Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
1874 - 1922
The British explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton is known for
his ambitious examination of sections of Antarctica.
early 20th century, certain nations, especially Great Britain,
Norway, and the United States, participated in attempts to reach
the highest latitudes north and south. The motives for these
expeditions were scientific attainment and national prestige.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was to play an important role in the
British expeditions to Antarctica.
Shackleton was born at Kilkee, County Kildare, Ireland, on Feb.
15, 1874. It has been noted that his "descent from north of
England Quaker stock on his father's side and his Irish ancestry
on his mother's may have accounted for the mingling of caution,
perseverance, reckless courage, and strong idealism which were
his leading characteristics." He joined the merchant service in
1890 and became a qualified master (1898) and a sublieutenant in
the Royal Naval Reserve (1901). Desirous of adventure and fame,
he applied for a position in Robert F. Scott's Discovery
expedition to the Antarctic in 1901. With Scott and one other,
he sledged to 82°16'33"S latitude over the Ross Shelf Ice.
Returning home due to illness, in 1903, Shackleton undertook
numerous engagements: secretary of the Royal Scottish
Geographical Society (1904-1905) and employee of an engineering
company in Glasgow. But his determined ambition lay in Antarctic
conquest, and in 1907 he made his plans public. His principal
object was to reach the South Pole; other aims were to explore
the Ross Shelf Ice and King Edward VII Land and to reach the
south magnetic pole. The expedition was largely financed by
guarantees which would be redeemed by proceeds from lectures and
publications following the voyage.
The Nimrod, a small whaler, reached the Ross Shelf Ice in
January 1908. Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier,
attained 88°23'S on the Antarctic Plateau on Jan. 9, 1909, and
sent expeditions which reached the south magnetic pole and the
summit of Mt. Erebus. On his return to England he became a
popular hero, was knighted, and received numerous awards from
geographical societies. The British government granted £20,000
toward the cost of the expedition. Shackleton made a lengthy
lecturing tour and complied his account of the expedition, The
Heart of the Antarctic (1909).
Shackleton now proposed to determine the extent of the Weddell
Sea and adjacent lands and to complete a trans-Antarctic
expedition. The Endurance and Aurora under government auspices
sailed in 1914 for South Georgia. When the Endurance was crushed
in the ice, Shackleton led heroic sledge and boat parties first
to Elephant Island (reached April 15, 1916) and then to South
Georgia (August 30), a total of some thousand miles. He
completed the rescue operation in the Ross Sea, where the
transpolar party was waiting, and returned home to write his
account, South (1919).
Then followed numerous tasks, including a mission to South
America on behalf of the British government to explain Allied
war aims, and an expedition to northern Russia to organize
winter equipment. But after World War I Shackleton returned to
polar exploration and led an expedition financed by John Quiller
Rowett to explore Enderby Land. Shackleton, however, died
suddenly of angina pectoris on Jan. 5, 1922, and was buried on
South Georgia Island.
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (February 2, 1874 - January 5, 1922)
was an Irish-born explorer, now chiefly remembered for his
expedition of 1914-1916, in the ship, Endurance.
Shackleton was born in County Kildare, Ireland 1874, and served
as a merchant marine officer. He went to school at Dulwich
College from 1887 to 1890.
He participated in the National Antarctic Expedition, organized
by the Royal Geographical Society in 1901, led by Robert Falcon
Scott. This expedition is also called the Discovery Expedition,
as its ship was called the Discovery. In July, the expedition
headed down England's River Thames on the way to the Ross Sea.
The Discovery was closing in on Antrarctica in view of Cape Adre
and the Admiralty Mountains. Shackleton was a member of the
landing party, ordered by Scott to go ashore. The ground was
dirty, smelly, and overpopulated with Penguins. Following the
return of the party, the Discovery continued south past Mount
Erebus, to the Ross Ice Shelf.
Shackleton with Scott and Dr. Edward Wilson trekked south
towards the South Pole in 1902. The journey proceeded under
difficult conditions, partially the result of their own
inexperience with the Antarctic environment, poor choices and
preparation and the pervading assumption that all obstacles
could be overcome with personal fortitude. They used dogs, but
failed to understand how to handle them. As with most of the
early British expeditions, food was foolishly in short supply;
the personnel on long treks were usually underfed by any
sensible measure and were essentially starving. Scott, Wilson
and Shackleton made their "furthest south" of 82°17'S on
December 31, 1902. They were 480 statute miles from the Pole.
Shackleton developed scurvy on the return trip and Dr. Wilson
was suffering from snow blindness at intervals.
