One of the most famous Antarctic explorers in history, and routinely voted as one of the greatest Britons of all time, Sir Ernest Shackleton is a name which lives on as much as in legend as in history.
Remembered as much for his failures as his successes, Shackleton has something of a complex legacy. Despite this, he remains a symbol of the unquenchable thirst for knowledge and indefatigable spirit which characterised the ‘heroic age of Antarctic exploration’, and his sheer will to survive remains remarkable to this day.
But behind this semi-mythical figure, there was a very human one. Here is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
A restless youth
Ernest was born in County Kildare, Ireland, in 1874. The Shackletons, an Anglo-Irish family, had 10 children in total. They moved to Sydenham, south London, in 1884. A voracious reader with a taste for adventure, the young Ernest found school dull and left education as soon as possible.
He became an apprentice with the North West Shipping Company, spending the next 4 years at sea. At the end of this period, he passed his examination for second mate and took up a more senior position as third officer. By 1898, he had risen through the ranks to become a master mariner, meaning he could command a British ship anywhere in the world.
Contemporaries remarked Shackleton was far from the standard officer: he might not have liked education, but he picked up enough of it to be able to quote poetry at random, and some described him as a more ‘sensitive’ type than his contemporaries. Shackleton’s career in the Merchant Navy was shortlived, however, after he found himself commissioned into the Royal Navy to embark on the Discovery expedition in 1901.
The British National Antarctic Expedition, known as the Discovery expedition after its main ship, embarked from London in 1901 after years of planning. It was hoped the expedition would make significant geographical and scientific discoveries in Antarctica.
Led by Captain Robert Scott, the expedition lasted 3 years. Shackleton proved himself to be an asset to the crew and well-liked and respected by his fellow officers, including Scott himself. Scott, Shackleton and Wilson, another officer, marched southwards, hoping to achieve a record latitude, which they achieved, albeit with the consequences of scurvy, frostbite and snow blindness.
Shackleton suffered in particular and was ultimately sent home in January 1903 on the relief ship on account of his health. However, some historians have speculated that Scott felt threatened by Shackleton’s popularity, and wanted to remove him from the expedition as a result. There is scarce evidence to support this theory, however.
On his return from the Discovery expedition, Shackleton was in demand: his knowledge and first-hand experience of the Antarctic made him valuable to a variety of organisations who had interests in Antarctic exploration. After an unsuccessful stint as a journalist, attempting to stand as an MP and a failed investment in a speculative shipping company, it became clear that the only thing really on Shackleton’s mind was returning to the Antarctic.
In 1907, Shackleton presented plans for an Antarctic expedition, which aimed to reach both the magnetic and geographical South Pole, to the Royal Geographical Society, before beginning the arduous process of finding donors and backers to fund the trip. The final amount was raised just 2 weeks before the Nimrod was due to depart.
Nimrod departed in January 1908 from New Zealand: despite inclement weather and several early setbacks, the expedition established a base in McMurdo Sound. In doing so, Shackleton broke a promise he had made to Scott that he would not interfere in ‘his’ area of the Antarctic.
The expedition achieved some notable successes, including reaching a new furthest south latitude, the discovery of the Beardmore Glacier, the first successful ascent of Mount Erebus and the discovery of the location of the Magnetic South Pole. Shackleton returned to England a hero, with the admiration of his men, but still deeply in debt.
Whilst Shackleton continued to tell those at home that his place was “at home now”, this was not quite true. The Antarctic still captivated him. Even after Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole, Shackleton decided there were still more achievements he could aim for, including completing the first continental crossing.
Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Perhaps Shackleton’s most famous, and most disastrous expedition, was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (often nicknamed Endurance, after the name of the ship), which departed in 1914. Financed almost entirely by private donations, the aim of the expedition was to cross Antarctica for the first time.
Trading somewhat on his name and the glamour and rewards Antarctic success provided, he received over 5,000 applications to join his crew: after years in the inhospitable conditions of expeditions, Shackleton was well aware temperament, character and the ability to get on with people were vital attributes – often more so than technical or practical skills. He chose his crew personally.
Endurance became trapped in the ice, and sank after 10 months, in November 1915. Shackleton and his men camped on the ice for several more months before sailing in a small lifeboat to Elephant Island. Known for his dedication to his men, Shackleton gave his mittens to Frank Hurley, one of his crew, on the journey, getting frostbitten fingers as a result.
He subsequently led a smaller party to South Georgia Island: after landing on the wrong side of the island to the whaling station, the men traversed the mountainous interior, eventually reaching the Stromness whaling station 36 hours later, in May 1916, before returning for his men. The expedition has gone down in history as one of the most remarkable feats of human endurance, courage and sheer luck.
Endurance remained lost to the depths of the Weddell Sea for 107 years, until it was discovered during the Endurance22 expedition in a “remarkable state of preservation“.
Death and legacy
When the Endurance expedition returned to England in 1917, the country was caught up in World War One: Shackleton himself tried to enlist and was given diplomatic posts, achieving little success.
In 1920, tired of civilian life and with the Antarctic still beckoning, he embarked on his final expedition, aiming to circumnavigate the continent and engage in further exploration. Before the expedition could begin in earnest, however, Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died on the island of South Georgia: he had begun to drink heavily and it’s thought this hastened his demise. He was buried on South Georgia, in accordance with his wife’s wishes.
Shackleton died with some £40,000 of debt to his name: a biography was published within a year of his death as both a tribute and as a way of helping his family financially.
As time went on, Shackleton faded somewhat into obscurity against the memory and legacy of Scott’s Antarctic expeditions. However, this reversed in the 1970s, as historians became increasingly critical of Scott and celebratory of Shackleton’s achievements. By 2022, Shackleton was ranked 11th in a BBC poll of ‘Greatest Britons’, cementing his hero status.
Read more about the discovery of Endurance. Explore the history of Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Visit the official Endurance22 website.