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Sir Ernest Shackleton

Below RSGS Writer in Residence, Jo Woolf, has written about Sir Ernest Shackleton, one time Secretary of RSGS.

On 25th March 1909 the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch published a short news item. It read:

“London, 1 pm. Lloyd’s agent at Christchurch, New Zealand, cables that the Antarctic expedition vessel Nimrod arrived to-day, all well, in good condition.”

Underneath was copied the prompt reply from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society:

“Heartiest congratulations, magnificent result, safe return; hope to welcome you Edinburgh. ”“ Geographical.”

On board the Nimrod was Ernest Shackleton, Anglo-Irishman, compulsive explorer, swashbuckling hero, hopeless businessman and inveterate dreamer. He was coming home to the rapturous welcome that he yearned for, to the peaceful life that his mind said he wanted, but which his soul made sure he’d never have.

The message from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society reflected a connection with Shackleton that had begun five years previously, in January 1904. The warmth and depth of regard was entirely mutual, but it had got off to a rather shaky start…

In 1903 Shackleton had been sent home early from Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, officially on medical grounds. Mortified by the slur that this cast on his capabilities, Shackleton was desperate for a fresh project. The post of Secretary to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society was conveniently vacant, and a little judicious nudging secured him the job. Shackleton moved to Edinburgh with his bride, Emily, and together they started to move in the polite circles of distinguished society.

But Shackleton wasn’t cut out for courtesy and compromise. He blew in like a force nine gale, with an irrepressible love of life and no regard for convention. For many years, the dark musty corners of the RSGS offices had watched time pass like the solemn ticking of a grandfather clock. Shortly after Shackleton’s arrival, this quiet dignity was rudely shattered with the horrific installation of a telephone. The Irish eyes were twinkling. “You should have seen the faces of some of the old chaps when it started to ring today,” he wrote to one of his friends.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Shackleton’s behaviour was outrageous in every respect:

“In his office, when he was there, Shackleton was generally to be found smoking a cigarette and lounging about in a light tweed suit. That in itself had distressed the luminaries of the society from the start. Dark, formal garments were the order of the day. A story was also told of Shackleton surprising an assistant practising golf shots by driving a ball into heavy curtains…. Instead of administering a rebuke, Shackleton is supposed to have borrowed the club, tried a few shots himself, and in the process driven a ball through a window pane into the street.”

Did Shackleton actually do anything? It seems that he did. When the Society held its annual meeting in November 1905, it was revealed – probably in clipped tones – that over the last 12 months its membership had risen by nearly 23%, and that the total number of people attending lectures was 36,000 – an increase of 21,000 over the previous session.

“Mr James Currie, the treasurer, reported that largely owing to Lieut. Shackleton’s efforts, the finances had considerably improved”¦”

Shackleton wasn’t there to hear about his success, because he had resigned his post in January. His restless nature was always moving him on to new things, and for the time being he was concentrating his efforts on getting into Parliament. But while he had undoubtedly kissed the Blarney stone, Shackleton was far too much of a wild child to succeed in government office. As a businessman, he had one brilliant idea after another, but it seemed he just couldn’t focus on a project for long enough. He was torn apart by two conflicting desires: to return to the Antarctic, and to settle down into a life of comfortable domesticity.

The Antarctic won.

With the return of the Nimrod, Shackleton became a celebrity figure, a household name, but the gleam of real money still eluded him. The trouble was that he still hadn’t reached the South Pole: he had turned back when he was just 97 miles away, knowing that to continue would mean certain death. All he could lay on the altar of British pride was a ”˜Farthest South”˜ of 88° 23′. In his home country, the newspapers carried the headline ”˜South Pole Almost Reached by an Irishman’. It was too much to bear. Ignoring his burgeoning debt, he started planning again.

“Although Shackleton was always alert for any interest – always full of flashing new ideas – Antarctica to him did not exist.” Louis Bernacchi, Australian physicist on board the Discovery

Did Shackleton see the Antarctic only as a means to an end? It seems a little bit harsh to say so. What Bernacchi perceived was perhaps something even deeper, of which Shackleton himself may not have been fully aware. Emily, his wife, understood it, and when he wrote yearning letters to her from the deck of a heaving ship, promising never to go away again, she saw what was written between the lines – or rather, behind them – and forgave him, because she loved him anyway. For Shackleton, it wasn’t about the science, or the hardship, or the discovery, or even the glory: it was about the seeking and not finding, the eternal heart-rending quest for something just over the horizon.

The story of Shackleton’s third and penultimate foray into the Antarctic has gone down in the annals of history as one of the most extraordinary feats of human endurance. After all, ”˜Endurance’ was the name of his ship, inspired by his family motto Fortitudine Vincimus – ”˜by endurance we conquer’. Having watched his boat crumble like a matchstick toy in the pack ice, he and a small band of men embarked on a voyage of unimaginable proportions to save themselves and the rest of their crew. Even by today’s standards, their survival is nothing short of miraculous.

The most inhospitable place on Earth had claimed the lives of so many noble men, but Shackleton wasn’t one of them. His fate lay under a different star, and he seemed to have known it all his life.

“Shackleton had this weird feeling he’d developed in Ireland. Some old nurse had told him he’d die at the age of 48, and he believed this, he absolutely believed it.”

In 1921 the Quest was the fourth and final ship to carry Shackleton to the Antarctic. At Grytviken in South Georgia he went ashore for a reunion with some of the whalers who had helped to rescue him eight years before, but when he returned to the boat he was unable to sleep. In the early hours of 5th January 1922, to the shock and dismay of his crew, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. It was just five weeks until his 48th birthday.

“Extraordinarily powerful, he moved with the rolling sailor’s gait and looked at you with his great, humorous dark-blue eyes which… had often in them the brooding eye of the dreamer.” F W Everett, editor of Royal Magazine

Sir Ernest Shackleton was honoured with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Livingstone Medal in 1911.

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Article by Jo Woolf for the RSGS, February 2015

Quotes from:

Newspaper cuttings in RSGS Collection: Evening Dispatch, 25th March 1909; Edinburgh Evening News, 10th November 1905.

”˜Shackleton’ by Roland Huntford