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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance

Alexandra Shackleton Alexandra Shackleton proudly displays a polar explorer's medal bestowed on her grandfather by the British royal family.
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.

Shackleton's team Most of the crew of the Endurance, with Sir Ernest standing in the center (in white sweater).
NOVA: What was really pushing your grandfather to do this expedition to cross Antarctica?

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 raging.

"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.

Endurance turned in ice 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.

Cave cove 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 horizon?

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 life?

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.

Hurley photographing 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 strengths.

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 his men.

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.

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

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