For more than a century since the deaths of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and colleagues on the return journey from the South Pole, the tale has continued to invite fascination and intrigue. With the story having been so well known for so long, it has often felt that the established narrative was never likely to change. However, recent discoveries may just have provided one last extra twist.
When Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change at the University of New South Wales, and author of Iced In: Ten Days Trapped on the Edge of Antarctica, opted to pass the time browsing documents buried deep within the British Library, he stumbled upon an assortment of items that immediately grabbed his attention.
Initially it was a telegram from King George V, expressing his regret over Scott’s death, that Turney found remarkable. However, it was the seven pages of notes from a meeting between Lord Curzon – then RGS President – and Lady Kathleen Scott, recent widow of Captain Scott that really captured his attention. While the handwriting made for extremely difficult reading, Turney gradually deciphered it all over a number of weeks, realising as he did so that he was analysing notes regarding the role that second-in-commend Lieutenant Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans had played in Scott’s inability to get his team safely back to the waiting Terra Nova.
Specifically, Lord Curzon was responding to Lady Scott’s queries about the repeated references in her late husband’s diary to having less food than expected, even as team members Edgar Evans, and later Lawrence Oates, passed away en route.
On 7 February, Scott commented:
‘The shortage is a full day’s allowance’
‘We talk of little but food’
‘Shortage on our allowance all round. I don’t know that anyone is to blame, but generosity and thoughtfulness have not been abundant.’
For such a well-planned and highly publicised expedition, the lack of food felt strange, and it appears Curzon was keen to open an inquiry. One key line of questioning was whether Evans was taking more than his fair share of food from the carefully placed supplies Scott had ordered to be left for them along the route.
‘Lord Curzon was being told that extra food was taken by the second-in-command,’ says Turney, ‘which probably freaked him out to be honest.’
Scott and Evans were never really friends; it was simply their shared ambition for reaching the South Pole that drew them together. ‘They never really got on; there’s lots of correspondence showing that,’ explains Turney. ‘Teddy Evans was going to lead his own expedition south, and both were encouraged to go together. Basically, if they both tried to go for funding they might split what little public money there was between them. So they decided to go together.’
With Evans as his deputy, Scott was able to assemble the funds and crew for the Terra Nova expedition, which would famously turn out to be his very last.
However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he wasn’t particularly impressed with Evans’ contributions. Crucially, just two and a half degrees short of the South Pole, Scott opted to send Evans back with the final support party, instead of taking him the whole way. It’s a decision that likely left Evans feeling particularly aggrieved, as evidenced by the angry letters he would write to friends on the subject many months later.
‘Scott wrote to loads of other people saying that he thought that Evans was a bit of a duffer, that he wasn’t up to the job and he regretted ever making him second-in-command,’ says Turney. ‘He clearly didn’t expect to take Evans all the way to the Pole. Evans was under the misunderstanding he thought he would be able to go there.’
Instead, on the way back to the ship, Evans became the only member of the expedition to suffer from scurvy, a chronic Vitamin C deficiency, disobeying doctor’s orders to eat seal meat – which was the recognised cure at the time – because he so disliked the taste.
Had it not been for the heroic efforts of fellow expeditionary Tom Crean, walking him back through the frozen landscape, Evans may well have died from his illness.
Once back at the ship, he had to be evacuated out of Antarctica and back to England. Evans wasn’t to know for over a year the fatal outcome of the five men who did continue marching towards the bottom of the Earth.
Eventually the tragic news reached Britain that Scott and his men had all died on the way back to the Terra Nova. The meeting between Lord Curzon and Lady Scott opened the door to ask whether Evans had taken more than his fair share of food on the long journey back to the ship, an act that may have fatally undermined Scott and his final party.
The notes Turney found revealed that after Curzon’s initial enthusiasm to open an inquiry, prompted by meeting with Lady Scott, following a second meeting between Curzon and Oriana Wilson – the widow of Edward Wilson, one of the other five men to reach the Pole – the whole process suddenly shut down.
Curzon appeared to have accepted that Evans’ reportedly desperate need for extra food from the supplies on the way back to the ship was justification enough for his behaviour. ‘The scurvy was crucial,’ says Turney. ‘Curzon was under the impression that Teddy Evans had fallen down with scurvy when the food went missing. So he was basically sick, he was dying. If he hadn’t taken [the extra food], he probably would have died. So instead of five men – you can imagine Curzon rationalising – we would have six dead men. Poor Scott was caught in a terrible storm, so that means we’d have lost another man.’
However, Turney questions the excuse that Evans was so afflicted by scurvy that he needed to take as much food as he apparently did. In particular, he highlights a significant offset between two documents published after the event: the iconic book The Worst Journey in the World by Aspley Cherry-Garrard (a member of Scott’s expedition who had the unfortunate job of recovering the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Henry Bowers), and the diary of William ‘Bill’ Lashly, who accompanied Evans on the return journey, and whose diary was published itself (Under Scott’s Command).
Significantly, Evans initially wrote to a friend to say: ‘scurvy only developed when 300 miles from our base’ – halfway across the Ross Ice Shelf. This distance later grew to 500 miles in the official expedition report and, eventually, in The Worst Journey in the World, to around the base of the Beardmore Glacier.
Lashly’s original diary, however, suggests the disease wasn’t apparent until far later. ‘The dates at which Evans fell ill with scurvy are offset by about a week,’ reveals Turney. ‘The key implication is that the narrative had been changed. Suddenly he wasn’t falling down with scurvy halfway across the Ross Ice shelf, he was falling down with it where we think the food went missing – I guess, ultimately, as a justification. That’s clearly what Curzon knew when he had the meeting with Kathleen Scott; he was under the impression that Evans was already sick, whereas actually the original letters and diaries show that he was sick a lot, lot later. Two hundred miles later.’
Did Evans therefore deliberately change his scurvy story to fit with the dates and locations that would justify the taking of extra food, and therefore gain Curzon’s pardon? Turney isn’t sure, but he poses the question.
Furthermore, he also investigates reports of whether Evans disobeyed Scott’s orders to ensure there was a recovery team waiting at the base of the Beardmore Glacier with dogs for their return. When Scott wrote in his diary:
‘The dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed’
he was clearly expecting a team to be waiting for them, an order which had never been relayed to the rest of the crew. Turney questions whether Evans may simply have never passed on the request for the dog team, a request that could have saved their lives.
‘At the end,’ reflects Turney, ‘when Scott has gotten into an extraordinary peace of mind – when he’s writing letters to his wife and he strikes out the word “widow”, when he’s writing to lots of other people – the loneliness must have been horrendous. He also writes to Joseph Kingsley, the expedition manager. Much of that letter was reproduced in his final diaries, but there was actually one line that was left out. He wrote:
“Teddy Evans is not to be trusted over much, though he means well”
‘Even at the end, Scott’s not trusting him.’
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