Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Enduring Legacy of Ernest Shackleton

Lessons in perseverance and leadership learned from explorer’s expedition

Who exactly is the man behind the name in the title Ernest Shackleton Loves Me?

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on February 15, 1874, in Kilkea, County Kildare, Ireland, and raised in London, England, where he attended Dulwich College before joining the Merchant Navy at 16 years old.

Certified as a Master Mariner in 1898, Shackleton was accepted to join the Robert Scott-led Discovery expedition to Antarctica in 1901. He was selected to accompany Scott on his most southern march towards the South Pole for research purposes, but took ill and was sent home. Meanwhile, Scott’s march-- as planned--ended short of reaching the South Pole.

With explorers continuing the quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, Shackleton led the Nimrod expedition to Antarctica in 1908 and became the closest to ever reach the pole at that time. However, facing starvation, the expedition turned back and made it back to the ship just in time to return to England.

Shackleton was greeted as a hero and knighted by King Edward VII, and honored by the Royal Geographic Society. After Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1912, Shackleton planned one last Antarctic expedition to cross the continent.

After receiving funding from mostly private sources, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set sail from Plymouth on August 8, 1914. The expedition included two boats carrying 28 men each: Shackleton’s boat, the Endurance, captained by Frank Worsley; and the Aurora, captained by Aeneas Mackintosh and later by Joseph Stenhouse when Mackintosh left the ship to lead the ill-fated Ross Sea Party component of the expedition.

The Endurance became fast-frozen in an ice floe on January 19, 1915, and was stuck adrift. Shackleton hoped the ship could break free in the spring, but instead, the shifting and breaking ice began to crush the Endurance, which began taking on water. Shackleton eventually gave the order to abandon ship and the Endurance sank a few weeks later on November 21, 1915.

The crew of the Endurance set up camps on various ice floes in the months that followed, with Shackleton hoping they would eventually drift toward Paulet Island, where he knew relief stores were cached. But when the ice floe they were on split in two in April 1916, Shackleton ordered the men into the lifeboats and to head to the nearest land. After five harrowing days, the crew landed at Elephant Island -- an inhospitable place far from any shipping routes and approximately 346 miles from where the Endurance sank.

At this point, Shackleton decided to risk a 720-nautical-mile, open-boat journey to seek help at the whaling stations on South Georgia Island. He selected five men to join him on the dangerous journey, including Worsley and Endurance’s carpenter, Harry McNish, who retrofitted one of the lifeboats to make it more seaworthy. The lifeboat--christened the James Caird after the expedition’s primary sponsor--was launched on April 24, 1916, and reached the unoccupied side of South Georgia Island on May 9.

After a few days of rest and recuperation, Shackleton, Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began an approximately 30-mile trek over uncharted, mountainous terrain en route to the whaling stations on the island’s northern coast. Thirty-six hours later, the three men reached the whaling station at Stromness on May 20, 1916.

Shackleton immediately sent a boat to pick up the other three crew members of the lifeboat James Caird on the other side of South Georgia Island while he planned the rescue of the remainder of Endurance’s crew at Elephant Island.

After a few attempts to reach Elephant Island were again thwarted by sea ice, Shackleton persuaded the Chilean government to offer the use of a small, seagoing tug boat called the Yelcho in the operation. The Yelcho and a British whaling boat, the SS Southern Sky, reached Elephant Island on August 30, 1916, and all 22 crew members of the Endurance were finally evacuated--after nearly 4 ½ months in isolation on Elephant Island.

Shackleton later traveled to New Zealand to join the Aurora, which had returned there after many months adrift attached to an ice floe, to set about rescuing members of the Ross Sea Party. That group was charged with laying out supply depots for Shackleton’s planned cross-continent march that never happened. Despite the many hardships and the loss of three crew members--including commander Mackintosh--the Ross Sea Party successfully completed its mission. The seven survivors of the group were finally picked up by the Aurora on January 10, 1917.

Upon his return to civilization, Shackleton embarked on the lecture circuit and published South, his personal account of the Endurance expedition. But he was in poor health and failed business ventures left him greatly in debt.

In September 1921, Shackleton partnered with former schoolmate John Quiller Rowett on one last expedition to the Antarctic region, the Shackleton-Rowett expedition, which was funded entirely by Rowett. On September 16, 1921--just days before the expedition left, Shackleton recorded a farewell address via an “optical sound track” via a system developed by Harry Grindell Matthews, who claimed it was the world’s first “talking picture.”

With the expedition in South Georgia, Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died January 5, 1922. He was buried at Grytviken cemetery in South Georgia.

Legacy lost...and rediscovered

Despite his achievements, Shackleton was largely overshadowed by other explorers, most notably Robert Scott, into the middle part of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1959, when Alfred Lansing published Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage that Shackleton began gaining popularity among the masses. Other books on Shackleton appeared and, at the same time, accounts about Scott’s exploits began to show him in a more negative light.

In 2001, Margaret Morrell and Stephanie Capparell used Shackleton as a model for corporate leadership in their book Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer. Other similar books followed and, soon, business and leadership courses and schools incorporating Shackleton’s name were popping up in his native United Kingdom as well as in the United States.

In fact, an Irish Times article posted March 30 discusses how a Harvard business professor uses Shackleton to teach her MBA students about success.

Shackleton’s surge in popularity among the masses was confirmed in a 2002 poll conducted by the BBC to determine the “100 Greatest Britons.” Shackleton was ranked 11th, while Scott dropped all the way down to No. 54.

A banjo...and a violin! 

Kat, the heroine of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is a composer who plays an electric violin. When Ernest Shackleton arrives in her apartment, he brings a banjo along with him.

As it so happens, both instruments were important to the crew of the Endurance. Leonard Hussey, Shackleton’s meteorologist, brought his banjo with him on the journey. While not an expert on the instrument, he claimed he played just “well enough to annoy the neighbors.”

Leonard Hussey's Banjo

Windsor, A.O. 
before 1913 
© National Maritime Museum Collections

During the expedition, Hussey’s playing of a banjo -- as well as a one-string violin he made out of vanasta wood from packing cases -- and his jovial nature proved important to raising the morale of the Endurance’s crew. In fact, even though Shackleton allowed his crew to take only two pounds worth of personal belongings with them when they abandoned the endurance, he made a last-minute decision to retrieve Hussey’s banjo from the Endurance just before it sank.

Hussey’s account of this moment is captured in 1957 book Shackleton by Margery and James Fisher, in which he is quoted as saying, “Sir Ernest saved the banjo just before the ship sank saying that, ‘we must have that banjo if we lose all our food, it’s vital mental medicine.’”

After most of the crew were left stranded on Elephant Island, Hussey would play songs to celebrate the capture of food and perform Saturday evening concerts.

And a century later, the music of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me serves as a celebration of the spirit of perseverance and romance of Shackleton’s era of exploration. 

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