Big Trouble in Vladivostok

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Kristoffer Nelson-Kilger

Captain Scott headed off onto the Ross Ice Shelf many times with ponies. But how did the expedition get these ponies? Karen May and George Lewis certainly cannot tell us, yet they tried anyway.[1]

They started with a quiet refusal to cite a source, as well as selective quotation of Lt Shackleton. [2]

Modern scholarship judges the dogs’ failure in hindsight as due to poor feeding; however, at the time this gave an impression of dogs’ unreliability to both Scott and Shackleton. In his 1909 memoir The heart of the Antarctic Shackleton states frankly that ‘[d]ogs had not proved satisfactory on the Barrier surface’ (Shackleton 2000: 13) and ‘I placed little reliance on dogs’ (Shackleton 2000: 15). This explains Shackleton’s decision to bring ponies in addition to dogs on his 1907–1909 Nimrod expedition.

Their first sentence does not cite a source. Its source is Sienicki who made this discovery and published it in Appendix A of a pre-print. [3] The rest is a clear-cut case of selective quotation to conceal the fact that Captain Scott could have made himself aware of Lt Shackleton’s results from his dog teams. Here are Lt Shackleton’s original words, with the sections deliberately omitted by May and Lewis marked in italics [4]

Dogs had not proved satisfactory on the Barrier surface, and I had not expected my dogs to do as well as they actually did… I placed little reliance on the dogs, as I have already stated, but I thought it advisable to take some of these animals.

Lt Shackleton went on to document the sterling performance of dogs during the resupplying of depots on the Barrier, [5] a fact which May and Lewis omit. They moved on to a gaffe [6]

Huntford accuses Scott of conflating canine knowledge with equine knowledge in sending Meares: ‘Scott assumed that anyone who knew about dogs was qualified to buy horses’ (Huntford 1979: 324, 2002: 310). Griffiths, following Huntford, gives his fictionalised Scott the dialogue ‘It’s my considered view that a man who knows, really knows, any animal, knows all animals to some extent’ (Griffiths 1986: 72). However, as Huntford cites no evidence, his presentation of Scott’s inner motivation must be considered an unsupported hypothesis. The onusis not on the present writers to ‘find evidence’ that Scott did not think this way. It is self-evident that dogs differ from horses: until Huntford produces the necessary archive evidence to support his statement, we must take it that Scott did not hold such an erroneous belief.

That Meares did possess knowledge of horses can be seen from his Boer war service. On 8 November 1901 Meares joined the 1st Scottish Horse regiment, a cavalry regiment (Scottish Horse, nominal roll), and served with them in South Africa until the war ended inMay 1902 (Mills 2008: 113–114). After only four months Meares was promoted from trooper to lance-corporal (Mills 2008: 114). Since an NCO had to possess the ability to lead his fellow cavalrymen, and make paradestyleinspections of his men and horses to make them ready for the officer’s inspection, Meares’ swift rise in the Scottish Horse indicates that he was familiar with horses.

In addition to his wartime cavalry experience, Meares, somewhat unusually, was a Russian speaker (his spoken Russian was judged first class by the War Office in 1915 (Meares, RNVR service record)) with proclaimed first-hand understanding of the Russian marketplace: his biographer Leif Mills notes that he ‘dabble[d] in fur trading’ in Russia before 1901 (Mills 2008: 113) and that he ‘did some trading in furs’ in Siberia in 1903 (Mills 2008: 114). Thus Scott’s decision to charge Meares with purchasing the expedition’s ponies appears to have been based on Meares’ known background. It would have made perfect sense for Scott to trust a Russian-speaking ex-cavalryman (with first-hand knowledge of trading in Siberia) with the purchase of the ponies.

