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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance

Launching the Caird The voyage aboard the Caird, here being launched from Elephant Island, is considered one of the greatest small-boat journeys of all time.
Tending Sir Ernest's Legacy:
An Interview with Alexandra Shackleton

Part 2 | Back to Part 1

NOVA: How did he ensure that everyone was the same, regardless of their background?

Shackleton: Well, scientists had to scrub floors, and sailors could help with meteorological observations. They were almost a family.

NOVA: So everyone did everything?

Shackleton: Everyone did everything that he was capable of doing, and that's the crux. He didn't ask any man to do more than he ever felt he could do, but he inspired people to do more than they felt they could do themselves.

NOVA: How did the crew perceive their captain?

Shackleton: Worsley was a brilliant navigator, as we know, but he was also regarded as rather eccentric and even sometimes irresponsible. He came into his own in a crisis: when the ship was in distress but above all in the two boat journeys—the journey of the three boats to Elephant Island and the single boat journey to South Georgia. I would say quite simply, he was a genius as a navigator. If the little James Caird had missed South Georgia, they would have gone out into the Atlantic and never been heard of again. As the men on the expedition realized what he could achieve, they began having more respect for him.

NOVA: How about Frank Wild? What did your grandfather think of him?

Shackleton: Frank Wild was his second-in-command, totally devoted, totally able. He was probably one of the smallest men in the expedition, but he was very, very strong. He'd explored with my grandfather on the Nimrod Expedition, and he was utterly, utterly reliable. My grandfather described him once as "my other self."

They had very different personalities, but Wild was an absolutely ideal second-in-command, because he was capable of running things if necessary on his own, as he did on Elephant Island. For several months he kept the men together. Every day they'd "pack up the stow, boys, because the boss might come today." He was aware of the vital importance of a routine. Members of previous expeditions had met with alcoholism and suicide and insanity. But this expedition's members were all kept together pretty well, and that's leadership.


"They'd voted if they ever had to eat one another that it would have been Orde-Lees first."
NOVA: How about difficult personalities like Thomas Orde-Lees? How did your grandfather feel about him?

Shackleton: Orde-Lees was extremely eccentric, and I think my grandfather found him quite irritating. He also had abilities that no other member of the expedition had; he was an expert skier, for instance. He himself had a lot of admiration for my grandfather.

In lots of ways Orde-Lees was the most unpopular member of the expedition, though he had this amazing imperviousness. He didn't really mind. When he heard the story, which was probably apocryphal, that they'd voted if they ever had to eat one another that it would have been him first, he just noted in his diary "no doubt this is because I'm the fittest member of the expedition." [To read excerpts from Orde-Lees's diary, see Diary of a Survivor.]

NOVA: How about the carpenter Henry McNeish? How did your grandfather handle his attempted mutiny?

Shackleton: Well, that was the only serious instance of discord on the expedition. My grandfather came upon Worsley confronting McNeish. McNeish was refusing to obey orders, and Worsley was not handling it as well as he should have. McNeish thought that he could make some decisions better himself, and he said that since the ship was sunk, their obligations were over. They did not have to obey orders.


Icebound ship Even though the ship was gone, Shackleton declared, everyone would draw pay until they reached port.
My grandfather quietly went away and got a copy of the ship's articles and read them to the ship's company. He said that though the ship had sunk, their pay would continue until they reached port, and therefore they were all still under his command. That ended the confrontation.

NOVA: If he hadn't dealt with this problem immediately, what was at stake? What could have happened if discipline had been lost on the expedition?

Shackleton: Well, I don't think that because of McNeish's behavior all discipline would have been lost. But it was a hugely selfish thing for McNeish to have done, because they could only get back alive by staying together and staying united. Of course, McNeish was the oldest member of the expedition, and he was in pain from dragging the sledges, but still, it was an extraordinarily arrogant thing to do.

There is one story that my grandfather threatened to shoot him, which doesn't really seem his style, because he commanded by leadership qualities, not by threats. Whatever it was, McNeish sort of knuckled down. Interestingly enough, McNeish never referred to the confrontation in his diary.

My grandfather, for his part, referred to it obliquely saying, "I shall never forgive the carpenter in this time of storm and stress." You see, he was hurt by it, not furious but very hurt.


"Enmities can sometimes be extremely destructive to the harmony of an expedition. So can alliances."
NOVA: Your grandfather dealt with the most difficult people by keeping them in his own tent, right?

