Mar 172017
 

Today is the birthday (1880) and also, possibly, the date of the death (1912) of Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates, an English army officer, and later an Antarctic explorer, who died during the Terra Nova Expedition led by Scott. I gave a reasonably detailed accounting of the Terra Nova Expedition here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/robert-falcon-scott/ — so there’s no need to repeat it.  The members of the Expedition died on their return journey due to an unfortunate combination of errors in judgment and bad luck. There’s no point in rehashing all the details.  No one can doubt the courage of all the men who made it to the pole, and the death of Oates has always stood out in my memory: rightly so. Scott ensured his immortality via his journal.

Oates was born in Putney, London, the son of William and Caroline Oates. His family inherited old money, having had land at Gestingthorpe, Essex, for centuries. His father moved the family there when his children were small after succeeding to the Manor of Over Hall, Gestingthorpe. Oates lived in Putney from 1885–91, from the ages of 5 to 11 at 263 Upper Richmond Road. He was one of the first pupils to attend the prep Willington School around the corner in Colinette Road. He was further educated at Eton College, which he left after less than two years owing to ill health. He then attended an army “crammer” in Eastbourne. His father died of typhoid fever in Madeira in 1896 when Oates was aged 16.

In 1898, Oates was commissioned into the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He saw military service during the Second Boer War as a junior officer in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, having been transferred to that regiment as a second lieutenant in May 1900. He took part in operations in the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony, and Cape Colony. In March 1901, he suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh which shattered his leg and, when it healed, left it an inch shorter than his right leg. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his actions and was brought to public attention at the time.

He was promoted to lieutenant on 8 February 1902, and left Cape Town for England in June that year, after peace had been signed in South Africa the previous month. He was mentioned in despatches by Lord Kitchener in his final despatch dated 23 June 1902. He was promoted to captain in 1906. He later served in Ireland, Egypt, and India. He was often referred to by the nickname “Titus Oates,” after the notorious perjurer – English humor !! In the history books that I read as a boy he was always called “Titus” and I am sure that part of it had to do with the fact that he was legendarily strong and fit.

In 1910, he applied to join Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, and was accepted mainly on the strength of his experience with horses and, to a lesser extent, his ability to make a financial contribution of £1,000 (over £50,000 in modern currency) towards the expedition. Nicknamed “the soldier” by his fellow expedition members, his role was to look after the nineteen ponies that Scott intended to use for sledge hauling during the initial food depot-laying stage and the first half of the trip to the South Pole. Scott eventually selected him as one of the five-man party who would travel the final distance to the Pole.

Oates disagreed with Scott many times on issues of management of the expedition. ‘Their natures jarred on one another,’ a fellow expedition member recalled. When he first saw the ponies that Scott had brought on the expedition, Oates was horrified at the £5 animals, which he said were too old for the job and ‘a wretched load of crocks.’ He later said: ‘Scott’s ignorance about marching with animals is colossal.’ He also wrote in his diary “Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition….He [Scott] is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere…” However, he also wrote that his harsh words were often a product of the hard conditions. Scott, less harshly, called Oates “the cheery old pessimist” and wrote “The Soldier takes a gloomy view of everything, but I’ve come to see that this is a characteristic of him”.

Captain Scott, Captain Oates and 14 other members of the expedition set off from their Cape Evans base camp for the South Pole on 1 November 1911. At various pre-determined latitude points during the 895-mile (1,440 km) journey, the support members of the expedition were sent back by Scott in teams until on 4 January 1912, at latitude 87° 32′ S, only the five-man polar party of Scott, Edward A. Wilson, Henry R. Bowers, Edgar Evans and Oates remained to walk the last 167 miles (269 km) to the Pole. On 18 January 1912, 79 days after starting their journey, they finally reached the Pole only to discover a tent that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his four-man team had left behind at their Polheim camp after beating them in the race to be first to the Pole. Inside the tent was a note from Amundsen informing them that his party had reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott’s party by 35 days.

