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 are inhabited by our countrymen, and belong to this country.”
Like Empire, Science was another glossy pretext, useful for drumming up sponsorship. Shackleton—who had left school to join the merchant navy at the age of sixteen—had no interest in science, and thought of scientists as boring deadweights who couldn’t sing and were likely only to spoil a good adventure. But he shipped a full complement: a geologist, a physicist, a meteorologist, and a biologist. These boffin-types were meant to give the expedition a desirable aura of academic gravity.
Sir Ernest was careful to mask from his backers his own guiding enthusiasms, which were essentially juvenile. He was fixated on the possibility of finding gold and/or buried treasure. Frank Worsley, the captain of Endurance (and something of a perpetual schoolboy in his own right), wrote of Shackleton that he “was as romantic as a schoolboy on the subject of treasure, and always believed that he was going to find untold wealth on his expeditions. Why, I don’t know. There were never any signs of it.”
A sometime journalist (he was briefly employed as a sub-editor at Royal Magazine, a popular monthly), Shackleton had a more realistic grasp of the potential gold mine in his “story,” which was fully themed and plotted long before he left England. He registered the ITA (Imperial Trans Antarctic) Film Syndicate Ltd., to milk the movie and photographic rights, and hired Frank Hurley, a profane, strapping, and mechanically gifted Australian, as official cameraman and photographer. In January 1914, the London Mail carried the following gossip item:
The mercenary side of a Polar “stunt” is absorbing. Any day you may see Sir Ernest—always alone—taxiing from one newspaper office to another. He is trying to arrange the best terms and it is going to be a battle royal both for the news and pictorial rights.
The Daily Chronicle beat out its rivals for an exclusive. Book rights went to Heinemann, publishers of Shackleton’s 1909 best seller, The Heart of the Antarctic. The ghost on that book (Shackleton was a thoroughly modern author), a New Zealand-born journalist named Edward Saunders, was standing by in readiness for the new adventure. In these pre-radio and TV days, London lecture halls could command West End theater ticket prices, and, when the time came, Shackleton would be found performing twice a day, with his magic lantern, at the Philharmonic Hall, Great Portland Street.
Hard-up as always, Shackleton planned to make a fortune from his polar journey. The immediate costs of the expedition—about å£60,000—were met by a government grant of å£10,000, plus hefty individual investments from a jute magnate, a bicycle manufacturer, and a tobacco heiress. The heiress was Janet Stancomb-Wills, and the Wills Company’s Wild Woodbines were soon destined to become an iconic feature of trench warfare in Flanders. When men sang, “While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag…,” the fag would almost invariably be a Woodbine, and a kindly clergyman who handed out cigarettes to the troops earned lasting fame as “Woodbine Willy.”
Shackleton pitched his expensive project during the last anxious months of peace. The outbreak of the war with Germany forced him to hastily revise his presentation, and justify an arduous but thrilling treasure hunt as a patriotic contribution to the war effort.
Endurance sailed from London for Plymouth on August 1, 1914. Britain declared war on Germany at 11 PM on August 4, when the ship was taking on final provisions and equipment at her berth near the Hoe. Shackleton immediately cabled the Admiralty, volunteering Endurance and her crew for service in the hostilities. It was a necessary gesture, but he must have been keeping his fingers crossed as he waited for the reply—which came promptly, declining his offer, and ordering Endurance to proceed south as planned.
Between August 8, when Endurance sailed for Buenos Aires, and September 19, when Shackleton followed her, aboard a fast passenger liner from Liverpool, he was busy in England, settling affairs with his creditors, his wife, and the newly appointed minister for war, Lord Kitchener. Somewhere en route between Liverpool and Buenos Aires, he seems to have hit on the sound bite that would effectively tie the polar expedition to the European war. On October 26, just before Endurance left Buenos Aires, Sir Ernest cabled London:
We are leaving now to carry on our white warfare, and our farewell message to our country is that we will do our best to make good. Our thoughts and prayers will be with our brothers fighting at the front.
We hope in our small way to add victories in science and discovery to that certain victory which our nation will achieve in the cause of honour and liberty.
This struck some English readers as a bit rich. The first Battle of Ypres had begun five days before, with heavy British losses, and “white warfare” was a bold (and, one might have thought, tactless) way to describe a lavishly funded adventure among the penguins.
But Sir Ernest was wedded to the phrase. When he and Saunders wrote South (1919), the dedication read:
Who Fell in the White Warfare
Of the South and on the
Red Fields of France
The first page of the preface addressed an audience of prospective readers who would
now turn gladly from the red horror of war and the strain of the last five years to read, perhaps with more understanding minds, the tale of the White Warfare of the South.
The hammer-blow repetition betrays Shackleton’s anxiety, in 1919 as in 1914, that he might be seen to have ducked out of the real war and gone off on a lark. Far from inhabiting Spufford’s lost paradigm, he was painfully conscious of the fact that his expedition—so long as it was on public view—must be conducted on heroic pro patria mori lines. Since Shackleton was an exuberant man who liked bad jokes, tall stories, sing-alongs, this must at first have seemed to put a damper on things; but he was also an instinctive actor, well capable of playing the part of field marshal in the Great White War.
Endurance finally fell out of contact with the rest of the world on December 5, when she left Grytviken, on South Georgia. Shackleton could not possibly have guessed at the war’s terrible duration, but its extent, and the scale of its casualties, were already clear. Eighteen months later, when he crashed back into the world, seemingly from the dead, Shackleton’s first question would be: “Tell me, when was the war over?”
Shackleton grew to dislike Frank Hurley, the photographer, thinking him too clever by half. At their first meeting, Hurley took against Shackleton (“From what I can see,” he wrote, “Sir E. cares very little for the scientific work but is eyeing the expdn. more in the light of a commercial venture”). Yet it is Hurley’s pictures that have propelled the expedition into the realm of heroic myth. Previous books—including those by Shackleton himself, Worsley, and Alfred Lansing—have had to rely on a handful of prints, usually poorly reproduced, yet still arresting enough to charge even pedestrian writing with a power beyond its natural means. The one great merit of Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance is that it has 140 photographs, nearly all of them by Hurley, turning the book into an enthralling magic-lantern show. Not since Sir Ernest lectured in the darkened auditorium of the the Philharmonic Hall has anyone been able to come so close to the idea of white warfare, as conceived by Shackleton, and represented, with brilliant fidelity, by Frank Hurley.
Hurley began (and ended) his photographic career in the Australian picture-postcard industry. His eye was not offended by the obvious. Unlike Herbert Ponting, whose somewhat fussy and “painterly” photographs documented Captain Scott’s 1910 expedition to Antarctica, Hurley went instinctively for the picture that told a story, made a four-square statement, or expressed a bald metaphor. If one tries to think of him belonging to a pictorial tradition, paintings are not part of it; advertising and magazine illustration (especially those drawings for boys’ adventure stories, with gigantic grizzlies looming over diminutive gold prospectors) were more in Hurley’s line of antecedents.