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Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s expeditions in the Antarctic for almost a hundred years have captured the hearts and imaginations of armchair explorers, passionate adventurers, scientists, historians of the Antarctic, and most recently, even stockbrokers and CEOs, who laud Shackleton’s skills as a visionary and an exemplary leader. Many excellent books, movies, television specials, and reprints of expedition members’ diaries and letters have recounted for popular audiences the details of Shackleton’s extraordinary 1914–1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition—the expedition that brought to a close the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. South, however, is the story in Ernest Shackleton’s own words.
The story of the Endurance is one that still defies imagination. In this extraordinary non-fiction tale, we hear the steady, understated, optimistic tone of “The Boss,” as it narrates one of the most spectacular adventure sagas of all time. It a survival tale of fortitude, of navigational magic, of mountaineering expertise, and of spiritual wonder. Mountain climbers still marvel at how Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Thomas Crean made it from King Haakon Bay over the dangerous glaciers of South Georgia Island to the whaling station at Grytviken Harbor with one climbing rope and a single ice ax. Seafarers are still hard put to imagine the difficulties of navigating a 23-foot lifeboat across what Shackleton himself called “the most tempestuous water in the world.” Spiritual philosophers still ponder the significance of Shackleton’s remark that during their perilous journey he and his mates seemed accompanied by an unseen and holy presence.
Not surprisingly, the Shackleton family motto is “By Endurance We Conquer,” Fortitudine Vincimus. One of ten children, Ernest Shackleton was born in Ireland during the great potato famine of 1874. Shackleton’s mother, Henrietta Letitia Sophia Gavin, was Irish; his father’s ancestors, however, originally came from Yorkshire, England, but moved to County Kildare in the nineteenth century. At the age of thirty-three, Shackleton’s father, Henry Shackleton, sensed the catastrophe that might befall his family if he remained a farmer, so gave up agriculture to pursue medicine. In 1884 the family moved to England, where Shackleton would go on to be schooled at Fir Lodge Preparatory School and Dulwich College (where the James Caird, the lifeboat that carried Shackleton and his men to eventual safety, is still on display). Shackleton’s mother became ill on the move to England and suffered as an invalid for the next forty years of her life. Seven years after moving to London, Shackleton defied his father’s wishes that he too pursue medicine, and instead he apprenticed to the merchant marine. Historians would later say that this career choice set Shackleton apart in a positive way from his rival to be, Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who was schooled in the ways and mores of the British Navy. Shackleton’s career in the merchant marine took him all over the world, as he captained ships that carried mail from England to South Africa, ships that would later carry soldiers to the Cape during the Boer War. He met his wife to be, Emily Dorman, one of his sister’s friends, in 1897, married her in 1904, and in 1905 became father of the first of their three children: Raymond, Cecily, and Edward.
During Shackleton’s era Antarctica was a tabula rasa, a blank slate at the bottom of the world--a land yet to be explored and mapped, a land not officially owned or governed by any nation. The continent has always been a little-known land that has entranced explorers for centuries. Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern land, is what the Greeks first called it, then only guessing at its existence. Captain James Cook sailed around the Antarctic Circle in the eighteenth century without ever proving the continent existed. It wasn’t until well in to the nineteenth century, when whalers ventured further and further south in search of prey, that the continent finally was confirmed as real. The metaphorical possibilities of Antarctica’s whiteness, its newness, were clear to Shackleton and other early explorers, who vied to be the first to write upon the fresh page of Antarctica. They wanted, by brilliance, by technology, by sheer will, to make their mark, to extract riches, to make claims in honor of their nations, to test themselves against the ferociousness and mystery of the land, against the very idea of the unknown.
What brought Shackleton to the wild white wilderness of Antarctica was a dream. He responded once to a journalist who asked what inspired him to be an explorer by saying that it had, literally, been a dream that he had had when he was twenty-two years old and aboard his first merchant marine vessel: “We were beating out to New York from Gibraltar, and I dreamt I was standing on the bridge in mid-Atlantic and looking northward. It was a simple dream. I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns." Asked on a different occasion why he continued to return to the Antarctic, Shackleton replied: “I go exploring because I like it and it’s my job. One goes once and then gets the fever and can’t stop going.” He could not, he said, escape “the little voices” that called him to the white south. After his first child was born, he wrote of his eagerness to return to Antarctica: “What I would not give to be out there again doing the job, and this time really on the road to the Pole.” He was a man of imagination and determination and had Antarctica in his blood. “I have ideals,” Shackleton said, “and far way in my own white south I open my arms to the romance of it all.”
