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Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
1874 - 1922

The British explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton is known for his ambitious examination of sections of Antarctica.


In the 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 8216'33"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 8823'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 8217'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 prove successful.

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 South Pole.

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 South Georgia.

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.










This web page was last updated on: 31 December, 2008