Apparently, knowing a language means that you will never be swindled. They also commit tantamount of military discipline maintenance as an NCO with knowledge of horse fitness. What is far more troubling than this is their Figure 2. [7] Its Point 3, which they designate as Mukden, does not spell “Mukden” in Cyrillic. It spells “Iukdzn”. The alleged “M” is shaped different from the actual “M” which appears on the map, and is actually a Cyrillic “I”. “3” is not a backwards “E” and is not the Cyrillic letter for the “e” syllable. Nowhere do they make any attempt to explain whether this was an old Russian name for Mukden. When it came time to deal with Frank Debenham’s reported account, they became murky [8]

A map of the rail network (Fig. 2), demonstrates that Mukden (the other proposed Manchurian location for the purchase) is not in the region of Harbin. Reaching Mukden entailed travelling a further 347 miles south from Harbin, switching at Chang-Chun to another branch line, the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway (Robinson and Yen 2012: 20). However, it must be emphasized that Frank Debenham’s journal entry of 18 June 1911 specifically states that the transaction took place in Mukden, not Harbin. His informant was presumably Meares himself, and Debenham calls the purchase:

a curious blunder. Capt. Scott, hearing that of Shackleton’s ponies the dark ones died and the white ones lived, and in the popular belief that white animals resist cold better, ordered Meares to get only white ones if possible. Meares, who is no judge of horse flesh, got a friend to pick the ponies for him in a fair at Mukden. There were only about 200 to pick from so there was little choice, the white ponies forming about 15–20% of the lot. Anton [Omelchenko] was present at the sale and he says that the seller of the ponies went away with a ‘plenty big smile’ on his face. So I suppose we have been ‘sold a pup’ (Debenham 1992: 109)

Some polar historians (Preston 1997: 113; Solomon 2001: 128–129; Raeside 2009: 68) have taken this account as factual, probably because it is supported by the Ukrainian groom Anton Omelchenko, who is quoted by Debenham as having been present at the transaction in Mukden in 1910. However, we must look more closely at Omelchenko’s testimony. As a jockey who had worked with horses since 1893 (King, H.G.R. 1972: 255), Omelchenko would have been used to checking horses closely, to avoid being deceived by ‘ringers’ (substitute horses used to defraud betting systems). He could doubtless observe signs of age and debility. However, Wilson, a zoologist, wrote that ‘several of [the ponies] are as old as the hills’ (King, H.G.R. 1972: 179) and Oates remarked in a letter that the whole batch were ‘very old for a job of this sort’ (Oates 1910b; Limb and Cordingley 2009: 122). Why, then, did Omelchenko not prevent their purchase?

Why, indeed? And why Meares but not Omelchenko as the source of Debenham’s account? Debenham only mentioned direct input from Omelchenko, not Meares. Debenham could have translated the number of white ponies into a percentage himself, and saved the non-native English speaker Omelchenko the trouble. May and Lewis give three explanations for Omelchenko’s statement, but without explaining why settle on the explanation that Omelchenko lied on Meares’ instructions. They left out a fourth explanation that does not require us to arbitrarily believe that Omelchenko was crooked, or to arbitrarily dismiss this account. That explanation is: the Mukden transaction did take place, and Omelchenko did not have any control over it.I will discuss this at the end of this article. After muddling through seemingly contradictory accounts from expedition members who apparently had no first-hand accounts, they attempt to dismiss them with Meares’ own words [9]

In the light of the disparity between Debenham’s journal and these other sources, we must consider what Meares himself is recorded as having stated… Another interview is reported in a Tasmanian newspaper:

‘These ponies,’ Mr. Meares explained, ‘are chosen because they have been accustomed to work in the ice and snow in Siberia. They came 300 miles to Vladivostock from Northern Siberia, and cost from £5 to £10 a piece. Shackleton secured Manchurian ponies for his expedition, but my experience goes to show that these ponies will stand the rigor of an Antarctic winter better than the others; besides they are accustomed to the work for which we want them’ (The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) 16 September 1910: 7)

The charge against Scott for the past few decades has been that Meares was out of his depth. Yet in September 1910 Meares stated to the media that he had ‘experience’ of such matters, claimed familiarity with the breeds and demonstrated his equine knowledge with the specific equine technical term ‘aged’ (indicating a pony is nine years or older). Meares here comes across as a confident and capable professional.

