OOne hundred years ago, the leader of the last great expedition of the heroic age of polar exploration died of a heart attack as his ship, the Quest, headed for Antarctica. News of Ernest Shackleton’s death on January 30, 1922 was met with an outpouring of national grief.
He was the man, after all, who had rescued the entire crew of his ship Endurance – which had been crushed and sunk by the ice in 1915 – by taking a daring voyage in a small open boat across 750 miles of polar sea to sound the alarm. at a whaling station in South Georgia.
It remains one of the greatest rescue stories in modern history and led to the lionisation of Shackleton in the UK, a reputation which survived unbroken for the rest of the century. As his contemporary Raymond Priestley, the geologist and Antarctic explorer, later said, “When disaster strikes and all hope is lost, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Today marks the centenary of his death with a lavishly illustrated exhibition – Shackleton’s Legacy and the Power of Early Antarctic Photography – which opens on Monday at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), London and will includes a range of images and artifacts from his expeditions. Additionally, a digitally remastered version of Southa documentary film – one of the first ever made – about Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914-16 is shown at the British Film Institute in London.
The film and many of the finest images in the exhibit are the work of Frank Hurley, who sailed with Shackleton and was one of the greatest photographers and filmmakers of the 20th century. The film and exhibit feature striking camerawork and provide vivid accounts of the hardships Shackleton and his men endured as they set out to explore Antarctica.
Born in Ireland and raised in South London, Shackleton first visited the South Pole when he took part in the 1901-03 Discovery Expedition led by Robert Scott. Shackleton later returned with his own expedition, on the Nimrod, and led a four-man party that came within 100 miles of the pole in January 1909.
And here, poised on the threshold of greatness, Shackleton turned his party back as his calculations suggested his men had insufficient rations to ensure a safe return. He was right. As they staggered back to their base camp high above the Beardmore Glacier, they began to suffer from freezing cold, endured starvation and found themselves with their clothes in tatters.
“It’s neck or nothing with us now… Our food is ahead of us and death is stalking us from behind,” Shackleton wrote in his diary. His men have just done so but would certainly have perished if they had continued to reach the post which was only a short distance away. As the RGS exhibit notes, Shackleton’s decision was a brave one.
Two years later, two expeditions reached the South Pole. The first group to arrive was led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The second was directed by Scott – whose group perished while trying to get back to base camp.
Not to be outdone, Shackleton dreamed up an even more ambitious reason to return to Antarctica. He would lead an expedition across the entire continent, a proposal that was derided by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. “Enough money has been spent on this fruitless quest,” he told Shackleton, in an exchange highlighted in the RGS exhibit. “The pole has already been discovered.”
Shackleton replied that “death is a very small thing and knowledge very great…and indeed Regents [sic] The street harbors more dangers than the 5 million square kilometers that make up the Antarctic continent”. His confidence was misplaced as events unfolded, though his argument prevailed. The Endurance set off from the West India Docks in London in August 1914, just as war was declared on Germany. (Shackleton offered to turn back to help Britain’s war effort, but was allowed to continue.)
By January 1915 the ship had reached the Weddell Sea where some of the worst sea ice on record began to slow the Endurance until, on the 19th, it could go no further. The ship and its crew were trapped.
Shackleton set up camp on the ice and for months he and his men waited in the hope that he might melt down and eventually free the Endurance. At the same time, Hurley set about taking some of the most spectacular photography in the history of 20th century polar exploration, including stunning backlit images of the imprisoned and ice-covered Endurance.
“It was pitch dark and Hurley was allowed to set up flares around the ship,” said Alasdair MacLeod, curator of the RGS exhibit. “These flares were sequenced to go off at the exact same time Hurley pressed the shutter button on his camera. But when they left, he was temporarily blinded by the light and tripped in the ice.
“However, the depictions he produced are probably some of the most iconic in the history of photography.” Rising from the ice, her masts and rigging shining in the dark Antarctic night, the images also provide the RGS exhibit with its most dramatic highlights.
Then, in October, the ice eventually cracked the Endurance’s hull and it began to sink. Shackleton abandoned ship and he and his 27 men piled onto the ice. The sled dogs the crew had lovingly cared for for over a year, and the ship’s cat, Mrs. Chippy, were shot and the men took their ship’s three lifeboats, eventually reaching the island uninhabited from the elephant on April 15, more than a year since they had last stood on dry land.
The party was far from safe, however. Elephant Island is dark and inhospitable and was far from shipping routes. So Shackleton and five others, including Endurance captain Frank Worsley, set sail again in one of his lifeboats – the James Caird – and set sail for the whaling station at Stromness, Georgia in the South, 750 miles away.
After 15 days at sea, facing hurricane-force winds, their small, undecked boat reached South Georgia – thanks to Worsley’s considerable sailing skills. Only the mountains of South Georgia separated the men – who suffered from colds or frostbite – from the whaling station on the island. With just 50 yards of rope to tie them together, Shackleton, Worsley and a third crew member, Tom Crean, crossed the chain in 36 hours – and were able to raise the alarm at the whaling station on May 20, 1916. had passed through the island before making this trip.
Shackleton returned to Elephant Island on August 30 on the Chilean ocean tug Yelcho and evacuated his men – who had survived by eating penguin and seal flesh. Returning to England, Shackleton volunteered for the army and later served in the North Russian Expeditionary Force, advising on the training of British forces in arctic conditions.
However, he still longed for another voyage to Antarctica and, after lengthy negotiations, set sail for Quest from England with the aim of circumnavigating Antarctica. Shackleton was now very ill and had suffered at least one heart attack. On January 2, 1922, he wrote in his diary: “I am getting old and I am tired but I must always go on”. Three days later he had a major heart attack and died a few hours later. He is buried in South Georgia, the scene of his greatest triumph.
“Shackleton was an inspirational leader,” added MacLeod. “He had an innate sense of what was possible and achievable. He also had a huge personality but led by example. At the same time, he was sensitive to the needs of the people he led. For example, after Endurance split, its men had lost their protection and shelter. Their social fabric had been destroyed. There would have been dissent. Still, Shackleton managed to keep them together and made sure they survived.