Shackleton: Yes, so they couldn't spread their discord to other tents. In confined spaces, when people don't have a lot to eat, enmities can sometimes be extremely destructive to the harmony of an expedition. So can alliances. So he moved people around and noticed how people were getting on with each other or not getting on with each other. It worked pretty well.

NOVA: Do you think that was one of his greatest skills, his ability to handle men?

Shackleton: Yes, but it was all based on knowing his men. It's no good knowing theoretically how to handle people if you don't really notice what people are like. He was extremely observant, and he was also pretty tolerant. He made allowances for different priorities, with the exception of loyalty. Loyalty was the most important thing to him.

NOVA: What do you think your grandfather's greatest strengths were?

Shackleton: Not to sound like a broken record, but his greatest strength lay in the way he viewed his relationship to his men as his number-one priority. Sometimes I'm asked why is he of such interest nowadays, and I answer that I think there is a yearning for what I call raw leadership, by which I mean leadership growing naturally out of the sort of person one is, not as a learned, self-conscious skill. And to Ernest Shackleton what was natural was to put his men first.


Caird leaving Shackleton's steady leadership probably had as much to do with the successful voyage of the Caird, here seen just before its journey to South Georgia, as Worsley's navigation.
NOVA: Did he have any weaknesses?

Shackleton: It sounds terrible, but I can't think of that many weaknesses he had as a leader. I think he is the leader that we all would have wanted. The ultimate gift a leader can give is to inspire confidence. During the agonizing boat journey to South Georgia, Worsley wrote in his diary, "however bad things were, he somehow inspired us with the feeling that he could make things better."

That said, I wouldn't say Ernest Shackleton was a perfect leader. He took too long to realize the advantages of skiing and dogs, for instance.

NOVA: Why did your grandfather hide his heart problem from the crew?

Shackleton: He must have had doubts about his health. For instance, during the boat journey to South Georgia, he had agonizing sciatica, and he had episodes of what he called suppressed flu, but he must have wondered if it was a heart problem. Since he always refused to let the ship's doctors examine him, however, he couldn't have been sure. In retrospect, it looks as if he was afraid at what they might find, afraid of what they might forbid him to do.


"He walked into the sea fully dressed and said, 'Oh, why is everything all wet?'"
NOVA: Are there any anecdotes handed down to you that shed light on his character whilst at home?

Shackleton: Well, he was a great practical joker. Once when he was out with his three children on the beach at Eastbourne with my grandmother, the children implored her to bathe, and she wouldn't let them. So he walked into the sea fully dressed and said, "Oh, why is everything all wet?" The children were delighted and rushed in, too, and then they had to walk back to the house, sopping wet, stared at by everybody. I think my grandmother was very embarrassed.

I think during his last leave before he went on the Quest Expedition, my grandfather helped to prepare a picnic. There was a mysterious basket and inside was a stuffed penguin with a knife and fork. [The Quest Expedition was Shackleton's ill-defined 1921-22 journey to South Georgia, where, on January 5, 1922, he died of a heart attack at age 47.]

NOVA: Do you think South Georgia is an appropriate resting place for your grandfather?

Shackleton: When my grandfather died on South Georgia, originally his body was going to be brought back to England. But my grandmother realized that the best place for him to lie was in the gateway to the part of the world that meant most to him, the Antarctic. So she asked for him to be buried in the whaling cemetery on South Georgia. I cannot think of a better place.


Camp Shackleton, says his granddaughter, was most content in the Antarctic. Here, Shackleton (standing at right) relaxes at Ocean Camp in November 1915.
NOVA: Do you think he was happiest when he was in the Antarctic?

Shackleton: Grandfather was, I think, happiest in the Antarctic, yes. He wrote once to my grandmother, "I'm not much good at anything else but being an explorer." He loved her and he loved his home, but he chafed in the confines of this country. For a man who loved wide open spaces, Antarctica does get a grip of one. If one has never seen it, it's like nowhere else. He wrote once to a little sister, "you cannot imagine what it is like to tread where no man has trod before."

NOVA: Are you proud of your grandfather?

Shackleton: I'm very proud of my grandfather, and the more I know about him, the more proud I am, particularly of his care for his men, and his knowledge of each man. It was quite unusual in that era.



Interview conducted by Kelly Tyler, NOVA producer, "Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance"

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