“…my experience goes to show” has only one meaning, and no native English speaker would think otherwise. It means “I have observed the record of performance by [fill in the blank] and it demonstrates”, not “I have great experience in selection of [fill in the blank] and this was key.” No native English speaker would think the latter. Instead, they spent their time making Meares out to be knowledgeable, so they had to contort the meaning of what Meares said to fit it. Examination on Google Earth indicates that it is 318.59 statute miles from Vladivostok to Harbin, so ponies could have come to Vladivostok from the Harbin region and been within Meares’ 300 miles figure.

Following this, they make this statement: “For too long Debenham’s journal entry, relating the story of Meares’ ‘friend’, has been taken as primary evidence. In fact it is secondary evidence: it is Debenham’s innocent repetition of an unlikely tale related to him a year after the ponies’ purchase.” They do not know what primary and secondary sources are, as primary source evidence includes evidence which is as close to the original source as possible. [10]They conclude the section with a counterfactual statement, as Cherry-Garrard’s statement did not indicate that Captain Oates wanted to go: “Cherry-Garrard observed sadly in 1922, ‘[t]here was little [Oates] didn’t know about horses, and the pity is that he did not choose our ponies for us in Siberia: we should have had a very different lot’ (Cherry-Garrard 1994: 222). From this comment a modern myth has arisen that Oates actively expected to go to Vladivostok in 1910, and that it was somehow Scott’s fault that he did not go.”

Next was the issue of Captain Oates picking the ponies. [11]

Had he travelled there immediately upon getting leave, Oates would have had to wait in India for around 3 weeks for Russian and Chinese visas to be approved, then upon arriving in Vladivostok would had to wait there for at least 3 weeks for Meares’ return; he would also have lost his opportunity to revisit Britain, purchase equipment and see his family. It is therefore unreasonable to suggest that Oates should have travelled immediately to Vladivostok from India.

Just why Captain Oates would have required a Chinese visa when he could have simply taken a ship to Vladivostok is beyond me. May and Lewis spend the rest of their time on this issue discussing ambiguous accounts from Lt Bruce and Commander Evans. Neither of them contradicts each other if Captain Oates came to the Terra Nova with his independent intention to pick the ponies, only to change his mind once he discovered life on board ship. This explanation does not conflict with Lt Bruce’s account of Captain Scott merely intending Captain Oates to assist Meares with transport; yet May and Lewis declare Lt Bruce the winner, and arbitrarily dismiss Commander Evans. [12] After this, they continued on with Meares and the instructions to prefer white ponies. [13]

The caveat ‘if possible’ means that Meares was not limited by a stringent remit. Scott’s original written orders have not survived, but any statement from Scott on the preferred color should have been taken as a recommendation, not as an essential precondition to which all other concerns were secondary… Most striking here is Wilson’s quiet observation that even if ‘the chooser’ had considered himself ‘handicapped’ by ‘being told to get white ones’, the recommendation of white ponies should not have warranted the ‘cutting down’ of the selection. The color issue should not have outweighed the need for healthy ponies.

Actually, the supposed caveat means an essential precondition with all but one concern secondary, the concern of availability. As for the rest, that is Dr Wilson’s post factum observation, and should not be cited as anything else. After discussing Meares’ personality and preferences in ponies, and taking Huntford to task for an unsubstantiated quote, they turned their attention to Meares again. [14]

Since Meares had access to funds, equine knowledge, contact with the expedition and the intelligence and initiative to buy healthy ponies, we have to ask why he purchased substandard specimens. An incident later in Bruce’s narrative may afford some explanation. By the time the ship reached Kobe on 4 August 1910 Meares had announced to Bruce that he had run out of money altogether, compelling Bruce to provide money to fund the rest of the sea voyage to New Zealand: ‘By this time, Meares had emptied his purse, but I was well known here and had no difficulty in obtaining the necessary money to carry us on’ (Bruce 1932: 4). It is strange that Meares only announced this problem mid-voyage, forcing Bruce to find the necessary funds himself. Why had Meares run out of money? Meares does not state that he had been the victim of theft; the evidence indicates that he had not visited Manchuria (as announced in The Times) but had instead stayed in Siberia, which in theory should have given him a surplus of funds. Moreover, Meares (who had previously worked as both a trader and intelligence agent) should have had the foresight to plan his budget and alert the expedition to any problems ahead of time, enabling Bruce to bring funds with him from Britain. A cynic might suspect that, with this sudden announcement of an ‘empty purse’ after Bruce’s arrival, Meares took advantage of his new companion’s wealth and good nature. Even if we judge charitably that Meares’ unexpected poverty was a wholly honest mistake, his failure to budget for the animals’ transportation could have resulted in his travelling no farther than Kobe, with ruinous consequences for the British expedition: his serious error here hence demonstrates poor management of his funds.

