Henry Robertson Bowers

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The Terra Nova expedition at the South Pole, January 1912, from negative taken by Bowers (seated, left)

Lieutenant Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers (29 July 1883 – 29 March 1912) was one of Robert Falcon Scott's polar party on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition (1910–1913) who all died during their return from the South Pole.

Early life[edit]

Bowers was born on 29 July 1883 in Greenock, of Scottish descent. After his father died in Rangoon his mother alone raised him from the age of three with his two older sisters. By January 1896 the family had moved to Streatham, in South London, and lived at 19 Pathfield Road where Mrs Bowers was still residing in 1899. Whilst living in Streatham Bowers attended Streatham High School for Boys in Pinfold Road in 1896-7. The building survives today as the Computer Centre behind Streatham Library on which a plaque was placed by The Streatham Society on 29th March 2012 to commemorate the centenary of his death. He went to sea first as a cadet in the merchant service, training on HMS Worcester and sailing around the world four times on the Loch Torridon.[1] He then enlisted in the Royal Indian Marine Service in 1905, appointed sub-lieutenant serving in Ceylon and Burma, and commanding a river gunboat on the Irrawaddy. He later served on HMS Fox, preventing gun-running in the Persian Gulf.[2]

The British Antarctic "Terra Nova" Expedition 1910–1913[edit]

Bowers joined Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova expedition in 1910 after having read the accounts of Scott's earlier Discovery expedition, and of Ernest Shackleton's expedition in Nimrod. He had no previous polar experience but he was recommended to Scott by the ex-President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham who had been the main organiser of Scott's earlier Discovery expedition. Markham had met Bowers aboard HMS Worcester and had been so impressed with him that Scott invited Bowers to join the expedition without a prior interview. On meeting him for the first time though Scott was not so impressed by the short, stout young man. "Well, we're landed with him now, and must make the best of it," said Scott.

Originally intended to be just a member of the ship's party in his role as storekeeper, Bowers quickly distinguished himself as a highly skilled organiser. By the time the Terra Nova left New Zealand, Scott had promoted him to be a member of the shore party in charge of landing, stores, navigation and the arrangement of sledging rations, a role in which his extraordinary powers of memory served Scott well.

Six months after arriving in Antarctica, Bowers made the "Winter Journey" to the Emperor penguin breeding grounds at Cape Crozier in July 1911 with Dr. Edward Adrian "Bill" Wilson and Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The aim of the party was to secure an unhatched egg for scientific study. In almost total darkness, and with temperatures ranging from −40 °F (−40.0 °C) to −70 °F (−56.7 °C), they man-hauled their sledge 60 miles (97 km) from Scott's base at Cape Evans to the far side of Ross Island. Frozen and exhausted, they reached their goal only to be pinned down by a blizzard. Their tent was ripped away and carried off by the wind, leaving the men in their sleeping bags under a thickening drift of snow. When the winds subsided, by great fortune they found their tent lodged about half a mile away in rocks. Having successfully collected three eggs and desperately exhausted they eventually arrived back at Cape Evans on 1 August 1911, five weeks after setting off. Cherry-Gerrard later referred to this trip as The Worst Journey in the World which became the title of his book published in 1922 recounting the fate of the 1910–13 expedition.

On 1 November 1911, the long trek to the South Pole began. Scott had not originally planned to include "Birdie" Bowers in his polar party. He had been a member of the sledge team led by Scott's second-in-command, Lieutenant E.R.G.R. Evans, which was the last support party to accompany Scott and his team southward. But on 4 January 1912, when Evans turned back, Bowers was assigned to the polar party. Some have argued that this seems to have been an impulsive decision by Scott. However, others, such as Antarctic explorer Ranulph Fiennes, have indicated that this is a logical decision – particularly when one intends to increase the speed of a polar land-crossing (in an effort to reduce the consumption of resources).

Only a few days earlier, he had ordered Evans' men to depot their skis, so that Bowers had to travel on foot to the pole while the others were still on skis. In addition, adding a fifth man to the party meant squeezing another person into a tent made for four, and having to split up rations that were packed in units for four men. The most likely motivation for Scott to add Bowers to the polar party was a realisation that he needed another experienced navigator to confirm their position at the South Pole to avoid controversy such as that surrounding the claims of Frederick Cook and Robert Peary at the North Pole. To back this theory up, it was Bowers who eventually took the sights to fix the exact location of the geographic South Pole for the Polar party.

On 16 January 1912, as Scott's party neared the Pole, it was Bowers who first spotted a black flag left at a camp made by Roald Amundsen's polar party over a month previously. They knew then that they must have been beaten in the race to be first to the South Pole. On 18 January they arrived at the South Pole to find a tent left behind by Amundsen's party at their Polheim camp and inside a dated note informing them that Amundsen had reached the Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott's party by 35 days. Their return journey soon became a desperate affair due to the exceptionally adverse weather. First P.O. Edgar Evans died on 17 February, suspected to be of a brain injury after a fall, and then, in a vain attempt to save his companions, Lawrence "Titus" Oates deliberately walked out of their tent to his death on 16 March[3] after succumbing to the effects of terribly frostbitten and gangrenous feet. Scott, Bowers, and Dr. Edward Adrian "Bill" Wilson continued on for 3 more days, progressing 20 more miles, but were stopped 11 miles short of the next food depot by a blizzard on 20 March. The blizzard continued for days, longer than they had fuel and food for. Too weak, cold and hungry to continue, they died in their tent on or soon after 29 March (Scott's last diary entry), 148 miles from their base camp. Their bodies were found by a search party the following spring on 12 November 1912. The tent was collapsed over them by the search party who then buried them where they lay, under a snow cairn, topped by a cross made from a pair of skis.

Character and nickname[edit]

Bowers was short, at five foot four inches. He had red hair and a distinctive beak-like nose that quickly earned him the nickname of "Birdie" among his fellow explorers. He was known for his toughness, dependability, and cheerfulness. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a fellow expedition member, remarked that his "capacity for work was prodigious", and that "There was nothing subtle about him. He was transparently simple, straightforward, and unselfish".[4] In his diary, Scott wrote of Bowers that "he is the hardest traveller that ever undertook a Polar journey as well as one of the most undaunted". In a letter to Bowers' mother retrieved from the tent containing their bodies, Scott wrote "I write when we are very near the end of our journey, and I am finishing it in company with two gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son. He had come be one of my closest and soundest friends, and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and energy. As the troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful, and indomitable to the end."

Archives[edit]

Bowers' life is celebrated with a small display at Rothesay Museum on the Isle of Bute, near where his mother and sister went to live; he visited them during shore leave and loved walking in the Scottish Highlands.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1922, p. 213
  2. ^ Apsley Cherry-Garrard, ibid, p. 213
  3. ^ Online Reader – Project Gutenberg
  4. ^ Apsley Cherry-Garrard, ibid, p. 214

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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