Scott’s party faced extremely difficult conditions on the return journey, mainly due to the exceptionally adverse weather, poor food supply, injuries sustained from falls, and the effects of scurvy and frostbite, all slowing their progress. On 17 February 1912, near the foot of the Beardmore glacier, Edgar Evans died, suspected by his companions to be the result of a blow to his head suffered during a fall into a crevasse a few days earlier. Oates’s feet had become severely frostbitten and it has been suggested (but never evidenced) that his war wound had re-opened due to the effects of scurvy. He was certainly weakening faster than the others. In his diary entry of 5th March, Scott wrote “Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition… The poor soldier is very nearly done.”

Oates’ slower progress, coupled with the unwillingness of his three remaining companions to leave him, was causing the party to fall behind schedule. With an average of 65 miles (105 km) between the pre-laid food depots and only a week’s worth of food and fuel provided by each depot, they needed to maintain a march of over 9 miles (14 km) a day to have full rations for the final 400 miles (640 km) of their return journey across the Ross Ice Shelf. However, 9 miles (14 km) was about their best progress any day and this had lately reduced to sometimes only 3 miles (4.8 km) a day due to Oates’ worsening condition. On 15 March, Oates told his companions that he could not go on and proposed that they leave him in his sleeping-bag, which they refused to do. He managed a few more miles that day but his condition worsened that night.

Waking on the morning of 16th March, Oates walked out of the tent into a blizzard, and −40 °F (−40 °C) temperatures, to his death. Scott wrote in his diary, “We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” Oates’ sacrifice, however, made no difference to the eventual outcome.

Scott, Wilson, and Bowers continued onwards for a further 20 miles (32 km) towards the ‘One Ton’ food depot that could save them but were halted at latitude 79°40’S by a fierce blizzard on 20th March. Trapped in their tent by the weather and too weak, cold and malnourished to continue, they eventually died nine days later, only eleven miles short of their objective. Their frozen bodies were discovered by a search party on 12 November 1912. Oates’s body was never found. Near where he was presumed to have died, the search party erected a cairn and cross bearing the inscription; “Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L. E. G. Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.” According to Scott’s diary, before Oates exited the tent and walked to his death, he uttered the words “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

We cannot be sure if Oates survived long enough to actually die on his birthday or succumbed the day before. If he died on his birthday he is in good company.  Shakespeare is often said to have been born and died on the same day (ironically, St George’s Day), but his date of birth is only presumed from his baptismal date. We have a similar problem with the Renaissance painter Raphael. Much more assured cases are Ingrid Bergman, Merle Haggard, Betty Friedan, and FDR. I’m not sure how I feel about dying on my birthday. I think it would be fine as long as I was having a party, surrounded by friends, and well into my 90s.

I think it’s a bit morbid to give a recipe for polar survival food on this date given that malnourishment was one of the causes of the party’s slow progress and ultimate death. Besides, I’ve given quite a few already. Instead let’s be a bit more cheery and think about traditional Essex recipes, the county where the Oates family had their hereditary seat. Many Essex recipes focus on oysters and seafood because of the county’s coastline and (former) abundant fisheries. But Gestingthorpe is well inland in farm country, so a farm recipe is in order.  Essex traditional food is not exactly bright with well-known favorites, but there are a few of note.  Essex meat layer pudding looks like a winner.  I will confess that I have not tried it yet, but I will have a go over the weekend and update the post with photos if I have any success. Right now the problem is that suet is impossible to find in Mantua, and I don’t have a pudding basin. The unusual thing about this pudding is that the suet pastry is layered into it, rather than surrounding the pudding.   Judging from the various recipes I’ve read, you can use whatever meat suits.  A mix of pork, veal, and chicken (or 2 out of the 3) is quite common.  This recipe is my version of one taken from this site — https://www.essextouristguide.co.uk/information/in-the-news/articleid/69/favourite-essex-recipes  It looks trustworthy, but I’ve modified it a bit based on experience with steamed puddings.  You can use ground or chopped meat as you prefer.

Essex Meat Layer Pudding

Ingredients

Pastry:

6 oz. flour
¼ tsp salt
3 oz. shredded suet
¼ cup cold water (approx)

Filling:

1 tbsp butter
2 onions, peeled and sliced
½ lb. ground pork
½ lb. minced veal (or chicken)
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp chopped chives
1 tsp celery salt
1 tbsp flour
2 egg yolks,
2 tbsp heavy cream
salt and pepper

Instructions

For the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a bowl and mix in the suet. Add just enough water to make a stiff but pliable dough. Wrap in foil or greaseproof paper and chill in the refrigerator whilst you make the filling.

