Review: South: The Endurance Expedition, Sir Ernest Shackleton, C.V.O., 1919; South With Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctica Expedition 1914-1917, 2001.
I’ve been fascinated with Shackleton’s story since third grade. It is the classic story of survival against the odds, an expedition where everyone lived to tell. I came across some illustrated kid’s book about it and later on read Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I’ve seen a few documentaries on it. Shackleton even shows up in David Hambling’s Cthulhu Mythos novel The Elder Ice.
But, in the desultory manner things get done around here, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I actually read the primary source document for the voyage – Shackleton’s own book.
The broad outline of the story is this.
On August 8, 1914, the Endurance, left Portsmouth Harbor bound for Buenos Aires. World War One had already started, and Shackleton offered his men and ship up for the war effort. The Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill, refused the offer.
On October 26, 1914, the Endurance left Buenos Aires. The expedition now numbered 28 and not 27 men with the addition of a stowaway (who ended up losing some toes to frostbite on the expedition).
On November 5, 1914, the ship arrived at South Georgia Island, a whaling statin. It left on December 5, 1914.
On January 26, 1915, in the Wedell Sea, the ship became locked in the ice. It was never to be released, even in the Antarctic summer. On October 18, 1915, the ice’s killer grip increased. The ship listed to the side, the hull began to crack. On October 27th, the ship was abandoned. The expedition set out for a supply cache 300 miles away. The men took to three boats on November 22, 1915. The Endurance had finally gone to the bottom the day before.
But the boats made little progress through the drifting floes and wind and currents. On December 28, 2015, they camped on the ice. 156 days battling with the ice ended on April 9, 1916 when they took to the boats. On April 15, 1916, they landed on Elephant Island.
With supplies running low, Shackleton and five volunteers set sail across the roughest seas on Earth for South Georgia Island on April 24, 1916. They arrived there on May 10, 1916.
But one more obstacle remained. They had landed on the wrong side of the island and were not fit to sail to South Georgia’s harbor, so Shackleton and two men crossed the interior of the island in 36 hours in a journey of danger and hallucination. (Others, attempting to recreate the trip later, would take three days.)
On South George Island, Shackleton and his men asked about the war and its outcome and were shocked it was still going on.
The men on the other side of South Georgia Island were quickly retrieved.
But the ones of Elephant Island weren’t. Finally, as despondency was setting in and thoughts of cannibalism were entertained, they were rescued, after multiple attempts, on August 30, 1916.
That’s the bald outline, but what Shackleton does is to vividly fill in the details. It’s a study in leadership as Shackleton keeps up the men’s morale with the routine of duty – much of it scientific work, amateur theatricals, music, the marking of festivals, and soccer games. He gives much credit to his second-in-command, Frank Wild, for keeping up morale and a discipline with a light, but steady hand. (We only hear about him losing his temper with the men once.) We hear about the longing of his men, eating a lot of penguin and seal meat, for a “farinaceous element” in their diet. There is constant fear of attack by killer whales, the sorrow of having to shoot the expedition’s dogs. And, of course, the sheer misery of the polar clime and the details of improvising equipment to survive.
Shackleton’s expedition is notable not only for its disaster and survival but for all the documentation we have for it, and, particularly in his visual age, the photographs and movies of it. We even have actual footage of the Endurance sinking
Those were the work of the first “extreme photographer”, Frank Hurley, and South with Endurance includes every single one of the expedition’s photos including some taken with the Paget Colour process. Hurley would climb into the rigging with bulky equipment to take movie footage. He would stage elaborate nighttime photos of the Endurance. The only part of the expedition he didn’t document was the trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island since he stayed behind. He did take some pictures of South Georgia to document the terrain Shackleton and those two men crossed.
Shackleton valued that photographic record. When so much was abandoned as the ice crushed the Endurance, all of Hurley’s photographic plates were saved and were taken to Elephant Island. Shackleton knew their value in paying for the expedition, and one of the last things he did before departing Elephant Island was assigning limited rights to the photographs to Hurley for 18 months or forever if Shackleton didn’t survive the trip.
Hurley was also an ingenious fellow whose experience working in his native Australia’s mines proved helpful in improvising equipment that helped the expedition survived.
Hurley’s photographic career, pre- and post-Endurance career is also covered. He went on to become a World War One photographer and beloved photographer of his native country’s scenery. The World War One photographs are viewed with some suspicion today since some are composites, but Hurley never saw anything wrong with making a photograph more dramatic. South with Endurance notes which of his photographs are untouched and which ones are composites. Those interested in the technical details of photography can read about his equipment and methods in the book.
But Shackleton’s expedition was not a total triumph of human endurance and ingenuity against nature. Its intent was to cross Antarctica for the first time. The half of the expedition on the other ship, the Aurora, did not escape without fatalities. Three men died laying in supplying caches, and Shackleton covers that less known half of his expedition.
Shackleton’s account is lucid and detailed and as gripping as you would hope. It concludes with scientific papers written by members of the expedition including an interesting one on Antarctic meteorology and another on the whale populations of the area. Already, in 1914, there was concern over declining whale populations and thought given to international agreements to limit whaling.
Together, these books are required reading for anyone interested in the history of polar exploration.
More reviews of works of polar exploration are indexed here.