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Ernest Shackleton Biography And Visits

Shackleton's Cabin on the Discovery

Ernest Shackleton was born 15th February 1874 in Kilkea near Dublin, to an Anglo Irish family. At age 10, young Ernest moved with his family to Croydon, and then to Sydenham where Shackleton's father established a medical practice. Ernest meanwhile attended Dulwich College, which he left at sixteen after persuading his family to allow him to pursue a career at sea. Starting as an apprentice on the sailing ship Houghton Tower, ten years were then spent in the merchant navy. Sailing ships led to steam ships, and work on cargo voyages to Chile led onto the smart mail and passenger ships of the Union Castle Line. Then Shackleton met Emily Dorman, whose father made it clear that a run-of-the-mill sailor was not good enough for his daughter. Shackleton was never to be comfortable with home and domesticity, but it was partly to win a wife that he decided to leave his secure job with Union Castle and apply to join an expedition to explore the Antarctic. The 1896 Sixth International Geographical Congress held in London had announced that Antarctica was the most important area of global exploration remaining. In response an ambitious British expedition had been organised by the Royal Geographical Society, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy. This was the expedition that Shackleton joined as third officer, sailing on the exploration ship Discovery, which anchored in McMurdo Sound on the Antarctic coast in early 1902. The Discovery expedition carried out a great deal of scientific work, and a number of journeys into the Antarctic interior. Shackleton was part of a three man team, with Scott and Edward Wilson, which attempted to get to the South Pole. Beginning in November 1902, the attempt on the pole rapidly turned into an agonising disaster. Disputes between Scott and Shackleton are recorded. With 463 miles to go to the pole, the three men were forced to turn back. Fighting scurvy, malnutrition, dehydration, snow blindness and frostbite they struggled to make it back to their hut at McMurdo Sound. Shackleton suffered particularly badly, and one night Wilson, a doctor, pronounced that he may not last the night. But Shackleton battled on, and by 3rd February 1903 the three men had dragged themselves back to safety at Hut Point. Scott was to remain in Antarctica for another year, but Shackleton was sent home on a relief ship. The official reason was given as the state of Shackleton's health, but Roland Huntford in Scott and Amundsen talks of a personality clash. It is not clear whether this is true. What is clear is that both men were strong leaders, with different styles and outlook. On returning to England Shackleton was involved in preparing a ship called Terra Nova as a relief ship for Scott's expedition, but he turned down the offer to sail on Terra Nova as chief officer.



A map of Antarctica on the ceiling of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge

Shackleton married Emily, and drifted through a series of jobs. Then returning to what was now his calling, Shackleton managed to organise his own Antarctic expedition after wealthy industrialist William Beardman offered a loan of £7000. Shackleton's book The Heart of the Antarctic begins during preparations for this trip. Until now, with Shackleton as a merchant seaman, or a member of someone else's expedition, it has been difficult to see his personality. But as Shackleton describes preparations for his own journey the man begins to emerge. Firstly it was clear that Shackleton was in charge. Preparing for his first expedition he makes it clear that he would not be "hampered by committees of any sort" and that "I kept the control of all arrangements in my own hands" (see The Heart of the Antarctic Chapter 1).

