March 7, 1912 The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

The final camp became their tomb, a high cairn of snow erected over it. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribed with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. His mother wanted no such thing and made him promise he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died. He kept his promise until that day.  There would be no more school after that.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

It’s been called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.

Amundsen was drawn to it as much as he helped create it. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south, along a direct line to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold.

A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911,  the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott had attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again in 1911. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. 97 miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

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The doomed Scott party used a string to take this “selfie”, the day after becoming 2nd to reach the South Pole

Weak, poorly acclimated ponies slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team. When Scott decided to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35 miles short of its planned location at 80°, expedition member Lawrence Oates warned “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.
Unlike the previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is clear: “The worst has happened.  All the day dreams must go.  Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

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Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19. Team member Edgar Evans’ condition was visibly deteriorating as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left him dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  By March 16, Lawrence Oates was severely frostbitten. He left his tent for the last time in a valiant act of suicide, in the forlorn hopes that his comrades, might live.  Oates stepped into the maelstrom, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

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RV Belgica frozen in the ice, 1898

The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on camp the following day and lasted for days, as Scott and his companions wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others. The last words in his diary, were: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found 8 months later, the last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming their tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross:

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

The team was eleven miles from the next supply depot.

Grave_of_the_Southern_PartySatellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.   The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).

A century of ice and snow have covered bodies, camp and the cross alike. Now encased 75′ down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, the bodies are expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276, perhaps to float away in an iceberg.

In 1926, Amundsen and a team of 15 reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Three previous claims to have attained the North Pole: Frederick Cook (1908), Robert Peary (1909), and Richard E. Byrd (1926), have all been disputed as being of dubious accuracy or downright frauds, leaving Amundsen the undisputed first to have reached both poles.

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The Observation Hill cross memorial to the Scott expedition, erected 1913.

Roald Amundsen and a crew of five disappeared into the Arctic on June 18, 1928, lost in the search for survivors following the crash of the Airship Italia.

Despite efforts to find them as late as August 2009, neither aircraft nor bodies were ever found.On hearing the details of Scott’s end, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

Peter Markham Scott, the only child produced by the marriage of Robert Falcon and Kathleen Bruce Scott, went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature, which operates to this day as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

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January 16, 2003 Columbia Disaster

The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, with a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first space-worthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

o-columbia-shuttle-disaster-facebookSTS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida.  It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

It was the first, and (to-date) only manned maiden test flight of a new system in the American space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with external hydrogen fuel tanks painted white.  From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted, to save weight.

Initially, there were four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”.  A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.

Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank striking Columbia’s left wing, leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.

Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, none was able to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even in the event of major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.

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December 2, 1988 ‘Atlantis’ mission narrowly missed repeting the Columbia disaster, four days later. “More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle’s belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal – a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna – was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through”. H/T Spaceflightnow.com

For Columbia, 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds of space travel came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003.  Over the California coast and traveling twenty-three times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000° Fahrenheit and more, when super-heated gases entered the wing’s interior.

231,000 feet below, mission control detected four unconnected sensors shut down on the left wing, with no explanation.   The first debris struck the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am.  The last communication from the crew came about a minute later.

Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am Eastern Standard Time.

Debris and human remains were found in 2,000 locations from the state of Louisiana, to Arkansas. The only survivors were a can full of worms, brought into space for study.

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“Mon Landscape” by Petr Ginz

Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Ramon is the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors and family member to several others, who didn’t live to tell the tale.  In their memory, Colonel Ramon reached out to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center, for a holocaust relic to bring with him into space.

Petr Ginz was incarcerated for a time in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he drew this picture.  A piece of teenage imagination:  the Earth as it may appear, from the moon.

Petr Ginz was destined to be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, though his drawing survived.  He was fourteen years old.  Colonel Ramon was given a copy,  a young boy’s drawing of a safer place.  This would accompany the astronaut, into space.

Today, the assorted debris from the Columbia disaster numbers some 84,000 pieces, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.  To the best of my knowledge, this drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

Afterward:

Andrew “Drew” Feustel is a car guy, with fond memories of restoring a ’67 Ford Mustang in the family garage in North suburban Detroit.

When he’s not fixing cars he’s an astronaut, and veteran of two space missions.  He was also for a time a colleague of Colonel Ramon.  The pair had several close friends, in common.

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The ‘car guy’ in space thing seems to have worked. NASA reports “The spacewalkers overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws and stuck handrails, four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments, new batteries, a new gyroscope and a new computer were installed. | NASA photo

In March 2018, Feustel left for his third spaceflight, this one a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.  Before he left, Rona Ramon, widow of the Israeli Astronaut, gave him another copy of Petr Ginz’ drawing.

