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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 08:53 GMT
Moving last letter of explorer Scott
By Liam Allen
BBC News

Explorer Scott of the Antarctic died in 1912 on his ill-fated South Pole expedition. The last letter Capt Robert Scott wrote to his wife, Kathleen, reveals the human tragedy behind the doomed journey.

Captain Scott's letter to his wife
The letter was donated to the museum by his son's widow

Capt Scott's realisation that he and his team were not going to survive their unsuccessful quest to become the first to reach the South Pole is spelt out starkly in the opening line.

"To my widow," he writes.

"We are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through."

By the time he had started writing the letter - dated March 1912 and written over a period of days - Plymouth-born Capt Scott and all his men were suffering from slow starvation and hypothermia.

Weeks earlier on 17 January, in temperatures of -30C, they had been greeted at the South Pole by the soul-destroying evidence that they had been beaten there by rival Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

From that point on, the team was engaged in a desperate struggle to reach a food and equipment supply depot which, because of blunders in an earlier preparatory mission, was further away from the South Pole than planned.

'Simply stop'

In the first instalment of the letter - written in his now-famous journal - Capt Scott tells his wife: "If anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart."

Quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again
Capt Scott in letter to his wife

He also urges his wife to "take what comfort you can" that he would "leave the world fresh from harness and full of good health and vigour".

"This is dictated already," he continues referring to dwindling rations.

"When provisions come to an end we simply stop where we are."

On 17 February, the expedition suffered its first casualty. Petty Officer Edgar Evans died after he had stumbled behind the five-strong group and slipped into a coma.

And on 17 March - some time after Capt Scott had written the first instalment of his letter - another member of the group, Capt Lawrence "Titus" Oates, crippled with frostbite, famously walked out of the party's tent to die telling the others: "I am just going outside and may be some time."

In the second part of his letter to his wife, Capt Scott wrote that things "had gone down hill a good deal" since the first part of the letter.

"Poor Titus Oates has gone - he was in a bad state - the rest of us keep going and imagine we have a chance to get through but the cold weather doesn't let up at all."

'Worst aspect'

Elsewhere in the letter, Capt Scott complains about the difficulty of writing "because of the cold - 70 degrees below zero and nothing but the shelter of our tent".

Scott and his South Pole party

As well as speaking of his love for his wife - "quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again" - Capt Scott also talks about his wishes for the future of his young son, Peter, then aged three.

"It is a satisfaction to feel that he is safe with you," he wrote. "I think both he and you ought to be specially looked after by the country for which, after all, we have given our lives with something of spirit which makes for example."

And later in the letter he urges his wife to "make the boy interested in natural history if you can - it is better than games".

"Try and make him believe in God, it is comforting," he adds.

Capt Scott also tells his wife to "cherish no sentimental rubbish about remarriage" and to remarry "when the right man comes to help you in life".

Captain Scott writes in his den in October 1911
I think the best chance has gone
Capt Scott in letter to his wife

But the most poignant moment in the letter comes in the final entry.

"Since writing the above we have got to within 11 miles of our depot with one hot meal and two days cold food and we should have got through but have been held for four days by a frightful storm," he writes.

"I think the best chance has gone. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last for that depot but in the fighting there is a painless end so don't worry."

With a swirling blizzard confining them to their sleeping bags in their tent, the three remaining men waited for the inevitable.

The final messages written by Capt Scott to his family will be on public display at the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum in Cambridge from 17 January. They were donated to the museum by his son's widow.

Some of the contents of Captain Scott's last letters

Scott's Antarctic images on show
20 Dec 04 |  Cambridgeshire
Private buyer nets Antarctic book
23 Apr 04 |  Cambridgeshire
Scott voyage diary shows rivalry
07 Apr 04 |  Cambridgeshire


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