Geographical Heroes: Ernest Shackleton

The Merseyside Maritime museum held an exhibition entitled: Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic adventure.  A fascinating exhibition which prompted me to included Shackleton in this documentation of geographical heroes.

”The epic story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance expedition is an incredible real life tale of survival.” Merseyside Maritime Museum

The exhibition contained a wide selection of photographs from the journey of ‘Endurance’ from the Royal Geographical Society, Scott Polar Research Institute and the State Library of New South Wales.

The early twentieth century ushered in the great race of National Antarctic Expeditions, and British, Scottish, and German explorers answered the call. Glory, the prize for himself and his homeland, to the champion who could successfully conquer and claim the frontier known as the South Pole.

Shackleton was involved with  several expeditions to the Antarctctic including the National Antarctic Expedition, which was organized by the Royal Geographical Society in 1901, and led by Robert Falcon Scott. This expedition is also called the “Discovery Expedition”, as its ship was called Discovery. Associated with this expedition is the myth that he may have placed the following advertisement in The Times in December 1901: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of winter. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” (Historians, however, have not been able to trace this in the original, while it remains a delightful story).Shackleton returned to the Antarctic, this time as a leader of the expedition, with the ship ‘Nimrod’. It was on the expedition with the Nimrod that Shackleton and his companions managed to cover 96 miles of the South Pole before they had to admit defeat and return home. It was the furthest anyone had traveled into the Antarctic, closer to the south pole than ever before. This was also a noted failure, with a decidedly marked victory.

In 1911, the race to the south Pole was completed by Roald Amundsen  so Shackleton had to aim for a new prize. He set sites on attempting to cross the entire continent on foot from the Weddell to the Ross Sea, in is view ‘the last great Polar journey to be made’ .

So leaving the Island of South Georgia in December 1914, his ship the Endurance made her way Southward through the pack ice toward the Antartctic continent. But while deep in the pack of the Weddell Sea, the ship was trapped and slowly crushed by the ice.

The Endurance keeling over © Royal Geographical Society

The ship however was unable to continue through the ice, which was unusually thick that year, and the ship was trapped and eventually crushed. What followed was an almost two year journey through the most hostile environment on earth.

Shackleton was knighted for the success of the 1907-09 “British Antarctic Expedition” under his command but he is best remembered today for his Antarctic expedition of 1914–1916 in the ship Endurance, the latter having become known colloquially as “Shackleton’s Expedition” or “The Shackleton Expedition”. He was a key figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration alongside the likes of Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson, and Robert Falcon Scott, each of whom became widely famed for their exploits, which captivated the imagination of the public.

He even has his own statue at the Royal Geographical Society in London:

Shackleton and his men became castaways in one of the most hostile environments on earth. The expedition was a failure – yet the unimaginable saga of survival that followed ensured that it was for this, the failed Endurance expedition, that Shackleton is ultimately remembered. A geographical hero of the Antarctic.

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