“MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
There has long drifted in the seas of imagination an apocryphal advertisement polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is said to have posted in the London newspaper ‘the Times’ before embarking on his most famous expedition. Numerous historians have failed to authenticate the ad, yet legend persists. The account of Sir Ernest H. Shackleton’s ability to keep his men alive under brutal conditions on an Antarctic voyage beset with spectacular failure continues to grow in the mythos of our culture. We know him today for his participation in him in four distinct forays into Antarctica, the last one being a poignant end to a short and ultimately deeply influential life of adventure.
In 1922, having reached a remote whaling station on the island of South Georgia, Shackleton returned to his ship after a congenial meal, suffered a fatal heart attack and died on the eve of his final journey to the frozen south. After burying him, the crew returned to Cape Town to refit and resupply, but heavy pack ice–Shackleton’s particular nemesis–foiled their efforts, and they aborted the expedition. Ship-reliant polar exploration came to an end with his death from him.
The London-based Folio Society this year honors the legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton with ‘Shackleton’s Antarctica’, a three-volume boxed set encompassing the explorer’s accounts of the Nimrod and Endurance journeys: ‘The Heart of the Atlantic’ and ‘South’. The editions feature illustrations and photographs by expedition artist GE Marsten and photographer Frank Hurley, depictions of haunting mountain ranges of our southernmost continent, a map showing the path of the expedition and an introduction by Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra. This set is for book lovers with some cash to spare.
These Shackleton’s Antarctica editions resemble their author–manly, graceful, and ambitious. The dark blue volumes require a bit of muscle to take down from a shelf, and the blue and white cloth bound box with ice-white text in a field of navy recall dull sun bouncing off glaciers. Even the tops of the pages shine, silver edges glinting with promised treasure whether under the oil lights of a dim ship’s galley or under fluorescent office lights at a less extreme latitude. A ribbon sewn to the binding serves as a placeholder while the reader replenishes coffee or hard tack, whatever sustenance required to make one‘s way through the tomes.
Unlike an Antarctic expedition, the books are not as daunting as they look. Shackleton is a straightforward communicator, laying out details of the voyages from meticulous preparation to daring rescues in clear, easy prose with refined Edwardian notes. Shackleton’s writing reveals an equal familiarity with ships’ stores and tackle as with Masefield, Browning, and Psalm 107. The challenges he describes seem insurmountable, piled as they are on top of subzero temperatures and an abominable diet.
Shackleton’s story has roared again to life with the centenary of his death. We can watch the PBS series ‘Chasing Shackleton’, a reality-type show where scientist, author, and adventurer Tim Jarvis leads a crew recreating the incredible rescue sail described in the book ‘South’, from Elephant Island to the back side of South Georgia and across the mountains. We can listen to Dan Snow of the History Hit podcast broadcasting the search for the sunken wreck Endurance aboard the Agulhas II. Or we can read the explorer’s own words in these beautiful books, peer at the photographs, study the maps, and wonder.
Why do we care so much about this man who–in a time of great inequality similar to our own time–devoted his life and wrecked his health chasing fame at the bottom of the world? Why is there still such a fascination with artifacts of a life that men mount new expeditions to claim trophies of it?
The key to Shackleton is the way he treated his crew. At a time of rigid class divisions, I have acknowledged the humanity and importance of the lowest sailor. A photo in ‘South’ shows scientists scrubbing the floor of the ‘parlor’ aboard the Endurance during the ten months she was frozen in the ice; nowadays it looks like cheerful chores, but at the time it was a shocking breach of hierarchical loyalty. One did not mix with rabble who made the ship run, who cooked and cleaned, who cared for stock. One did not scrub.
Shackleton intuited that to maintain the boundaries of British society while on the ice was to endanger the entire crew. The tale of his return from him with all men alive and loyal after four harrowing years completely overshadows the losses–the ship, the sledges, the dogs–anything they could not carry.
What we seek, when we chase him, is that relationship of trust in leadership. That the person we follow will do everything they can to make sure we all make it, together. Most importantly, we can trust that if they have to leave us behind, they will come back for us. As glaciers melt, it’s clear we need to find these people, we need to be these people.
With the release of these volumes, the Folio Society has given us a map to understanding how to unearth the grit to be loyal to ourselves and those beside whom we travel in our lives. When small disasters make life seem an impossible chore, when there is no way out that we can see, we can pull on a smooth blue ribbon, find the words of Ernest Shackleton, and open to possibility.