Reflections of Shackleton
‘Among memories of kindness received in many lands sundered by the seas, the recollection of the hospitality and help given me in South Georgia ranks high. There is a brotherhood of the sea.’
South. Sir Ernest Shackleton
‘The Shackleton-Rowett Expedition was the expedition that should not have been: an ill-found ship, no grand plan and an ailing leader. Yet it provided a fitting end to a heroic story, with the valiant chief gathering his band of loyal followers and returning to his scene of triumph to die. If Shackleton had died at any other place, it would have been simply a great loss, but his sudden death at South Georgia created a dramatic finale to the saga of the Endurance.’ Robert Burton
Shackleton today is a cult figure who has assumed a mythical status. A century after his death his fame continues, yet his popularity is a relatively modern phenomenon. From the 1980s onwards various biographies and historic accounts of the polar expeditions saw Shackleton catapulted to stardom, something that was fleeting in his lifetime.
The events of the Endurance Expedition drew a new generation of followers seeking inspiration from the epic adventure, journeys and hardships and from Shackleton’s leadership style. Shackleton’s ability to overcome adversity, retain the loyalty of his men, and his extraordinary and ultimately successful efforts to rescue his Endurance crewmates still inspires people today. The universal appeal brings visitors to South Georgia who continue to place memorials, mementoes and tokens on Shackleton’s grave.
What drove Shackleton?
What drove Shackleton to repeatedly seek out the wild, often icy, and unknown areas of our world? Was it the pursuit of fame and fortune, or was it to meet a need within himself for adventure, discovery, wilderness and/or the company of likeminded men? Though Shackleton is recognised as an inspiring leader himself, there are several recorded events in his life that indicate that he could seek inspiration, strength and possibly guidance outside of himself too. He had a spiritual nature; he loved to read poetry, and his journals record lyrical words.
On 16 July 1914, as the Endurance Expedition was getting underway, Queen Alexandra (widow of King Edward VII) and her sister the Dowager Empress of Russia visited the ship at Cowes. The Queen presented Shackleton with a Union flag, a replica of her own standard, and two inscribed copies of the Bible.
Later, trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his men had to quit their stricken ship and begin desperate measures to save themselves by hauling boats and stores across the ice. Each man was allowed to keep just 2 pounds of personal gear. Setting a good example, Shackleton discarded what at other times might be judged his most valuable and precious belongings – gold coins and other valuables and the bible. He tore some pages from the bible before he left it, the flyleaf with the Queen’s inscription, the 23rd Psalm and a verse from the Book of Job.
‘May the Lord guide you through all dangers by land and sea. May you see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.’
‘Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, And the face of the deep is frozen.’
Another crew member retrieved the bible Shackleton had discarded and carried it home. It is now in the collection of the Royal Geographical Society.
The Third Man
Having reached South Georgia by sailing a small lifeboat from Elephant Island, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean then made the arduous crossing of the island to fetch help. Their clothing was threadbare, they had all but no equipment and they dared not sleep en route in case they never awoke.
When they discussed their experiences later, they discovered that they had all had the strange feeling that there had been a fourth person accompanying them on the gruelling trek. This belief caught the public imagination.
The phenomenon of imagining an extra presence is now called The Third Man Factor after T. S. Eliot’s lines in his poem The Waste Land. This has been experienced by many people; lone sailors, pilots, climbers and explorers – all of whom, having faced an almost fatal trauma, lived to tell of their sense of a guiding presence.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
The story of the Endurance Expedition has become legendary. The tale of the leader who rescued his men still captures the imagination. Shackleton’s legacy lives on and his story is used as an example and as inspiration for leadership and loyalty. His decision-making and guidance under pressure is celebrated in books, management courses, films, television and memorials today. A portrait of him by Reginald Grenville Eves hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Statues and busts of Shackleton can be seen outside of the Royal Geographical Society, London, at Athy, his birthplace in Ireland, and in the Church at Grytviken, South Georgia where he died.
Fittingly the Shackleton’s family motto reads ‘Fortitudine vincimus’. By endurance we conquer.
‘I feel it is my duty as well as my pleasure to thank here the Norwegian whalers of South Georgia for the sympathetic hands they stretched out to us in our need. Among memories of kindness received in many lands sundered by the seas, the recollection of the hospitality and help given me in South Georgia ranks high. There is a brotherhood of the sea.’
South. Sir Ernest Shackleton