Henry Bowers was just 28 when in March 1912 – with Captain Scott and Dr Bill Wilson – he lay down to die in a tiny tent in a swirling blizzard. The explorers were on the return journey from the South Pole.
Bowers’ father, seafaring Captain Alexander Bowers, had sailed race-winning clippers and penetrated further up the Yangtze-Kiang than any other Westerner. Alexander died young, leaving two little girls, one boy and a sorrowing widow.
Mrs Bowers brought up her family in a large house in Sidcup, Kent. Every morning before breakfast they sang a hymn, read a chapter from the Bible and prayed together. The children were brought up to know the meaning of the cross of Christ and to trust his atoning death as the only way by which sins could be forgiven.
Their mother often told how their father had lived and died a fervent Christian. But she never mentioned the sea, for fear that desire might be planted in young Henry’s heart.
One morning, however, Mrs Bowers saw pinned over Henry’s bed a large picture of a ship in full sail. In that moment she knew her boy would one day join the navy. It was a great act of self-sacrifice when she enrolled Henry as a cadet at the naval -training school HMSWorcester.
Bowers left Worcester at sixteen, with top grade passes in theory and seamanship, and was apprenticed to the Loch Torridon, a massive four-masted merchant navy windjammer bound for Australia.
The captain was a terrifying figure, whose steel-grey eyes could wither the most hardened seaman. Bowers, however, won the esteem of his hard-to-please skipper. He was still only eighteen when the captain made him third mate with authority over the crew. This wasn’t easy – the crew hated the captain and vented their feelings on the inexperienced junior officer.
Matters grew worse when the first mate, after a row with the captain, stalked off to his cabin and remained there for the rest of the voyage. Then the second mate went sick, leaving Bowers as first officer under the captain.
When the Loch Torridondocked at Adelaide, he wrote, ‘The steward has deserted; we are getting ready for sea again. I went up to the city to extract the cook from jail, and brought him aboard in the afternoon. We are getting our new crew dumped aboard – all drunk’.
With the ship on its homeward journey Bowers underwent a spiritual struggle. Which would he choose? The beckoning world or the unseen Christ – who had died to bear his sins?
‘I seemed to get into a quagmire of doubts and disbeliefs. Why should we have so many disappointments when life is hard enough without them? Everything seems a hopeless problem. I felt … there was no purpose in it. Suddenly, the Lord himself seemed to step in.
‘One night on deck, when things were at their blackest, it seemed to me that Christ came to me and showed me why we are here, and what the purpose of life really is. It is to make a great decision – to choose between the material and the spiritual.
‘While just on the point of choosing the world … Christ revealed himself to me, not in a vision; not after hearing emotional preaching, but away at sea.
‘Beside him, the world at its best was nothing, not even life itself. He filled my whole horizon … who could refuse to stick up for such a Friend?’
Bowers was in New York when he heard that he had been gazetted as a sub-lieutenant to the Royal Indian Marine Service. It was a coveted distinction to be transferred from the merchant service to the RIMS and Bowers knew that the Commandant of HMSWorcester,his old training ship, must have arranged it.
When he returned to England, he went straight to the Worcester to express his gratitude and was introduced to Sir Clements Markham, the ‘father’ of Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition.
The Commandant turned to Sir Clements and said, ‘Here is a man who will be leading one of those expeditions some day’. Sir Clements looked long and hard at the young officer. The remark lodged deeply in his mind.
In the Indian Navy he took command of the RIMSBhamo, a 200-feet gunboat regarded as the most difficult ship to handle in the entire fleet.
Bowers work output was incredible but he was inwardly far from self-sufficient. ‘I have so often called upon God’s help in an extremity when nothing more could be done by me, that these things can never be forgotten’.
Bowers was still chasing gun-running dhows when, in 1910, he was summoned to Bombay to see his Director. He went apprehensively, wondering what he had done wrong.
The Director held up two telegrams: ‘Lt Bowers’ services requisitioned for the Antarctic if he can be spared’ and ‘If he can be in London by May 15 he will be appointed’.
The Commandant of HMSWorcesterand Sir Clements Markham had placed his credentials before Captain Scott who, without even a formal application or interview, passed over 8,000 applicants and cabled Bombay to secure his services. Bowers knew that God was overruling the course of his life.
The Terra Nova, Captain Scott’s expedition ship, left Britain in June 1910. Dr Wilson made a private note about Bowers who was making his mark as an exceptional member of the team: ‘A short, redheaded, thick-set little man with a very large nose, [Bowers] is a perfect model of efficiency, but in addition to this, he has the most unselfish character I have ever met in a man anywhere’.
Scott often consulted Bowers and was so impressed that he decided to take him on the landing party. In January 1911, they disembarked from the Terra Nova at Cape Evans, to prepare for the South Pole venture. ‘Every day,’ said Scott, ‘Bowers conceives or carries out some plan to benefit the camp … I have never seen anyone so unaffected by the cold’.
Reaching the South Pole
As the expedition progressed, Bowers and Wilson were the principal morale-boosters. Ponting, the photographer, said, ‘No more cheery, joyful soul ever lived than he, nor any more disdainful of hardship … from the hour we disembarked in the South, he was Scott’s privy councillor in all matters relating to the important work of provisioning the various exploring parties’.
The team met with setbacks and injuries. Motors, ponies and dogs were lost and the weather conditions were terrible. Scott remarked that Bowers’ astonishing physique enabled him to work in conditions which paralysed others.
On 18 January 1912, a party of five reached the South Pole – Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Gates and Evans. ‘We have fixed the exact spot of the South Pole’, wrote Bowers, ‘and left the British Flag there.
‘I have had the honour to be the observer, in fact I have navigated the party here and done all the observations since Teddy Evans returned. Amundsen’s people left a tent with some of their discarded gear close to the Pole. They were here exactly a month ago. I am awfully sorry for Captain Scott who has taken the blow very well indeed’.
No fear of death
On the way back from the Pole troubles closed in around the little party and, following the agonising descent of the Beardmore Glacier in February, Evans collapsed and died.
‘We can’t go on like this’, wrote Scott. ‘I don’t know what I should do if Wilson and Bowers were not so determinedly cheerful about things’. In March, Gates, in great pain, walked out into the blizzard and was not seen again. By now, death seemed inevitable and Scott wrote, ‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell … the end cannot be far’.
He took up his pen again to write to Mrs Bowers: ‘My dear Mrs Bowers, I am afraid this will reach you after one of the heaviest blows of your life. I write when we are very near the end of our journey and I am finishing it in company with two gallant, noble gentlemen.
‘One of these is your son. He has come to be one of my closest and soundest friends and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and energy. As the troubles have thickened, his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable … To the end, he talked of you and his sisters. One sees what a happy home he must have had …’
Bowers had no fear of death, for he faced it knowing the Friend his mother had introduced him to as a boy. He had entrusted his life to Christ as Saviour, and proved the reality of his power – in death as in life.