IT has been the fate of British polar explorers to be glorious in defeat. Our most famous contribution to the genre is still Robert Falcon Scott’s ill tarred Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1912. Next to Scott comes Ernest Shackleton, best known for bringing his men back alive when his ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice at the beginning of a trans-Antarctic crossing which never got off the ground.
For much of the twentieth century, Michael Smith explains in his new biography, it was Scott who was the hero. He was a gallant, military man, a man of the empire who died in pursuit of a noble goal. Shackleton, by contrast, was a dashing buccaneer with a touch of blarney and a gift for coming back alive. In the tiny close-knit world of polar exploration, there wasn’t room for both of them.
But, as revisionist historians began to ask questions about Scott, Shackleton came to the fore. His leadership has been much lauded, and he is much studied today in business schools. Indeed, it has been said that if Shackleton were alive today he would be another Bill Gates – singularly ironic, Smith points out, as his business dealings were almost invariably disastrous.
This new biography, the first for thirty years, is a calm, even-handed appraisal of a man who was, in the words of a captain who knew Shackleton as a young man, ‘several types bound in one volume’. Shackleton on shore was often discontent, prone to affairs and to investing in luckless schemes. With the bit of an adventure between his teeth, he became energised, focused, using every atom of his swashbuckling personality to push towards his goal. In a tight spot on the ice, he was assured, careful in his decision-making, deeply considerate of others. In these moments, he seemed to become the best of himself, and from these come his greatest achievements.
Smith has written a number of books on polar exploration, including several on Irishman Tom Crean, a stalwart of the Endurance expedition (which were drawn on to make the Fringe-First winning play Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer). He writes from a deep knowledge not just of the personalities involved but of the context in which they operated. His accounts of Shackleton’s missions are fast-moving and gripping. Elsewhere the book is thorough, but suffers somewhat from lack of pace. The reader is eager for the next voyage – exactly as Shackleton was.
Born into a family of Anglo-Irish landowners, Shackleton spent his early years in Kildare, before the family moved to London. He was sent to Dulwich College where he excelled neither in the classroom nor on the sports field, but was always popular, good company, a raconteur. He left at the age of 16 to go to sea.
Much later, he would speak of how in childhood he pored over Boy’s Own stories of polar exploration. But Shackleton was, as Smith points out, ‘a journalist’s dream’, never averse to spinning a yarn. In fact, the reasons for his entry into the world of polar exploration as a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition in 1901 may have been rather more opportunistic. He wanted to marry Emily Dorman, six years older, and from a rather wealthier background than his own, and he sought more from life than a career as a merchant seaman. Perhaps, as the physicist Bernacchi who sailed on Discovery said, he was simply ‘hungry for adventure and fame’. In any case, he quickly stood out and Scott chose him as one of a team of three for his first attempt on the Pole.
Smith does not pull his punches about the shortcomings of British polar exploration. Gallant heroes repeatedly set out in leaky ships, ill-equipped for the southern oceans, learning little from the failed expeditions that had gone before. They persist with man-hauled sledges, obstinately refusing to see the importance of using dogs, or taking the time to become proficient skiers. With hindsight, it hardly seems surprising that the Norwegians, using both of these, ultimately won the race to the Pole.
Scott’s first attempt on the Pole set a pattern for later expeditions: forced to turn back, malnourished, low on supplies, cutting back on rations just when they need it the most, and facing an against-the-odds struggle back to base before strength and food ran out. Shackleton, though, was bitten by the bug. In a interview years later he said: ‘One goes once and then one gets the fever and can’t stop going.’
Back in Britain, he was restless, unfulfilled. He tried various jobs – for a time he was secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh, where he and Emily began their married life, entering ‘like a hurricane into the sombre, sleepy atmosphere’ of the RSGS New Town headquarters. He tried various business ventures and had a brief dalliance with politics. It was all little more than biding time until he could go back to the ice.
