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The Wild Card of Antarctica

Leslene Kwame

An extract from a work in progress.

It is the 31st December, 1910.

The bow of The Terra Nova ploughs slowly through the Antarctic’s Ross Sea as floes impede the heavily-laden ship. A snowstorm earlier in the day has made the deck feel cold and damp as chunks of melting ice fall from the ship’s ropes like ripe fruits from a tree. Though it is summertime, awe-inspiring mountains of frozen water pose as abstract sculptures in the perilous sea. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew are within two days’ sail of Ross Island, the final destination from which the march to the South Pole will begin. In the distance Mount Sabine illuminated by the midnight sun evokes a vision of purity that leaves Dr Edward Leicester Atkinson Junior, the ship’s surgeon, contemplative. He thinks to share the sight with the youngest member of the wardroom, Aspley Cherry-Garrard.

‘Wrap a blanket around you Cherry and come up on deck,’ says Atkinson trying to rouse the sleeping man. Captain Scott and most of the crew have already retired to bed. The last twenty-four hours had been difficult.

‘Have you seen the land?’ Atkinson says in an attempt to motivate Cherry to leave the warmth of his bunk. Cherry protests but lets himself be persuaded.

Up on deck Cherry is captivated by the magnificence of the sight and will later write in his 1922 memoir The Worst Journey In the World, ‘They were the most glorious peaks appearing as it were like satin.’

The cold gets the better of Cherry who abandons Atkinson on deck. But, it’s not just the sunlight and the landscape that enchants Atkinson; marking the beginning of the New Year is a religious ritual that he always observes. It reminds him too of a childhood of which he barely speaks.


The Forest School dormitory that Atkinson shared with five other teenaged boys was especially cold that night in December 1895. His feet felt as if they had been covered with ground frost. Sleep evaded him. From his bed, the horizon of leafless trees that once proudly displayed plumes of greens, yellows and golden browns, appeared emaciated, raising bony outstretched limbs towards an indifferent sky.

Three silhouettes invaded the moonlit room. Before he could clearly determine what loomed over him, the covers were pulled from his diminutive frame. He found himself being frogmarched along the near-freezing corridors into blackness and utter confusion. In the dark, a rope tightened around his waist. As one former Forest Boy recalled in his memoir: ‘The Blackdrop was a horrible and unforgettable experience that happened at least once to every new boy.’ The ‘Blackdrop’ was a gap in the top of the attic stairwell that created a drop of several flights of stairs to the ground floor. When the lights went out, the new boy would be lowered by rope into the dark crevice, and if he screamed, the drop would be repeated.

The boys plunged Atkinson into the pitch black.


Atkinson’s father, Edward Leycester Atkinson knew all about boarding schools and their initiation pranks having spent more than ten years of his life at them. He had primed his son to expect nothing less than bullying and hardship – an evil he considered necessary if his son was to have the character of an Englishman and gentleman.

Edward’s mother had died in 1860 when he was nine years old, leaving him and his older brother with an ambitious father, the Canon J. C. Atkinson, who in 1847 became the first vicar in Danby, anancient village in Cleveland, Yorkshire. The Canon was a strict disciplinarian who also had a reputation for being a social climberamong those whom knew him best. When he remarried two years after his wife’s death, Edward was sent to Rosall School in Lancashire and from there to Repton in Derby. Denied the opportunity to experience a stable, loving family, Edward’s formative years were shaped by the prevailing ethos of public school education: harsh discipline and imperialist ideologies. By the time he decided against continuing his education to university, the Canon, his father, had remarried twice and sired eleven more children.

Barely twenty-one, in 1871 Edward joined the Colonial Bank in Bishopsgate, London as an accounts clerk. Within eighteen months of his appointment he was transferred to their branch in Barbados and then to St. Vincent. It was while posted in St. Vincent that he met and married Jane Ann Hazell, a fifth-generation white Creole. They immediately started a family. Edward was determined to be a devoted husband and father. His seven daughters and one son, Atkinson Junior, were born all over what was then the British West Indies.

After twenty-four years’ service Edward was still without the position he most desired, the General Manager of the Port-of-Spain branch of the Colonial Bank in Trinidad. The problems of the Post-Emancipation economy of the late nineteenth century had forced large numbers of well-to-do whites to abandon the West Indies, creating a vacuum that was being filled by a rising number of non-whites. This trend bothered Edward, who believed in the superiority of the English and rejected ideas of power-sharing with people he thought had their place elsewhere in society. Edward’s Imperialist ideologies and prejudices hastened his plans for his fourteen year-old son, whose exposure even to white Creole society had been curtailed. Atkinson Junior had been home-schooled up to the point of his admission to Forest School at Snaresbrook, London in October 1895.