Preparations for his first independent trip, as described in Heart of the Antarctic are extremely methodical and conscientious. After stressing that the task of equipping for a polar expedition demands "the greatest attention to points of detail," an account is arranged under headings for different aspects of preparation work - food, supplies, equipment, the expedition ship, clothing, the hut, ponies, dogs and motor vehicle, scientific instruments, and "miscellaneous" which includes details of the expedition's football. But attention to detail is not the whole story. While it is obvious that an explorer in harsh unknown regions would have to have a careful eye for detail, all explorers face the dilemma that it is counter productive to want to control every detail and every situation. You are setting off into the unknown, facing unknown terrain which will throw up unexpected challenges to which it would be necessary to adapt. Someone who had to be in control all the time would not cope in these circumstances. He or she simply would not put themselves in that position of overwhelming doubt, and would not go exploring. And, reading on in the diaries we duly see that Shackleton, inspite of his conscientious preparations, is also a man who does not always have to be in control. There is a sense of a laid back man who will see what happens. Once his expedition ship Nimrod has been loaded in New Zealand he notices how low she sits in the water, and worries what bad weather would do to such a laden ship. He puts his worries aside and gets on with it. Reaching Antarctica in late January 1908 Nimrod tries to anchor at Barrier Inlet on the Ross Sea coast. This was the place that a relief ship had been told to look for the expedition if Nimrod did not return on schedule to New Zealand. But ice forces Nimrod away from this intended landing place, with Shackleton reflecting that: "the best laid schemes often prove impractical in polar exploration" (The Heart of the Antarctic P58). When Shackleton and his men do finally find a safe anchorage, at McMurdo Sound, there is a revealing little scene as the hut is being built. With space short, some of the scientific instruments not in regular use are stored on the hut's roof. This causes the roof to sag rather alarmingly, but the Boss as Shackleton was now known, decided to ignore it: "The gradual accumulation of weight produced a distinct sag in the roof, which sometimes seemed to threaten to collapse as I sat inside, but no notice was taken, and nothing happened" (The Heart of the Antarctic P96).

It is interesting to compare Shackleton with Scott in the way they balanced the conflicting demands of detail, and an ability to accept the unknown. Both Scott and Shackleton describe expedition organisation in their diaries. Considering Scott it seems that even supportive writers, such as Ranulph Fiennes, concede that Scott had a streak of laziness when it came to detail. A critic of Scott such as Roland Huntford looks on this as a serious weakness, while Fiennes, an experienced explorer himself, is more forgiving, knowing that any amount of preparation can come to nothing in the unpredictable wastes of Antarctica. In contrast to Scott, it seems clear that Shackleton, from reading his accounts of journeys, had a greater eye for detail than Scott. Compare Shackleton's account arranged under orderly headings with Scott's description of his own final preparations for his 1910 expedition to Antarctica. Here instead of methodical headings we get a rather chaotic and busy sense of different aspects of the operation crowding in on each other. The following few lines from Scott's diary give a sense of his style: "When the ship came out of dock she presented a scene of great industry, officers and men of the ship, with a party of stevedores, were busy storing the holds. Miller's men were building horse stalls, caulking the decks, resecuring the deck houses, putting in bolts and various small fittings... not a single spot but had its band of workers" (Scott's Last Expedition P2). It's almost as though Scott is more of a spectator, while Shackleton is much more involved with every single detail. Shackleton would be unlikely to describe "bolts and various small fittings". He would have probably told you exactly what those small fittings were, what they did, who made them, with perhaps a little aside about a chat he had with an experienced Norwegian explorer regarding the wisdom of taking those small fittings along. On the other hand, we know that an explorer simply cannot be a man who has to be in control all the time. He has to be willing to face the unknown, to concede control in an unpredictable world. It is interesting that Shackleton seems both more aware of detail than Scott, and also more easy going - the atmosphere on his ship was far less formal than on Scott's, and more leeway was allowed for individual quirks. It was a different balance of similar characteristics. The fact that Shackleton's reputation remains high, while Scott's has declined markedly, perhaps suggests that Shackleton achieved a better balance.

Once the Nimrod expedition was safely established at McMurdo Sound, two separate journeys took place. A three man team, Edgeworth David, Alastair Mackay and Douglas Mawson successfully reached the southern magnetic pole, while a four man party led by Shackleton tried to reach the geographic South Pole, and got within 114 miles of their goal. Figures were massaged to make this achievement look slightly more impressive - according to Beau Riffenberg of the Scott Polar Research Institute, nautical miles were used when claiming a final distance of only 97 miles from the pole, a figure still widely quoted today. Be that as it may, this journey was a great achievement, and Shackleton returned to England not having lost a man. It was only cold injuries which had left a mark on some of the men. Back in England he duly became a hero, and tried rather unsuccessfully to make money by giving lectures, and by producing his book, The Heart of the Antarctic, with the help of a journalist named Edward Saunders. Shackleton tried to persuade Saunders to put his name on the book, but Saunders refused.