Difficulties raising money dogged all Shackleton’s exploration. His expeditions invariably set sail on a mixture of thin air and unflinching confidence, and were bankrupt before they were well advanced. But going was the thing, and Shackleton set sail for the Antarctic on Nimrod in 1907, leading his first expedition at the age of 29. In October 1908, with three companions, he set out for the Pole, a feat he described as ‘one of the few great things left to be done’.
While he broke the record of Scott’s party with seeming ease, and traversed the Beardmore Glacier (named after the Glasgow shipbuilding magnate who had loaned the expedition money), nearing the Pole they hit the same old difficulties: shortage of supplies, illness, malnourishment, hostile weather. Jameson Adams, one of the four, who described Shackleton as ‘the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none’, praised the precision of his judgment, contending that if they had continued even an hour longer, they could have died. But Smith writes, wryly, that a little more preparation could have made all the difference, that only ‘a few extra pounds of pemmican (the polar version of trail rations) and biscuits [lay] between him and the South Pole’. A few more pounds of supplies and Shackleton might have beaten Amundsen by three years.
After news of Amundsen’s triumph in December 1911, Shackleton turned to being the first to traverse the Antarctic continent, and set sail in Endurance (named for the Shackleton family motto, By Endurance we Conquer) in 1914. However, before the expedition was able to land, Endurance became trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. Three months later, the ship crumpled and sank, leaving Shackleton and his twenty even men marooned on shifting ice floes, hundreds of miles from the nearest land.
This is where Shackleton really begins to look extraordinary. The next morning, after a chilly, broken sleep, he woke the men with mugs of hot coffee and the brisk announcement: ‘Ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home.’ His optimism and tireless encouragement in the face of extraordinary odds was instrumental in bringing everyone home safely, more than eighteen months later.
In the months that followed, Shackleton seems to have been able to demonstrate a degree of self-belief which kept his men’s hopes alive, as well as an instinctive understanding of how to handle them. He had what Smith describes as ‘an almost feminine touch about how he cared for each man’ and a clear idea of what was required of him as leader on a day-to-day basis. At the some of the darkest moments, Shackleton is the one firing up the stove for a brew of hot drinks all round, and spirits are lifted.
By the time the group reached Elephant Island, in the three patched-up lifeboats from Endurance, some of the men were ill and half-crazed, and Shackleton decided to take five of the strongest and sail to South Georgia to fetch a rescue ship. After seventeen hair-raising days at sea, and a thirty ix hour march across the island, he reached the whaling station at Husvik. It is hard to describe adequately the perilousness of this journey, or the odds stacked against them. There were moments of good fortune with weather, but there was bad luck too, and the ability to make the right decisions, and support people when they needed it most made the difference between life and death. Four months later, Shackleton sailed back into the bay at Elephant Island, counting the dark figures of men on the shore. Incredibly, all twenty-two had survived.
Smith’s book does not tease out the account Shackleton himself gave of his adventures (which he wrote with the assistance of a ghostwriter). It would have been interesting to see how this natural showman and raconteur spun his own story, and those this differs – if it does – from the other accounts available. Smith mentions letters sent by Shackleton from the Falklands, so sensitive that the family has never allowed them to be published in full, but does not explain the extent to which he has been able to draw on them.
After the rescue, Shackleton seems to have been reluctant to return home, going on lecture tours of Australia, New Zealand and the United States before sailing back to England. After eighteen months in the frozen wilderness, he and his men returned to a ‘strange, embattled world’ entrenched in a destructive war. Once home, he sought a role in the war effort, but struggled to find one, spending his time drinking too much and seeking out the company of a variety of women.
It’s no surprise that, when the war ended, and despite evidence of his own failing health, he mounted another expedition, originally to the Beaufort sea in the Arctic, then the Antarctic again. The switch is indicative: he didn’t mind where he was going, he just wanted to go. He died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in South Georgia in January 1922, aged 47.
Michael Smith’s biography shows us a complex multi-faceted man who discovered, within himself, at the worst of times, the capacity for greatness. By the end of the book, we agree with Sir Raymond Priestley, who, as a young geologist, sailed with Shackleton on Nimrod and with Scott on Terra Nova: ‘For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.’
Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer
Oneworld, £20, ISBN 978 1780745725, PP456