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Ernest Shackleton, Ireland’s Most Famous Explorer

Ernest Shackleton, Ireland’s Most Famous Explorer

Posted by Ima Ocon on 12th Feb 2020

For Ireland, Feb. 15 stands out as a special day because it marks the birthday of Ernest Shackleton, the country’s most famous explorer. He was a major figure in the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” where a lot of scientific and geographic progress was made through journeys to the South Pole. These were exceptionally dangerous and difficult because technology wasn’t as advanced yet then, and we have photographs and personal journals to thank for preserving vivid records. In fact, Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctica expedition marked the end of it. More than a hundred years later, his legacy still resounds and his story known in fascinating detail.


Shackleton as an officer in the Royal Navy, c. 1917. Shackleton as an officer in the Royal Navy, c. 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ernest Shackleton was born on Feb. 15, 1874 as the second of ten children in County Kildare, Ireland. Times were hard because of a severe potato crop failure, so his family moved to England, where he would spend the rest of his childhood.

Although his father was a doctor, Ernest was consistently bored by his studies. He refused his father’s ambitions, instead leaving school and joining the merchant navy at 16, where he eventually reached the rank of Master Mariner. These early years on the sea sparked his thirst for adventure. While he had already become a seasoned traveler, his heart was still set on exploring the poles, and he gathered a useful network of contacts who would help him get opportunities for polar expeditions.

He started pursuing this dream directly when he became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London. Falcon Scott, a veteran explorer, had brought Shackleton along on a sledge trek towards the South Pole, and their team broke the current record, coming closer to the South Pole than anyone had before. However, this camaraderie didn’t last. When they upgraded to an expedition—the Discovery Expedition of 1901, Shackleton’s first—things went awry. Shackleton became gravely sick and had to be brought home, and the expedition itself followed suit, unable to move forward because of harsh weather and struggles with scurvy. To Shackleton’s utter surprise, Scott blamed him for it. For the rest of his life, this motivated him to do whatever he could to defeat Scott and reach the South Pole first.

Taking a break for the moment, he became a journalist in Britain, got married to Emily Mary Dorman, his sister’s, and even tried running for government in Dundee. Amidst these life changes, he never lost the burning desire to lead his own expedition. Once he’d raised enough funds, he finally achieved this, leading the Nimrod Expedition of 1908 towards the South Pole. They weren’t able to get there, thanks to issues such as problems with locating the South Pole and food running out, but the expedition was still a success. They were the first to climb Mount Erebus, and they furthered the record, reaching the location of the magnetic South Pole. This turned Shackleton into a hero back home in Britain, where he was knighted by the king. He detailed his travels in an account called “Heart of the Antarctic.”


Published in the Daily Telegraph in March 1916, this map depicts the intended route of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Published in the Daily Telegraph in March 1916, this map depicts the intended route of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. (Wikimedia Commons)

While Ernest Shackleton was already popular then—being knighted is a rare honor—what would catapult him to worldwide fame was his trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. Given the dire circumstances that his crew faced and the odds against their survival, the story of this expedition could be mistaken for fiction, thrilling and terrifying as it is. This sealed his legacy as an explorer whose feats would be told over and over in history books (and the media). Most of what we know about the events on this expedition came from Shackleton’s account, published afterwards in 1919.

As soon as Shackleton returned from the Nimrod expedition, he refused to lose time and began planning his next journey to Antarctica. Since he’d come so close, he was deadly certain that it was a race against the clock, with other explorers eagerly intent on being the first to get to the South Pole. Refusing to give up, he set the motions for a third expedition to the Antarctic using the ship “Endurance.” The ship was named after Shackleton’s family motto: “Fortitudine Vicimus,” or “by endurance we conquer”—a foreshadowing, in a sense, of what was to come. As the story goes—although it’s probably speculation and not fact—Shackleton had posted this intriguing newspaper ad: “MEN WANTED: FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.”


Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic terrors of the Weddell Sea. Photograph shows crew member with dog team hitched together sitting among ice floe; in the far background the Endurace is stuck. Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic terrors of the Weddell Sea. Photograph shows crew member with dog team hitched together sitting among ice floe; in the far background the Endurace is stuck. (Library of Congress)

Despite difficulties with funding and the unlucky timing, with World War 1 about to break out, the Endurance sailed for the Antarctic on Aug. 8, 1914 and arrived at South Georgia on Nov. 5. The crew ended up staying for a month with the Norwegian whalers there, who taught them about the weather conditions. The Weddell Sea, which they were about to cross, was typically tumultuous and laden with ice, but that year, it had gotten even worse. Loaded with additional supplies, they left South Georgia on Dec. 5.

As expected, the Endurance made it through a thousand miles ice-packed waters. However, they were one day away from their destination when she got stuck on the ice. This was dangerous because the ship was likely to be crushed. While it wasn’t exactly surprising—it was a common disaster scenario for ships—Shackleton was extremely frustrated since this might have been his last chance to reach the South Pole. Trying to be patient but failing and getting increasingly restless, the men gritted their teeth through regular blizzards and distracted themselves with hockey and football games.

