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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

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Death of Antarctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, dies of a heart attack in Grytviken, South Georgia on January 5, 1922. He is one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Born in Kilkea, County Kildare, Shackleton and his Anglo-Irish family move to Sydenham, London when he is ten. His first experience of the polar regions is as third officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott‘s Discovery Expedition of 1901–04, from which he is sent home early on health grounds, after he and his companions Scott and Edward Adrian Wilson set a new southern record by marching to latitude 82°S. During the Nimrod Expedition of 1907–09, he and three companions establish a new record Farthest South latitude at 88°S, only 97 geographical miles from the South Pole, the largest advance to the pole in exploration history. Also, members of his team climb Mount Erebus, the most active Antarctic volcano. For these achievements, he is knighted by King Edward VII on his return home.

After the race to the South Pole ends in December 1911, with Roald Amundsen‘s conquest, Shackleton turns his attention to the crossing of Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole. To this end, he makes preparations for what becomes the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17. Disaster strikes this expedition when its ship, Endurance, becomes trapped in pack ice and is slowly crushed before the shore parties can be landed. The crew escapes by camping on the sea ice until it disintegrates, then by launching the lifeboats to reach Elephant Island and ultimately South Georgia Island, a stormy ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles and Shackleton’s most famous exploit.

In 1921, Shackleton returns to the Antarctic with the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition on a 125-ton Norwegian sealer, named Foca I, which he renames Quest. When the party arrives in Rio de Janeiro, he suffers a suspected heart attack. He refuses a proper medical examination, so Quest continues south, and on January 4, 1922, arrives at South Georgia. In the early hours of the next morning, Shackleton summons the expedition’s physician, Alexander Macklin, to his cabin, complaining of back pains and other discomfort. According to Macklin’s own account,he tells Shackleton he has been overdoing things and should try to “lead a more regular life,” to which Shackleton answers, “You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” “Chiefly alcohol, Boss,” replies Macklin. A few moments later, at 2:50 AM on January 5, 1922, he suffers a fatal heart attack. At his wife’s request, he is buried there.

Away from his expeditions, Shackleton’s life is generally restless and unfulfilled. In his search for rapid pathways to wealth and security, he launches business ventures which fail to prosper, and he dies heavily in debt. Upon his death, he is lauded in the press but is thereafter largely forgotten, while the heroic reputation of his rival Scott is sustained for many decades. Later in the 20th century, Shackleton is “rediscovered”. He rapidly becomes a role model for leadership as one who, in extreme circumstances, kept his team together in a survival story described by cultural historian Stephanie Barczewski as “incredible.”

In his 1956 address to the British Science Association, Sir Raymond Priestley, one of his contemporaries, says “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton,” paraphrasing what Apsley Cherry-Garrard had written in a preface to his 1922 memoir The Worst Journey in the World. In 2002, Shackleton is voted eleventh in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

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Shackleton’s Expedition Finds South Magnetic Pole

nimrod-expedition-southern-partyErnest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition finds the South Magnetic Pole on January 16, 1909.

On January 1, 1908, Nimrod sails for the Antarctic from Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand. Shackleton’s original plans had envisaged using the old Discovery Expedition base in McMurdo Sound to launch his attempts on the South Pole and South Magnetic Pole. Before leaving England, he had been pressured to give an undertaking to Captain Robert Falcon Scott that he would not base himself in the McMurdo area, which Scott was claiming as his own field of work. Shackleton reluctantly agrees to look for winter quarters at either the Barrier Inlet, which the Discovery Expedition had briefly visited in 1902, or King Edward VII Land.

To conserve coal, the ship is towed 1,650 miles by the steamer Koonya to the Antarctic ice, after Shackleton had persuaded the New Zealand government and the Union Steamship Company to share the cost. In accordance with Shackleton’s promise to Scott, the ship heads for the eastern sector of the Great Ice Barrier, arriving there on January 21, 1908. They find that the Barrier Inlet has expanded to form a large bay, in which are hundreds of whales, which leads to the immediate christening of the area as the Bay of Whales. It is noted that ice conditions are unstable, precluding the establishment of a safe base there. An extended search for an anchorage at King Edward VII Land proves equally fruitless, so Shackleton is forced to break his undertaking to Scott and set sail for McMurdo Sound, a decision which, according to second officer Arthur Harbord, is “dictated by common sense” in view of the difficulties of ice pressure, coal shortage and the lack of any nearer known base.

Nimrod arrives at McMurdo Sound on January 29, but is stopped by ice 16 miles north of Discovery‘s old base at Hut Point. After considerable weather delays, Shackleton’s base is eventually established at Cape Royds, about 24 miles north of Hut Point. The party is in high spirits, despite the difficult conditions. Shackleton’s ability to communicate with each man keeps the party happy and focused.

The “Great Southern Journey”, as Frank Wild calls it, begins on October 29, 1908. On January 9, 1909, Shackleton and three companions (Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams) reach a new Farthest South latitude of 88° 23′ S, a point only 112 miles from the Pole. En route the South Pole party discovers the Beardmore Glacier, named after Shackleton’s patron Sir William Beardmore, and become the first persons to see and travel on the South Polar Plateau. Their return journey to McMurdo Sound is a race against starvation, on half-rations for much of the way. At one point, Shackleton gives his one biscuit allotted for the day to the ailing Frank Wild, who writes in his diary, “All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me.” They arrive at Hut Point just in time to catch the ship.

The expedition’s other main accomplishments include the first ascent of Mount Erebus, and the discovery of the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole, reached on January 16, 1909 by Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson, and Alistair Mackay. Shackleton returns to the United Kingdom as a hero, and soon afterwards publishes his expedition account, Heart of the Antarctic.

In 1910, Shackleton makes a series of three recordings describing the expedition using an Edison Phonograph.

Several mostly intact cases of whisky and brandy left behind in 1909 are recovered in 2010 for analysis by a distilling company. A revival of the vintage (and since lost) formula for the particular brands found has been offered for sale with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Antarctic Heritage Trust (New Zealand) which discovered the lost spirits.

(Pictured: Nimrod Expedition South Pole Party (left to right): Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams)