At the beginning of the twentieth century, Antarctica offered great opportunities for scientific discovery, but it was the lure of the South Pole – considered the greatest geographical prize of the time – that was irresistible to the ambitious explorers of the day.
And none was more ambitious than the Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, an organisation with a long and proud history of exploration.
When the Norwegian-born Carsten Borchgrevink secured funding from the wealthy English publisher Sir George Newnes to put together the British Antarctic Expedition 1898–1900, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham, was infuriated. The Society had been planning to mount an expedition to Antarctica for some time and Borchgrevink’s mostly Norwegian team had beaten them to it. Borchgrevink’s expedition built two huts at Cape Adare, and a party of ten men lived through the winter of the year 1899 in them. Cape Adare was a poor place from which to carry out exploration, and the party was affected by personality problems, but the expedition did prove that men could survive an Antarctic winter, a fact that was vital in planning the pending Royal Geographical Society’s expedition; other achievements were the construction of two huts (to a Norwegian design) that have survived the conditions very well for over 100 years, and the men made good use of dogs and ski. The great geographical prizes of the South Pole and the South Magnetic Pole were, however, still to be claimed.
The National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, the British Government and a London businessman, Llewellyn Longstaff. There were also donations from officers of the Royal Society and other private individuals. Sir Clements Markham launched the appeal that eventually raised £90,000 for the expedition – sufficient to pay for a new ship, provisions, wages and other costs.
Commander Robert Falcon Scott, RN was selected to lead the expedition. Scott, the son of a Devonshire brewer with naval connections, had entered naval training school at just 13. He progressed first to midshipman and then lieutenant and served in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. On 5 June 1899, Scott, who had been serving as a torpedo lieutenant on the Majestic, met Sir Clements Markham in a London street. Markham was returning from a Royal Geographical Society Council meeting at which the impending Antarctic expedition had been discussed and Scott immediately volunteered to command the expedition. Markham, who was familiar with Scott’s background, already had him at the head of a list of potential candidates for the position of expedition leader.