For the filling, sauté the onions in butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are golden. Add the meats, herbs, seasonings and flour. Continue to sauté for 5 minutes stirring well, then remove the pan from heat. Beat together the egg yolks and cream and add them to the meat mixture. Sauté over low heat for an additional 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Butter a 2½ pint pudding basin, line it with foil,  greaseproof paper, or (best) cheesecloth. Butter this lining as well.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a thickness of about ¼-inch. Cut a small circle to fit the bottom of the basin and put it in place. Spoon on a layer of meat mixture (about 1½-inches deep) then add another circle of dough to fit. (As you proceed you will need to push the scraps of dough together and roll them out again).  Add another layer of meat. Continue until the filling and dough have been used up, finishing with layer of dough. There should be 3 layers of meat mixture. There should be some room at the top of the basin so that the dough can expand while steaming.

Cover the top of the basin with greaseproof paper or pull up the cheesecloth around the top. Then seal the top with foil.  Steam for about 4 hours. [I am a little iffy about this length of time. I will know better when I try it. 3 hours ought to be enough, but 4 hours won’t hurt, especially if you use chopped rather than ground meat.]

Serves 4

Dec 142016
 

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On this date in 1911 a Norwegian team under the leadership of Roald Amundsen became the first group of humans to reach the South Pole. For most of my life this achievement was overshadowed in my mind by the tragic events of Robert Scott’s competing team who not only arrived at the Pole weeks after Amundsen but died on the return journey. That’s because I went to English and Australian schools where the story of Scott’s ill-conceived but heroic failure was lauded above Amundsen’s success. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/robert-falcon-scott/  In hindsight this now seems dreadfully unfair to me. In the 20th century there were scores of challenges (most of which I’ve covered here) – Everest, first flight, Manetic North Pole, etc. etc. These were races to be the first. Someone had to win, meaning someone else had to be runner up. That’s how it works. Amundsen won, Scott was runner up. But judging by the way I was taught in school and via media, you’d swear that Scott was the real winner and Amundsen was the runner up even though “technically” he won – i.e. got there first. Well . . . he was a sneaky Norwegian so his accomplishment does not really count. In the British version of the tale Amundsen is merely a footnote to history: Scott saw the Norwegian flag at the Pole and was disappointed.  End of the Amundsen side of the story. Let’s redress that wrong.

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There are numerous accounts of Amundsen’s expedition, including his own, so I don’t need to go into detail. I’ll just point out some salient features. First, Amundsen was torn between North and South Poles. Both were being approached by rival teams. Amundsen joined in as one of several. Amundsen made his plans public on 10 November 1908, at a meeting of the Norwegian Geographical Society. He would take the ice ship Fram (which Fridtjof Nansen had used in 1893 to get very close to the North Pole), round Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean. After provisioning in San Francisco the ship would continue northwards, through the Bering Strait to Point Barrow. From here he would set a course directly into the ice to begin a drift that would extend over four or five years, either passing over the Pole or allowing a land trek.

In March 1909 it was announced that Shackleton had reached a southern latitude of 88° 23′ which was 97 nautical miles (180 km) from the South Pole—before turning back. Amundsen observed that in the south “a little corner remained”. He was unreserved in his praise for Shackleton’s achievement, writing that Shackleton was the south’s equivalent of Nansen in the north. Following this near miss, Scott immediately confirmed his intention to lead an expedition (what became the Terra Nova Expedition) that would finally claim the prize for the British Empire.

In September 1909 newspapers carried reports that Cook and Peary had each reached the North Pole, Cook in April 1908 and Peary a year later. Asked to comment, Amundsen avoided an outright endorsement of either explorer, but surmised that “probably something will be left to be done”. He saw immediately that his own plans would be seriously affected. Without the allure of capturing the pole, he would struggle to maintain public interest or funding. “If the expedition was to be saved … there was nothing left for me but to try and solve the last great problem—the South Pole”. Thus Amundsen decided to go south; the Arctic drift could wait “for a year or two” until the South Pole had been conquered.

