Negatives cast light on icy era

21:27, Dec 11 2013
Alexander Stevens
LITTLE-KNOWN SAGA: A print from a 1914 negative found at Captain Scott's last hut at Cape Evans shows Ernest Shackleton's scientist, Alexander Stevens, on the deck of the Aurora.

Fresh light has been shed on the heroic era of Antarctic exploration with a unique discovery of century-old photographs from Captain Scott's last hut at Cape Evans.

Conservators from New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust found a small box containing a clump of negatives in expedition photographer Herbert Ponting's darkroom during work to protect Terra Nova hut, built in 1911 for Robert Falcon Scott's doomed race to the South Pole.

Trust executive director Nigel Watson said a Wellington photography conservator had painstakingly restored the negatives, which revealed 22 images that had never been seen before.

They were taken by the Ross Sea Party for Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition and date back to between December 1914 and January 1915.

"It's the first example that I'm aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era. There's a paucity of images from that expedition, " Watson said.

One of the most striking images was of Shackleton's chief scientist, Alexander Stevens, on board the Aurora.


It was believed the party's photographer, Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith, who died in 1916 and was buried on the Ross Ice Shelf, took the photos.

Watson said the Ross Sea Party's expedition was one of the great heroic era expeditions in Antarctica but was poorly known.

In January 1915, Stevens, Spencer-Smith and eight other men were dropped ashore on Ross Island with supplies and equipment while the Aurora steamed further into McMurdo Sound.

Shackleton had sailed to the opposite side of the icy continent, aiming to be first to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole.

When the Aurora returned to Cape Evans, the plan was to winter the ship offshore with most of the Ross Sea party on board but a blizzard blew it out to sea in May 1915, leaving the men stranded with few supplies.

Regardless, they pressed on in horrendous conditions to lay vital food and equipment depots for Shackleton's crossing, unaware he had been forced to abandon the traverse before it began after his ship Endurance was crushed in pack ice.

They spent time at Scott's hut at Cape Evans and at his Discovery hut further south at Hut Point, which was built in 1902.

Almost two years later, in January 1917, the Aurora returned to rescue the party but not before three had died, including the photographer.

The Press