Alexandra Shackleton proudly displays
a polar explorer's medal bestowed on her grandfather by the British royal
Tending Sir Ernest's Legacy:
An Interview with Alexandra Shackleton
Sir Ernest could do far worse than have as his only granddaughter the Honorable
Alexandra Shackleton. Life-president of the James Caird Society, which was
founded to honor Shackleton and provide information about his expeditions, Ms.
Shackleton looks after her grandfather's legacy about as well as the great man
himself looked after his men.
Based in London, she has been instrumental in furthering Shackleton historical
research, has contributed forewords to books on Antarctic exploration, and consulted
for the Channel Four/First Sight Films
television drama Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh. She has even had
the honor to christen three ships: the Royal Navy's Ice Patrol ship, HMS
Endurance; the trawler Lord Shackleton; and, most recently, the
British Antarctic Survey ship, RRS Ernest Shackleton.
In this intimate interview, hear insights about Sir Ernest's motivations and
beliefs, strengths and imperfections, crushing disappointments and unparalleled
achievements, as only a devoted granddaughter can have them.
Most of the crew of the
Endurance, with Sir Ernest standing in the center (in white
NOVA: What was really pushing your grandfather to do this expedition to cross
Shackleton: Well, the Pole had been attained, so he had to abandon that dream.
I think he considered it the last great Antarctic adventure—to cross the
Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, a distance of about 1,800
miles. Of course, in those days it was felt that it should be done by somebody
British. All of the nationalities felt that. The Germans felt that. The
Americans felt that. The French felt that. And he considered he was pretty well
fitted to do it, having built up a reputation as a successful leader of the
Nimrod Expedition [a 1907 attempt to reach the South Pole, of which he got within
100 miles before having to turn back].
NOVA: It was a pretty ambitious plan, given the stage of Antarctic exploration
at that time. Was the monumental challenge part of the attraction?
Shackleton: It was ambitious, but I think he thought it was possible. He was a
very practical person, and he would have never attempted anything that he
thought could not be done. The main reason was that, above all, he had the
lives of his men to consider.
NOVA: When your grandfather left England on the Endurance, the First
World War was about to start. What effect did that have on him?
Shackleton: Well, he offered his ship and men to Winston Churchill, who was
Secretary of the Admiralty at the time. But he received a telegram back saying
simply, "Proceed." So he felt it was perfectly honorable for him to proceed. He
was then 40 years old, which would have been too old to fight, and he did lose
two members of the expedition who were already in the army.
The thing one has to remember is that nobody thought the First World War would
last more than a few months. It was a huge shock when they got back to South
Georgia after their many, many adventures and found that the war was still
"The ship was stuck 'like an almond in toffee.'"
NOVA: How do you think your grandfather felt at the moment when the
Endurance was finally stuck in the ice, and he realized he would never
attain his goal of crossing Antarctica?
Shackleton: Well, when the ship got locked in the ice, it wasn't a sudden
event, of course. The realization gradually dawned on them that the ship was
not going to get out, that she was stuck—I think one of the crew members
said "like an almond in toffee." Eventually, it became clear that she was being
crushed by the ice and had no chance of rising above it. And my grandfather
said to the captain, Frank Worsley, "the ship can't live in this, skipper."
Then he started making plans for what could be done when the ship finally had
to be abandoned. He was a great planner who was always working out what to do
in every conceivable eventuality.
For several weeks the ship had been letting out terrible creaking and groaning
noises like a human in agony, and then eventually my grandfather called out,
"she's going boys," and they saw her disappear. He wrote in his diary, "I
cannot write about it." He found it extremely distressing. Of course, it was
the abandonment of his dream.
Yet he said to his men, quite calmly, "ship gone, stores gone, now we will go
home." And he wrote in his diary, "a man must set himself to a new mark
directly the old one goes." And what became his new mark was bringing every one
of his 27 men home alive, from a part of the world where nobody knew they were.
He knew there was no chance whatsoever of rescue. There were no communications.
They might as well have been in space.
The Endurance in its final hours.
NOVA: That was probably one of the toughest tests of his character, because he
must have been bitterly disappointed.
Shackleton: Bitterly. Also, a ship is more to a sailor than just a floating
home. It is a symbol. It's distressing for any captain, any leader of an
expedition, to lose his ship.
NOVA: And yet he held himself together.
Shackleton: Indeed, and the men apparently felt reassured. After losing the
ship, they felt rather adrift in every sense of the word, and yet he helped
them to feel reassured. There was something to set themselves to do.
NOVA: What do you think was going through your grandfather's mind when they had
to move onto the ice?
Shackleton: It was an awareness that there would almost certainly have to be a
boat journey or several boat journeys. Each man was told he could bring two
pounds weight of his own possessions. Leonard Hussey, who had a banjo,
thought that he would have to leave it behind because it was too heavy, but my
grandfather described it as a vital mental tonic. It proved to be that, though
people got quite tired of his repertoire of six tunes.
"Ernest Shackleton did not go in for soul-searching and self-recrimination."
My grandfather himself set an example. He threw out a handful of gold coins and
his gold watch onto the snow, along with the Bible that Queen Alexandra had
given him. He tore off the flyleaf and put it in his pocket and threw the Bible
onto the snow, but it was rescued by a sailor who thought it was very bad luck
to throw a Bible away. Eventually both found their way to the Royal
Geographical Society in London.