After ten months—on Oct. 23, 1915—the Endurance was showing signs of cracking, and the crew accepted that they had to abandon the ship, moving to live on an ice floe. She finally sank on Nov. 21, 1915. Since the ship had drifted far, they had nowhere nearby to turn to, and they camped on the floe for as long as they could. When the floe started to break up, they set off towards Elephant Island on three small lifeboats in April 1916. It was a relief that they got on land safely, but the island was uninhabited and distant from civilization, and there was zero chance of rescue.


Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island for what would be a 16-day sail to South Georgia Island in hopes of rescue. Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island for what would be a 16-day sail to South Georgia Island in hopes of rescue. (Public Domain)

Shackleton made the inevitable decision to look for help. He brought along five crew members on James Caird, a mere 22-foot lifeboat. The closest place they could turn to was the whaling station back on South Georgia, 800 miles away. They’d have to cross the stormiest waters in the world and they could hardly navigate—death was practically a certainty. Nevertheless, Shackleton told his remaining men to stay on the island. If there was no rescue by spring, they were to set out on their own to a nearby island.

Despite several brushes with death, Shackleton and the others aboard James Caird managed to survive the 17-day crossing across 1,300 km, starting on Apr. 24, 1916. They encountered fierce, life-threatening storms, frostbite gnawed away at them, and navigation was half-guesswork since they had to rely on rare moments when the clouds parted to reveal the sun. Through determination and some measure of a miracle, they landed successfully at South Georgia at only half the time that they expected.

At this point, their problems were far from over. They’d landed on an obscure part of the island, which meant that they had to go through 26 miles of glaciers and mountains running along the length of South Georgia. This was considered impassable—nobody had ever done it before—but it was the only way to reach the whaling station on the other side.

Only Shackleton and two of the men went, since the others were better off resting. The trek demanded every bit of their strength—they skidded down a snowy slope, and at some point, they wanted to sleep, but Shackleton had them fight it off because they might never wake up again if did. When they arrived at the whaling station, they were unrecognizable at first—exhausted, malnourished, with matted hair and clothes unwashed for a year. Upon regaining their strength, despite seeking help from different places, they failed to sail back to Elephant Island three times to retrieve the rest of the crew because of the formidable ice pack in the oceans.

Their luck finally changed at Southern Chile, where the government relented and let them borrow a steam tug called Yelcho. On Aug. 30, 1916, they found their way back to Elephant Island, much to the shock and delight of the remaining men there. They had survived on the island for 137 gruelling days. The conclusion of the expedition was beyond amazing: every single one of the men was brought back, and even the James Caird lifeboat was intact. Up until today, it’s still in Dulwich College London, an honored relic. Despite everything they had gone through, Shackleton even remembered to give back the flag that the King had let him borrow.


Shackleton during the expedition while adrift on sea ice, following the loss of the Endurance. Shackleton during the expedition while adrift on sea ice, following the loss of the Endurance. (Public Domain)

Needless to say, Shackleton received recognition from all around, although his courage and skill as an explorer only received full credit after his lifetime. The expedition also took its toll on him, physically and emotionally. But never one to rest for long, especially since the First World War was raging on, he volunteered for the army despite his age and his serious heart condition. While he never risked his life at the front lines, he was active in missions in Russia and South America.

Despite the glory of his Trans-Atlantic Expedition, Shackleton’s unachieved dream still rankled at him, so he embarked on a fourth expedition. However, Shackleton got sick early on and stubbornly refused to return to England or get treatment. When the ship was off the coast of Georgia, the expedition’s physician told him to take things easier in the future. Shackleton spoke his last words in retort: “You are always wanting me to give up something, what do you want to give up now?” He died of a heart attack soon after and was buried on South Georgia.

Shackleton’s legacy lives on best in how the story of the Trans-Atlantic Expedition continues to fascinate and inspire. Above all else, he was a brilliant leader who managed to hold his crew together when everyone was at their wits’ end and in the face of dire circumstances. It helped that Shackleton had acquired a lot of experience, but beyond that, his character shone through. He took complete responsibility and looked out for everyone, courageously confronting danger while refusing to give up hope—for two long years.

Although Shackleton’s feats were only fully acclaimed fifty years after his death, their impact since then has been unwavering. Tourists and scientists often visit his grave, and his expeditions have inspired various art and media as well as remembered in memorials. Outside the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society, a statue of him stands. The Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge contains a Shackleton Memorial Library, and a Polar Research Vessel that is still in use carries his name. In the 2000s, a BBC poll designated him as the 11th in a list of 100 Greatest Britons. Despite the passage of years, his life and achievements remain as compelling as ever, and that’s why many in Ireland and other countries across the world still toast to his birthday this February 15.