Pole Star – Brian Maye on Antarctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton
The great explorer Ernest Shackleton died suddenly of a heart attack on January 5, 100 years ago in South Georgia in Antarctica, for exploring much of which he had become famous. Although we Irish people claim it for ourselves, he only spent the first 10 years of his life there.
He was born in Kilkea, County Kildare, on February 15, 1874, to a Quaker family who had moved from Yorkshire in the early 18th century. His family moved to London in 1884, where the father practiced medicine.
Ernest was educated at home and at preparatory school before entering Dulwich College in 1887.
Three years later he joined the Merchant Navy and traveled to many parts of the world, most notably as a third officer on a ship chartered to transport British troops to South Africa during the Second Boer War.
He did not get along well with Scott, who was too authoritarian, but that did not prevent him from leaving with Scott for what would be called the “voyage to the south” in November 1902.
Tired of the merchant navy and in search of a more adventurous life, he volunteered for the national expedition to Antarctica and was appointed third officer there in February 1901.
Its commanding officer was Robert Falcon Scott and Kerryman Tom Crean, with whom Shackleton would serve again on subsequent expeditions, were also among the crew that sailed the Discovery. He did not get along well with Scott, who was too authoritarian, but that did not prevent him from leaving with Scott for what would be called the “voyage to the south” in November 1902.
They traveled further south than had been reached so far, but were forced to turn back and Shackleton was sent home the following March due to health concerns.
He married Emily Mary Dorman of Sussex in 1904; the couple had two sons and a daughter.
He was secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh, failed to get elected to parliament in Dundee, and became involved with an engineering society in Glasgow.
His real ambition, however, was to command his own expedition to Antarctica. His employer in Glasgow became his mainstay in this regard and, following a fundraiser, Shackleton set sail on what he called the “British Antarctic Expedition 1907” aboard the Nimrod in August of the same year.
Establishing their base in McMurdo Sound, various parties reached the summit of Mount Erebus, the Magnetic South Pole, and approached within 97 miles of the South Pole itself, going 360 miles further south than Scott.
Returning to England to be acclaimed in March 1909, he was knighted, received gold medals from the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and Parliament voted him £ 20,000 to cover the costs of the shipping. He publishes The Heart of the Antarctic and lectures in Europe and America.
Although the Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in December 1911, Shackleton wanted to explore Antarctica further and also planned a transpolar expedition (which was not carried out until 1958).
The outbreak of war in 1914 may have disrupted his plans and he offered his ships Endurance and Aurora to the Admiralty, but was tasked with continuing the expedition.
Shackleton immediately began to organize the rescue of the men on Elephant Island, succeeding after three failed attempts. It was a heroic feat
Virtually this accomplished nothing but, as David Murphy, who wrote Shackleton’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, observed, “it has become a symbol. [his] great skill as an explorer and leader of men ”.
The Endurance got stuck in the sea ice in the Weddell Sea and broke after 10 months. The crew camped on the pack ice and when it began to disintegrate after six months, they dragged three lifeboats across the ice to the open sea and sailed to the island of Elephant.
But Shackleton realized they wouldn’t be rescued there, and he and five crew members (including Tom Crean) took an epic 800-mile journey, in a 22-foot boat, to South Georgia. He and Crean and Frank Worsley had to cross the island’s mountainous interior to reach the whaling station of Stromness. Shackleton immediately began to organize the rescue of the men on Elephant Island, succeeding after three failed attempts. It was a heroic feat.
He volunteered for the military and with the rank of major served in missions in South America and Russia.
Resigning his commission, he published South, an account of the Endurance expedition, in 1919 and returned to explore further Antarctica in September 1921 aboard the Quest.
He entered South Georgia on January 4, 1922, and the next day Shackleton, who had suffered from asthma and heart problems on various expeditions, died of a major heart attack. At the request of his wife, he was buried at the Grytviken whaling station in South Georgia.
He had received many awards, British, European and South American, during his life; parts of Antarctica and elsewhere bear his name and there is a beautiful statue outside the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore, London. The Athy Museum in Kildare has a Shackleton exhibit, and there is a commemorative plaque outside 35 Marlborough Street, Dublin, where he lived as a child.