The Last Heroic Stand in the Age of Exploration

04 May 2018

Empire and Globalism | History

Age of Exploration, Adam Matthew's new collection for May 2018, contains over 2,400 documents that reveal the history of maritime exploration; explorers, navigators, diplomats, pirates and spies all feature in the pages of this fantastic resource. Well-known voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Captain Cook, Abel Tasman, Bligh’s Bounty and the infamous mutiny aboard its decks, and Franklin’s lost expedition, to name a few, are represented within the collection. One such famous expedition is Shackleton’s aptly named Endurance

Heralded as the last great expedition in the age of polar exploration, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, as it was officially known, was intended to scoop up one of the few remaining ‘firsts’ in maritime history. The race for the poles had been won, disputedly, by Peary in the north and Amundsen in the south, and Shackleton sought to be the first to transit the Antarctic continent through a combination of dog-sled and motorised sledge. What followed was, in my opinion, the greatest expedition in maritime history. It was quite literally the coolest… I regret nothing. 

On 8th August 1914, just days after the outbreak of the First World War the Endurance crew departed on their expedition, first to Buenos Aires and then on to South Georgia. The crew was made up of 28 men with 69 dogs. Their route was intended to take them to the Ross Sea, with a shore party expected to carry out scientific work, and another two parties going inland to establish base camps. They would then make their transit across the continent with a second crew in the Aurora leaving supplies for them at agreed depots. However, when they reached the Weddell Sea, the ice was so great that their progress was slowed. They had to continually break through the ice and eventually, they became trapped in the pack ice. This short clip from 'South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic' shows their progress through the ice.

Clip from South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic Â© British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The ice eventually closed completely around the Endurance, trapping the ship within the pack. Because of the winds and tides, the pack ice carried the ship further from land each day. By February 1915 the Endurance had reached as far south as it would and then began to drift northwards. At this point Shackleton and the crew realised that they would have to winter on the pack ice. The sun set on the Endurance in May 1915 and would not rise again for three months. 

The ice began to break up at the end of July and rather than freeing the ship, it built pressure against the edges of the Endurance. The ship could not withstand this; it was abandoned in October 1915 and was slowly crushed over the subsequent weeks. Having lost their ship, the crew set up camp on the pack ice; they named it Ocean Camp. Their precarious situation camping on ice meant the crew were constantly aware of the danger they were in. This short note outlines the emergency procedures to be adopted should they have to abandon Ocean Camp quickly.

Emergency Stations, Ocean Camp No 4 tent © Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Emergency Stations, Ocean Camp No 4 tent © Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to view this document.

By March 1916 the pack ice had drifted into sight of land. When the pack ice beneath them opened suddenly in April 1916, the crew were forced into the lifeboats and sailed for Elephant Island, their nearest possible refuge – 100 miles away. For around a week the crew endured the gruelling task of sailing the lifeboats between the floe and camping on the ice when the floe was impassable, all the while watching for any break-up of the ice on which they were camping. They finally made it to Elephant Island and established a base there.

After a short recovery on Elephant Island, Shackleton prepared to captain one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to South Georgia, this was considered the only realistic course of action for rescue. Shackleton along with five other men made the arduous 800-mile voyage through icy winds and snow.

The final leg of the rescue mission was undertaken by Shackleton, Frank Worsley the navigator and Tom Crean. They hiked through the interior of South Georgia; terrain that had never been mapped or surveyed before. Arriving at the whaling station 20th May 1916. Shackleton sent a boat back for their two shipmates on South Georgia, organised rescue of the crew at Elephant Island. 

Shackleton led the expedition, kept up morale, felt grave responsibility for his crew members and, even after experiencing such hardship, there was no loss of life among the crew of the Endurance. The crew returned to war-torn Europe piecemeal throughout 1916 and 1917, many of whom were awarded the Polar medal and Shackleton became lauded as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

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About the Author

Erin Pearson

Erin Pearson

Since joining Adam Matthew in October 2014 I've had the opportunity to work on some fantastic resources including, Eighteenth Century Drama, Trade Catalogues and the American Home and, most recently, Age of Exploration.

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