15 February 1915 couldn’t have been a happy birthday for Sir Ernest Shackleton. At 40 years old, he’d already explored some of the harshest lands on earth and sailed the farthest corners of the world. But on this particular birthday, during what should have been his life’s achievement in Antarctic exploration, he found himself trapped in dangerous sea ice alongside his crew of 27 men. Weeks earlier, the Anglo-Irish polar explorer’s Endurance expedition had succumbed to the pack ice just a day’s sail away from their destination at Vahsel Bay, Antarctica.
Ernest Henry Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Edward Adrian Wilson, who set out November 2, 1902, to reach the highest possible latitude the furthest south.
Shackleton had departed British waters on 8 August 8 1914 an already accomplished explorer. His father had allowed him to leave the tedium of school behind at 16 for a sailing vessel apprenticeship that led him around the world. Eventually, he turned his sights from mail and passenger service to expedition travel, and using his connections earned him a well-placed recommendation for third officer to the ship Discovery. What better introduction to the wilds and adventure of polar expeditions than Robert Falcon Scott’s own National Antarctic Expedition?
Following the Discovery expedition in 1901-1903, Shackleton took a period of convalescence to recover from snow blindness, frostbite and scurvy. The near-death experience didn’t sour his expedition dreams, however. Sir Ernest Shackleton went on to become one of the Heroic Age of Exploration’s most revered explorers.
Pictured: Historian Jonathan Shackleton, cousin of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Pay homage to Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers of the Heroic Age, on an Antarctic expedition with a stop on South Georgia.
Today, we celebrate the birthday of this Antarctic icon. And each time we journey to the Grytviken Whaling Church on South Georgia, his final resting place, we raise a glass in his honor. In this post, we’ll explore the life and legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose expeditionary spirit still inspires polar exploration today.
Ernest Shackleton was born 15 February 1874 to Henry Shackleton and Henrietta Gavan in his mother’s home country of Ireland. The second of ten children and one of only two sons, young Ernest moved with his family to London in 1880 at the age of six when his father decided to study medicine. Henry expected his eldest son would follow his footsteps into the medical profession.
Ernest had other ideas. Though he was a voracious reader, young Ernest had no desire to become a doctor and found his studies boring.
It was an undeniable passion for adventure and the unknown that led to that first apprenticeship and undoubtedly drove his expedition ambitions. His love for Emily Dorman, a friend of one of his sisters, is also believed to have inspired Shackleton to push his limits. One family member claimed that, in his efforts to convince her of his suitability as a life partner, Ernest wanted to “lay the world at Emily’s feet.” And although we’ll never know for certain what transpired between Shackleton and Scott on the Discovery expedition, some speculate that it gave rise to a type of rivalry that inspired Shackleton to “beat” Scott in Antarctica for years to come (Preston, Diana . A First Rate Tragedy: Captain Scott's Antarctic Expeditions. London: Constable & Co.)
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It wasn’t long after he’d recovered from Discovery that Shackleton decided to lead an Antarctic expedition of his own, this time with the goal of achieving the geographical South Pole and the South Magnetic Pole. He presented his plans to the Royal Geographical Society in February 1907, then began to drum up financial support. Unable to convince the government or any major institution to back his expedition, Shackleton brought the plan together quickly and relied on what private loans and individual contributions he could secure. Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition departed Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand aboard the ship Nimrod on 1 January 1908. Although he failed to reach the South Pole, his southern march did achieve 88° 23' S, a record convergence on either of the earth’s poles at the time.
Nimrod Expedition South Pole Party (left to right): Wild, Shackleton, Marshall and Adams, who made an attempt for the South Pole but came up 97 miles short on 9 January 1909.
As a member of the Discovery crew, Shackleton had participated in a number of expeditions: an experimental balloon flight, the initial sledge trip to McMurdo Sound, and that southern journey during which he fell ill and all the crew’s dogs died. On this first expedition of his own, Shackleton added the “Great Southern Journey” alongside Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams to his resume. They discovered the Beardmore Glacier and were the first to travel the South Polar Plateau. Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition achieved the first summit of Mount Erebus, and discovered the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole.
He returned home to Britain a public hero. On 10 July 1909, he was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII and, in November, was knighted Sir Ernest Shackleton.
By early 1914, Shackleton was restless. Roald Amundsen had narrowly beaten Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911; the race was over. Scott had died on his return journey; their rivalry was over, as well. Deeply in debt from the Nimrod expedition, Shackleton invested in a number of businesses but made the bulk of his income from public appearances.
Soon, his mind wandered to a previously announced expedition that had been abandoned due to a lack of financial backing. Scottish explorer William Speirs Bruce had planned to land in the Weddell Sea and cross the seventh continent via the South Pole, ending up in McMurdo Sound. With Bruce’s blessing, Shackleton picked up the plans where he’d left off. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was born.