Ernest Shackleton was a member of four expeditions to Antarctica: Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901–1904 Discovery Expedition; the 1907–1909 Nimrod Expedition; the 1914–1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition; and the 1921 Shackleton-Rowett Expedition aboard the Quest, from which Shackleton did not return, suffering a massive heart attack while the ship was docked at South Georgia Island. While none of the expeditions met their ultimate goals—to reach the South Pole, to cross the icy continent from one side to the other, or, in the case of the Quest, to map the southern coastline of Antarctica--Shackleton is nevertheless hailed as a man who came away from these encounters with The Great White South a heroic success, largely due to his demonstrations of excellent leadership. Shackleton cleverly balanced individuals’ strengths and weaknesses to create a stronger whole. His men admired and respected him. “My opinion,” said Frank Wild, who served with all of the British explorers in Antarctica, “is that for qualities of leadership, ability to organize, courage in the face of danger, and resource in the overcoming of difficulties, Shackleton stands foremost and must be ranked as the first explorer of his age.”
It was in 1901, before his marriage to Emily, when Shackleton first went to Antarctica as third officer on Scott’s ship Discovery. He was so keen to join the National Antarctic Expedition that he exerted influence, through a friend, upon the expedition’s major backer, whom he asked to put in a good word on his behalf. Scott would go on to lead members of the Discovery Expedition, including himself, Shackleton, and Edward Wilson, to 82 degrees south, closer to the South Pole than any humans had been in history. Scurvy and snow blindness, however, kept all three men from reaching the Pole. By February 3, the three had made it back to their ship in McMurdo Sound, but Shackleton was sent home to recover while the Discovery stayed one more winter in the Antarctic. It was after this expedition that the historic rivalry between Scott and Shackleton began to take shape; some scholars suggest that being invalided home sparked a competitive spirit in Shackleton. He vowed to return to the ice to prove that he was “a better man than Scott.”
During the winter of his first foray in Antarctica, Shackleton lived with the other members of the expedition aboard the ship Discovery in Winter Quarters Bay, now the port for the modern United States base at McMurdo Station. It was there that Shackleton edited the very first Antarctic publication, The South Polar Times, a proper monthly newspaper, for the edification and amusement of the expedition members, along with a humorous and less intellectual publication called The Blizzard.
Shackleton secured funding for his second trip to Antarctica—his own expedition—in 1907. The Nimrod Expedition was based at Cape Royds, now a weather-beaten hut set amidst the noisy chaos of an Adelie penguin colony about two hours by tracked vehicle from McMurdo Station and Discovery Point, where Shackleton had been based on his earlier trip with Scott. On this expedition Shackleton and three companions would get to within ninety miles of the Pole—a new “farthest South”—but not the coveted southern axis of planet Earth. Instead of pushing on to the Pole when he and his men were exhausted and starving, Shackleton turned around, a surprising move that some call one of the most heroic and best decisions in polar exploration. Shackleton wrote in his diary of that decision: “I cannot think of failure yet. I must look at the matter sensibly and consider the lives of those who are with me … man can only do his best….” They safely returned to Cape Royds after having walked 1,700 miles. The new “farthest South” record won Shackleton knighthood in 1909.
The hut at Cape Royds still retains evidence of that winter, when Shackleton and his men, among other activities, printed the first book ever to be published in Antarctica—Aurora Australis, an illustrated collection of essays, stories, poems, and musings. No more than thirty copies of the book were made in that little wind-blown hut on the ice--one book for each expedition member. The original volumes were bound with twine into covers of plywood packing cases and sealskin. The books, which are now the prized possessions of family members, friends, museums, and research centers such as the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, are classified as the “Bottled Fruit” copy, or “Irish Stew” copy, based on the label from the packing case still evident on their covers. In his preface to the original Aurora Australis, Shackleton wrote: “Some six years ago it fell to my lot to edit and print the first Antarctic publication; it is my fortune now to edit another.… During the sunless months which are now our portion; months lit only by vagrant moon and elusive aurora; we have found in this work an interest and a relaxation, and hope eventually it will prove the same to our friends in the distant Northland.” The contributions to the volume are signed with pen names, but it is supposed that Shackleton, as “Nemo,” wrote the pieces “Midwinter Night” and “Erebus.” “Midwinter Night” is a humorous poem that explores, from the point of view of the night watchman, the fantasies, nightmares, and dreams of the “fourteen sleepers,” who are his hut-mates. One stanza reads:
. . . The revels of Eros and Bacchus
Are mingled in some of their dreams,
For the songs they gustily gurgle
Are allied to bibulous themes. . .
