“The pallid twilight of daybreak hung over the still waters of King Edward Cove in the early hours of 5 January 1922. From shore, it was possible to glimpse the outlines of Quest, a small wooden ship anchored in the bay. On board Quest, as night gave way to day, Sir Ernest Shackleton succumbed to a massive heart attack and died. It was a passing which simultaneously marked the loss of the greatest British explorer of the age and the moment when the celebrated era of Antarctic exploration, which was epitomised by the exploits of Shackleton, came to an end.”
SO Begins Michael Smith’s biography of Shackleton, By Endurance We Conquer. Shackleton pioneered the path to the South Pole, leading three British expeditions to the Antarctic theDiscovery, the Nimrod and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Michael, a former journalist and an established authority on polar exploration, has written a number of books including An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean Antarctic Survivor, which was short-listed for the Banff Mountain Book Festival 2002. Michael says: “Although there are lots of books about the Endurance and Shackleton’s legacy, there are surprisingly few biographies about Shackleton himself the last one was written 30 years ago.
“I felt that since 2014 is the centenary of the epic Endurance expedition, it was timely to re-examine one of history’s most compelling figures. New books, diaries and correspondence regarding Shackleton and his close companions have emerged in the past 30 years, and my book brings a fresh, 21st-century perspective to his series of incredible adventures. I also untangle the myths from the reality of this complex character’s packed life.”
After the race to the South Pole ended in 1911 with Roald Amundsen’s conquest, Shackleton (1874-1922) started looking round for something else to do. The idea of crossing the continent from sea to sea via the Pole was actually the idea of a Scottish scientist called William Spiers Bruce. However, unable to get the funding for the trip, he more or less handed the idea to Shackleton. Known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917, disaster struck when its ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed before the shore parties could be landed, miraculously with no loss of life.
“It was a hugely ambitious plan and doomed to failure,” says Michael. “Even if the ship hadn’t been crushed by ice they would have perished before they reached land it was a journey of 1800 miles and wildly ambitious.”
Shackleton had very close links with Scotland and Dundee in particular, as Michael explains: “He would have been to Dundee many times in the 1900s when Discovery was being built, to assist stowing the hold with supplies for several years of exploration. You have to remember there were no port facilities 100 years ago, no cranes to help, so everything had to be packed in small boxes.”
Shackleton was seriously ill on the Discovery expedition and was sent home on a relief ship. After a period of convalescence in New Zealand, he returned to the UK via San Francisco and New York. In 1906 he was asked to stand as an MP for Dundee. “Although he was a great orator, and could whip up the crowds into a frenzy, he was a miserable failure as a politician, famously quipping that he got all the laughs while everyone else got the votes,” says Michael. “He had no real feel for politics. He was a member of the Liberal Unionist Party who stood against home rule for Ireland, even though he was Irish himself. As many Irish people flocked to Dundee for work in the 1900s he was not a popular figure.”
He took a job with wealthy Clydeside industrialist William Beardmore, who, upon learning that Shackleton was making no secret of his ambition to return to Antarctica at the head of his own expedition, was sufficiently impressed to offer financial support.
“Shackleton was an odd character but the paradox is that Shackleton on dry land was different to the man at sea or the ice,” explains Michael. “When he was at home inEdinburgh with his wife Emily, he was a feckless womaniser who even had an affair with his benefactor Beardmore’s wife, and a spectacular failure at every business deal he touched, dying up to his neck in debt. He could not spot a charlatan in a suit and all his business deals were catastrophic failures. It’s quite ironic that these days he is a model for business schools!
“But on the ice he was decisive, inspirational, a charismatic leader of men. His greatest strength was his inspirational leadership in a crisis. He could lead men back from the brink when all hope was lost. He had an uncanny knack of choosing dependable and resourceful companions.
“He was a man who created his own luck. He was certainly fortunate at times of great crisis, such as when a blizzard or a storm might have killed all hands. But he was blessed with extraordinary judgement at time when others might have buckled under strain. Although he may be regarded as a swashbuckling character, Shackleton was cautious and never took unnecessary risks. Above everything he was a survivor, unlike his rival Scott.”
Shackleton was only 47 when he died but, as Michael reveals: “He had a dicky heart and lungs, smoked like a chimney and drank.
“His story has spent longer in the shadows than the spotlight and until recently it’s almost as if history didn’t have room for two Antarctic heroes. Now he has become almost a saintly cult figure.
“My own view is more realistic he was a captivating, loveable rogue. I hope readers will find a fresh perspective on Shackleton, and the man behind the myth. There’s a lot more behind the bare bones of the legend.”
l By Endurance We Conquer is out now, published by Oneworld Publications, priced £20.