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.
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),
Cape Crozier and the twin volcanoes
Mount Erebus and
Mount Terror. 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. Ross suspected that land lay to the east of the Barrier, but was unable to confirm this.
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. 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". 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′.
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
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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. 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".
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
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. With Markham's determined backing, Scott's appointment was secured by 25 May 1900, followed swiftly by his promotion to
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. 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. 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." 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. Markham's and Scott's view prevailed, and Gregory resigned, saying that the scientific work should not be "subordinated to naval adventure".
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. 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."