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Book Review: Shackleton by Michael Smith

Thursday, October 30th, 2014 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

The furthest south of the Nimrod expedition, 9 January 1909. From left to right: Jameson Boyd Adams, Frank Wild, and Ernest Shackleton pose for a self portrait at 88°23'S, only 97 geographical miles (178 km) from the South Pole.

The furthest south of the Nimrod expedition, 9 January 1909. From left to right: Jameson Boyd Adams, Frank Wild, and Ernest Shackleton pose for a self portrait at 88°23’S, only 97 geographical miles (178 km) from the South Pole.

As the world marks the centennial of World War One, it’s in danger of forgetting that the year 1914 saw the beginning of one of the most ambitious Antarctic expeditions ever launched, the Endurance expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. A complex and driven man, Shackleton’s accomplishments were overshadowed by personal failures and a global war.

There hasn’t been a full biography of Shackleton since 1985, so to mark the centennial, Polar exploration expert Michael Smith has come out with Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. This detailed, 440-page study traces Shackleton’s life from his Anglo-Irish roots through his early years at sea and his first Antarctic expedition as a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition.

This expedition made the first aerial photographs of the Antarctic with the use of a balloon and penetrated the interior in a grueling march during which Shackleton collapsed with scurvy and perhaps heart trouble. He was sent back to England early. Shackleton suffered from heart trouble all his life and forbade doctors from listening to his chest for fear that he might be turned away from more adventures.

Trying to cut a path through the ice during the Endurance expedition. Photographer unknown.

Trying to cut a path through the ice during the Endurance expedition. Photographer unknown.

Despite these setbacks, exploration was in Shackleton’s blood. He desperately tried to raise funds for his own expedition, but he had no head for business and fell for numerous schemes, taking businessmen at their word and repeating their airy promises to potential backers. He was flighty in his personal life too, being absent from his wife and children for long periods and having a number of affairs.

Despite this, he was able to get backing to launch the Nimrod expedition, an attempt to reach the South Pole in 1907-9. Shackleton’s poor preparation and the lack of experience of most of the team stopped him from reaching the Pole, although he did make it further than any other explorer at the time.

The Endurance crushed by the ice. Photograph by Frank Hurley.

The Endurance crushed by the ice. Photograph by Frank Hurley.

Undaunted, Shackleton immediately planned another trip. He missed out on being the first to the South Pole when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached it on 14 December 1911, so he decided to do one better and cross Antarctica with dog sleds. This was the famous Endurance expedition of 1914-17. Underfunded, disorganized, poorly trained, and poorly equipped, this expedition also suffered from terrible luck. Shackleton’s boat Endurance was crushed by the ice and the crew had to sail in lifeboats to a windswept rock called Elephant Island. Already many of the men were suffering from frostbite and exhaustion. Shackleton took some of the best crew and went for help by sailing 800 miles through treacherous waters in the late autumn to reach the whaling stations of South Georgia Island.

Whatever Shackleton’s failings as a husband, organizer, and businessman, he was a true leader of men. His bravery and care for each of his crewmen led to their lifelong loyalty and the ultimate success of the rescue.  Shackleton was at his best when things were worst.

Michael Smith tells the life story of this intriguing man with vivid detail and lively prose. The exploration chapters are real page turners and Smith shows his expertise at biography by not falling into the traps of hagiography or over-analysis. Shackleton’s failings were far too apparent and his personality far too mysterious. So while we never get to the center of Shackleton, we do get a balanced, detailed look at the man.

Ernest Shackleton leaves Elephant Island on the James Caird with five other members of the expedition on 24 April 1916. Their goal is South Georgia Island 800 miles away. Twenty two men remain on Elephant Island, hopefully waiting. Photographer unknown.

Ernest Shackleton leaves Elephant Island with five other members of the expedition on 24 April 1916. Their goal is South Georgia Island 800 miles away. Twenty-two men remain on Elephant Island, hopefully waiting. Photographer unknown.

It’s a handsome edition as well, and in an age when copyediting is a low priority for many publishers, it’s gratifying to read a 440-page book and only catch one typo. The only other editorial slip was the decision to print most of the photographs at half a page. Endurance expedition photographer Frank Hurley produced some of the best images of the Antarctic even taken, and it’s a shame to see them reduced to smudgy images that lose much of their impact.

My only other quibble with this book was that there could have been some more detail about the men who went on the expeditions. Some of them, such as Hurley and Shackleton’s staunch supporter Frank Wild, are well-drawn, but others are given little coverage. This is especially noticeable with Perce Blackborow, a young Welsh sailor who stowed away on the Endurance. We never learn his motivations for stowing away or even Shackleton’s reaction to discovering him.

For anyone interested in a real-life adventure story that rivals fiction has to offer, Endurance by Michael Smith will be a valuable addition to their library.


Sean McLachlan is a freelance travel and history writer. He is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles. His most recent novel, Trench Raiders, takes place in the opening weeks of World War One. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

I received a free copy of Shackleton for review. All opinions are my own.

1 Comment »

  1. Of all the expeditions to stow away on. Somebody really needs to write a novel from Perce Blackborow’s perspective.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - October 31, 2014 10:51 pm


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