Antarctica: Ernest Shackleton’s barrel restored by experts
“I was used to people always picking up on the name and being disappointed that I didn’t know him,” Alexandra Shackleton, now 82, told Express.co.uk with a grin as she recalled being asked about her eminent surname.
But the only granddaughter of iconic explorer Ernest Shackleton, born on this day 149 years ago, is used to being asked that. Since a young child, she always knew her grandad was someone special.
And though Alexandra did not get to meet her famous namesake, half an hour in her company suggests otherwise.”He died 100 years ago last year,” she said. “I’m not the sort of person who makes out someone like that as an idol… I don’t think he was perfect, I don’t think he was a saint, but I think he was a very good man.”
‘When disaster strikes… pray for Shackleton’
Born on February 15, 1874, in Kilkea, Ireland, Ernest Shackleton was indeed a very good man. His remarkable list of accomplishments, not to mention tales of the extreme nature of his work, have withstood the test of time since his death in 1922.
Among his finest exploits were his three British-led expeditions to the icy desert of Antarctica that laid Shackleton out as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’s defining figure.
Despite his early death of a heart attack at the age of 47, Shackleton’s tales have endured. Though initially forgotten, his exploits were reawoken during a 1956 address by fellow Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestly, who told the British Science Association: “When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
In learning of his exploits, it left a young Alexandra ready to spend a life dedicated to her grandfather, maintaining Shackleton’s tales and inspiring an era of adventurers to go forth and learn about the planet around them.
Alexandra Shackleton discusses her association with Ernest Shackleton, her grandfather
he crew of the Endurance on the ice, Antarctica, 1914
“My father didn’t know him very well,” Alexandra said of her parent Edward Shackleton, the former Labour MP and geographer. “At the time, explorers were away for years at a time and of course, there were no communications whatsoever when you were down south (of the globe). I really loved the stories of his expeditions.
“I grew up with Frank Hurley, the wonderful expedition photographer. I remember one particular Hurley (photograph). It showed a picture of the ship Endurance in the ice, the skeleton of the ship, and the dogs all around.
“I asked one of the little girls from the family, ‘what happened to the dogs?’ And the grown-ups would never tell me until I found out eventually when I was old enough to know… [the crew] ate them.”
Considering the deadly situations Shackleton and his crew often found themselves in, whether it be sinking boats filling with freezing, pulse-stopping water, running out of food, or just getting lost, what they ate didn’t seem to matter. Just to survive was sometimes the greatest tick on his CV.
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Midwinter dinner aboard the Endurance, Antarctica, 22nd June 1915
‘Endurance was down… and he was heartbroken’
History remembers Endurance as perhaps Shackleton’s most iconic vessel. It formed part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, which aimed to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. However, Endurance never reached its destination.
Instead, it plunged to the icy depths of the Weddell Sea in 1915, some 9,869 feet (3,008 metres) below, only to astonishingly be recovered some 107 years later in 2022.
Endurance became trapped in pack ice, slowly becoming crushed under the force being placed upon it. In a desperate bid to survive, the crew spent months in makeshift camps on the nearby Elephant Island, as the ice below them slowly disintegrated, moving further north the longer they waited.
Speaking on the mission, Alexandra said: “Endurance was down… and he was heartbroken. He wrote that he could not write about it, and he gathered his shipmates together and said the ship guard would go home. He said a man must set himself to a new mark, and let the old one go. And his new mark was to get everyone from the expedition home alive.”
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Explorer Frank Wild looking at the wreckage of the Endurance
Shackleton then made the bold decision to launch a lifeboat they had salvaged before Endurance plunged to its watery grave, leading him and five of his crew-mates off the ice and out onto the sea.
He knew, Alexandra reflected, that they would be in for a “terrible journey” but ultimately “starvation was staring them in the face”.
Their problem? They were 800 miles (1,300km) from human life in South Georgia on Elephant Island, without a radio, and only a 22.5-foot (6.9 metre) long boat called the James Caird to protect them.
Alongside Tom Crean, Frank Worsley, Harry “Chippy” McNish, Tim McCarthy, and John Vincent, Shackleton and his crew battled the elements, leaving Elephant Island on April 24, 1916, hoping one day to return and pick up those who remained there.
Endurance held fast in the sea of ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17
‘Their tongues were black and swollen… but that wasn’t the end’
Alexandra continued: “They only saw the sun three times. It was so crammed in the James Caird that my grandfather had to talk to them below deck, telling them, ‘No that’s not your leg that’s his’… And they didn’t have a wheel. They had to steer with ropes.
“The conditions were so awful that the ship was overbalanced. My grandfather noticed it… but didn’t know that the ship was slowly icing up.
“He knew the weight of ice would have taken them to the bottom (of the sea) if left unchecked. So they had to lean out on the side of this little boat, and one at a time chip off ice on the boat’s side.” The crew were also facing “terrible thirst”, Alexandra said, with “tongues black and swollen”.
Then, mother nature presented another brutal twist: they realised they were on the “crest of an enormous wave. My grandfather had been at sea since he was 16. He had never seen a wave like it. Nowadays they’d probably say it was an undersea earthquake. Three storeys high. It crashed down… and they bailed for their lives and came through.”
But their woes weren’t over. “That wasn’t the end,” explained Alexandra. After 16 days, the crew finally made it to South Georgia. They radioed for help at a whaling station before being faced with a different kind of challenge altogether: an insurmountable cliff face.
Alexandra talking about the adventure and Endurance being discovered
He knew his men were desperate for a rest,
‘Sweetest music Shackleton would ever hear’
The crew had inadvertently landed on the wrong side of South Georgia, so they were forced to make the 30-mile trip to where Shackleton knew civilian life could be found. The fittest members joined Shackleton on the 36-hour trek.
“He knew his men were desperate for a rest,” Alexandra explained, “but he knew they would probably freeze to death in their sleep… and then, at last, they made it to the right place.”
Shackleton listened out to the morning whistle, calling out to the island’s whalers as they readied to start the day’s work.
“They waited which must have been a very long quarter-of-an-hour and then they heard the whistle,” Alexandra said. “My grandfather described it as the sweetest music he would ever hear.”
She continued: “So they clambered down as they were quite a way up, through a waterfall, staggered into the whaling station, three filthy, ragged, smelly people, clothes held together with safety pins.
“Dogs barked, children ran away. So my grandfather was taken to the manager’s house, and he asked, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And my grandfather said, ‘My name is Shackleton’.”
Strenuous endeavours are made to free the ‘Endurance’ from the ice, February 14 and 15, 1915
Replica of the James Caird, the lifeboat of the Endurance
‘These are men’
It remains one of history’s greatest rescue missions, and though Shackleton was well known, his appearance was transformed after months lost at sea. Alexandra explained how, initially, the leader of the manager’s house didn’t know who he was.
“[When he realised who he was speaking to] the manager turned away and wept,” Alexandra said. “People had heard nothing from them. People thought they were dead. That night the whaling captain demanded to meet them.
“This old chap said, ‘We have never heard of such a feat as taking this tiny, not quite 23 foot, boat 800 miles, over the stormiest seas in the world, climbing South Georgia. These are men. It’s regarded by some as the greatest rescue in history.”
Despite never meeting her grandfather, it feels as though Alexandra, who is now the President of the James Caird Society, had spent a lifetime with him. Perhaps this loyalty to him is something the great man himself would be proud of?
Alexandra concluded: “I think his legacy can be summed up in one word: Leadership — the way he led his men… He did not just expect loyalty from them to him but he would be loyal to them, and he expected them to be loyal to each other and the expedition as a whole.”
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