A memento of your trip, I presume

The Royal Geographical Society is putting on show for the first time some of history's most astonishing documents, including artefacts from the expeditions of Livingstone, Scott and Darwin. James Burleigh reports
Click to follow

Photos from Scott's Antarctic

Photos from Scott's Antarctic

The icy deaths of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912 made them English icons of courage and sacrifice.

The captain's final expedition to the Antarctic is brought alive with numerous artefacts held at the RGS's archive. The family of Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, who died on 17 March 1912 after uttering the words "I am just going outside and I may be some time", has bequeathed an album of photos taken on the trip by Herbert Pontin. One of the photos shows a frostbitten foot - Oates walked into the blizzard after feeling that his slow pace due to frostbitten feet was hindering his team. Families of each member of the National Antarctic Expedition team received a similar album after Mr Pontin's return.

There is also the £10,000 bill of sale for Captain Scott's ship Discovery, dated 11 January 1905.

The team set off in 1910 and reached the South Pole in January 1912. The return journey was hit by blizzards and the whole group was dead by the end of March 1912.

Markham's map of the Amazon basin

Clements Markham's map of "The basin of the Amazons" was drawn up on an expedition to South America between the 1850s and 1860s. The aim was to seek out the cinchona tree from which quinine - the best treatment for malaria available at the time - could be extracted.

Markham's pen and ink map, measuring 75cm by 50cm (30in by 20in) and folded in four, was drawn in the 1850s. But his comments on the aboriginal Indians he meets on his travels are perhaps most revealing. Especially for a future director of the RGS.

His comments, penned in spidery handwriting on the map and typical of the era, described the Cocamillas Indians of northern Peru as "lazy, drunken, good boatmen" and the Tapuzas tribe of northern Brazil were "quiet, inoffensive, very short".

An unnamed tribe in the west of Brazil near the source of the river Jutay was apparently full of "Indians with tails eight inches long". Others were merely called "cannibals".

Markham's map is just part of the RSG map archive - one of the largest private collections of maps and related material in the world. It holds one million sheets of maps and charts, 3,000 atlases and 40 globes. There are maps printed on everything from paper and vellum to cotton and silk, dating back as far as 1482.

Livingstone's sketch of Victoria Falls

Among the most prized possessions in the Royal Geographical Society's archive is a watercolour sketch of Victoria Falls painted by David Livingstone in 1860. It combines a panoramic view of the falls with a sketched map of the downstream gorge of the Zambezi river.

With Livingstone's manuscript notes, the RGS sees the painting as "an icon for the totality of the society's holdings of reports and other documents from the 19th-century heritage of British exploration".

It is just part of an extensive heritage of Livingstone material which has been either donated or bequeathed to the RGS. This includes the very battered and frayed cap Livingstone was wearing when he famously met Henry Morton Stanley in 1872. There are even photographs featuring the cap, which show two of Livingstone's guides, James Chuma and Abdullah Susi. They helped carry Livingstone's body back to the coast after his death in Ilala, present-day Zambia. There are also chains captured from slave traders in Tanzania which Livingstone brought back to Britain and used in lectures to the RGS to denounce the slave trade.

Livingstone, born in Blantyre, Scotland, in 1813, began medical studies in Glasgow before he was accepted for mission studies by the London Missionary Society. In 1840, he was ordained, gained a medical degree and left Britain to join Robert Moffat's Kuruman mission in South Africa. A year later, Livingstone began travelling into the African wilderness during which he set up a new mission in Mabotsa and also managed to get mauled by lions. In 1855, he received the RGS's gold medal and subsequently wrote the bestseller Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. From 1866, he set off in search of the source of the Nile. He never found it, but he was the first European to reach the Lualaba river, later confirmed as part of the Congo river. He died in 1873 and his funeral was held at Westminster Abbey in 1874.

Sextant that guided Darwin's 'Beagle'

Charles Darwin's theories of evolution transformed the scientific world. His revolutionary thinking was largely the result of his travels round the globe on HMS Beagle.

Now his sextant, which was used to navigate the Beagle on its journeys, is held in the Royal Geographical Society archive, with books, journals, images and maps.

Admiral Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, also received a gold medal from the RGS, and it holds the silver plate given by his crew to the experienced seaman who struck up a close relationship with Darwin.

Darwin's Fellowship certificate, complete with his handwriting and signature, is also part of the massive collection of more than two million items, from ancient maps to fragile artefacts.

The RGS has spent £7.1m to create state-of-the-art storage at its headquarters in Kensington, west London.

Ralph Bagnold's Saharan convoys

Ralph A Bagnold is hardly a household name but arguably he should be as celebrated as any of the great British explorers. Brigadier Bagnold is generally considered to have been the European pioneer of desert exploration.

Within the RGS archive are several photographs of his journeys, including one, right, when his convoy of cars got stuck in soft sand south of Uweinat in the Sahara.

The First World War veteran's reputation as the ultimate desert explorer spread after numerous trips to Africa - perhaps most notably he completed the first recorded east-west crossing of the Libyan desert in 1932. He was also the founder and first commander of the British Army's Long-Range Desert Group.

After three years in the trenches during the First World War, Bagnold used a special military educational leave programme to study engineering at Cambridge.

Between the wars he was stationed in Cairo and later India and used his spare time to explore the surrounding deserts, driving thousands of miles through Trans Jordan and the Sahara.

He was also the author of The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes, published in 1941. A work which is still used today - most recently by Nasa scientists studying sand dunes on the Moon and Mars.