Ernest Shackleton had a chaotic private life and no head for business, but he went on to become one of the world’s greatest explorers, as a new book explains. Chris Bond reports.
WHEN Ernest Shackleton arrived back in London in 1909 following an expedition to Antarctica, he was given the kind of reception that not even George Clooney would get today.
“He was an enormously popular character. When he arrived back in the capital they had to close the railway station because the crowds were so big to welcome him home,” says Michael Smith, who has written a new biography of the Polar explorer. “That never happened for Captain Scott.”
Shackleton was a hugely charismatic man and a pioneering explorer best known for leading the two-year Endurance expedition in 1914. But he was also a flawed individual who lived life “like a mighty rushing wind”.
For all his popularity, not everyone was seduced by his charms. “He wasn’t liked by the Royal Geographical Society or by Captain Scott. He was seen as a maverick and an outsider,” says Smith. “Shackleton was a man with natural ability for public speaking, someone who was on a par with Winston Churchill. He could bring an audience to tears, he could make them laugh and captivate and enthrall them.”
It’s nearly 30 years since the last major biography of Shackleton, and Smith, a former journalist who cut his teeth on The Yorkshire Post, felt the time was right to re-examine one of history’s most compelling figures – a century on from his most famous expedition. “There have been books about his various expeditions but there hasn’t been a comprehensive biography in a generation.”
His subsequent book, Shackleton – By Endurance We Conquer, draws on diaries and correspondence regarding Shackleton and his close companions to create an illuminating and well written account that untangles some of the myths surrounding this heroic, yet contradictory man.
Even Shackleton’s background is intriguing. His ancestral roots are in Yorkshire and his family can be traced back to a small hamlet near Heptonstall, in West Yorkshire, which bears the family name. “His family lived in Yorkshire for hundreds of years until the end of the 17th century when they moved to Ireland.” Shackleton later visited Yorkshire after he’d made his name as a famous polar explorer and, as luck would have it, wound up getting snowed in.
His family moved to London when Shackleton was 10 years old. He was educated at Dulwich College but was, as Smith puts it, “absolutely hopeless” at school.
However, he was imbued with a spirit of adventure and rejecting his father’s wish that he become a doctor, he joined the merchant navy when he was 16 and embarked on his maiden voyage on a North Western Shipping clipper that took him around the southern tip of South America.
The 20,000 mile voyage was a ferocious baptism which his father thought would either kill or cure. In the end it was neither. “He travelled around Cape Horn in the middle of winter and he absolutely loved it, he really rose to the occasion,” says Smith.
“Shackleton was a dreamer and someone who yearned for adventure. As a boy he’d read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea and saw himself in that kind of vein. He’d always wanted to be an explorer he just didn’t know what he wanted to explore.”
The trip around Cape Horn merely whetted his appetite for more and in 1901 he heard about the first British expedition planned for Antarctica. “Such was the man that he found himself in the drawing room of the person who was bankrolling the expedition and managed to get a berth on the ship.”
Not only did he manage to wangle a place on board he was also the only officer in the team who wasn’t required to have a proper medical, which he may not have passed given his health problems.
By the start of the 20th century the golden age of exploration, of which Britain had been at the forefront, was nearing its zenith.
“Most of the world had been discovered and mapped and by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign around 25 per cent of the world’s population was under British rule. The main unconquered places were the two Poles and Mount Everest and Shackleton had been brought up with wide-eyed adventure stories of Imperial dominance and was particularly keen to explore the Poles.”
In 1914, Shackleton made his third trip to the Antarctic with the ship Endurance, planning to cross the continent via the South Pole. The story of the expedition, its trials and tribulations and Shackleton’s leadership in the face of almost certain death, have since become the stuff of legend.
Early in 1915, the ship became trapped in the ice and 10 months later sank. Shackleton’s crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching Elephant Island, off the coast of Antarctica.
Shackleton, along with five crew, went to find help. They spent 16 days crossing 1,300km of ocean in a small boat to reach South Georgia and then trekked across the island to a whaling station. The remaining men from the Endurance who had been left behind were finally rescued in August. Not one member of the expedition died and it proved to be Shackleton’s finest hour.
For all his heroics on the ice, Smith says he was a different person when he wasn’t leading an expedition. “For me there are two Shackletons. The man at home is very different to the man out on the ice. At home he was hopelessly unproductive and a spectacular failure at pretty much everything he attempted.
“Every business venture collapsed and he racked up huge debts, he died owing £1m in today’s money. He didn’t pay his bills, he didn’t pay his men’s wages and he had affairs with other people’s wives.”
But out in the frozen wilds of Antarctica he was a different beast entirely. “He was a fantastic motivator and an inspirational leader, he could persuade ordinary people to do all kinds of extraordinary things. His men adored him, even those who hadn’t been paid.”
It’s ironic, given his lamentable business acumen, that Shackleton’s leadership qualities are now being held up as a virtue in business schools. But as Smith explains there is method in the madness. “He involved his men, he had a very egalitarian style of leadership. At the time the Navy was built on blind obedience but he treated his men as equals, he cared for them and they responded to him. He bred great loyalty in people.”
In the end it was his health, rather than his luck, that gave out, and it was during his fourth Antarctic trip that he suffered a heart attack in Buenos Aires and later died on South Georgia.
“He was never a fit man and he probably shouldn’t have been an explorer,” says Smith. “Most people would have probably given up in his situation but perhaps he knew the end was near and it’s appropriate that he should die surrounded by ice caps and mountains.”
For Smith, Shackleton was not only a great man in a crisis, he was a genuine pioneer. “Even though Amundsen and Scott reached the South Pole before him, they followed in his footsteps. He was a pioneer and one of the greatest explorers of all time and I’d put him up there with Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo and Captain Cook.”
Shackleton – By Endurance We Conquer, published by Oneworld publications, is out now priced £20.