Early in 1914, Shackleton announced his plan to sail two ships, Endurance and Aurora, into the Weddell Sea. On landing Endurance at Vahsel Bay, he and five of his men would cross the continent. Meanwhile, the Aurora would sail to McMurdo Sound, where he’d send men to lay supply depots of food and fuel between the Beardmore Glacier and the Great Ice Barrier.
It was a fantastic, exciting plan—so much so that Shackleton had over 5,000 applications for crew to sift through. A crew of 56 (28 for each ship) came together and, despite the outbreak of World War I, set sail with the blessing of both the King and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Shackleton met and joined the expedition in Buenos Aires on 27 September 1914.
Enjoy this Royal Geographic Society video ‘Enduring Eye’, based on Antarctic historian and writer Meredith Hooper’s exhibition that shares, for the first time, more than 90 digitized photos taken by Endurance expedition photographer Frank Hurley.
Captain F. Worsley commanded the Endurance, a solid three-masted barquentine built by master wood shipbuilder Christian Jacobsen in Sandefjord, Norway. His second-in-command was experienced explorer Frank Wild; Shackleton led the expedition. Lieutenant J. Stenhouse sailed the Aurora.
Endurance departed South Georgia on 5 December. First-year ice and poor conditions slowed their progress and on 19 January, Endurance became trapped in an ice floe. It wasn’t until 24 February that Shackleton accepted that the ship would likely be stuck until spring and ordered it converted to a winter station. As he held onto hope over the next several months that the ship might drift back towards Vahsel Bay once released from the ice, Endurance drifted north in the ice.
Spring arrived in September and brought with it not freedom, but the crushing weight of the ice breaking up. On 24 October, Endurance gave way to the immense pressure. Trapped at 69° 5' S, 51° 30' W, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and his men hurriedly transferred their supplies to makeshift camps on the ice.
You can read more about the crew’s unenviable situation and circumstances in Shackleton’s Legacy: Antarctic Exploration a Century After Endurance and see it illustrated in Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey.
For nearly two months, they camped in hopes they’d drift to Paulet Island. In that time, on 21 November 1915, Endurance met her fate and slipped beneath the icy surface to her watery grave below. Although they eventually made it to within 60 miles of Paulet Island, impassible ice kept them trapped. When their ice flow broke in two on 9 April 1916, the men were forced to flee for the nearest land in lifeboats. Five days later, after 497 harrowing days at sea, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition crew set foot on solid ground at Elephant Island.
Shackleton figured his best bet was to head for South Georgia, a popular whaling destination 720 nautical miles away. Harry McNish, the expedition carpenter, raised the sides and strengthened the keel of 20-foot (6.1 m) lifeboat the James Caird in preparation for the journey. Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy, and McNish would accompany Shackleton on what had turned from discovery expedition to a fight for their survival.
“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.” - Sir Raymond Priestley
Stocked with four weeks’ supplies and accompanied by five of his men, Shackleton launched the James Caird on 24 April 1916. Weeks later, with South Georgia in sight, the small rescue mission were forced to weather hurricane-force winds for a day offshore. When they were finally able to land, it was on the uninhabited south shore of the island. Out of fear of wrecking their lifeboat with another attempt at sea, Shackleton decided to take Worsley and Crean for the 32 mile (51km) overland trek to Stromness. Hungry and exhausted, they arrived 36 hours later on 20 May.
Quark Passengers stand by Ernest Shackleton's grave in Grytviken, South Georgia
Much has changed in modern-day Antarctic expeditions. Over the last century, we’ve learned a great deal about the environmental and meteorological challenges of exploring the world’s wildest and most remote places. The technology we have access to today certainly enables us to travel further, faster and more confidently than Shackleton and his contemporaries in the Heroic Age of Exploration were able.
But even more has stayed the same. Antarctica is as wild, pristine and unpredictable as it ever was. Each journey to the seventh continent is an entirely new and unique adventure; one guided by the seas, the ice and perhaps the spirits of those incredibly brave explorers who have gone before us.
Visit the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton at Grytviken Church on South Georgia to pay your respects to one of
Antarctica’s most loved Heroic Age explorers.
Sir Ernest Shackleton died suddenly of a heart attack on his last voyage in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) on 5 January 1922. At his wife Emily’s request, he was laid to rest on South Georgia, to become a part of the earth he loved over all others. Today, you can visit this historically significant site on an expedition of your own and pay homage to this great explorer.
Weather permitting, we gather graveside at Grytviken Church for a short speech and a toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton. You’ll also visit the final resting place of his second-in-command, Frank Wild, whose ashes were placed next to his leader’s.
Want to learn more about Antarctica’s fascinating history?
- Read Top 10 Most Famous & Intriguing Polar Explorers
- Download your free Antarctica Destination Guide
- Explore enriching, educational expedition options in Visit Antarctica: Where to Go & What You’ll See
About the AuthorMore Content by Paul Schuster