- by Carol Standish
In April of 1999, The American Museum of Natural History mounted a major exhibition based on Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1916 voyage to Antarctica. The accompanying book, The Endurance Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander (Alfred A. Knopf; 212pp; $29.95) published in November of 1998 made quite a splash. Bookstores were out of stock before Christmas. By January of '99, the book was in its fifth printing. Based on copious diaries kept by many members of the expedition and interviews with relatives, Alexander's book recounts the saga with a scholar's dry competence and it's still a page turner (obviously). She places the expedition in historical context which enriches her character sketches but background information is a bit scant. She does trace the lives of the participants after the event which is a real treat because the reader has become so involved with the entire cast.
The photographs taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition's "official photographer" give you the reasons you care. Portraits of the men and the dogs, awesome ice panoramas, the doomed ship in the Antarctic night, lit by 20 flashes set off around the boat. They are at once full of grandeur and pathos. Alexander's book is handsomely produced on glossy paper which greatly enhances the 140 images it contains.
Shackleton's aims as stated in his expedition prospectus read, "From the sentimental point of view, it is the last great Polar journey that can be made. It will be a greater journey than the journey to the pole and back, and I feel it is up to the British nation to accomplish this, for we have been beaten at the conquest of the North Pole…and the South Pole. There now remains the largest…of all journeys-the crossing of the Continent."
On October 26, 1914 the Endurance, a 144 foot, 25 foot beam, wooden, square rigged barkentine equipped with a 350 hp coal driven steam engine sailed from Buenos Aires carrying twenty-seven scientists and seamen, one stowaway and sixty-nine sledging dogs. Endurance sailed within 80 miles of the designated landing site on the Continent when she froze solid in heavy pack ice on January 18, 1915. The ship was carried in the northwest drift of the pack ice until October, 1915. On the 27 of that month she was crushed and abandoned.
The men set up a series of camps on the constantly shifting and drifting ice, where they lived from October 30, 1915 to April 9, 1916. (The Endurance sank on November 21, 1915.) They man-hauled three open boats over the ice with them-the plan being to eventually escape to the open sea which they accomplished on April 9. On April 15, they landed on a 50 by 100 yard stone beach on Elephant Island...497 days since they had last touched land.
The men pronounced it "Helaphan Island" because the weather was worse than they had yet experienced. No one would ever think to look for them there. On April 24, Shackleton and five men launched the largest of the life boats (22 feet long by 6 feet wide) in an attempt to sail 800 miles across the most violent ocean in the world to South Georgia Island.
On May 10, 1916, they landed on the island on the opposite coast from the whaling station. At 2AM on May 19 in the light of a full moon, Shackleton and two men began a non-stop trek across the mountainous, glacier covered, blizzard-ridden island arriving at the whaling settlement about 3PM on the 20.
Within three days, Shackleton was again on the vicious South Atlantic on the first of four attempts to rescue the men he left stranded on "Helaphan Island." Not until August 30, 1916 were all the men saved. Not a life was lost. Shackleton has been called "the greatest leader that ever came on God's green earth, bar none."
Fortunately for all of us vicarious thrill seekers, the exhibition and Alexander's book has spawned some terrific reprints, just in case one book account is not enough. (It wasn't for me.)
To get a feeling for Shackleton himself, read South (Lyons Press; 376pp; $16.95), his own account, first published in 1919, republished in 1998 with a forward by Tim Cahill. The book was written, in part, as a money maker but Shackleton seems unaware that it is a great opportunity for self-aggrandizement. He is totally matter of fact even when he admits to sleepless nights. Shackleton also includes an account of a simultaneous support expedition to the Ross Sea in which people were lost. South is indexed and includes appendices of scientific reports by the scientists on the "trip."
F. A. Worsley, the captain of the Endurance wrote two books, both apparently published in 1931 and re-printed in 1998 and '99, Shackleton's Boat Journey (W. W. Norton; 220pp; $13) introduced by Sir Edmund Hillary and Endurance (W. W. Norton, 310pp; $25.95) with a preface by Patrick O'Brian. Worsley was a devoted friend and admirer of Shackleton and his books are certainly not the most objective. However, Worsley is very aware of the remarkable leadership style and decision making process of Shackleton and points out incident after incident in which the expedition leader demonstrates his priorities…the safety and morale of his men. Endurance also includes an account of his and Shackleton's war service and a subsequent Antarctic mission during which Shackleton died.
Worsley's books serve as a warm defense of his friend-an apology in the classic sense. He was justifiably upset by the lack of recognition given to Shackleton. The polar expedition departed England in August of 1914, coincidental with the beginning of World War I. When the explorers miraculously returned from their ordeal the only heroes were the fighting boys. " ''E ought ter 'ave been at the war long ago instead of messing about on icebergs,' '' observed an old Falkland Islander when the polar veterans arrived there.
Perhaps the overall best of the lot is a 1959 account written by Alfred Lansing, called Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.; 282pp; $12.95). Alexander, herself, calls this book a "rip-snorter" and she's right. Lansing wrote a straight forward, fast paced, no-nonsense narrative of the terrible adventure. All five of these books draw to some degree on the journals and diaries of the men who participated. Writing in the 50s, Lansing was able to interview surviving members as well which adds an immediacy and an authenticity. He dedicates the book, "in appreciation for whatever it is that makes men accomplish the impossible."
All the books make tremendous use of Hurley's photographs which are spectacular and moving. Each volume uses different pictures, each new scene is an awesome surprise. Hurley himself wrote two books about the expedition called Argonauts of the South (1925) and Shackleton's Argonauts (1948) but nobody has re-printed them yet. Can't wait!
To help fill in the meantime, the exhibit at the Museum of Natural History runs through October 11. (Website address: http://www.amnh.org/)