History Centre Heroes: Ernest Shackleton

“Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results.”
Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Henry Shackleton is widely known as one of the most inspirational leaders of the twentieth century and a key figure in the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ alongside Roald Amundsen and Plymouth-born Robert Falcon Scott.

Photograph of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton

He was born on 15 February 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland, the second of ten children. His family moved to London in 1884.

Shackleton joined the navy at the age of 16 in 1890. Less than a decade later, in 1898, he qualified as a master mariner. Although he travelled widely he remained keen to explore the North and South Poles.

In 1901, Shackleton was chosen to go on Robert Falcon Scott’s ‘Discovery’ expedition to the Antarctic. Although trekking towards the South Pole with Scott during the expedition and getting closer than anyone had come before (within 480 miles), he became ill and had to return home.

In 1908, Shackleton was able to use the valuable experience he’d gained and returned to the Antarctic as the leader of his own expedition on a ship called the ‘Nimrod’. During the expedition his team climbed Mount Erebus, made a number of significant scientific discoveries including the approximate location of the Magnetic South Pole and the location of the Beardmore Glacier. They also got even closer to the South Pole again – this time within just 112 miles.It was during this trip that Shackleton acquired his nickname, ‘The Boss’, as a result of his leadership skills. He was knighted when he returned to Britain.

In 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, followed by Scott who died with the other four members of his expedition party on their return trek to base camp. Despite this, interest in Antarctica continued. On 8 August 1914, just a few days after the start of the First World War, Shackleton sailed from Plymouth on the ‘Endurance’ as the leader of the ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic’ expedition. This is the expedition he is best-known for.

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
Ernest Shackleton

Photograph of the 'Endurance' trapped in the ice

Shackleton’s plan was to cross Antarctica from one coast to another via the South Pole, but early in 1915 the ‘Endurance’ became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Ten months later she sank. Shackleton’s 28-strong crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice alongside it. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats using drifting ice floes to reach a place called Cape Valentine on the desolate Elephant Island.

Realising there was little to no chance of survival, Shackelton took action. Along with five crew members he set off to get help in a small boat called the ‘James Caird’. For the next 16 days they crossed more than 800 miles of dangerous ocean to reach South Georgia. Once there Shackleton took two of the men on a 36-hour trek across unmapped mountain ranges. Their goal was to reach the small whaling stations at Stromness on the northern side of the island where they could request help.

On 30 August 1916, just over two years after they had set sail from Plymouth, the 22 remaining crew were rescued from Elephant Island by a small Chilean Navy tug called the Yelcho. They had been stranded in the Antarctic wasteland for 105 days. Despite the harsh conditions not a single member of the expedition died.

Photograph of the 'Endurance' crew

A blue plaque dedicated to Shackleton and the expedition was unveiled beside Plymouth’s redeveloped Millbay Dock in September 2016.

Shackleton’s fourth and final expedition aimed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. Sadly, on 5 January 1922, he died of a heart attack on board the ‘Quest’ off the coast of South Georgia. At his wife’s request he was buried on the island. His death marks the end of the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’.

Roald Amundsen once said ‘in the sun, the land looks like a fairy tale,’ but Antarctica is a cruel beauty.

Although he didn’t achieve his dream of being the first to reach the South Pole, Shackleton’s ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic’ remains an incredible adventure story, and over time his name has become synonymous with qualities such as courage and bravery. His reputation is much deserved – he was a leader who ensured the survival and safe return of his entire crew against unimaginable odds.

Photograph of Shackleton's expedition team pulling a lifeboat

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