The circle was closed.  This fruit of a doomed boy’s imagination once again broke the bonds of space. This time, to come home.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 9, 1493 Of Mermaids and Manatees

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone standing against them. The conquered peoples described the period differently. Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century. The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east. Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes. It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end. Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible. Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth. Otherwise, the cats would have pushed everything over the edge, by now.

The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong. In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands. He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China). Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492. The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”. “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology. These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder. These marine herbivores measure 10 to 13-feet from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive. A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure. It’s just possible Mr. Smith needed to get out a little more.

November 12, 1912 Frozen in Time

Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald AmundsenAs long as he could remember, Roald Amundsen wanted to be an explorer.  As a boy, he would read about the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition, of 1848.  A sixteen-year-old Amundsen took inspiration from Fridtjof Nansen’s epic crossing of Greenland, in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.  Amundsen was born to take part.

Not so, Robert Falcon Scott.   A career officer with the British Royal Navy, Scott would take a different path to this story.

Clements Markham, President of the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was known to “collect” promising young naval officers with an eye toward future polar exploration.  The two first met on March 1, 1887, when the eighteen-year old midshipman’s cutter won a sailing race, across St. Kitt’s Bay.

In 1894, Scott’s father John made a disastrous mistake, selling the family brewery and investing the proceeds, badly.  The elder Scott’s death of heart disease three years later brought on fresh family crisis, leaving John’s widow Hannah and her two unmarried daughters, dependent on Robert and his younger brother, Archie.

Now more than ever, Scott was eager to distinguish himself with an eye toward promotion, and the increase in income which came with it.

RobertFalconScott.jpgIn the Royal Navy, limited opportunities for career advancement were eagerly sought after, by any number of ambitious officers.  Home on leave in 1899, Scott chanced once again to meet the now-knighted “Sir” Clements Markham, and learned of an impending RGS Antarctic expedition, aboard the barque-rigged auxiliary steamship, RRS Discovery.  What passed between the two went unrecorded but, a few days later, Scott showed up at the Markham residence, and volunteered to lead the expedition.

The Discovery expedition of 1901-’04 was one of science as well as exploration.  Despite a combined polar experience of near-zero, the fifty officers and men under Robert Falcon Scott made a number of important biological, zoological and geological findings, proving that the Antarctic continent was once, forested.  Though later criticized as clumsy and amateurish, a journey south in the direction of the pole discovered the polar plateau, establishing the southernmost record for its time at 82° 17′ S, only 530 miles short of the pole.

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Kathleen Bruce Scott

Discovery returned in September 1904, the expedition hailed by one writer as “one of the great polar journeys”, of its time.  Once an obscure naval officer, Scott now entered Edwardian society, and moved among the higher social and economic circles, of the day.

A brief but stormy relationship ensued with Kathleen Bruce, a sculptress who studied under Auguste Rodin, and counted among her personal friends, the likes of Pablo Picasso, Aleister Crowley and Isadora Duncan.  The couple was married on September 2, 1908 and the marriage produced one child, Peter Markham Scott, who went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The elder Scott would not live to see it.

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Ernest Shackleton, ca 1909

The “Great Southern Journey” of Scott’s Discovery officer Ernest Shackleton, arrived at a point 112 miles short of the pole on January 9, 1909, providing Scott with the impetus for a second attempt, the following year.  Scott was still fundraising for the expedition when the old converted whaler Terra Nova departed Cardiff, in South Wales.  Scott joined the ship in South Africa and arrived in Melbourne Australia in October, 1910.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Scott, Roald Amundsen was preparing for his own drive on the south pole, aboard the ship “Fram” (Forward).

It was in Melbourne that Scott received the telegram: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen“.  Robert Falcon Scott now faced a race to the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano, in the world. Robert Falcon Scott took this photograph in 1911

Weak ponies, poorly acclimatized to the wretched conditions of Antarctica, slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition.  Four horses died of cold or had to be shot, because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of the planned location at 80°.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”  His words would prove prophetic.

Scott Expedition

Unlike the earlier attempt, Robert Falcon Scott made it to the pole this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him there, by a mere five weeks. Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party turned and began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19, 1912.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier left the man concussed on February 4, “dull and incapable”.  Another fall two weeks later, left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Man-hauled sledges

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Titus himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity would become a threat and a burden to the team. He left his tent for the last time and limped into a blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

Noble as it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide, came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles yet to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.

