Terra Nova Expedition

Five men in heavy clothing and headgear; three are standing and two seated on the ground. The standing men carry flags; all five have dejected expressions
Scott's party at the South Pole, 18 January 1912. L to R: (standing) Wilson, Scott, Oates; (seated) Bowers, Edgar Evans

The Terra Nova Expedition, officially the British Antarctic Expedition, was an expedition to Antarctica which took place between 1910 and 1913. It was led by Robert Falcon Scott and had various scientific and geographical objectives. Scott wished to continue the scientific work that he had begun when leading the Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic in 1901–04. He also wanted to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole. He and four companions attained the pole on 17 January 1912, where they found that the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had preceded them by 34 days. Scott's entire party died on the return journey from the pole; some of their bodies, journals, and photographs were found by a search party eight months later.

The expedition, named after its supply ship, was a private venture, financed by public contributions augmented by a government grant. It had further backing from the Admiralty, which released experienced seamen to the expedition, and from the Royal Geographical Society. The expedition's team of scientists carried out a comprehensive scientific programme, while other parties explored Victoria Land and the Western Mountains. An attempted landing and exploration of King Edward VII Land was unsuccessful. A journey to Cape Crozier in June and July 1911 was the first extended sledging journey in the depths of the Antarctic winter.

For many years after his death, Scott's status as tragic hero was unchallenged, and few questions were asked about the causes of the disaster which overcame his polar party. In the final quarter of the 20th century the expedition came under closer scrutiny, and more critical views were expressed about its organization and management. The degree of Scott's personal culpability, and more recently, the culpability of certain expedition members, remains controversial.

Outline of Ross Sea sector of Antarctica, with lines showing the respective polar journeys of Scott and Amundsen
The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red), 1911–1912



After Discovery's return from the Antarctic in 1904, Scott eventually resumed his naval career, but continued to nurse ambitions of returning south, with the conquest of the Pole as his specific target.[1] The Discovery Expedition had made a significant contribution to Antarctic scientific and geographical knowledge, but in terms of penetration southward had reached only 82° 17' and had not traversed the Great Ice Barrier.[2][a] In 1909 Scott received news that Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition had narrowly failed to reach the Pole. Starting from a base close to Scott's Discovery anchorage in McMurdo Sound, Shackleton had crossed the Great Ice Barrier, discovered the Beardmore Glacier route to the Polar Plateau, and had struck out for the Pole. He had been forced to turn for home at 88° 23' S, less than 100 geographical miles (112 statute miles, 180 km) from his objective.[3] Scott had claimed prescriptive rights to the McMurdo Sound area, describing it as his own "field of work",[4] and Shackleton's use of the area as a base was in breach of an undertaking he gave Scott not to do so.[5] This soured relations between the two explorers, and increased Scott's determination to surpass Shackleton's achievements.[6]

As he made his preparations for a further expedition, Scott was aware of other polar ventures being planned. A Japanese expedition was being planned;[7] the Australasian Antarctic Expedition under Douglas Mawson was to leave in 1911, but would be working in a different sector of the continent.[8] Meanwhile, Roald Amundsen, a potential rival, had announced plans for an Arctic voyage.[9][10]


Man with receding hairline, looking left, wearing naval uniform with medals, polished buttons and heavy shoulder decorations
Captain Scott, leader of the expedition

Sixty-five men (including replacements) formed the shore and ship's parties of the Terra Nova Expedition.[11] They were chosen from 8,000 applicants,[12] and included seven Discovery veterans together with five who had been with Shackleton on his 1907–09 expedition.[b] Lieutenant Edward Evans, who had been the navigating officer on Morning, the Discovery Expedition's relief ship in 1904, was appointed Scott's second-in-command. He abandoned plans to mount his own expedition, and transferred his financial backing to Scott.[13]

Among the other serving Royal Navy (RN) personnel released by the Admiralty were Lieutenant Harry Pennell, who would serve as navigator and take command of the ship once the shore parties had landed,[14] and two Surgeon-Lieutenants, George Murray Levick and Edward L Atkinson.[14] Ex-RN officer Victor Campbell, known as "The Wicked Mate", was one of the few who had skills in skiing, and was chosen to lead the party that would explore King Edward VII Land.[15][16] Two non-Royal Navy officers were appointed: Henry Robertson Bowers, known as "Birdie", who was a lieutenant in the Royal Indian Marine,[14] and Lawrence Oates ("Titus"), an Army captain from the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. Oates, independently wealthy, volunteered his services to the expedition and paid £1,000 (2009 value approximately £75,000[17]) into its funds.[18]

The Admiralty also provided a largely naval lower deck, including the Antarctic veterans Edgar Evans, Tom Crean and William Lashly. Other seamen in the shore party included Patrick Keohane and Robert Forde, Thomas Clissold (cook) and Frederick Hooper (domestic steward). Two Russians, Dimitri Gerov (dog driver) and Anton Omelchenko (groom), also landed.

