Hundred years ago: Amundsen breaking news; Scott in a very bad way

Hundred years ago: Amundsen breaking news; Scott in a very bad way

Posted: Mar 09, 2012 03:46 am EST

(Correne Coetzer) The race to the South Pole was not won until it was announced to the King of Norway and the world on March 7 & 8, 1912.

The polar ship Fram arrived in Hobart, Tasmania March 7th with the Norwegians who discovered the South Pole on December 14th, 1911. The leader, Roald Amundsen was the only one who left the ship to announce the news and booked in at a hotel - where he was treated as a tramp; judged by his looks after being nearly 18 months away from civilization.

The same time on Antarctica, Robert Scott and his polar team were in a bad condition with not enough food and fuel and seriously frostbitten feet. “We are in a very bad way, I fear,” stated Scott in his diary.

Hobart bound

The Norwegians, Amundsen, Bjaaland, Wisting, Hanssen and Hassel discovered the Geographic South Pole (90°S) 34 days before their rival, Scott and his British team. But the race to the Pole was not won until it was announced to the world.

In an era with no satellite phones and high tech communication equipment, the Norwegians could only break the news when they got back to civilization again.

When picked up by their polar ship Fram, at 9 pm. January 30, 1912 they headed out to sea bounded for Hobart, in Tasmania, Australia. The voyage was hard, as Bjaaland wrote in his diary, “Struggling ahead with miserable slow speed, against the wind and fog and rain and high seas, so the motor has had to stay still.”

Getting into Hobart was “a stinking job”, added Bjaaland. They had to lay out a storm with torn sail and splintered gaff.

The coded telegrams

On March 7th Amundsen went on land and sent out telegrams to King Haakon Vll of Norway, his brother Leon, who was his press agent, and Fridtjof Nansen, his mentor and supporter.

All three telegrams were written in a secret code, which only Roald and Leon understood. This was to avoid leakage to the press before the King heard the news. Leon’s task was to see that King Haakon got the news first before anyone else.

It happened that the King was outside Oslo (then Christiania) when the telegram arrived and he only got the news from Leon late at night.

News to the world

On March 8, 1912 with the news now known to the King and Nansen, Leon sent out word about the discovery of the Pole to the Norwegian and world press. The Daily Chronicle in London published an article that day under the heading The South Pole Discovered – Norwegian Explorer Reaches Covert Goal.

No journalist was allowed near Amundsen or the ship. Eventually they left for Buenos Aires after two weeks.

Roald Amundsen’s diary

March 7 - Arrived at Hobart 11 a.m. Went ashore with the doctor and the harbormaster. Booked in at the Orient Hotel. Was treated as a tramp – my peaked cap and blue sweater – given a miserable room.

Immediately visited the Norwegian consul, McFarlane, and very warmly received by the old gentleman. Received my post and read it. No telegrams had come. Thereafter telegraphed the King. Then to Nansen and L. – Day spent at rest – with the exception of reporters who were intrusive – but they ran up against a brick wall.

March 8 - This morning received a telegram from L. who instructed me to send the main telegram to the Daily Chronicle, London. That was done immediately. Since then we kept absolute silence.

When I had gone to bed – 10 o’clock at night – the telegrams began to pour in. The conquest of the Pole had been published. The king was the first. Then they came from the Sorting, Government, Academy of Science, The Geographical Society, King George V, Norwegian Navy, and a mass of organizations. Journalists tried to break open the door of my bedroom, but they did not get in.


Over on Antarctica

Robert Falcon Scott wrote in his diary:

March 7. - A little worse I fear. One of Oates' feet very bad this morning; he is wonderfully brave. We still talk of what we will do together at home.

We only made 6 1/2 miles yesterday. This morning in 4 1/2 hours we did just over 4 miles. We are 16 from our depot.

If we only find the correct proportion of food there and this surface continues, we may get to the next depot [Mt. Hooper, 72 miles farther] but not to One Ton Camp. We hope against hope that the dogs have been to Mt. Hooper; then we might pull through. If there is a shortage of oil again we can have little hope.

One feels that for poor Oates the crisis is near, but none of us are improving, though we are wonderfully fit considering the really excessive work we are doing. We are only kept going by good food.

No wind this morning till a chill northerly air came ahead. Sun bright and cairns showing up well. I should like to keep the track to the end.

March 8. - Worse and worse in morning; poor Oates' left foot can never last out, and time over foot gear something awful. Have to wait in night foot gear for nearly an hour before I start changing, and then am generally first to be ready.

Wilson's feet giving trouble now, but this mainly because he gives so much help to others. We did 4 1/2 miles this morning and are now 8 1/2 miles from the depot—a ridiculously small distance to feel in difficulties, yet on this surface we know we cannot equal half our old marches, and that for that effort we expend nearly double the energy.

The great question is, What shall we find at the depot? If the dogs have visited it [with food and fuel] we may get along a good distance, but if there is another short allowance of fuel, God help us indeed. We are in a very bad way, I fear, in any case.


October 20, 1911 Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen and Sverre Hassel, set off from The Bay of Whales to discover the Geographic South Pole (90°S) on December 14, 1911. Kristian Prestrud, Jørgen Stubberud and Hjalmar Johansen stayed behind at Framheim (Bay of Whales) with the cook, Adolf Lindström.

The British polar team with Robert Falcon Scott as leader set off from Cape Evans on November 1, 1911 on their quest to discover the South Pole. The polar party who arrived at the already discovered South Pole on January 17, 1912 was Henry R. Bowers, Edward A. Wilson, Lawrence E.G. Oates and Edgar Evans (Evans died February 17, 1912 on the way back).
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Breaking news in the New York Times March 8, 1911, “Amundsen reaches the South Pole”
Image by ExplorersWeb courtesy New York Times
“No news from Capt. Scott”
Image by ExplorersWeb courtesy New York Times
Front page of The New York Times.
Image by ExplorersWeb courtesy New York Times
Ernest Shackleton’s opinion on the feat.
Image by ExplorersWeb courtesy New York Times
Telegram from Roald Amundsen to Fridtjof Nansen March 7th, 1912
courtesy National Library, Oslo