The age of polar exploration that stunned the world’s imagination in the several decades before and after the end of the 19th century cast some extraordinary characters. There was the famous Antarctic Scot, who launched the Passion of Nations; The Norwegian Roald Amundsen who, in the face of fierce competition, became the first man to conquer Antarctica.
Likewise in the Arctic, there were others racing fast: Nansen, the Norwegian who skied across Greenland; The unfortunate John Franklin who died trying to forge the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. German Wilhelm Felchner attempted to cross Antarctica through the continent. Other young players have attested to these ice explorers’ grip on the imagination. However, as exciting as it was at the time, it was a fad and a pass fashion.
However, it was Ernest Shackleton of Co Kildare who captured people’s hearts above all else. The extrovert, the storyteller, the wizard of women, the seducer of ‘high’ society, the giver of alms, and the persuader of governments, devised, from a position of near impoverishment, to undertake three expeditions to the Antipodean realm that would forever mark him as one of the great frontiersmen.
He was born in Kilkia, Co Kildare, just outside of Athey in 1874. Most references to Shackleton refer to him as a British explorer, who was, by definition, Irish. Fiennes duly acknowledges this, but this volume could have done in more detail about his first decade on Earth. After all, he amounted to more than a fifth of his entire life. There is not much to explore how the son of a Catholic farmer from Kildare came to carry out the ambitions of the British Empire. The family raised their hold on Sydenham in south London when Ernst was ten years old.
By all accounts, he was very restless in school, exceptionally smart, but also restless. One of the teachers mentioned him as the most stubborn, pig-headed boy he had ever encountered. Early on, he felt the irresistible lure of the sea and found work on several voyages as a merchant sailor.
He completed his apprenticeship in 1894 after trips to Chile, India, and Australia, and at the age of 20 in 1894 he passed the Board of Trade examinations as a second fellow. In 1896 he passed the exams of his first colleague. When difficulties with poor morale arose on some of these trips, Shackleton would tell the crew stories from the Bible or from other readings. Early signs of leadership.
After initially being rejected for Scott’s Antarctic Expedition of Discovery from 1901 to 1904, he was accepted after the intervention of a high-ranking liaison. This was the first expedition sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and its president, Clements Markham, who was driven to make Britain a leader in the exploration of Antarctica. The expedition succeeded in pushing further south than any previous expedition – to 82 degrees south latitude. However, Shackleton fell ill and had to take him home. In Scott’s own words, he was described as “invalid”. The term has been haunting him over the years.
His wife Emily had written of his eagerness to explore that “that was his own soul, a spirit breathed by the fires of wandering”. Despite the illness, Shackleton’s leadership qualities kept resurfacing with colleagues who remarked that he was a “marvel of intelligent energy” and that he was “full of flashing new ideas”.
Here Fiennes presents several aspects of the text to connect his wonderful tales. His multiple accomplishments deserve high recognition is not in question: he scatter this book with them, as well as those of his late wife Jenny. To indicate intelligence: Scott and Shackleton had difficulties navigating the McMurdo Sound. Fiennes recounts how he came to evaluate theodolite under similar circumstances. Since Scott’s Party had to downsize to get it back safely, the book should have trimmed Fiennes’ weight, for a more readable comeback.
It was Shackleton’s second great expedition from 1907 to 1909 aboard Nimrod and the mission was undisputed: to become the first man on the planet to claim Antarctica. The difference from his first project in the South was that this time he shot. The motivating factor was getting over Scott and claiming glory for himself. Under extreme conditions, the mission failed, but he did manage to reach 88°S, 100 miles from the pole. He had some extraordinary luck at Nimrud and barely escaped with his life after the ship had to retreat from the crawling ice, and from the dangers he faced, he tried to reassure his wife, writing: “My beloved Sweeties and my wife. Think of me kindly…Remember…Your husband will die Its one of the few great things left to do.” This life story builds and builds but is constantly interrupted by the writer as he gives his experience in similar situations. Once again an example of how Fiennes lost his toes on the ice.
On March 7, 1912, some frightening news reached Shackleton. Amundsen had reached the South Pole last December. He was denied this stardom opportunity, but there were others. He regrouped and theorized that crossing Antarctica was a voyage of expedition that would also make his name in the world’s newspapers and mark him as one of the greatest explorers of all time.
He got the headlines just fine but not in the way he was expecting. Gathering a largely new crew including Tom Crane, despite having several former comrades including Frank Wilde, Kildare Man sets out for the Endeavor in 1914 as an impending world war threatens to engulf the planet. Disaster strikes! The ship was trapped in a bundle of ice and abandoned. Regrouping, and realizing the mission had been lost, Shackleton proceeded to rescue his men. After camping for a while on sea ice, they were taken to the most dangerous waters in the world to sail 557 km to Elephant Island. Now the fun began.
There was no hope of being rescued on Elephant Island, so he picked up five men and set sail in a remodeled lifeboat, James Caird, 1,330 kilometers to a whaling station in South Georgia. The men then had to cross a mountain range to reach the station before being rescued. He could have expected to lose all his men but he saved them all. Indomitable stuff.
In the next few years, he undertook several missions for the war effort before deciding on a final expedition to the Antarctic with an unclear goal. This was the last. He died at the age of 47 in Grytviken and was buried there.
In his short life, he has accomplished so much, pushing the boundaries of human endeavors forward so that others can follow. However, his wife and children were abandoned for long periods of time, often stretching into years. Was it worth?
This is a story to get the pulse of racing, and fan the flames of a passion for exploration. However, this is a backward narrative, rarely capturing the urgency of the tale. This is not so much Shackleton: a biography like, “Shackleton: A Biography With Continuous Interruptions Of My Great Works.”
Concluding this biography, there is a quote from Shackleton’s contemporary explorer Raymond Priestley: “For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, and when it seems there is no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
- Shackleton: The Biography of Ranulph Fiennes
- Michael Joseph, €28
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