Ernest was the second child and elder son of a family that eventually numbered two brothers and eight sisters. Numbers, however, did not mean distress. There was always enough to eat and a comfortable home. Shackleton’s mother,Henrietta Letitia Sophia Gavan with Anglo-Irish lineage married Henry in 1872. It was said that she knew how to manage her husband and children, giving them a secure and happy home, wherever that might happen to be.
Shackleton grew up with the unique self-confidence that is the priceless gift of privilege, or a colonial upbringing, however poor the purse. A male in an overwhelmingly female household Ernest ran the risk of being crushed. He did not at any rate have even submissive temperament, in an Irish idiom, he was “down in the cellar or up in the garret”. In spite of this, his many sisters, to quote one of them, Eleanore, “all adored him”. He had already learned to charm his womenfolk into submission. With his mobile and expressive face, he was the picture of intensity.
Until the age of 11, Shackleton was educated at home by a governess. He then went to Fir Lodge Preparatory School. One of his school mates once recalledShackleton “was a big strong well made youngster……he was always friendly and good natured. “In 1887 Shackleton left Fir Lodge to go to Dulwich College. “From what I remember he did very little work,” and old school mate remarked, “and if there was a scrap he was usually in it.” At school Shackleton was unspeakably bored. As a result he was usually near the bottom of his form. Dr. Shackleton wanted Ernest to follow him into the medical profession. Ernest, however, wanted to go to sea. He saw himself as Captain Nemo, the mysterious captain of the Nautilus.
Shackleton enlisted in the Navy at the age of fourteen, the age limit for entry at that time. “My father thought to cure me of my predilection for the sea by letting me go in the most primitive manner possible as a ‘boy’ on board a sailing ship at a shilling a month!” Shackleton himself recalls.
His chosen goal now within reach, Shackleton abruptly began to work more strenuously. When he left Dulwich, at the end of the Lent term in 1890 he was near the top of the Lower Modern Fourth, the apex of his school career. He had just turned sixteen and had been at Dulwich a little less than three years. On April 19 he went to Liverpool to join the Hoghton Tower. The impression he left behind him, as one of his teachers put it, was that of a “rolling stone who would probably gather no moss.”
National Antarctic Expedition:
On September 13, 1900 Shackleton wrote to volunteer for the National Antarctic Expedition which was in the process of being organized under Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society. A certain naval lieutenant had been appointed to command the expedition, Robert F. Scott. When Scott’s well-financed expedition sailed from England on August 6, 1901, inDiscovery a specially built wooden steam barque, it was the best equipped scientific expedition to Antarctica to that date. By mid-February 1902, Scott’s men had established winter quarters at Hut Point on Ross Island. With Shackleton as editor, the expedition also published Antarctica’s first magazine, called the South Polar Times. On November 2, 1902 Scott set out for the South Pole with his scientific officer Dr. Edward Wilson, Shackleton, 19 dogs and 5 supply sledges. Despite initial optimism the trio soon struck harsh reality, Antarctica-style. They had never tried skiing or sled dog-driving, and their inexperience produced predictably poor results. Through sheer will power they reached 82Â°16.5′ S before turning back. Actually Scott and Wilson reached that point, Shackletonhaving been ordered to remain behind to look after the dogs.
The Nimrod Expedition:
Even as he was being sent home as an invalid by Scott, Shackleton resolved that he would one day return to Antarctica – and return he did in 1908. Following his return from the Discovery expedition, Shackleton had married and fathered the first of his three children, while at the same time holding a succession of jobs: magazine journalist, secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society candidate for Parliament and PR man for a large steelworks company.
The British Antarctic Expedition sailed from Lyttleton, New Zealand on New Year’s Day 1908, in Nimrod, a three masted sealing ship. With three companions – Jameson Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild – Shackleton pioneered the route up to the polar plateau by way of the Beardmore Glacier, which he named for the expeditions patron. By January 9, 1909, the foursome had trudged on foot to within 96 miles of the South Pole before being forced by dangerously dwindling supplies of food to turn and run for home. It was the hardest decision of Shackleton’s life, telling his wife Emily later: “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”
The Endurance Expedition:
In 1914, with the prize of the Pole already having been claimed by Roald Amundsen in 1911, Shackleton embarked on a new challenge- to cross the entire continent on foot, from the Wedell to the Ross Sea. As Shackletonclaimed in his expedition prospectus “From the sentimental point of view, it is the last great Polar journey that can be made.” His now famous want ad which read,”Men Wanted” drew hundreds of young adventure seekers from all over Great Britain.Men hoping to explore uncharted regions and become heroes.
Leaving the Island of South Georgia in December 1914, his ship the Endurancemade her way Southward through the pack ice toward the continent. The ship however was unable to continue through the ice, which was unusually thick that year, and the ship was trapped and eventually crushed. What followed was an almost two year journey through the most hostile environment on earth. Not a man was lost and Shackleton retained the respect and admiration of his men throughout. For this Ernest Shackleton is considered one of the finest leaders and greatest hero of our time.
After the Endurance expedition Shackleton had been reduced to lecturing on the expedition at the Philharmonic Hall in Great Portland Street. “It was drudgery and worse.” He did not even have the consolation of good receipts, often facing half empty houses. For the same reason Shackleton was repelled by the thought of working on the book of the expedition; but finally, at the end of 1919, it appeared as South. In the spring of 1920, he began expressing a desire to see the polar regions just once more. On September 17, 1921 Shackleton finally sailed. What Shackleton proposed was a circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent, looking for lost or uncertain sub-Antarctic islands. The nucleus of the expedition was the old guard from Endurance, Macklin, Worsley, McIlroy, Wild, Hussey, McLeod, Kerr and Green. Some had not been paid all the money owed them from Endurancebut they came just the same.
All his companions sensed Shackleton was not his former self, and Macklin and McIlroy were gravely concerned about his health. In Rio Shackleton suffered a heart attack but refused to be examined, let alone turn back. He recovered and the Quest continued south. On January 4, after a stormy passage, the Questarrived in South Georgia. At two the next morning Macklin was summoned by a whistle to Shackleton’s cabin. Macklin sat with “the boss” quietly for some minutes, and took the opportunity to suggest that he might want to take things easier in the future. “You are always wanting me to give up something,” replied the Boss. “What do you want me to give up now?” These were Shackleton’s last words. A massive heart attack took him suddenly, and he died at 2:50 a.m.; he was only 47 years old. Hussey volunteered to accompany his body back to England, but he was intercepted by a message from Shackleton’s wife, Emily, requesting that her husband be buried in South Georgia. Hussey turned back and on March 5, Shackleton was laid to rest among the Norwegian whalers who had, perhaps above all other men on earth best comprehended his achievements.