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Picture Library catalogue: British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04

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British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04

The aim of the British National Antarctic Expedition was to undertake an extensive exploration of the Ross Sea region of Antarctica and was funded by the Government; the Royal Society; the Royal Geographical Society and private donations.

Of the officers Armitage and Koettlitz had been members of the Jackson-Harmsworth Arctic Expedition in 1894 while Bernacchi had overwintered in the Antarctic as a member of the British Antarctic Expedition (1898-1900) (Southern Cross) led by Borchgrevink.

Recruiting a company of Royal Navy and Merchant seamen aboard the purpose built expedition ship Discovery, with a strong scientific team the expedition sailed from London on 31 July 1901 and headed for Cape Adare. Here they explored the coast south along the shore of Victoria Land, landing at Cape Crozier. They traveled along the edge of the barrier to its outer reaches where they found areas of rock rising 2000 feet above them. Scott named this area the King Edward VII Land after the king at the time.

Before returning to McMurdo Sound where they intended to winter the Discovery they paused to allow first Scott and then Shackleton to undertake the first Antarctic flights in Eva, a tethered hydrogen balloon where they reached 250m. A site was found to winter at the southern end of Ross Island, which they named Hut Point. A large hut was built but the men’s living quarters would still be onboard the warmer ship. Two smaller huts and a thermometer screen were constructed to house the scientific instruments.

Before the winter set in short preliminary sledging trips were planned to carry out reconnaissance and to test the equipment. Wilson, Shackleton and Ferrar man-hauled to White Island. The journey took longer than anticipated, two days rather than the expected day and a half’s sledging, and then they were hit by a blizzard.

On 4 March 1902 a party led by Royds with three officers and eight men using four sledges set out for Cape Crozier to leave a record of the location of their winter quarters. They had taken dogs with them but soft snow made their progress very slow. By the fourth day most of the dogs were lame, slowing progress and so Royds reduced his party to himself and two officers (Koettlitz and Skelton) sending Barne and the men back. The reduced party still found the going very tough and unable to reach the penguin rookery they too turned back, reaching the Discovery on 19 March.
The party sent back earlier also had a difficult journey. Reaching the summit of Castle Rock the men had been caught in a storm, and although they managed to pitch their tents they were unable to make any warm food and so began to suffer from the effects of frostbite. The thought of being so close to the ship was too much and they struck out for the Discovery. This was a serious error and the group became separated: Hare lost the group when he returned to get his boots, whilst Evans, Barne and Quartley found themselves trapped on a snow patch at the edge of a precipice over the sea. Meanwhile the rest of the party believed they were heading towards the ship to get help but instead they walked to the edge of a sea-cliff, a warning was shouted but Vince had a poor grip and slid over the edge of the cliff. Slowly the remainder of the party were able to climb uphill and made it back to the ship to raise the alarm.

A search party was sent out to look for the missing members. Vince, sadly was never found, it is believed he was washed out to sea. Barne, Evans and Quartley were found wandering confused on Castle Rock very frostbitten. Two days later Hare who had been given up as lost, was spotted coming down a hill. He had survived by making himself a shelter of rocks, where he fell asleep and was buried by the snow.

A further sledging trip to lay depots for the spring sledging parties was undertaken before winter set in. On Easter Monday, Scott started off with Armitage, Wilson, Ferrar and eight men with three sledges and nine dogs. They had a very difficult trip with the dogs refusing to work as the temperatures fell, after two days Scott decided they should return to the camp.

In April the sun was seen for the last time for four months. Strong gales made sight difficult, and lines were run between the ship and the huts to prevent the men getting lost when taking measurements. To prevent monotony a winter routine was established with each man having a task assigned. To entertain themselves the men played football, formed a theatre group and learnt to ski and toboggan. Shackleton started, edited and published a newspaper called ‘The South Polar Times” to which men would submit articles of a scientific or humorous nature written anonymously.
At the start of the summer in September four preliminary sledge parties were sent out, but bad weather forced them to return. A second attempt later in September succeeding in laying a depot of a weeks worth of food. By now the crew were showing signs of scurvy, luckily this was abated for some time with the arrival of half a ton of seal meat with one of the sledging parties.

On the 30 October the support party for the Southern Journey set out, followed on 2 November by Scott, Shackleton and Wilson. From the 15 November the main party traveled unsupported. This became perhaps the most famous of the sledge journey’s undertaken by the expedition despite being beset with problems. The dog food had become contaminated as the Discovery traveled through the Tropics and they would not eat it, this vastly reduced the dog’s energy and so also reduced the capacity for the journey’s achievements. They got as far south as the dogs could manage and then resorted to man-hauling their sledges. As the dogs became increasingly useless the sledge load had to be carried forward in halves. It was decided the best nine dogs would be saved by feeding them the others.

It was not just the dogs that suffered, the men suffered badly from the effects of their trip. Food was strictly rationed and was not in large enough quantities; scurvy and snow blindness began to affect them. On the 31 December having reached the furthest south of 82°17′S a new southern record they turned back. At the beginning of January they gave up driving the dogs and set them free to follow behind. On the 2 February 1903 they returned to the Discovery.

On their return they learnt that the relief ship the Morning was in McMurdo Bay, to re-supply the Discovery which was still frozen in the ice. They would need to wait until the summer when the ice would melt freeing the ship, all except eight of the crew volunteered to spend another winter in the Antarctic. The eight who wished to leave and Shackleton (who was invalided home against his will) left for Britain on 2 March 1903.

Sledging plans were drawn up for when the sun returned. The sledging season was to be short if the Discovery was still icebound at the beginning of summer and they needed to ensure enough men were available to help free the ship. The first sledging party left to make a trip to Cape Crozier to collect penguin chicks, they arrived back safely, suffering from nothing other than a little frostbite and bringing with them penguin chicks and eggs. The other two major trips were to be Scott leading a party west up the Ferrar Glacier and Barne leading a party to explore an inlet south of McMurdo Strait.

Scott’s team began their journey on 12 October but they were forced to return when the rough terrain damaged the sledge runners. The sledges were fixed and they set out again within the month. They were badly affected by winds and blizzards but made it to the top of the glacier 8900 feet above the sea. Here the party was split into two groups, the advance party of Scott, Lashly and Evans continued to march until 30 November when they turned back. On their return journey all three slid down a valley and were badly bruised but fortunately no one was injured. The next cascade they attempted they roped themselves together, Scott and Evans fell into a crevasse, with Lashly left hanging onto a sledge. Scott used his crampons to get a foothold and was able to drag himself to safety; Evans could then be hauled upwards.

On their return to the Discovery to find it still ice bound. On 5 January 1904 the ships the Morning and the Terra Nova came into view, bringing with them the unwelcome news that if the Discovery could not be released in time she would have to be abandoned. Luckily after five weeks the ice broke up and the ship was free.
On his return the Royal Geographical Society awarded Scott the Patron’s Gold Medal. He also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Cambridge University.

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