An Anglo-Irish explorer, Ernest Shackleton acquired fame for his three expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 1900s and was an important figure in the time period now known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. This was an era of international scientific and geographical exploration – and one that is celebrated for its exceptional achievements despite not having the advanced, modern technology used in global expeditions today.
August 2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of Shackleton rescuing his crew from Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. This harrowing, heroic journey across the ocean and incredible story of endurance that it represents is what gained Ernest Shackleton international renown as an explorer who continues to be celebrated to this day.
But who was Sir Ernest Shackleton?
Ernest Henry Shackleton was born in County Kildare, Ireland on 15 February 1874. Choosing to ignore his parents’ wishes for him to become a doctor, he moved to Liverpool at the age of 16 to join the merchant navy.
The Discovery Expedition (1901-1904)
In 1901, he became third officer on Captain Robert Scott’s Discovery, the first British exploration of the Antarctic regions for 60 years. Shackleton was chosen to join Scott and scientist Edward Wilson in walking towards the South Pole, and although not considered a serious attempt on the pole, they beat the previous record for Farthest South latitude by reaching 82° 17’S.
Falling seriously ill as a consequence of the hazardous conditions, Ernest Shackleton was forced to return straight home on board the relief ship, Morning.
The Nimrod Expedition (1908-1909)
His profile as an explorer flourishing, by 1907 Shackleton was presenting his plans for an expedition to conquer both the South Magnetic Pole and the geographic South. The Nimrod, with Shackleton at its helm, set sail from New Zealand on 1 January 1908.
Embarking upon his second attempt at a Farthest South latitude, Shackleton and three other members of his crew reached 88° 23′ S – only 112-miles (180 km) from the South Pole. Upon returning to Great Britain, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII and wrote an account of the expedition published under the title Heart of the Antarctic.
With the South Pole now conquered by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, in December 1911 Shackleton began preparing for another voyage to the Antarctic which planned to cross from coast to coast via the South Pole.
The Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition (1914-1917)
Ill-fated from the beginning, the ship the Endurance departed South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean on 5 December 1914. It would be this voyage that established Ernest Shackleton’s legacy as a heroic explorer and is often considered the last major expedition during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
A month in, the Endurance found itself frozen into an ice sheet in the Weddell Sea, and the crew were forced to evacuate and camp on the ice. They watched as the ship was crushed by the pressure of the surrounding pack ice and eventually sunk ten months later.
After failed attempts at marching to Paulet Island where stores had been left for the initial expedition, in April 1916 they finally boarded the surviving lifeboats and succeed in a treacherous five-day sea crossing to reach Elephant Island.
Determined to find help to rescue his crew, Shackleton and five others crossed the 800-miles (1,300 km) of ocean in a small lifeboat to land at South Georgia. After three failed attempts at saving the remaining crew left on Elephant Island, Shackleton persuaded the Chilean Government to offer assistance in the form of the Yelcho, a steam tug captained by Chilean Luis Pardo.
With Shackleton on board, the Yelcho was able to bring all of Shackleton’s men home from Elephant Island in August 1916 – without a single loss of life. Shackleton’s account of this voyage was published as “South” in 1919.
On 5th of January 1922, he died from a heart attack on South Georgia whilst attempting his fourth expedition to the Antarctic. According to his wife’s wishes, he was buried on the island.
The centenary celebrations of the Endurance voyage
August 2014 marked the beginning of the centenary celebrations of Shackleton’s Endurance voyage, which have continued over the globe and commemorate this epic tale of survival against the odds. Exhibitions about the life of this intrepid explorer have already taken place in 2016 in the United States, Norway and Ireland.
Punta Arenas in Chile, the harbour town to which the Yelcho returned after its crucial role in saving Shackleton’s crew, is currently holding an exhibition to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of this rescue and to pay tribute to the Chilean Navy and skipper Luis Pardo.