This year marks the centenary of the relief of the celebrated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which was led by legendary polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
I recently attended a dinner at The Geographical Club in London to celebrate the occasion. The Club was founded in 1819 for; "the attainment, at a moderate expense, of an agreeable, friendly and rational Society formed by persons who have visited every part of the Globe.” As an institution, it has a rather distinguished history and was instrumental in founding the more famous Royal Geographical Society in 1830. Shackleton himself was a member, along with other famous names from the world of exploration, including Fridtjof Nansen and Dame Freya Stark. Shackleton has always been something of a personal hero of mine and on show that evening was a rather unusual memento from the expedition.
At first sight, it’s a hastily sketched drawing showing Antarctica, which was very much terra incognita at the time. Yet this dog-eared and faded document offers a tantalising glimpse into an epic story of survival, one which has become a byword for heroic endeavour in modern times.
Whilst gathering funds for the Expedition in March 1914, Shackleton drew a map explaining his plans to a prospective donor over dinner. He made his pitch using the back of a menu and the rough sketch Shackleton drew shows the route that the expedition planned to take across the Antarctic continent. As an afterthought, he also added a small diagram showing how to determine the location of the South Pole using a sextant.
The Expedition departed in August 1914 in high spirits, yet things went awry before their ship, the Endurance, had even made landfall. The gripping story that followed is well known. The Endurance was crushed in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea and sank, forcing the crew to make a perilous journey to remote Elephant Island where it quickly became apparent there was no hope of outside help. A small group, led by Shackleton, then sailed a 22 foot lifeboat, the James Caird, across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia in search of rescue, an exceptionally dangerous, 800 mile voyage in the depths of winter. Upon landfall, Shackleton then lead the first crossing of the unmapped mountainous interior before finally reaching safety.
Whilst Shackleton achieved none of the goals sketched out with such confidence in 1914, the story of survival in the face of overwhelming odds during the two years that elapsed before the team were safely rescued, is no less remarkable for it.
What I like most about this unassuming document is what it says about Shackleton’s drive and sense of purpose – condensing an audacious plan to cross Antarctica into a few confident strokes of the pen. It speaks volumes about his vision as well, something he was able to successfully refocus from polar exploration, to one of pure survival at all costs, with considerable aplomb.
Shackleton wrote in his diary at the time “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground”. Forced to constantly adapt to changing circumstance, Shackleton also had a knack for inspiring his colleagues. “(He) had a genius for keeping those about him in high spirits…he inspired the kind of loyalty which prevented them from allowing themselves to get depressed over anything” wrote Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance. The new goal of the expedition became rescuing his entire crew from a remote and desolate region when no one else knew where they were and there was no communication with the outside world. Shackleton instilled hope and belief that they would all survive.
The expedition departed for Antarctica on the eve of war, a dark and ominous time for the community of nations. In today’s increasingly uncertain world, perhaps we can also draw some inspiration from his example. As Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London commented in the recent memorial service honouring the great man at Westminster Abbey; "Shackleton held together a disparate group in appalling conditions, avoiding cliques and treating everyone equally. All ranks were expected to scrub the decks and do routine tasks. He never took unnecessary risks, improvised in a crisis and never asked others to do what he would not do himself.
He was also a genuine hero with extraordinary leadership gifts which continue to inspire emulation at a time when in so many fields, there is a need for inspiring leadership”.
Jonathan Stevens is Head of Client Solutions at Impact UK.