the British view of Amundsen as a dog-eating cad, unfairly winning by conducting an efficiently organised expedition.
In modern times New Zealanders have tended to ignore the other great heroic-age explorer, Douglas Mawson, no doubt due to his ultimate sin of being Australian. The Englishman Scott and the Anglo-Irish Shackleton, on the other hand, still retain their icy glamour.
During our northern winter visit to Britain last January, Janis and I visited the Scottish port town of Dundee. I was surprised to find Scott’s ship the Discovery, flanked by statues of emperor penguins, berthed by the quay near the Dundee railway station. Dundee was kown for ‘jute, jam and journalism’, and as the home of the comics Beano and Dandy, with statues of Minnie the Minx and Desperate Dan in its main square.
Dundee was also one of the last places to build reinforced wooden ships for polar whaling. The Terra Nova, Scott’s ship for his 1910–12 expedition, was a converted whaler built at Dundee. The Discovery was purpose-built in Dundee for the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901–4, a combined effort between the British government, the Royal Geographic Society and private subscribers. The Discovery expedition was significant as the first major scientific mission to Antarctica, involving experts in geology, botany, meteorology, physics and marine biology. This was also the first Antarctic journey for Captain Scott, Sub-lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, and the surgeon, zoologist and artist Edward Wilson
The Discovery is berthed beside the impressive Discovery Point museum. Here the story of the expedition is outlined, along with the ship’s subsequent history. The museum also celebrates the unsung heroes of polar exploration: the men who built the ships. After seeing how the reinforced hull was built – with four layers of different types of wood – the intrepid visitor gets to wander around the ship and inspect the marvels of its construction at close hand.
New Zealand connections also pop up. The museum houses a harmonium that was gifted to the expedition by the people of Christchurch and used to entertain the crew in the long antarctic night. A group of plastic replica sheep, penned by the ship, represent the 45 sheep donated by New Zealand farmers to feed the hungry explorers.
The Discovery’s 1901 stop-off in New Zealand resulted in one of the crew deserting and another dying by falling from the crow’s nest. Two volunteers stepped in, both sailors from HMS Ringarooma, stationed off the New Zealand coast at the time. One of the volunteers was Tom Crean, the ‘Irish Giant’, who later served on both the Terra Nova and Endurance expeditions.
The Discovery went on to an extensive career of arctic and antarctic adventures. These included the two BANZARE (British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition) voyages of 1929–31. Douglas Mawson, the Australian veteran survivor of the Antarctic heroic age, commanded this expedition. Under pressure from the Australians and the British, our government coughed up £2,500 for BANZARE, although bureaucrats and politicians spent a lot of time arguing over which department would pay for the two Kiwi scientists who sailed on the Discovery. The two young researchers later became leaders in their fields. The ornithologist Robert Falla would eventually become director of the Dominion Museum, while meteorologist Richie Simmers became director of the Meteorological Service.
In conclusion, the Discovery at Dundee was a pleasure to visit, and it reinforced my belief that we southern-hemisphere folk always feel at home with penguins.