NOVA: How did you think he felt when he realized that his plan to travel over
the ice was just not going to work?
Shackleton: When that method didn't work, I think he simply switched to the
next method. He was extremely pragmatic, and he always had many alternatives in
his mind. Ernest Shackleton did not go in for soul-searching and self-recrimination.
He would have called it a complete waste of valuable time.
NOVA: Now, on the journey to South Georgia aboard the Caird, how did
your grandfather help the men cope with the horrendous conditions?
Shackleton: Well, he was well aware of the importance of a hot drink. Every man
was fed every four hours, but if he noticed any member of the expedition
failing slightly, he would order hot milk then and there, not just for him, but
for everybody, so this man would not, as he put it, have doubts about himself.
When he noticed one man suffering particularly from cold, he would rummage in
the damp supplies and dig him out a pair of gloves.
This tiny cove on the south coast of South Georgia sheltered the Caird and its exhausted men after their journey from Elephant Island.
NOVA: How do you think your grandfather felt when South Georgia appeared on the
Shackleton: When they saw South Georgia for the first time, and he realized
that Worsley had accomplished his miracle of navigation, he felt huge relief,
but sadly that was tempered instantly by the fact they could not land. There
was a lee shore, and they were very nearly driven onto the reefs and sunk. It
took two days of agonies of thirst before they could actually land.
While they were struggling to land, Worsley said he felt this almost detached
resentment that no one would ever know what they had accomplished. They would
just be sunk as if they had been sunk at the beginning of the journey.
NOVA: Even today that journey is seen as nothing short of miraculous.
Shackleton: Yes. They had accomplished what many regard as the greatest small
boat journey in the world, 800 miles across the stormiest seas in the world in
a little boat not even 23 feet long—all the while encountering extremely
harsh weather and suffering gales, privations of thirst, hunger, and
everything. It was a colossal achievement, and when they saw the black peaks of
South Georgia, they felt huge relief and happiness.
"To this day, no one has ever beaten Shackleton's record of 30 miles in 36 hours."
NOVA: Was the Endurance expedition the greatest achievement of his
Shackleton: I think so, because against almost impossible odds he brought his
27 men home safely. The boat journey to South Georgia was an epic in itself,
and climbing across the uncharted, unmapped island of South Georgia with no
equipment was remarkable. To this day, no one has ever beaten his record of 30
miles in 36 hours.
NOVA: Some have complained that there was a certain amateurishness to the
Endurance expedition. Do you accept that?
Shackleton: I don't think there's such a thing as a perfect expedition; I don't
think Endurance was. Mistakes were made, but it's hard to think of an
expedition on which mistakes were not made. I think the difference between Ernest
Shackleton and explorers before and since is that he learned from his mistakes.
For instance, he was a member of an expedition sometime before his first as
leader during which they suffered terribly from scurvy. There was not much
known about it then, but on his expeditions thereafter few suffered from it,
because he was aware of the importance of eating fresh meat.
Shackleton felt every man bore
courage. Here, expedition photographer Frank Hurley at work.
NOVA: What did your grandfather think were the most important qualities for a
polar explorer to possess?
Shackleton: Well, he actually listed them. In order of priority, he said first
optimism, second patience, third imagination (with which he coupled idealism),
and fourth, courage. He thought every man had courage.
Now, those are very practical qualities, and yet Ernest Shackleton was a very
romantic man who wrote poetry. This was an era in which fine words abounded,
and I might have thought he would have chosen qualities such as self-sacrifice
or going for glory. After all, the search for the pole was likened to the
search for the Holy Grail. But his practical qualities did not war against his
romantic aspects. They made a harmonious whole, which I think was one of his
NOVA: What qualities do you think he possessed that made him such a compelling
leader and instill such loyalty in his crew?
Shackleton: I think that the fact that his men were so important. Leadership
was a two-way thing for him. It wasn't a case of men following him just because
he was the leader; he was devoted to them. It was a reciprocal, very close
relationship. That's why any discord and disobedience he took personally. He
was the ultimate leader because his men were his priority at all times. It took
four attempts to rescue his men from Elephant Island and he visibly aged,
particularly after the third one did not succeed. But when he got to Elephant
Island, counted the heads frantically, and found all safe all well, well, the
years rolled away.
"Shackleton was almost fussy at times in his
care for his men."
NOVA: It's been said that your grandfather had an almost feminine concern for
Shackleton: Yes, he was almost fussy at times in his care for them. Watching to
see if anyone was succumbing to frostbite, making hot drinks for everyone
whenever he saw that any one man was in need of one, and so on. He actually
described this side of himself in a letter to his wife. Perhaps because he was
part of a large family, this kind of concern came with the territory.
NOVA: The expedition had people from all ranks in society. How did your
grandfather handle this range of people, and did he have any favorites?
Shackleton: No, he never had favorites. He handled them by knowing all members
of the expedition very well, their strengths and their weaknesses. There was no
discord in his expedition. He also was not very keen on distinctions of rank.
He could and often did do any job on an expedition, however menial, and his men
knew that. It was a relationship of such mutual trust that it worked out very
smoothly even though at the time it was quite unusual for an officer to talk on
equal terms with his men.