The British press loved Shackleton, and upon his return from this second trip, celebrated him as a hero. The government granted him twenty thousand pounds to help pay the expedition’s costs, and he began planning for his third and most famous expedition—the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which he claimed would be “The greatest Polar journey ever attempted.” So eager were the young men of Britain to join him that in 1914 Shackleton collected five thousand applications for only fifty-six spots. At the same historical moment, World War I was beginning to smolder in Europe. Shackleton offered up his men to the British government, but was told by the British Admiralty to “Proceed.”
Shackleton’s motivation for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic journey came after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen planted Norway’s flag at the South Pole in 1911, arriving there on December 14, only weeks before Scott reached the Pole with expedition-mates Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers, Edgar Evans, and Lawrence Oates on January 18, 1912. The Pole had been conquered. Scott had perished. Shackleton vowed that the next great and necessary expedition in the Antarctic would be to cross the continent, from the Weddell Sea across the polar plateau to the Ross Sea.
South, the story of that last great journey, was published in 1919, partly in an attempt to raise funds to pay off the expedition’s debts. Between 1919 and 1920, Shackleton lectured daily in London, providing commentary for the silent film footage shot by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. South reportedly sold well, although Shackleton himself realized no monetary gain since all the proceeds went to pay debts. The lecturing was boring work and seemed not to capture the popular imagination quite so grandly as Scott’s heroic tragedy in 1912. Critics, however, generally responded well to South. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who reviewed the book, praised both it and its author, sticking up for Shackleton against charges that he was a failure because he never, like Scott, reached the Pole:
Do not let it be said that Shackleton has failed.… No man fails who sets an example of high courage, of unbroken resolution, of unshrinking endurance. Explorers run each other down like the deuce. As I read with a critical eye Shackleton's account of the loss of the Endurance I get the feeling that he ... is a good man to get you out of a tight place. There is an impression of the right thing being done without fuss or panic. I know why it is that every man who has served under Shackleton swears by him.
Three years after the publication of South, Shackleton sailed for Antarctica again, aboard the Quest. He died en route at the age of forty-eight, apparently from heart failure, brought on by years of untreated heart disease, heavy smoking, drinking, and eating. His grave is on South Georgia Island, a place his wife, Emily, said she would rather see him buried--in the wild lands he loved so much rather than in a prim and proper British cemetery. He had once written to her of his longing for the wild: “Sometimes I think I am no good at anything but being away in the wilds with just men.”
One of the things that inspires us today about Shackleton and his men, particularly the journey of the Endurance, is how they did so much with so little—how they survived with almost no food or equipment amid some of the most brutal natural forces known. For those of us alive at the dawn of the twenty-first century, for whom unexplored lands seem as distant as the moon, for whom technology seems at times to have all the answers, Shackleton’s story restores our own faith in the indomitable human spirit. There is something left, it seems, that cannot be bought or sold, that cannot be got through science or technology or money—and that is the mysterious power of the human will. It is hard to know, of course, who Shackleton was, what he thought, what really motivated him, but one impression is that of a fierce but likeable man who wasn’t perfect—a man who drank too much and had extramarital affairs, a man friends and foes alike sometimes thought of as a bulldog, in looks and temperament. Perhaps most of all, he was a man that one knew one could count on. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, again sticking up for “The Boss,” summed up Shackleton in these famous words: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen; and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”
Gretchen Legler is a professor in the Department of Humanities at the University of Maine at Farmington. She is the author of On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, a book she researched in Antarctica, where she lived for four months as a fellow in the U.S. National Science Foundation Artists and Writers Program.