Joanna Kavenna

Flawed, unproductive and heroic: the real Ernest Shackleton

A review of Shackleton, by Michael Smith. It’s a classic story and Smith tells it with passion and commitment – especially when he tames his clauses

Polar explorers are often cast as mavericks, and this is hardly surprising. The profession requires a disdain for pseudo-orthodoxies and, besides, the urge to dwell on a frozen ocean or forbidding glacier is maverick in itself. In the so-called Heroic Age (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) both Poles remained ‘unconquered’ and the margin between glory and opprobrium was slender. Frederick Cook and Robert Peary claimed that they reached the North Pole in 1908 and 1909 respectively. Their accounts were later discredited. When Roald Amundsen beat Captain Robert Scott to the South Pole in 1911, he was accused (unfairly) of concealing his plans and was summarily shunned by the British establishment. Scott meanwhile forced his expedition on, but in doing so condemned it to disaster. Fending off his critics like an irascible eagle, Amundsen went north again and again, by boat, airship and plane, until, in 1928, he vanished into the ice.

Ernest Shackleton has traditionally been commended for restraint and for sparing the lives of his men. In 1901, Shackleton had served as third officer on Scott’s Discovery expedition, but he fell ill and was shipped home early.  This was fairly ignominious; so in 1907 Shackleton led the Nimrod expedition south, hoping to redeem himself. With the Pole 97 geographical miles away, he made the decision to turn back and survive. Later, Shackleton famously escaped from impossible carnage when his ship Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea, miles from habitable land.

Michael Smith describes such trials in the ferocious and beguiling detail favoured by polar historians. Smith has previously published works on Irish explorer Tom Crean, Irish exploration in general, Captain ‘Titus’ Oates, and an introduction to Shackleton aimed at children, Shackleton: The Boss. His new biography is clearly aimed at adults; he is more loquacious on Shackleton’s financial woes and extramarital affairs, for example.

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