To head his scientific programme, Scott appointed Edward Wilson as chief scientist.[19] Wilson was Scott's closest confidant among the party; on the Discovery Expedition he had accompanied Scott on the Farthest South march to 80°S.[20] As well as being a qualified medical doctor and a distinguished research zoologist, he was also a talented illustrator.[21] His scientific team – which Scott's biographer David Crane considered "as impressive a group of scientists as had ever been on a polar expedition"[14] — included some who would enjoy later careers of distinction: George Simpson the meteorologist, Charles Wright, the Canadian physicist, and geologists Frank Debenham and Raymond Priestley.[22] T. Griffith Taylor, the senior of the geologists, biologists Edward W. Nelson and Dennis G. Lillie, and assistant zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard completed the team. Cherry-Garrard had no scientific training, but was a protege of Wilson's. He had, like Oates, contributed £1,000 to funds. After first being turned down by Scott, he allowed his contribution to stand, which impressed Scott sufficiently for him to reverse his decision.[22] Scott's biographer David Crane describes Cherry-Garrard as "the future interpreter, historian and conscience of the expedition."[23] Herbert Ponting was the expedition's photographer, whose pictures would leave a vivid visual record.[24] On the advice of Fridtjof Nansen, Scott recruited a young Norwegian ski expert, Tryggve Gran.[25]

Tabloid medical chest for Scott's Antarctic Expedition, 1910


Scott had decided on a mixed transport strategy, relying on contributions from dogs, motor sledges and ponies.[26][27] He appointed Cecil Meares to take charge of the dog teams, and recruited Shackleton's former motor specialist, Bernard Day, to run the motor sledges.[28] Oates would be in charge of the ponies, but as he could not join the expedition until May 1910, Scott instructed Meares, who knew nothing of horses, to buy them—with unfortunate consequences for their quality and performance.[29] A "polarised" motor car had been unsuccessfully tried in the Antarctic by Shackleton, on his 1907–09 expedition, while his pioneering use of ponies had transported him as far as the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.[30][31] Scott believed that ponies had served Shackleton well, and he thought he could resolve the motor traction problem by developing a tracked snow "motor" (the forerunner of the Snowcat and of the tank). Scott always intended to rely on man-hauling for the polar plateau,[32] believing it impossible to ascend the Beardmore Glacier with motors or with animals. The motors and animals would be used to haul loads only across the Barrier, enabling the men to preserve their strength for the later Glacier and Plateau stages. In practice, the motor sledges proved only briefly useful, and the ponies' performance was affected by their age and poor condition.[33] As to dogs, while Scott's experiences on Discovery had made him dubious of their reliability,[34] his writings show that he recognised their effectiveness in the right hands.[35] As the expedition developed, he became increasingly impressed with their capabilities.[c]


Advertisement showing two men in heavy clothing on the deck of a ship, with icy mountains in the background. The men are pouring drinks from a jug, The slogan reads "Oxo in the Antarctic"
The Oxo food company was one of many commercial sponsors of the expedition.

Unlike the Discovery Expedition, where fundraising was handled jointly by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, the Terra Nova Expedition was organised as a private venture without significant institutional support. Scott estimated the total cost at £40,000 (£3 million at 2009 values),[17][36] half of which was eventually met by a government grant.[37] The balance was raised by public subscription and loans.[d] The expedition was further assisted by the free supply of a range of provisions and equipment from sympathetic commercial firms.[38] The fund-raising task was largely carried out by Scott, and was a considerable drain on his time and energy, continuing in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand after Terra Nova had sailed from British waters.[39]

By far the largest single cost was the purchase of the ship Terra Nova, for £12,500.[37] Terra Nova had been in Antarctica before, as part of the second Discovery relief operation.[40] Scott wanted to sail her as a naval vessel under the White Ensign; to enable this, he obtained membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron for £100. He was thus able to impose naval discipline on the expedition, and as a registered yacht of the Squadron, Terra Nova became exempt from Board of Trade regulations which might otherwise have deemed her unfit to sail.[41]


Grotto in an iceberg, 5 January 1911

Scott defined the objects of the expedition in his initial public appeal: "The main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for The British Empire the honour of this achievement."[36] There were other objectives, both scientific and geographical; the scientific work was considered by chief scientist Wilson as the main work of the expedition: "No one can say that it will have only been a Pole-hunt ... We want the scientific work to make the bagging of the Pole merely an item in the results."[42] Wilson hoped to continue investigations, begun during the Discovery Expedition, of the penguin colony at Cape Crozier,[43] and to fulfil a programme of geological, magnetic and meteorology studies on an "unprecedented" scale.[36] There were further plans to explore King Edward VII Land, a venture described by Campbell, who was to lead it, as "the thing of the whole expedition",[44] and Victoria Land.[36]

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