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OTD: 16 January 1909: Irishman Ernest Shackleton’s expedition discovers the South Pole

On this day in 1909, Ernest Shackleton’s expedition reached the magnetic South Pole. The famous trek, led by Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer Sir Shackleton, was known as the “Farthest South” expedition, and included the first ascent of Antarctica’s Mount Erebus – along with the discovery of a passage through the daunting Beardmore Glacier.

While Shackleton was made a Knight for his efforts upon his return, the expedition was, however, only regarded as a partial success owing to the fact that the stated goal of reaching the geographic South Pole was not achieved.

Shackleton fell just 97 miles short of discovering the geographic South Pole. He had set off two years previously, in 1907, aboard his ship Nimrod, after securing the backing of multiple sponsors, including Clydebank shipbuilder William Beardmore, later Lord Invernairn. Onboard the old Arctic vessel, which was in poor condition, were a crew made up of sailors, scientists, civilians, and even a paying guest. Ponies, dogs, and a motor car were brought along for transport on the ice. 

Irish roots

The famous polar explorer was born in Kilkea in Kildare in February 1874. His family were of English origin, and hailed from Yorkshire, before Shackleton’s grandfather, Abraham Shackleton, an English Quaker, moved to Ireland in 1726, starting a school in Ballitore in Kildare. When Ernest was just six, his father, Henry, moved the family to Dublin where he had gotten a place to study medicine at Trinity College. 

Four years later, the family moved to the London suburb of Sydenham, where his father sought better professional prospects as a newly qualified doctor. It was here he would practise medicine for 30 years. The move could also have been motivated by a sense of uneasiness regarding the family’s Anglo-Irish ancestry. Following the assassination at the hands of irish nationalists of Lord Frederick Cavendish, who was the British Chief Secretary for Ireland, which occurred in 1882, and had caused sustained tension. Shackleton’s younger brother, Frank, had come to notoriety as a suspect in the 1907 theft of the so-called Irish Crown Jewels, but was later exonerated. However, the jewels were never recovered.

Despite his British ancestry, Shackleton was proud of his Irish roots throughout his life, and was known to declare, “I am an Irishman”. 

As a child, Shackleton had an insatiable appetite for reading, which was a pastime which ignited a passion for adventure. Schooled by a governess in London until the age of 11, he entered Dulwich college at 13. He never set himself apart as a scholar as a young man, instead admitting he was “bored” by his studies. Later, he said he never learned much geography at school. In his final term at school, however, a bright Shackleton came fifth place in his class of 31. 

Shackleton was, however, so restless at school that he was permitted to leave at the age of 16 and go to sea. He started an apprenticeship “before the mast” on a sailing vessel, and went on to spend four years at sea learning his trade. During this time, he visited the far corners of the earth and met many people from all walks of life, learning to get along with different types of men.

Ernest Shackleton before 1909 (Credit: Nasjonalbiblioteket)

By 1898, he was a certified master mariner, which qualified him to command a British ship anywhere in the world. In March 1900, he met army lieutenant Cedric Longstaff, whose father was the main financial backer of the National Antarctic Expedition which was at the time being organised in London.

He used his connection with Longstaff’s son to obtain an interview with his father, hoping to secure a place on the expedition to the South Pole. Longstaff was impressed by the young man’s eagerness and recommended him to the expedition’s overlord, Sir Clements Markham. 

On 17 February 1901, he was appointed as third officer to the expedition’s ship Discovery. On 4 June, he was commissioned into the Royal Navy, with the rank of sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve. This marked the end of Shackleton’s ten years in the Merchant Navy, even though he was officially on leave.

The Discovery

In the summer of 1901, the ship The Discovery departed for the Antarctic. On 30 December 1902, Scott, along with Shackleton and Wilson, reached within 400 miles of the South Pole – which was the furthest south to have been achieved by anyone. 

On the return journey, Shackleton was invalidated and was sent home early. However, his experience on the expedition encouraged him to try and reach the South Pole himself. On returning home, in 1904, he married Emily Dorman and the couple had three children – Raymond, Cecily, and Edward.

Sir Ernest Shackleton and his wife (Credit: Library of Congress)

While there had been several earlier attempts to reach the magnetic south pole before Shackleton’s expedition, all of these ultimately ended in failure. These included those of French explorer Dumont d’Urville (in 1837-40), American explorer Charles Wikes (1838-42), and British explorer James Clark Ross (1839-43).

