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Picture Library catalogue: Antarctic Relief Expeditions 1902-04

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Antarctic Relief Expeditions 1902-04

The Antarctic Relief Expeditions consisted of two voyages undertaken to aid the British National Antarctic Expedition. The first, aboard the vessel 'Morning', sailed from New Zealand in 1902 and was intended to resupply the expedition and provide help if needed. The second sailed in 1903 with two ships, 'Morning' accompanied by the 'Terra Nova', and was to facilitate the safe return of the expedition.

The British National Antarctic Expedition, often known as the Discovery Expedition, was organised by a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, though the real driving force behind the venture was the secretary of the RGS, Sir Clements Markham. He secured funding for the expedition from the two societies, private donations and the government. He also deemed that the expedition, though in essence one of scientific investigation, would be under the command of a Navy man, Commander Robert Falcon Scott.

Scott sailed from London in August 1901 on 'Discovery', which had been purpose-built for the expedition. He was to carry out scientific investigations and geographical exploration over two seasons, possibly three if funding would allow. There is some confusion as to whether the official plans provided for 'Discovery' to overwinter. In Scott’s official account of the expedition he stated he did not intend to overwinter, but he was certainly looking for a suitable site as he sailed into McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. Markham definitely wanted Scott to spend the winter on Antarctica, instructing Scott to leave messages at pre-arranged sites indicating where he was planning to establish a land base. Markham also set about organizing a relief ship as soon as 'Discovery' sailed from London. Again, confusion reigned as to whether a relief vessel was part of the official plans, but for Markham a relief vessel was essential if 'Discovery' was to overwinter. He could remember the criticism levelled at the government for not sending a relief ship which, many believed, would have saved the Franklin Expedition, lost attempting to find the North West Passage in the Arctic in the 1840s.

Whatever the true explanation, there were not enough funds available to finance a relief vessel, so Markham set about raising the money, launching an appeal in October 1901. The government refused to help and the bulk of the money was eventually provided by the RGS. Markham appointed William Colbeck to lead the relief expedition. He was a master on passenger vessels but had distinguished himself on the Southern Cross Expedition, which had landed on Antarctica in 1898, being given the Back award by the RGS for his scientific and navigational work. A whaling vessel, 'Morgenen' (renamed 'Morning'), was purchased in Norway and sailed from London in July 1902. Colbeck’s instructions were to resupply 'Discovery' and to give rescue help if needed. He was also to conduct meteorological observations and undertake a study of ocean fauna. Once 'Discovery' was reached, Colbeck was to put himself under Scott’s command and the two vessels were then to sail to New Zealand.

'Morning' sailed from Lyttleton in New Zealand on 6 December 1902. Two new islands were discovered on the voyage south before Cape Adare was reached on 8 January and the first message from Scott was discovered. On 23 January the masts of 'Discovery' were sighted, but she was trapped in ten miles of ice. Attempts by 'Morning' to smash through the ice failed and, after resupplying Scott’s expedition, Colbeck set sail for New Zealand on 2 March 1903, his crew bolstered by members of Scott’s group including Ernest Shackleton, deemed unfit after a failed attempt to reach the Pole. 'Morning' only just escaped being trapped in the ice and survived numerous storms before arriving back in Lyttleton on 25 March 1903.

Markham assessed the perilous position of 'Discovery' immediately 'Morning' arrived in New Zealand, and decided a second relief expedition was needed. Funding again proved a problem until the government relented and agreed to finance the expedition, provided the Admiralty was put in sole charge of the operation. Colbeck would command the expedition and two vessels were to be used, 'Morning' being unable to accommodate all of Scott’s men in the event of the abandonment of 'Discovery'. The whaling vessel 'Terra Nova' was purchased and, captained by Henry MacKay, joined 'Morning' in Australia. On 5 December 1903 the two ships set sail from Hobart. Arriving at Ross Island in McMurdo Sound on 8 January, they found 18 miles of ice separated them from 'Discovery'. For over seven weeks attempts were made to smash through the ice. Eventually, through a combination of detonations and ice breaking with the boats, aided by unseasonal storms, 'Discovery' was finally freed in mid February. The three vessels arrived back in New Zealand on 1 April 1904.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.