Ernest Shackleton was born on 15th February, 1874AD, in Kilkea near Athy, County Kildare, Ireland, about 46 miles (74 km) from Dublin.
Ernest’s father was Henry Shackleton, and his mother was Henrietta Letitia Sophia Gavan. His father’s family was Anglo-Irish, originally from Yorkshire, England. His mother’s family was Irish, from Counties Cork and Kerry.
Ernest was the second of their ten children and the first of two sons; the second, Frank, achieved notoriety as a suspect (later exonerated) in the 1907AD theft of Ireland’s Crown Jewels. In 1880AD, when Ernest was six, Henry Shackleton gave up his life as a landowner to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, moving his family into the city. Four years later, the family moved again, from Ireland to Sydenham in suburban London. Partly, this was in search of better professional prospects for the newly qualified doctor, but another factor may have been unease about their Anglo-Irish ancestry, following the assassination by Irish Nationalists of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the British Chief Secretary for Ireland, in 1882AD.
Shackleton’s restlessness at school was such, that he was allowed to leave at 16 years of age, and go to sea. The options available to him, were a Royal Naval Cadetship at HMS Britannia, which Dr Shackleton could not afford; the mercantile marine cadet ships Worcester and Conway; or an apprenticeship ‘before the mast’ on a sailing vessel. The third option was chosen.
His father was able to secure him a berth with the North Western Shipping Company, aboard the square-rigged sailing ship Hoghton Tower. During the following four years at sea, Shackleton learned his trade, visiting the far corners of the earth and forming acquaintances with a variety of people from many walks of life, learning to be at home with all kinds of men. In August 1894AD, he passed his examination for Second Mate and accepted a post as Third Officer on a Tramp Steamer of the Welsh Shire Line. Two years later, he had obtained his First Mate’s ticket, and in 1898AD, he was certified as a Master Mariner, qualifying him to command a British ship anywhere in the world.
The National Antarctic Expedition, known as the Discovery Expedition after the ship Discovery, was the brainchild of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, and had been many years in preparation. It was led by Robert Falcon Scott, a Royal Navy torpedo Lieutenant lately promoted Commander, and had objectives that included scientific and geographical discovery. Although Discovery was not a Royal Navy unit, Scott required the crew, officers and scientific staff to accept voluntarily the conditions of the Naval Discipline Act, and the ship and expedition were run on Royal Navy lines. Shackleton accepted this, even though his own background and instincts favoured a different, more informal style of leadership. Shackleton’s particular duties were listed as: “In charge of seawater analysis. Ward Room caterer. In charge of holds, stores and provisions. He also arranges the entertainments.”
Discovery departed London on 31st July, 1901AD, arriving at the Antarctic coast, via Cape Town and New Zealand, on 8th January, 1902AD.
After landing, Shackleton took part in an experimental balloon flight on 4th February, 1902AD. He also participated, with the scientists Edward Wilson and Hartley Ferrar, in the first sledging trip from the expedition’s winter quarters in McMurdo Sound – a journey which established a safe route onto the Great Ice Barrier. During the Antarctic winter of 1902AD, in the confines of the iced-in Discovery, Shackleton edited the expedition’s magazine ‘The South Polar Times’. According to Steward Clarence Hare, he was “the most popular of the officers among the crew, being a good mixer”, though claims that this represented an unofficial rival leadership to Scott’s are unsupported.
Scott chose Shackleton to accompany Wilson and himself on the expedition’s southern journey, a march southwards to achieve the highest possible latitude in the direction of the South Pole. This march was not a serious attempt on the Pole, although the attainment of a high latitude was of great importance to Scott, and the inclusion of Shackleton indicated a high degree of personal trust.
The party set out on 2nd November, 1902AD. The march was, Scott wrote later, “a combination of success and failure”. A record Farthest South latitude of 82° 17′ was reached, beating the previous record established in 1900AD, by Carsten Borchgrevink. The journey was marred by the poor performance of the dogs, whose food had become tainted, and who rapidly fell sick. All 22 dogs died during the march. The three men all suffered at times from snow blindness, frostbite and ultimately, scurvy. On the return journey, Shackleton had by his own admission “broken down” and could no longer carry out his share of the work. He would later deny Scott’s claim in ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’, that he had been carried on the sledge. However, he was in a seriously weakened condition. Wilson’s diary entry for 14th January, 1903AD reads: “Shackleton has been anything but up to the mark, and today he is decidedly worse, very short winded and coughing constantly, with more serious symptoms that need not be detailed here but which are of no small consequence one hundred and sixty miles from the ship”.
On 4th February, 1903AD, the party finally reached the ship. After a medical examination (which proved inconclusive), Scott decided to send Shackleton home on the relief ship Morning, which had arrived in McMurdo Sound in January 1903AD. Scott wrote: “He ought not to risk further hardship in his present state of health.” There is conjecture that Scott’s motives for removing him was resentment of Shackleton’s popularity, and that ill-health was used as an excuse to get rid of him. Years after the deaths of Scott, Wilson and Shackleton, Albert Armitage, the expedition’s Second-in-Command, claimed that there had been a falling-out on the southern journey, and that Scott had told the ship’s doctor, “if he does not go back sick he will go back in disgrace.” There is no corroboration of Armitage’s story however.
Shackleton and Scott stayed on friendly terms, at least until the publication of Scott’s account of the southern journey in ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’. Although in public they remained mutually respectful and cordial, according to biographer Roland Huntford, Shackleton’s attitude to Scott turned to “smouldering scorn and dislike”, and salvage of wounded pride required “a return to the Antarctic and an attempt to outdo Scott”.
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