Photo by Bettmann

Buccaneer of the Antarctic

The heroic age of polar exploration ended with Shackleton’s death

Artillery Row Books

Shackleton’s Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton, The Folio Society, 2021, three vols., cloth hardback in slipcase, with separate maps, 1,176pp, fully illus., £195

“Men go into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.”

Shackleton’s Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton, The Folio Society (£195)

Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is one of the great figures of British history. The Irish-born British Antarctic explorer was calm under pressure, stirringly brave, financially impecunious and hugely loyal — a true buccaneer born into an Edwardian era, when radios, cars and aircraft were making exploration a technological business. Shackleton was not just the end of the line of Captains Cook, Ross and Franklin; he was the last British buccaneer, taking to the high seas in search of unseen shores. He risked his life but was fiercely devoted to the welfare of the men under his command. His boundless optimism (fettered by shrewd calculation) lifted all. To commemorate the death of Shackleton, the Folio Society has published a handsome new boxset. Shackleton’s Antarctica collects The Heart of the Antarctic (1909) (in two volumes) and South (1919) reprinted in full.

Shackleton chose honourable failure and survival over heroic death

On Shackleton’s first journey south, he served on the Discovery, which was to explore the undiscovered continent of Antarctica over two seasons, from 1901-3. The commander was Robert Falcon Scott. The pair did not get along; Scott’s strict naval discipline and mood swings left many of the team uneasy and discontented. A small team of Scott, Shackleton and Edmund Wilson set out for the South Pole. Although they achieved a record for the farthest South, their sledge dogs performed poorly, the men suffered illness and Shackleton collapsed (perhaps due to an undiagnosed heart problem). Scott partly blamed Shackleton for cutting the march short; Shackleton (pride wounded) bridled at the implication of mental or physical weakness.

Intent on proving himself, Shackleton led his own expedition over 1907-9. The Nimrod crew carried out scientific work, as well as climbing Mount Erebus for the first time. During an attempt on the South Pole, Shackleton calculated that they could reach the Pole but would likely run out of supplies and endurance. Most of the journey involved exhausting man-hauling, with men pulling sledges. Shackleton chose honourable failure and survival over success and heroic death. They turned back, 97 miles short of the Pole. They barely made it back to base.

Photo by Hulton Archive

The Heart of the Antarctic is a full account of the Nimrod expedition, including the Southern journey. It includes appendices of summaries of scientific findings, such as a chapter on the biology and behaviour of penguins. The Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter, has written the foreword to this edition. Shackleton was a skilled writer and well conveys the experience of the adventure. Photographs catch the humour and hardiness of the expedition team. The dramatic conditions are described at length, as are ingenious methods of combatting the duress and boredom of months-long Antarctic winter. The book includes accounts by the leaders of different investigative parties.

In 1914, Shackleton embarked anew for Antarctica. His ship Endurance was trapped in ice before making landfall. The ship was eventually crushed by the ice, leaving the crew, a small quantity of supplies and three small boats on the floes. They took shelter on the beach of an unvisited island, with dwindling supplies and no way of communicating their plight. Shackleton and a handful of comrades took the James Caird (a tiny boat) on a 15-day journey to South Georgia. They crossed mountainous seas, ice threatening to sink the boat, relying on primitive navigation. They knew that if they missed the island, the whole expedition were doomed. They landed on South Georgia, then (with barely any gear or food, no map and racing against time) Shackleton and two companions traversed mountains and a glacier to reach a whaling station.

The death of Scott’s party imprinted on British consciousness much more than Shackleton’s survival

Shackleton saved his men through feats that are practically unmatched, yet in 1917 he had returned to a world appalled by mechanised slaughter. Response to Shackleton’s travails was understandably muted. South (his account of the Endurance expedition and the James Caird voyage) was published in 1919. South has Frank Hurley’s haunting night photographs of the Endurance, looming doomed and starkly white in pack ice. Shackleton would die of a heart attack on South Georgia in the first week of 1922, on an aimless Antarctic journey which no one properly understood. The Heroic Age of Polar exploration came to end with Shackleton’s death. Although Shackleton was recognised for his stamina, competence and bravery, he was overshadowed by Scott. The death of Scott’s polar party was imprinted on the British consciousness much more strongly than Shackleton’s survival. In these books, Shackleton tended to underplay dangers and his personal kindnesses.

Over recent years, Shackleton’s stock has risen. There have been biographies, documentaries and a dramatization about the explorer. At least six books on Shackleton as a leadership model have been published; the Business School of Exeter University teaches a course on Shackleton as a man manager. Today, in an age sceptical of patriotic sacrifice and national heroes, Shackleton has been taken up a role-model leader and a flawed captain of men, who brought his crew home safe despite setbacks and overwhelming odds.

The two publications in Shackleton’s Antarctica reproduce the original books, with their monotone photographs and colour paintings reproduced, bound in fitting navy-blue buckram, with top-edge silver. There are also fold-out maps. These are housed in a sturdy cloth-covered slipcase. The Folio Society’s usual impeccable attention to design is evident. This set is a handsome tribute to the last British buccaneer.

Alexander Adams is an artist, art critic and author. His books Culture War and Iconoclasm are published by Societas.

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