Launching the James Caird at Elephant Island, this image is copyright free.

Shackleton promised Emily he would not go exploring again, but it seemed that life in England wasn't quite enough. A number of plans for new expeditions came and went, until in 1912, news arrived that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole. Scott had got there a month later, but died with his team on the way back. With the South Pole reached by others, Shackleton now planned a journey across the whole of Antarctica. The resulting journey, known as the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition, didn't even come close to achieving any of its aims, but is nevertheless remembered as a triumph of leadership and bravery. In January 1915 Shackleton's ship Endurance became trapped in ice in the Weddel Sea, and after a long struggle was finally crushed, sinking on 21st November 1915. Shackleton then kept his men together for almost two months on pack ice. Eventually an opening in the pack ice allowed the group to take to their open boats and make a journey to the relative safety of a bleak rocky outcrop known as Elephant Island. Then in an epic story of survival, Shackleton led a team of five in a small boat called James Caird on a fifteen day journey across the Southern Ocean, through a hurricane, to finally make landfall on the remote southern coast of South Georgia Island. After a brief rest, Shackleton led a thirty six hour hike over a range of mountains to a Norwegian whaling station on South Georgia's northern coast. Then, inspite of being beaten back by ice on three occasions, Shackleton returned to rescue all his men from Elephant Island. Sadly the team which had been laying depots from the opposite side of Antarctica, in preparation for the crossing which never happened, lost three men before they also could be rescued. Nevertheless the Endurance expedition is remembered as one of the most remarkable stories of survival in exploration history. The James Caird boat which got Shackleton to South Georgia still survives, and is kept at Dulwich College, and can usually be visited in term time. The story of the Endurance expedition is told in the book South once again written by Edward Saunders, based on Shackleton's diaries and conversations with him. So impressive were the leadership skills shown during the Endurance expedition that a number of books and management courses have been based on what happened - see Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons From The Great Antarctic Explorer by Margaret Morrell and Stephen Capperell for example. This was leadership based on competence, and example, maintaining morale through a confident, relaxed manner. This was not leadership in the military manner of compulsion. I have to say reading South, it seems that food was not a small factor in the Shackleton approach. Shackleton knew how important food was to his men, their days revolving around their meals. He was, therefore, extremely careful about how it was shared and presented. Overall Shackleton's leadership relied on that remarkable balance found throughout his exploring career, between working very hard to control what he could, and accepting in a respectful, laid back way all that he could not. Shackleton has been called a "non-anxious" leader (see Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism by Stephanie Barczewski). He was only non-anxious because along with his conscientious attention to detail, he knew that in exploration you have to accept what comes. There does seem to be a lesson here for anyone making any kind of journey in life.

Following his triumph, Shackleton found it hard to settle back into life in England. He started drinking heavily. The First World War was raging, but too old to be conscripted into the Army, Shackleton's demands for a role in the war were met with an ambassadorial trip to South America. He was also involved in a mining operation in Spitsbergan, which served as a cover for establishing British influence north of Scandinavia. By 1920 a life of lecturing and comfort was not making Shackleton happy. 1921 saw him off to Antarctica once again with the vague plan for a continental circumnavigation, and exploration of unknown Antarctic coast. A number of crew men from the Endurance exhibition signed on to sail with him. On the way to Rio de Janeiro Shackleton had a heart attack. He refused medical treatment and a return to England. Getting to South Georgia he was taken ill again. On 5th January 1922 the expedition doctor Alexander Macklin was explaining that the Boss should give up drinking. Shackleton grumbled that Macklin was always telling him to give up things. A fatal heart attack followed within a few minutes. At his wife's request Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, scene of his triumphant return from the great journey of his life.