Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

The British explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922) is known for his ambitious examination of sections of Antarctica.

In the early 20th century, certain nations, especially Great Britain, Norway, and the United States, participated in attempts to reach the highest latitudes north and south. The motives for these expeditions were scientific attainment and national prestige. Sir Ernest Shackleton was to play an important role in the British expeditions to Antarctica.

Shackleton was born at Kilkee, County Kildare, Ireland, on Feb. 15, 1874. It has been noted that his "descent from north of England Quaker stock on his father's side and his Irish ancestry on his mother's may have accounted for the mingling of caution, perseverance, reckless courage, and strong idealism which were his leading characteristics." He joined the merchant service in 1890 and became a qualified master (1898) and a sublieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve (1901). Desirous of adventure and fame, he applied for a position in Robert F. Scott's Discovery expedition to the Antarctic in 1901. With Scott and one other, he sledged to 82°16'33"S latitude over the Ross Shelf Ice.

Returning home due to illness, in 1903, Shackleton undertook numerous engagements: secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (1904-1905) and employee of an engineering company in Glasgow. But his determined ambition lay in Antarctic conquest, and in 1907 he made his plans public. His principal object was to reach the South Pole; other aims were to explore the Ross Shelf Ice and King Edward VII Land and to reach the south magnetic pole. The expedition was largely financed by guarantees which would be redeemed by proceeds from lectures and publications following the voyage.

The Nimrod, a small whaler, reached the Ross Shelf Ice in January 1908. Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier, attained 88°23'S on the Antarctic Plateau on Jan. 9, 1909, and sent expeditions which reached the south magnetic pole and the summit of Mt. Erebus. On his return to England he became a popular hero, was knighted, and received numerous awards from geographical societies. The British government granted £20,000 toward the cost of the expedition. Shackleton made a lengthy lecturing tour and complied his account of the expedition, The Heart of the Antarctic (1909).

Shackleton now proposed to determine the extent of the Weddell Sea and adjacent lands and to complete a trans-Antarctic expedition. The Endurance and Aurora under government auspices sailed in 1914 for South Georgia. When the Endurance was crushed in the ice, Shackleton led heroic sledge and boat parties first to Elephant Island (reached April 15, 1916) and then to South Georgia (August 30), a total of some thousand miles. He completed the rescue operation in the Ross Sea, where the transpolar party was waiting, and returned home to write his account, South (1919).

Then followed numerous tasks, including a mission to South America on behalf of the British government to explain Allied war aims, and an expedition to northern Russia to organize winter equipment. But after World War I Shackleton returned to polar exploration and led an expedition financed by John Quiller Rowett to explore Enderby Land. Shackleton, however, died suddenly of angina pectoris on Jan. 5, 1922, and was buried on South Georgia Island.


Further Reading on Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

Shackleton's accounts of his explorations are in his The Heart of the Antarctic (2 vols., 1909) and South (1919). Two biographies are Hugh Robert Mill, The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1923), and Margery and James Fisher, Shackleton (1957). Books dealing with his polar exploits include Frank Wild, Shackleton's Last Voyage (1923), and Frank Hurley, Shackleton's Argonauts (1948). Useful background information on Shackleton and his expeditions is given in L. P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960). See also Robert F. Scott, Voyage of the "Discovery" (2 vols., 1905), and Frank Arthur Worsley, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (1931).