On 21 December 1901, the Discovery, commanded by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, departed Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour on the 1901-1904 National Antarctic Expedition, accompanied by the steam tug Lyttelton to the heads and by HMS Ringarooma as far as Port Chalmers in Ōtākou Otago Harbour.
The Discovery was the first British ship built specifically for a scientific expedition, and for Scott's proposed attempt on the South Pole. A three-masted wooden barque with a length of 52.1 metres and weighing 485 tonnes, she was constructed in 1901 by Dundee Shipbuilders Company in Scotland, with a solid hull and iron clad bows intended to cope with the immense pressures of Antarctic icefields.
After her journey from England and upon arrival in Ōhinehou Lyttelton, which would be her base port for the southern expedition, the Discovery entered dry dock. The evidently less than seaworthy condition of the rigging, deck and hold, (which had filled with nearly two metres of seawater on the journey to Aotearoa New Zealand!), required urgent attention. Crew from the HMS Ringarooma, a Royal Navy Pearl class cruiser and member of the Auxiliary Squadron of the Australia Station, were seconded to the Discovery to get her shipshape and ready for the coming rigours. Note that our photograph of the Discovery in dry dock is from her return in 1904, after nearly two years frozen in the ice at McMurdo Sound.
That December day of departure was marked by huge fanfare, with a large crowd on the wharves and many cheering enthusiasts aboard steamers escorting the vessel to the harbour mouth. Once outside the heads HMS Ringarooma, and accompanying Royal Navy warship HMS Lizard prepared for a hearty naval acknowledgement as the Discovery passed between them. A sobering message relayed from Captain Scott stopped such celebratory actions; "Please do not cheer; a man has been killed by falling from aloft."
London born, 23 year old Charles Bonner had joined the Discovery in Cape Town; purportedly a skilled seaman and popular amongst the crew, his outgoing nature found him atop the mainmast that day, a great position from which to wave to the excited well-wishers. Official reports indicate that a supporting spindle may have given way causing his fall, while anecdotal ones cite that he was compromised from imbibing some celebratory liquor, as he was seen waving a bottle on his perch. Either way, as the ship entered the swell of the open ocean he lost his footing and fell 36.5 metres to the deck, hitting his head on an iron reel, which killed him instantly.
Poignantly, the tiny figure of Bonner is just visible in the crow’s nest in our image of the Discovery departing the harbour, with tug Lyttelton to its left and HMS Ringarooma to its right; the photograph was taken just minutes before his death.
The tragic loss of the young seaman affected all the crew deeply, especially his non-commissioned fellows, and created a melancholy mood for the two day journey to Port Chalmers. Flags flew at half-mast and Bonner's body, wrapped in canvas and the British ensign as per naval custom, was laid out atop a table on deck. Upon arrival in Port Chalmers his body was transferred to a coffin and gun carriage. Attended by crew of both the Discovery and the Ringarooma, and with due naval and civic ceremony, he was interred in the Port Chalmers Cemetery.
Before departing Port Chalmers for the polar regions, Scott funded the later erection of a suitable memorial; a three metre high marble obelisk on a bluestone base, inscribed with the words "In memory of Charles Bonner, A.B., of the Antarctic exploring vessel 'Discovery', who died 21st December, 1901. Aged 23. Erected by the captain, officers, scientific staff, and crew of the ‘Discovery'’”.
Bonner’s death necessitated his replacement in the crew; Scott chose a strong and skilled Irish seaman by the name of Thomas Crean, who would go on to play significant roles in both Scott's ill-fated 1910 voyage aboard the Terra Nova and Shackleton's “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition“ aboard the Endurance, which resulted in one of the most epic Antarctic survival journey's of all time.