When the Morning relieved the expedition at in early 1903, Scott
had Shackleton returned to England, though he had nearly fully
recovered. There is some suggestion that Scott disliked
Shackleton's popularity in the expedition and used his health as
an excuse to remove him; he was Merchant Marine and Scott was
Royal Navy - which was also part of the contention with whether
Armitage was to remain for the second winter. In part, Scott
exhibited unusual stamina and may not have recognized differing
abilities of others.
Shackleton organized and led the "British Antarctic Expedition"
(1907-1909) to Antarctica. The primary and stated goal was to
reach the South Pole. The expedition is also called the Nimrod
Expedition, referring to the ship used. Shackleton's base camp
was built on Ross Island at Cape Royds, approximately 20 miles
north of the Scott's Hut of the 1901-1904 expedition. Because of
poor success with dogs during Scott's 1901-1904 expedition,
Shackleton used Manchurian ponies for transport, which did not
Accomplishments of the expedition included the first ascent of
Mount Erebus, the active volcano of Ross Island; the location of
the Magnetic South Pole by Douglas Mawson, David and MacKay
(January 16, 1909); locating the Beardmore Glacier passage.
Shackleton, with Wild and Adams, reached a point only 156 km
from the South Pole. For three years Shackleton basked in the
glory of being "the man who reached furthest to the south". Of
his failure to reach the South Pole, Shackleton remarked:
"Better a live donkey than a dead lion."
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set out in 1914. Its
goal was to cross the Antarctic from a location near Vahsel Bay
on the south side of the Weddell Sea, reach the South Pole and
then continue to Ross Island on the opposite side of the
continent. The expedition's goal had to be abandoned when the
ship, "Endurance", was beset by sea ice short of its goal of
Vahsel Bay. It was later crushed by the pack ice. The ship's
crew and the expedition personnel endured an epic journey by
sledge across the Weddell Sea pack and then boat to Elephant
Island. Upon arrival at Elephant Island off the Antarctic
Peninsula, they rebuilt one of their small boats and Shackleton
with five others set sail for South Georgia to seek help. This
remarkable journey in a 6.7 meter boat (the James Caird) through
the Drake Passage to South Georgia in the late Antarctic Fall
(April and May) is perhaps without rival. They landed on south
side of the South Georgia and then crossed the spine of the
island in a 36-hour journey that is also remarkable. The 22 men
who remained on Elephant Island were rescued by the Chilean ship
Yelcho after three other failed attempts on August 30, 1916 (22
months after departing from South Georgia). Everyone from the
"Endurance" survived. In December 1916, Shackleton embarked on a
rescue mission to pick members of the Ross Sea Party. Ross Sea
Party suffered casualties, but they still managed to lay food
depots on the other side of the continent.
In 1921, Shackleton set out on another Antarctic expedition, but
died at sea on January 5, 1922. and was buried on South Georgia.
In 1994, the James Caird Society was set up to preserve the
memory of Shackleton's achievements. Its first Life President
was Shackleton's younger son, Lord Shackleton.
Sir Ernest Shackleton is the subject of Shackleton, a two-part
Channel 4 drama directed by Charles Sturridge and starring
Kenneth Branagh as the explorer.
Ernest Shackleton was born on 15th February 1874 at Kilkee in
County Kildare. He was sent to a preparatory school in Sydenham
and proceeded to Dulwich College until leaving in 1890. After
leaving college, he was apprenticed into the merchant navy,
sailing with the White Star Line before joining the Shire Line.
He qualified as First Mate in 1896 and within two years, became
Master. He then joined the Union Castle Line as Third Officer.
During the next two years, the company was employed in carrying
troops to South Africa for the Boer War and he co-wrote a book
about these experiences. This probably led to his desire for
adventure and possible fame as an explorer.
In 1901, he enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve as a Sub
Lieutenant, and applied for a place on the National Antarctic
expedition that was being put together by Robert F Scott. He was
successful in his application as a junior officer and was also
chosen as one of the small team to explore the Ross Barrier, the
most southerly point ever explored at the time in 1902. However,
Shackleton was weakened by scurvy on the return journey but he
refused to give up and the team arrived back at the ship, HMS
Discovery in February 1903. On their return, Shackleton was
invalided on to the relief ship Morning and returned to Britain
via New Zealand. After this, he made it his ambition to lead an
Antarctic expedition of his own with the aim of finding the
On his recovery, Shackleton decided to leave the merchant navy
and took up the position of secretary at the Royal Scottish
Geographical Society in January 1904. In April of that year, he
married Emily Dorman at Westminster and moved to Edinburgh. He
returned to London to greet the returning Antarctic expedition.
In 1906, he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament as a
Liberal-Unionist candidate in Dundee and, subsequently, took a
post as secretary of the Technical Committee at Beardmore's
engineering works in Glasgow.
