As the search begins for the wreck of Endurance in Antarctica, YM's literary contributor Julia Jones explains why she has chosen the re-released South for the Book at Bunktime for May 2022's Yachting Monthly
South by Ernest Shackleton
Folio Society edition (3 volume set with maps), £195
A Book at Bunktime for the May 2022 edition of Yachting Monthly
South tells an iconic tale – the slow, cracking death of the Endurance, crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea, months of survival for 28 men on an ice floe, then the voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia in the 22’ ship’s boat, James Caird and subsequent rescue attempts.
It’s such an astounding tale that it comes as something of a shock when the book doesn’t end with the relief of the men on Elephant Island but moves across to tell the simultaneous happenings on the Pacific side of the continent.
The original, overall expedition concept had been for a trans Antarctic crossing in two halves: one party – Shackleton’s – from the Weddell Sea; the other, led by Mackenzie and supported by SY Aurora, from the Ross Sea.
Theirs was a melancholic experience in which three men died, the Aurora drifted 705 miles, trapped in ice and its hard to avoid an impression of pointlessness.
Although that would reasonably be denied by the participants and scientists, the fascination of books like South is what they tell us about people, not the direction of ice drift, magnetic fields or meteorology.
Following the tale of the Endurance and the James Caird with the story of the Aurora and her team, offers an implicit illustration of contrasting leaderships and why Shackleton was extraordinary.
His positivity and practicality comes through almost every sentence.
Ernest Shackleton himself gives generous recognition to his second in command Frank Wild who had the particularly difficult job of keeping the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island alive and in good spirits.
They were within two days of starvation when Shackleton and the Chilean ship Yelcho finally achieved rescue.
South – and the earlier two volume Heart of Antarctica, describing the 1907-1909 British attempt at the South Pole – are classics of the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration when governments supported such high-profile adventures as a matter of national pride.
On August 4th 1914 King George V sent for Shackleton and handed him a Union Jack.
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War was declared at midnight that night. Shackleton and his crew at once pledged themselves to serve as a unit: ‘There were enough of us to man a small destroyer’, Shackleton wrote.
But the King and the Admiralty were adamant the expedition should continue, and Endurance sailed from Plymouth on Saturday 8th. From December 5th 1914 when she left South Georgia the crew had no more knowledge of the events in the wider world for almost two years.
After their various rescues in 1917 almost all of the men immediately joined up. Three were killed and five wounded. Shackleton himself went to Russia.
He dedicated South to ‘My Comrades, who fell in the white warfare of the south and on the red fields of France and Flanders.
Both South and The Heart of Antarctica were dictated by Ernest Shackleton to Edward Saunders, a journalist.
Some use is also made of other people’s diaries and an outstanding feature of this edition of South is the re-digitalising of Frank Hurley’s photographs.
He selected and saved these as the Endurance went down, smashing on the ice those he couldn’t carry with him.
The Heart of the Antarctic (the Nimrod expedition) also includes many evocative photographs as well as watercolours and maps.
For this centenary edition Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra has written an introduction.
She quotes her grandfather’s list of necessary qualities for a polar explorer as being ‘Optimism, Patience, Idealism and Imagination, Courage.’
Qualities which we might all aspire towards, demonstrated here under the harshest conditions.
Visit the Yachting Monthly Book Club for more of the best sailing books released this year.
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