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In 1895 the Sixth International Geographical Congress issued a call to the scientific community to explore the Antarctic regions by the turn of the century, That prompted a race to the South Pole that was filled with heroism, bravery, success and glorious failure. Pictures of the Antarctic reflect this struggle between man and the elements, with portraits of Antarctic explorers, illustrations of dramatic polar landscapes, and the genius of early photographers in overcoming the extreme conditions to produce images of spectacular effect.
The leading players in this story came from Norway, Australia and Britain.
Roald Amundsen was first to the Pole. A Norwegian, he had greater familiarity with the conditions he would face on his expedition than his competitors. His expedition was well organised, used dogs for transport and focused solely on reaching the Pole rather than scientific discovery.
Robert Falcon Scott, by contrast, was a Royal Navy officer. Captain Scott made two attempts to reach the South Pole. The first, the Discovery expedition of 1901-1904, failed to reach the Pole but did explore and chart previously unknown waters. Scott's lieutenant on this voyage was Ernest Shackleton, who was sent home because of ill health (and not, as reported later, because Scott feared Shackleton was a competing cynosure).
Captain Scott's second, fatal, expedition was on the ship Terra Nova from 1910 to 1913. Again Scott, unlike Amundsen, did significant scientific work as well as seeking the Pole. Having had poor experience with dogs on the Discovery expedition Scott chose ponies as pack animals. They also took petrol-fuelled vehicles, but these could not work properly in the extreme cold. Scott and his colleagues did reach the South Pole on 17th/18th of January, 1912, only to find that Amundsen had got there one month earlier. Scott and his team perished on the return journey, famously a mere 11 miles from the supply dump at One Ton Depot.
After the Discovery expedition Shackleton led a number of Antarctic expeditions between 1907 and 1922, when he died on board his ship, the Quest, in the South Atlantic. His most famous expedition was on the Endurance in 1914-1916. The ship was broken by ice and the crew managed to reach Elephant Island. Shackleton and five others sailed the 800 or so miles to South Georgia in a small boat and organised the rescue of those left behind. All of the crew and the expedition members survived the ordeal. The boat, the James Caird, is on view at Shackleton's alma mater, Dulwich College.
Douglas Mawson was born in Yorkshire but was Australian (his family emigrated to Australia in 1884). He was a geologist and was on Shackleton's 1907 expedition. He declined a position on Scott's 1910 expedition and led his own, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, the aims of which were geographical exploration and scientific research.
How very British that the glorious yet tragic failure of Scott of the Antarctic should become one of the country's proudest legends.
The last words of two great British Heroes:
"I am just going outside and may be some time." Captain Lawrence Oates
"For God's sake look after my people..." Captain Scott