Forest School during Atkinson’s time enjoyed a prestige generally reserved for public schools. It had royal patronage, the endorsement of the Bishop of Colchester and participated in cadet and sporting events with students from Eton, Rugby, Winchester, Harrow and the other five schools identified by the 1868 Public Schools Act. The Headmaster, Reverend Ralph C. Guy, a twenty-eight year-old Oxford graduate, assumed headship of Forest School in 1894. R. C. Guy, who had all the right connections to the best of English society, set about grooming his students after the fashions and traditions of the leading public schools. Atkinson’s ideas about Empire and England, first fostered by his father, flourished at the school. It also gave him an appetite for hardiness and competition.


As one of the eight thousand hopefuls who responded to the Royal Geographical Society’s advert in The Times newspaper on 13th September 1909, the odds of Atkinson being included among the seven naval officers that would accompany Captain Scott on his expedition to the South Pole were as high as finding a snowball in the tropics ─ and Atkinson knew it. That knowledge did not dissuade him from applying, and he eventually succeeded in beingappointed the ship’s surgeon. He capitalised on that access to the Antarctic to explore and discover new life forms. In a press interview in New Zealand in October 1910 he told reporters, ‘It was a voyage of scientific discoveries’ hinting at why the Terra Nova Expedition was important to him. It was to be his research in Antarctica that helped to build his reputation as a scientist and parasitologist.

On the 12th October 1910 a telegram awaited Captain Scott and his crew.   Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, had misled Scott as to his true intentions and was in a competing race to the South Pole. The news was met with mixed reactions. Atkinson was buoyed up by the competition. He welcomed the opportunity to reinforce the dominance of the British Empire and to be part of what he naturally assumed would be the winning team.


After the ‘Blackdrop’ on that cold December night of 1895, Atkinson began swimming in the school’s outdoor pool. Reconciled to the fact that he would never be warm again, he cared not that the pool was unheated. He was set on overcoming what he perceived to be his disadvantages. According to Forest School journals, in July 1896 Atkinson got his first mention in their newsletter for winning a swimming race. A mention was like a public pat on the back and every Forest boy wanted it. It was also unashamedly biased towards achievers and encouraged fierce competition amongst the boys. Forest School’s 150th Anniversary Commemoration Book notes: ‘The cult of Muscular Christianity which swept through public schools finally descended upon Forest and R.C. Guy would appear to be its High Priest.’

If Guy was its high priest, then Atkinson was the altar boy, for he began winning nearly every sporting competition in the school. He became Forest’s Boxing Champion, won several medals for swimming, track and field, and was an adept footballer. Once he had established himself as a valued member of the student body, his social abilities and leadership skills began to bloom although he was still considered ‘quiet’. He then went on to gain recognition in his academic work, winning prizes for chemistry and mathematics. After graduating from Forest, he continued his sporting achievements at St Thomas Medical School. It was evident that Atkinson enjoyed competing.


It is 4th January 1911, 6:00am.

Captain Scott, Lieutenant Edward Evans and Dr Edward Wilson disembarks: they are leaving the ship to identify a suitable camp site. The animals have had a difficult forty-eight hours and the seventeen ponies are particularly restless. Captain Oates, whose primary responsibility is the care of the ponies, tries to settle them, while Atkinson assists. Atkinson notices that Scott and his team return much sooner than expected. They are in jubilant mood as Scott informs the crew that the campsite is much nearer than initially thought and he has christened it “Cape Evans” after his second in command, Lieutenant Evans.

Dr Edward Leicester Atkinson cannot imagine as he steps on to the vast landscape of whiteness that within fifteen months, he, the lowest ranking naval officer, will assume command of the Expedition. As he helps to offload the equipment and animals from the Terra Nova he cannot imagine that it will be he who receives the news that Amundsen beat Scott in the race to the Pole. Or, that in November 1912, it will be he who will lead the search for the bodies of Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Oates and Evans, the party that will march to the South Pole a few months later, and that history will accuse him of causing their deaths. Such things are inconceivable in the festive atmosphere. The sun is high in the turquoise sky, the sounds of men’s laughter and excitement echo, the ponies and the sleigh dogs roll playfully on the snow-covered beach, and colonies of penguins squawk and waddle while schools of whales enjoy the melting waters. It is a wonderful summer’s day on Ross Island.

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