I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination
South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage
Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure
Shackleton's Boat Journey
South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919)
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals
Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-Bound Cat
In early September 1916, there was no more common sight in England than that of postboys, pedaling off to cottages and farms to deliver the telegrams that would break hearts. The Battle of the Somme was in full swing. Three months had passed since the Battle of Jutland, with its long columns of names of men lost at sea. The previous two years had been punctuated by the bloodbaths of Vimy Ridge, Verdun, Ypres, and the Marne, and people had grown numbly used to the idea that young men were the necessary fuel for the thirsty machinery of modern war.
It was a strange time to read the news breaking from Punta Arenas in Chile, where, it was reported, all twenty-eight men of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition were safe and well, after a two-year ordeal that no one could reasonably have been expected to survive. “Not a life lost” was the catchphrase; ironic words to the grieving families of England. Shackleton’s own survival had been known of since late May, when he and two companions, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, had stumbled—a trio of frostbitten Robinson Crusoes—into the whaling station of Stromness on the island of South Georgia. At that time, a British journalist from John Bull magazine had found (or, as likely, invented) a rustic “kelper” in the Falklands, to give voice to the presumed popular sentiment on the expedition and its leader: “‘E ought ter ‘ave been at war long ago instead of messing about on icebergs.”
In his provocative, bravura essay, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Francis Spufford writes that “the Edwardian world lasted longest” in Antarctica, where
a tiny bubble of pre-war feeling and expectation persisted…in the form of Shackleton’s marooned Endurance expedition. Probably Shackleton’s men were the last Europeans on the planet still inhabiting the lost paradigm in 1916.
This is an interesting thought, but it fails to take into account Shackleton’s un-Edwardian, ungentlemanly (and distinctly Anglo-Irish) instinct for publicity and image manipulation.
From the summer of 1913, when he began to raise funds for his projected crossing of the Antarctic continent, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, Shackleton saw the expedition in anticipation of the lucrative news splash that would attend its triumphant return home. “Imperial” was a key component of the expedition’s title. Although Roald Amundsen had raised the Norwegian flag over the South Pole in 1911—having beaten out the competing English expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott—a successful coast-to-coast journey would establish a pathway of Empire, linking Britain’s guano-encrusted possessions in the South Atlantic to its Pacific colonies of New Zealand and Australia. At least, the expedition’s path could be made to look like that on newspaper maps of the great endeavor. The route was calculated to gratify jingoists like the Marquis of Lothian who (in the 1890s) had delivered himself of the opinion that “I should not like to see foreign names upon that hemisphere where all civilised points…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.