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Starving and frostbitten, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary in the final hours of his life “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, he worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The lowest ground level temperature ever recorded was −128.6° Fahrenheit at the Soviet Vostok Antarctic Station, in 1983.  Meteorological conditions for those last days in the Scott camp, went undocumented.

The frozen corpses of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades were found on November 12, 1912, that last diary entry dated March 29.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, was carved into the cross:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
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Defeated by only weeks, the Scott party spends a moment at the south pole, before turning for the frozen, 800-mile slog, back.

It was eleven miles short of the next supply depot.

On hearing the fate of his rival, Roald Amundsen said “I would gladly forgo any honor or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century later, ice and snow have covered the last camp of the southern party.  Pressed ever downward by the weight of snow and ice, their corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  One day to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown and nameless iceberg.

Feature image, top of page:  Last Camp of the Southern Party, of Robert Scott Falcon

August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, a token of gratitude for the return of HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier. Excepting a brief period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the desk has been in the oval office or a private study in the White House, from that day to this.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Ship

Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few ships suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

e9b3482e7a0e242654668c20479b9fb4HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan, and refitted for Arctic exploration. Re-named Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  HMS Resolute found and rescued the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

resoluteice2Three of the HMS Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it, despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return.
Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

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The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, giving her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit, and Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented her to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.

Resolute, ReaganThe desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office.

FDR had a panel installed in the opening, since he was self conscious about his leg braces. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk, while his young son JFK, Jr., played under it.
Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House, after the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only time the desk has been out of the White House.

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office, where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, thus far, Donald J. Trump.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 10, 2010 An Awful Place

A chirpy little forecast on weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting max daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Amundsen’s mother wanted no such thing for her boy, and made him vow that he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died.  He kept his promise until that day.  After that, there would be no more school.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to the story, as much as he helped in its creation. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south latitude, precious stockpiles of food and equipment at 69-mile intervals on the way to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911, the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Robert Falcon Scott

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again at the time of the Amundsen expedition. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. Ninety-seven miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Weak ponies, poorly acclimated to the wretched conditions slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of its planned location at 80°.  His words would prove prophetic.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike his previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by a mere five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is palpable: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

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“Scott captures Dr Edward Wilson sketching on Beardmore Glacier during his final expedition to the Antarctic in 1912”. H/T Guardian.com

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Oates himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity was a threat and a burden to the team. The man left his tent for the last time and limped into the blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

331221e7257641dd320331d5341f2627--robert-falcon-scott-captain-scottNoble though it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.  In his final starved, frostbitten hours, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, Scott worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The specific meteorological conditions of those final days, went unrecorded.  A chirpy little forecast on http://www.weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting maximum daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found some eight months later, that last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

6303323d3bf163bd7706d70a5f6fc7bfThe last three survivors died eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, part of the expedition to find the doomed Scott party, survived similar conditions by some kind of miracle and wrote in The Worst Journey in the World, that his teeth chattered so violently, that some of them broke.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.  The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).

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Routes taken to the South Pole by Amundsen (Red) and Scott (Green)

On hearing of the fate of his erstwhile rival, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century of ice and snow have covered the bodies, the camp and the cross alike. Pressed ever downward by the weight of the snow and ice and creeping seaward with the glacier, the corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  Perhaps to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown future iceberg.

Feature image, top of page “Final call: From left-righy, Dr E. A. Wilson, Lt. H. R, Bowers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Petty Officer Taff Evans and Capt. L. E.G. Oates pose for a photo not long before they died on their way back from their trek“.  H/T Guardian.com

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August 7, 1573, El Draque

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, far too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

When the casual student of history can hark back to a time when “Britannia ruled the waves”, it’s hard to remember that the world’s great naval powers were once Spain and Portugal.

In the late 15th century, the two determined to slice the world into “spheres of influence”, in order to minimize conflict.   The Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494 between the Pope and the respective monarchs, bequeathed most of the Americas, to Spain.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church fewer than twenty years later, triggering the Protestant reformation.  The non-Catholic powers of next-century Europe were not about to recognize Papal authority, nor abide by his treaties.

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Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494, dividing the world into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence

Spanish authorities were deeply suspicious of foreign encroachment onto their territory, and murdered several hundred French Huguenot inhabitants of Fort Caroline near the future Jacksonville Florida, in 1565.  At the time, the French had already surrendered.

In 1562-’63 and again in 1564-’65, the English adventurer John Hawkins engaged in trading expeditions with Spanish colonies in the New World, with tacit approval from the British crown. Such trade was technically illegal according to the 1494 treaty, but local authorities were happy to trade for slaves.  Hawkins received glowing testimonials from local magistrates and governors, often in exchange for bribes, and took orders from his Spanish clients for a third such journey.

Spanish authorities were alarmed at this challenge to their monopoly.  The sneak attack of September 23, 1568 at the port of San Juan de Ulúa was a humiliating defeat for the English, resulting in the loss of five British ships and the death of hundreds of British seamen.  One-hundred or more survivors were stranded on the beach and later tortured, burned at the stake, or sentenced to penal servitude for life on Spanish galleys, following the arrival of the Inquisition in 1571.

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The Battle of San Juan de Ulúa

Hawkins’ relative and protégé Francis Drake was forced to swim for it, and flee for his life at the helm of the Judith, one of only two ships and a mere 70 or 80 crew, to survive. Three more turned up a year later, in Nova Scotia.

Being forced like that to abandon his relative and sponsor to fend for himself was a searing humiliation, leaving Drake with a deep and abiding hatred for all things Catholic.  Most especially, Spain.

Drake launched his first major undertaking in 1572, attacking Spanish operations on the Isthmus of Panama, where Peruvian silver and gold were moved overland to the coastal Caribbean town of of Nombre de Dios, where galleons awaited to remove the treasure to Spain. Drake and a crew including French privateers attacked a Spanish mule train in March 1573 with the help of local Maroons, African slaves escaped from the Spanish.

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

The triumphant expedition returned to Plymouth this day in 1573, heroes in England and reviled in Spain. Gonzalo González del Castillo described “El Draque”, in a letter to King Philip II, “The people of quality dislike him for having risen so high from such a lowely family; the rest say he is the main cause of wars“.

At one point during that raid of 1572-’73, Drake had climbed a tree to scout the vicinity, becoming the first English man to see the Pacific ocean. He remarked that one day, he wanted an Englishman to sail those waters. He himself gained that chance in 1577, when Elizabeth I sent Drake on an expedition against Spanish holdings along the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Historians disagree to this day, whether this was a voyage of exploration, piracy or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King in the eye.  When it was over, Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

This was the third such voyage. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was first, setting out 58 years earlier with 5 ships and 200 men.  Magellan himself didn’t make it.  He was killed on a Philippine beach in 1521.  Eighteen of his men straggled back on two ships, in 1522.

Death of Magellan
Death of Ferdinand Magellan, 1521

Ordered by King Charles I to colonize the Spice Islands for Spain, explorer García Jofre de Loaísa would be the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men aboard seven ships.  None of his vessels ever made it back, nor did the explorer.  25 men returned to Spain in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

The Pelican left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577 with four other ships and 164 men. The weather was so rancid they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, Cornwall, and finally returning to Plymouth, where the whole thing started.  The small flotilla set out once again on December 13 after making repairs and soon joined by a sixth ship, the Mary.

Drake crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his people got on his last nerve. Thomas Doughty had been given command of the captured Portuguese ship Santa Maria, renamed the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo. One thing led to another and Doughty himself was accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”. Doughty was brought before a shipboard trial on charges of treason and witchcraft, establishing a principle which lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain was absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of the passengers.

Golden Hind Replica
Golden Hinde, replica

Thomas Doughty lost his head, near the spot where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.  Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind” (Female deer), probably to smooth over the Doughty episode with the expedition’s sponsors.

From the 16th century on, the Spanish Main was a rich source of treasure. The three sided box enclosing the Caribbean from Florida through Mexico and along the northern coast of South America was a ripe territory for pirates and buccaneers, though that became less so as you traveled south along the South American coast, and unheard of at this time in the Pacific.

Spanish_MainReduced to three ships by August 1578, Drake made the straits of Magellan, emerging alone into the Pacific that September.

El Draque captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of gold near Lima, when he heard about a galleon sailing west toward Manila.  The aptly named “Cacafuego”,  (“Fireshitter”) would be the richest prize of the voyage, with a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins), 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver.

After a fine dinner with the Cacafuego’s officers and passengers, Drake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

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Cacafuego, under full sail (left), under attack by Francis Drake

The expedition landed on the California coast in June 1579, claiming the land for the English Crown and calling it Nova Albion “New Britain”. The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish.  First-hand records from the voyage were destroyed in a Whitehall Palace fire in 1698.  Today Drakes Bay, about 30 miles from San Francisco, is anyone’s best guess.

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Drake’s Bay

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew on September 26, 1580. The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s entire income for the year.  Awarded a knighthood the following year, Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Dysentery brought the seafaring career of El Draque to an end in January 1596, off the coast of Panama. Dressed in his armor and buried at sea near Portobelo, Divers have searched for his coffin, to this day.

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