This canvas bag stored the reindeer-fur-lined sleeping bag used by Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates during the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Oates was one of five members of the final polar team who headed out for the South Pole on 1 November 1911. His hand-stitched canvas case was stencilled with “Cpt. Oates. Polar Party. Sleeping Bag”. The cover was left behind along with his shoes and diary at number 14 Pony Camp on the men’s return journey and was later recovered in November 1912 by a party searching for Scott and his companions.
Towards the end of the 1911 winter, Scott laid out his plans for reaching the South Geographic Pole: sixteen men would set out following Shackleton’s route from the Nimrod expedition using motorised sledges, ponies and dogs to carry their supplies across the Great Ice Barrier to the base of the Beardmore Glacier and the Transantarctic Mountains. At this point the horses would be shot for food and the dogs and four men were to return to base at Camp Evans, leaving a twelve man team to push on unaided.
The first team to begin the journey south was the Motor Party; the party of four left on 24 October using the two petrol-driven sledges to carry supplies. The team’s hopes of a quick journey were soon dashed as the sledges struggled in the harsh temperatures, finally failing after only fifty kilometres, forcing the men to haul the supplies the remaining 241 kilometres by themselves. The remaining twelve men followed with the dogs and horses, meeting at One Ton Depot on 21 November. Scott was disappointed by the expedition’s slow progress, held up by the struggling horses in the unexpectedly bad weather.
As the expedition pushed on across the Great Ice Barrier and up the Beardmore Glacier, small teams of men peeled away. On 4 January 1912 the final support party left, leaving behind the polar party of five. Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans and Henry Bowers now battled across the Polar Plateau with Scott, finally reaching the Pole on 17 January 1912. Awaiting their arrival was a solitary green tent flying the Norwegian flag. They had made it to the Pole but Amundsen had beaten them.
Scott’s account of their journey back to Cape Evans is a harrowing read; a bitter struggle against the effects of exhaustion, cold and starvation. After falling as they descended the Beardmore Glacier, Edgar Evans died; frostbitten and dehydrated. A month later Oates too was in a deplorable state. Lame from frostbite, he struggled to walk and had been forced to slash his sleeping bag so that he might keep his foot out at night to let the cold deaden the pain. By 16 March, it was clear that he could struggle on no longer and he walked out into a raging blizzard with the words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’, sacrificing himself that the others might survive. Battling on with limited supplies and in plummeting temperatures, the remaining trio continued their trek to base.
In late March 1912 a nine-day blizzard pinned down Scott, Wilson and Bowers in their tent. There would be no escape. All three wrote messages for their loved ones until the end, with the final message dated 29 March 1912: ‘It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. R Scott. For God’s sake look after our people.’ They died deeply disappointed men, a mere eighteen kilometres from salvation at One Ton Depot.
Currently on display at the Canterbury Museum. New Zealand