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Amundsen did not publicize his change of plan, however. His expedition’s public and private funding was earmarked for scientific work in the Arctic and there was no guarantee that his backers would understand or agree to the about face. Furthermore, the altered objective might cause Nansen to revoke the use of Fram, or parliament to halt the expedition for fear of undermining Scott and offending the British. Amundsen concealed his intentions from everyone except his brother Leon and his second-in-command, Nilsen. This secrecy led to awkwardness; Scott had sent Amundsen instruments to enable their two expeditions, at opposite ends of the earth, to make comparative readings. When Scott, in Norway to test his motor sledges, telephoned Amundsen’s home to discuss cooperation, Amundsen would not take the call.

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Make of this what you will. Critics, especially the British, see this as underhand dealings on Amundsen’s part. To me it looks like pragmatism. He was being funded to carry out scientific exploration. This was not simply an exercise in adventuring, and Amundsen’s South Pole work was very profitable scientifically. For starters, he charted an entirely new route to the Pole (which was one of the main reasons he beat Scott, who used a more traditional route that landed him in trouble). Furthermore, Amundsen’s careful researches led him to design better polar clothing for his men than Scott’s, to the use of dogs rather than the ponies and motor sledges for haulage that Scott used, and skis for personal travel rather than foot slogging.

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Scott was, without question, a brave man, and his literary skill has earned him a place as a genuine martyr to a worthy cause. But Amundsen was, hands down, the better polar explorer, and his achievement should not be diminished by sentiment. Amundsen did not understand the apparent aversion of British explorers to dogs: “Can it be that the dog has not understood its master? Or is it the master who has not understood the dog?” he later wrote. Following his decision to go south he ordered 100 North Greenland sledge dogs—the best and strongest available. Besides their durability as pack animals, dogs could be fed to other dogs and could provide fresh meat for the men in the polar party.

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The party’s ski boots, specially designed by Amundsen, were the product of two years’ testing and modification. The party’s polar clothing included suits of sealskin from Northern Greenland, and clothes fashioned after the style of the Netsilik Inuit from reindeer skins, wolf skin, Burberry cloth, and gabardine. The sledges were constructed from Norwegian ash with steel-shod runners made from American hickory. Skis, also fashioned from hickory, were extra long to reduce the likelihood of slipping into crevasses. The tents—”the strongest and most practical that have ever been used”—had built-in floors and required a single pole. For cooking on the march, Amundsen chose the Swedish Primus stove rather than the special cooker devised by Nansen, because he felt the latter took up too much space.

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From earlier polar experiences, Amundsen was aware of the dangers of scurvy. Although the true cause of the disease, vitamin C deficiency, was not understood at the time, it was generally known that the disease could be countered by eating fresh meat. To neutralize the danger, Amundsen planned to supplement sledging rations with regular supplies of seal meat. He also ordered a special kind of pemmican which included vegetables and oatmeal: “a more stimulating, nourishing and appetising food it would be impossible to find”. The expedition was well supplied with wines and spirits, for use as medicine and on festive or social occasions. Mindful of the loss of morale on previous expeditions, Amundsen provided for leisure time with a library of around 3,000 books, a gramophone, a large quantity of records and a range of musical instruments.

As an anthropologist I can’t help but see Amundsen’s success and Scott’s failure as a clash of cultures. The Norwegian knew about Arctic conditions and Arctic peoples from cultural experience and took advantage of that knowledge with no sentimentality about cooking dog paw stew and the like, as well as benefitting from the longstanding wisdom of indigenous Scandinavians who lived year round in ice and snow. The Englishman saw pit ponies as (literally) workhorses, whereas dogs were family friends that could not be exploited. In the end ponies and machines failed and dogs succeeded.

My recipes for polar survival foods can be found on these posts:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/north-magnetic-pole/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/antarctica-alexander-island-discovered/

Giving recipes for penguin or seal require a trip to Antarctica in all likelihood. A recipe for dog paw stew might be more practical but may have few takers. Even in Asia, where dogs are not intrinsically taboo as food, they are fast loosing popularity and are becoming harder and harder to find. He re instead is a wonderful video about preparing and cooking caribou head in a traditional way. Be careful if you are squeamish.