There are few places on earth to have eluded man’s exploration for as long as Antarctica.  During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (which extended from the end of the 19th century to the early 1920s) the Antarctic continent became the focus of international efforts that resulted in intensive scientific and geographical exploration. During this time 16 major Antarctic expeditions were launched from eight different countries. 

Stories from this period are often tragic, but consistently demonstrate the sheer strength of the human spirit in times of adversity.

As part of an ongoing series of stories on exploration, we take a look at the incredible story of Ernest Shackleton. 

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland. The family moved to London where Shackleton was educated. Rejecting his father’s wish that he become a doctor, he joined the merchant navy when he was 16 and qualified as a master mariner in 1898.

In 1901, Shackleton was chosen to go on the Antarctic expedition led by British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott on the ship Discovery. With Scott and one other, Shackleton trekked towards the South Pole in extremely difficult conditions, getting closer to the Pole than anyone had come before. Shackleton became seriously ill and had to return home but had gained valuable experience.

Back in Britain, Shackleton spent some time as a journalist and was then elected secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society. In 1906, he unsuccessfully stood for parliament in Dundee. In 1908, he returned to the Antarctic as the leader of his own expedition, on the ship Nimrod. During the expedition, his team climbed Mount Erebus, made many important scientific discoveries and set a record by coming even closer to the South Pole than before. He was subsequently knighted on his return to Britain.

In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, followed by Scott who died on the return journey. In 1914 Ernest Shackleton, intent on completing the final conquest of Antarctica by crossing the continent from sea to sea via the pole, arrived at South Georgia and prepared for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17. He sought information from local whalers on the likely weather conditions, and despite their warnings of ice far north that season, set off with the crew of the Endurance on the 5th December towards the Weddell Sea. The story of the Endurance expedition that unfolded is one of the great tales of polar history, and is central to the history of the island of South Georgia.

Disaster struck this expedition when it failed to land the Weddell Sea shore party after the Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed, finally sinking ten months later.

Shackleton’s crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching Elephant Island. Taking five crew members, Shackleton set off in a bid to find help. In a small boat, the six men spent 16 days crossing 1,300 km of ocean to reach South Georgia and then trekked across the island to a whaling station. Incredibly, the remaining men from the ‘Endurance’ were rescued in August 1916. Not one member of the expedition died assuring Shackleton’s heroic status in history.

‘South’, Shackleton’s account of the ‘Endurance’ expedition, was published in 1919.

Shackleton’s fourth expedition aimed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent but on 5 January 1922, Shackleton died of a heart attack off South Georgia at the age of 47. At the request of his wife, he was buried on the island.

It is said that away from his expeditions, Shackleton’s life was generally restless and unfulfilled. In his search for rapid pathways to wealth and security he launched many business ventures and other money-making schemes, none of which prospered. His financial affairs were generally muddled and he died heavily in debt. On his death he was lauded in the press, but was thereafter largely forgotten, while the heroic reputation of his rival Scott was sustained for many decades. Later in the 20th century Shackleton became a cult figure, a role model for leadership as one who, in extreme circumstances, kept his team together in a survival story described by polar historian Stephanie Barczewski as “incredible”.


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