Ernest Shackleton, a selfless leader who was at his best when disaster struck
On the centenary of his death historian GORDON LUCY on the polar explorer whose reputation continues to grow
For most of the 20th century Ernest Henry Shackleton was comprehensively overshadowed as an Antarctic explorer by Robert Falcon Scott.
Scott was feted as a heroic failure and Shackleton was largely forgotten. The first comprehensive biography of Shackleton only appeared in the 1950s. In the stock market of historical reputations, Scott’s stock has been falling since the 1980s and Shackleton’s has correspondingly risen.
Shackleton was born on February 15 1874 in Kilkea House, Co Kildare. He was the second child and eldest son of Henry Shackleton, a gentleman farmer who later studied medicine and became a doctor, and his wife Henrietta Letitia Sophia, daughter of an officer in the RIC who became inspector-general of constabulary in Ceylon.
Ernest was educated at Dulwich College in London but chose, contrary to his father’s wishes, not to follow his father into the medical profession. Instead, he joined the merchant navy and by the time he was 24 he was a master mariner qualified to command a British ship anywhere in the world.
Travelling widely, he developed a fascination for polar exploration.
In 1901, Shackleton was chosen (because he was friendly with the expedition’s principal sponsor) to go on the Antarctic expedition led by R F Scott on the ship ‘Discovery’. With Scott and one other, Shackleton trekked towards the South Pole in extremely difficult conditions, getting closer to the pole than anyone had come before. Shackleton became seriously ill and had to return home but had gained valuable experience.
Back in the UK, Shackleton became a journalist and was then elected secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society.
In the general election of 1906, he unsuccessfully contested ‘heavily Hibernicized’ Dundee as a Liberal Unionist. Apart from T P O’Connor’s Liverpool constituency, more inhospitable territory for the Unionist cause on the British mainland would have been difficult to find.
In 1908, he returned to the Antarctic as the leader of his own expedition, on the ship ‘Nimrod’. During the expedition, his team climbed Mount Erebus, made many important scientific discoveries, and came within 97 miles of the South Pole, closer than anyone had been before.
He wisely decided not to proceed further because his team had insufficient food to get back to base camp. As he explained to his wife Emily: ‘A live donkey is better than a dead lion’. She agreed.
As Michael Smith, the author of ‘Shackleton – By Endurance We Conquer’ (2014) and biographer of several other polar explorers, has observed: ‘With a few extra pounds of food, the first person to stand at the South Pole would have been the man from Kildare’. He was knighted on his return home.
In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, followed by Scott and his team who all perished on the return journey.
After Amundsen reached the South Pole, Shackleton sought a fresh challenge so in 1914 Shackle ton made his third trip to the Antarctic with the ship ‘Endurance’, planning to cross Antarctica via the South Pole, a journey of almost 1,800 miles.
Early in 1915, ‘Endurance’ became trapped by the pack ice, and 10 months later it was crushed. Shackleton and his crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching Elephant Island. Taking five crew members, Shackleton went to find help. In the ‘James Caird’, an open boat only 22 feet in length, the six men spent 16 days crossing 800 miles of some of the stormiest seas in the world to reach South Georgia and then trekked across the mountainous island to a Norwegian whaling station.
Relief expeditions under Shackleton’s command rescued the remaining men from Elephant Island in August 1916. Not one member of the expedition died. (This is not entirely true: on the other side of the continent three men assigned to lay supply depots for Shackleton’s crossing party died but no blame can be attached to Shackleton.)
‘South’, Shackleton’s account of the ‘Endurance’ expedition, was published in 1919.
Shackleton’s fourth expedition aimed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent but on January 5 1922 Shackleton died of a suspected heart attack on board the ‘Quest’ in King Edward Cove, South Georgia, at the age of 47. He was buried in Grytviken cemetery on South Georgia.
Although for many years Shackleton was only commemorated in Ireland by a modest plaque at 35 Marlborough Street, the house in Dublin where he lived briefly as a child, Amundsen, the most accomplished polar explorer, declared: ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name will for evermore be engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration.’
Shackleton’s genius as a leader consisted in part in never taking unnecessary risks or asking his men to do anything he would not do himself. Shackleton’s selfless concern for his men was such that he gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley, who had lost his during the boat journey between Elephant Island and South Georgia. Shackleton suffered frostbitten fingers as a result.
In the preface to his 1922 book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote: ‘For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, 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’.
In 1956 Sir Raymond Priestley, a contemporary of Shackleton, paraphrased these words in an address to the British Science Association: ‘Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.’
In 2002, Shackleton was voted 11th in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. As he was extremely proud of his Irish birth and the Irish dimension of his identity, the erection of a statue of him in Athy in 2016 was a belated but fitting tribute.
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