Discovery Expedition

Three-masted ship with sails furled, lying next to a shelf of ice.
The expedition ship Discovery in the Antarctic, alongside the Great Ice Barrier

The Discovery Expedition of 1901–04, known officially as the British National Antarctic Expedition, was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since James Clark Ross's voyage sixty years earlier. Organized on a large scale under a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), the new expedition carried out scientific research and geographical exploration in what was then largely an untouched continent. It launched the Antarctic careers of many who would become leading figures in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott who led the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.

Its scientific results covered extensive ground in biology, zoology, geology, meteorology and magnetism. The expedition discovered the existence of the only snow-free Antarctic valleys, which contain Antarctica's longest river. Further achievements included the discoveries of the Cape Crozier emperor penguin colony, King Edward VII Land, and the Polar Plateau (via the western mountains route) on which the South Pole is located. The expedition tried to reach the South Pole travelling as far as the Farthest South mark at a reported 82°17′S.

As a trailbreaker for later ventures, the Discovery Expedition was a landmark in British Antarctic exploration history.

Background to the expedition


Between 1839 and 1843 Royal Naval Captain James Clark Ross, commanding his two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, completed three voyages to the Antarctic continent. During this time he discovered and explored a new sector of the Antarctic that would provide the field of work for many later British expeditions.[1]

A man in a heavily embroidered uniform looks right, graping a large sword. A navigational instrument stands on a table, lower right.
Sir James Clark Ross, discoverer of the Ross Sea, the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Sound

Ross established the general geography of this region, and named many of its features; the Ross Sea, the Great Ice Barrier (later renamed the Ross Ice Shelf), Ross Island, Cape Adare, Victoria Land, McMurdo Sound, Cape Crozier and the twin volcanoes Mount Erebus and Mount Terror.[1] He returned to the Barrier several times, hoping to penetrate it, but was unable to do so, achieving his Farthest South in a small Barrier inlet at 78°10′, in February 1842.[2] Ross suspected that land lay to the east of the Barrier, but was unable to confirm this.[A]

After Ross there were no recorded voyages into this sector of the Antarctic for fifty years. Then, in January 1895, a Norwegian whaling trip made a brief landing at Cape Adare, the northernmost tip of Victoria Land.[3] Four years later Carsten Borchgrevink, who had participated in that landing, took his own expedition to the region, in the Southern Cross. This expedition was financed by a donation of £35,000 from British publishing magnate Sir George Newnes, on condition that the venture be called the "British Antarctic Expedition".[4] Borchgrevink landed at Cape Adare in February 1899, erected a small hut, and spent the 1899 winter there. The following summer he sailed south, landing at Ross's inlet on the Barrier. A party of three then sledged southward on the Barrier surface, and reached a new Furthest South at 78°50′.[5]

The Discovery Expedition was planned during a surge of international interest in the Antarctic regions at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A German expedition under Erich von Drygalski was leaving at about the same time as Discovery, to explore the sector of the continent south of the Indian Ocean. The Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskiöld was leading an expedition to Graham Land, and a French expedition under Jean-Baptiste Charcot was going to the Antarctic Peninsula. Finally, the Scottish scientist William Speirs Bruce was leading a scientific expedition to the Weddell Sea.[6]

Royal Navy, Markham and Scott

Under the influence of John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, polar exploration had become the province of the peacetime Royal Navy after the Napoleonic War.[7] Naval interest diminished after the disappearance in 1845 of the Franklin expedition, and the many fruitless searches that followed. After the problems encountered by the 1874–76 North Pole expedition led by George Nares, and Nares's own declaration that the North Pole was "impracticable", the Admiralty decided that further polar quests would be dangerous, expensive and futile.[8]

Man with receding hairline, looking left, wearing naval uniform with medals, polished buttons and heavy shoulder decorations
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, appointed leader of the Discovery Expedition

However, the Royal Geographical Society's Secretary (and later President) Sir Clements Markham was a former naval man who had served on one of the Franklin relief expeditions in 1851.[9] He had accompanied Nares for part of the 1874–76 expedition, and remained a firm advocate for the navy's resuming its historic role in polar exploration.[10] An opportunity to further this ambition arose in November 1893, when the prominent biologist Sir John Murray, who had visited Antarctic waters as a biologist with the Challenger Expedition in the 1870s, addressed the RGS. Murray presented a paper entitled "The Renewal of Antarctic Exploration", and called for a full-scale expedition for the benefit of British science.[11] This was strongly supported, both by Markham and by the country's premier scientific body, the Royal Society. A joint committee of the two Societies was established to decide the form which the expedition should take. Markham's vision of a full-blown naval affair after the style of Ross or Franklin was opposed by sections of the joint committee, but his tenacity was such that the expedition was eventually moulded largely to his wishes. His cousin and biographer later wrote that the expedition was "the creation of his brain, the product of his persistent energy".[11]

It had long been Markham's practice to take note of promising young naval officers who might later be suitable for polar responsibilities, should the opportunity arise. He had first observed Midshipman Robert Falcon Scott in 1887, while the latter was serving with HMS Rover in St Kitts, and had remembered him. Thirteen years later, Scott, by now a Torpedo Lieutenant on HMS Majestic, was looking for a path to career advancement, and a chance meeting with Sir Clements in London led him to apply for the leadership of the expedition. Scott had long been in Markham's mind, though by no means always his first choice, but other favoured candidates had either become in his view too old, or were no longer available.[12] With Markham's determined backing, Scott's appointment was secured by 25 May 1900, followed swiftly by his promotion to Commander.[13]

Science versus adventure

The command structure of the expedition had still to be settled. Markham had been determined from the beginning that its overall leader should be a naval officer, not a scientist.[14] Scott, writing to Markham after his appointment, reiterated that he "must have complete command of the ship and landing parties", and insisted on being consulted over all future appointments.[15] However, the Joint Committee had, with Markham's acquiescence, secured the appointment of John Walter Gregory, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne and former assistant geologist at the British Museum, as the expedition's scientific director. Gregory's view, endorsed by the Royal Society faction of the Joint Committee, was that the organisation and command of the land party should be in his hands: "...The Captain would be instructed to give such assistance as required in dredging, tow-netting etc., to place boats where required at the disposal of the scientific staff."[15] In the dispute that followed, Markham argued that Scott's command of the whole expedition must be total and unambiguous, and Scott himself was insistent on this to the point of resignation.[15] Markham's and Scott's view prevailed, and Gregory resigned, saying that the scientific work should not be "subordinated to naval adventure".[16]

This controversy soured relations between the Societies, which lingered after the conclusion of the expedition and was reflected in criticism of the extent and quality of some of the published results.[17] Markham claimed that his insistence on a naval command was primarily a matter of tradition and style, rather than indicating disrespect for science. He had made clear his belief that, on its own, the mere attainment of higher latitude than someone else was "unworthy of support."[16]

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