Of course, we don’t know what funds were originally given to Meares and we don’t know how much was spent on ponies, but May and Lewis say unknown budget + unknown spending + Meares = no problem! There is an alternative explanation for Meares running out of funds early: he had to take a diversion. What this diversion was will be explained at the end of this article.

The last part of their paper that I will cite shows their Captain Scott-serving bias: “In addition to sabotaging the depot-laying, Meares’ ancient ponies sabotaged the polar journey itself.” [15] The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sabotage as “destruction of an employer's property (as tools or materials) or the hindering of manufacturing by discontented workers.” [16] Thus, they are saying that Meares deliberately harmed the expedition.

I have my own conclusions as to the events that happened to Meares. They do not serve May and Lewis’ purpose of exonerating Captain Scott, but they do better fit the evidence they cite, unlike their conclusion that Meares was engaging in sabotage. Meares’ events happened as follows:

• On arrival in Vladivostok, Meares to his horror discovered that he had miscalculated – there were simply not enough ponies for sale. Even bringing them in from as far away as 300 miles was not enough. Whether or not he had to initially settle for substandard ponies, he still needed more, and he could not make himself absent from Vladivostok for fear of drawing attention by his absence;

• He assigned Omelchenko and the anonymous person to go to Mukden to get more ponies, and this was the event that Debenham recorded in his diary;

• On arrival, they found about 200 ponies, with 15–20%/30–40 of them being white, as per Scott’s instructions, and Omelchenko had no control over the ensuing transaction;

• The time and shipping costs spent in trying to find Siberian ponies and getting the Manchurian ponies burned through more of Meares’ expedition funds than he expected, resulting in him having to ask Bruce for more money in Japan;

• He ended up with a hodgepodge of Siberian and Manchurian ponies, which were reported by expedition members as being one or the other;

• Meares did not dare mention his miscalculation to the newspapers or anyone else, and it was Omelchenko who gave the account to Debenham.

As a confirmation of the mixture of ponies, Cherry-Garrard reported that: “I at once looked out the other big Siberian horse [sic] that had been a pair with my late lamented (they were the only Siberian ponies, all the rest being Manchurians)…” [17]


[1] Karen May and George Lewis, ‘They are not the ponies they ought to have been’: revisiting Cecil Meares’ purchase of Siberian ponies for Captain Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition (1910–1913), Polar Record 51(2015)655–666.

[2] Ibid., cf. p. 655.

[3] Name and title

[4] Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic: Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, W. Heinemann, 1909, Vol. I., cf. p. 21, 23.

[5] Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic: Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, W. Heinemann, 1909, Vol. II., cf. p. 52–60.

[6] Karen May and George Lewis, ‘They are not the ponies they ought to have been’: revisiting Cecil Meares’ purchase of Siberian ponies for Captain Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition (1910–1913), Polar Record 51(2015)655–666, cf. p. 656.

[7] Ibid., cf. p. 658.

[8] Ibid., cf. p. 657.

[9] Ibid., cf. p. 658–659.


[11] Karen May and George Lewis, ‘They are not the ponies they ought to have been’: revisiting Cecil Meares’ purchase of Siberian ponies for Captain Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition (1910–1913), Polar Record 51(2015)655–666, cf. p. 660.

[12] Ibid., cf. p. 660–661.

[13] Ibid., cf. p. 661.

[14] Ibid., cf. p. 662–663.

[15] Ibid., cf. p. 664.


[17] Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, Vol. I & II, Constable & Company Ltd., 1922, Vol. I, cf. p. 173.