In February 1907, he finally realised his ambition by announcing
his own expedition to the Antarctic with the objectives of
further exploration of the Ross Barrier and the goal of reaching
the South Pole. The British National Expedition left Britain in
August 1907 in a small whaler Nimrod and reached the Antarctic
in January 1908. In March 1908, a team climbed to the summit of
Mount Erebus. In January 1909, Shackleton led a small team over
the Beardmore Glacier and reached a point only 100 miles from
the Pole. At the same time, another team reached the south
magnetic pole (this party being led by T W Edgeworth).
The Expedition returned to Britain in March 1909. On his return,
Shackleton received numerous honours including a knighthood, a
Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, elected a younger
Brother of Trinity House and other awards from geographical
societies, including the Livingstone Gold Medal from his former
employers, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In addition,
Parliament voted a grant of £20,000 for the expenses the
expedition had incurred. He also undertook an extensive
international lecturing tour.
At the end of 1911, news arrived of Roald Amundsen had reached
the South Pole, followed in 1913 of the demise of Captain
Scott's Antarctic team early in 1912. This did not diminish
Shackleton's ambition of Antarctic exploration and on 29
December 1913, he announced a Trans-Antarctic expedition to
cross from one end of the continent to the other. Preparations
for departure were almost completed when Great Britain declared
war on Germany in August 1914. Shackleton's first response was
to offer his ships to the war effort. This was declined and he
was permitted to proceed with the expedition. He joined his
ship, Endurance, at Buenos Aires and departed for the Antarctic
on 26th October.
However, things began to go wrong early on in the expedition. On
18th January 1915, the ship became stuck in a heavy icepack and
was unable to break free during the following months. In July,
the situation deteriorated when the pressure of the ice began to
cause the ship to leak and list. Eventually, in October, there
was little hope that the ship could be saved and the team had to
abandon ship before it was crushed. They were 200 miles from the
nearest land and well over 1,000 miles from the nearest form of
any sort of human rescue team.
The team had managed to take off valuable equipment from the
ship before it was lost, and were able to set up a camp on the
ice pack. They remained there for four months, during which time
the stores dwindled and they were eventually forced to sacrifice
the dog team in order to survive. Once the ice thawed, the team
left camp and using sledges and the ship's lifeboats began to
move forward. On April 15th 1916, they reached Elephant Island -
the first piece of dry land that they had stood on since leaving
Buenos Aires eighteen months previously. They set up camp in the
small ice free area.
However, Shackleton realised that if they remained at Elephant
Island too long they would starve to death, for no rescue team
would come looking for them here. It was essential that the team
tried to reach South Georgia in order to alert a search party.
It was 800 miles across the South Atlantic and the only vessel
available to them was the ship's twenty-two feet long open
lifeboat. Shackleton named it James Caird. Five men accompanied
Shackleton on this voyage, and left on 24th April. A small party
were left at Elephant Island under the command of Frank Wild.
They would be picked up once the boat team had made contact at
The voyage was made in treacherous conditions, enduring
hurricanes and 100 foot waves. Sixteen days later on May 9th
they arrived at South Georgia. However, it was not the end of
the voyage. Because they had little option but to land on the
wrong side of the island, they then had to find a way through 30
miles of icy mountains to reach the nearest settlement, a
Norwegian whaling station based at Stromness. Three of the men
were left with the boat where they landed and Shackleton led the
other to towards the station. They had to improvise climbing
boots by driving nails into shoes in order to get through the
mountains. The mountains were deceptive and three times they
reached the top only to find there was no way down on the other
side. On the fourth attempt, it became imperative just to get to
the station, so they slide down and landed in snow drifts. They
reached Stromness on 20th May and were able to then rescue the
three men left with the boat. The rescue of the team left on
Elephant Island was not such an easy matter, and it took three
attempts before they were finally rescued on 30th August. The
survival of the whole team of twenty-two was due much to
Shackleton's leadership and resourcefulness.
After recovering from the rigours of the expedition, Shackleton
was sent by the British Government to South America in 1917 with
the purpose of explaining to the neutral countries there the war
aims of the Allies. After this mission, he returned to Britain
and was posted to the North Russia Expeditionary Force during
the winter of 1918-19, as a Major in charge of organising their
winter equipment. In February 1919, he resigned his commission
and he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. After
embarking on a few unsuccessful commercial ventures, he began to
plan yet another expedition to the Antarctic to explore Enderby
Land. On 18th September 1921, he left Britain in the Quest and
arrived in South Georgia early the following year on 4th
January. The next day, 5th January 1922, he suffered a heart
attack and died suddenly. He was buried at the Grytviken whaling
station. A memorial service was held at St Paul's Cathedral in
London, attended by the King and Queen.
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This web page was last updated on:
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