On 23 January 1838, the first calculation of the magnetic inclination to locate the magnetic South Pole was made by Clément Adrien Vincendon-Dumoulin, a hydrographer who discovered Adelie Land. It was in January 1909 that three men – Douglas Mawson, Edgeworth David, and Alistair Mackay – from Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition finally claimed to have found the magnetic South Pole, which was, at that time, located on land.

Claiming it for the British Empire, they planted a flagpole at the spot. While they began their expedition to the south pole in a motor car, they were forced to abandon the car, which had been specially adapted for cold conditions, because it was of no use on soft surfaces. This meant they walked a total of 1260 miles in perilous conditions to reach the south magnetic pole – facing dangers including frostbite and snow blindness on route.

Nimrod Expedition

The famous Nimrod Expedition began over a year earlier, on 1 January 1908, when the Nimrod set off on the British Antarctic Expedition from New Zealand. 

While he had originally envisaged using the old Discovery base in McMurdo Sound to launch his expedition to the South Pole and South Magnetic Pole, prior to departing England, he had been pressured not to base himself there. He reluctantly agreed to look for winter quarters at either the Barrier Inlet—which Discovery had briefly visited in 1902—or King Edward VII Land. 

However, ice conditions ended up being unstable, meaning it was impossible ton secure a safe base. Shackleton would end up going against advice and setting sail for McMurdo Sound, a move which was described by second officer Arthur Harboard, as being “dictated by common sense”. Nimrod arrived at McMurdo Sound on 29 January –  but was stopped by ice 16 miles short of Discovery’s old base at Hut Point. There were significant delays owing to the weather, but Shackleton eventually established a base at Cape Royds, roughly 24 miles north of Hut Point. 

His party was in high spirits, in spite of the challenges and poor conditions they had faced. An upbeat and agreeable Shackleton had the ability to communicate well with each man, which kept them focused and happy. 

The expedition’s ‘Great Southern Journey’ began on 29 October 1908, and by 9 January, Shackleton and three companions – Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams – had reached a new Farthest South latitude of 88° 23′ S, a point only 112 miles (180 km) from the Pole. The group became the first people to see and travel on the South Polar Plateau, after they discovered the Beardmore Glacier – named after Shackleton’s patron – on route.

However, returning to McMurdo Sound proved to be a race against starvation, with the group on half-rations for a lot of the journey. An ailing Frank Wild recalled Shackleton’s kindness during the hardship suffered on route home. Wild detailed how Shackleton, at one point, gave his one biscuit allotted for the day to Wild, who wrote: “All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me”. Thankfully, the men arrived at Hut Point just in time to catch the ship.

Along with the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the expedition’s other main accomplishment included the discovery of the South Magnetic Pole, which was reached on 16 January by Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson, and Alastair Mackay. The three men walked on foot across one of the world’s coldest places, facing huge dangers posed by the conditions, such as falling into concealed snow crevasses along the way. They too feared starvation, and had to strictly ration their biscuits down to the crumbs, also hunting seals and penguins to stay alive.

Shackleton would return to the United Kingdom to a hero’s welcome, and he was knighted for his efforts. However, the expedition can only be regarded as a partial success, because he did not manage to reach the geographic South Pole – one of his major goals. While he came close, Shackleton turned back 97 miles of the pole.

Ernest Shackleton visits Parliament in 1909 (Credit: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

His wife, Emily Shackleton later wrote: “The only comment he made to me about not reaching the Pole was ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’ and I said ‘Yes darling, as far as I am concerned'”.

The life of the prolific explorer and leader is recounted by the Shackleton family to this day on a website dedicated to Sir Ernest Shackleton. 

In 2002, a new biography of Shackleton, ‘An Irishman in Antarctica’, featuring 100 photographs, some of them never before seen, was published. The book details his four expeditions to Antarctica and probes into his family history, including the Shackletons’ Quaker roots.

A relentless Shackleton went on two further Antarctic expeditions – the Endurance Expedition (1914-16) and the Quest Expedition (1921-1922). However, his 1921 trip on the Quest was to be his final journey. The father of three, then aged just 47, died of a heart attack on 5 January 1922 shortly after the expedition began, at Grytviken in South Georgia where he was buried.

Credit: (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A few months later, while on their journey home, the crew of the Quest erected a cross at King Edward Point, across the bay from the cemetery where Shackleton is buried.

Shackleton’s grave (C: Wikimedia Commons, cc by 2.0)
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