Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Adventure classics -- All endured, all came back

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

by Alfred Lansing


He died a failure in the eyes of the world, forever in debt, never accomplishing the adventures he set out to do. Instead, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton performed perhaps the greatest of all feats: he brought his crew safely back from one of the most horrific explorations in history.

In his lifetime, Irish-born Shackleton seemed like an also-ran. His naval career began not with the Royal Navy like rival explorer Robert Scott’s, but as an ordinary sailor on merchant vessels. In his first Antarctic voyage in 1901, he played second string to Scott, who heaped scorn on Shackleton in his account of the expedition. Beaten on attempts to reach the South Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen (and by Scott, who died in his attempt), a Dublin paper’s headline, “South Pole Almost Reached by Irishman,” summed it up. It was always “almost” for Shackleton.

Still, by the second decade of the twentieth century, he’d found a project both worthy and potentially lucrative¾ a race not just to the pole, but across the entire southernmost continent. The expedition bore the grandiose title, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. To document its supposed glories, the expedition’s crew included photographer Frank Hurley, whose 1915 photo illustrates this post.

The plan, Alfred Lansing wrote in his 1959 account, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, was “typical of Shackleton¾ purposeful, bold and neat. He had not the slightest doubt that the expedition would achieve its goal.”

The expedition received King George V;s blessing on the very day in 1914 that Great Britain declared war on Germany. Should the crew sail for Antarctica or place themselves at the service of their country? They offered to stay, their government said, “go.” After all, the war would soon be over, wouldn’t it?

Stymied previously by ships that became icebound in Antarctic waters, for this voyage Shackleton bought a ship from one of the world’s most famous polar shipbuilding firms and christened her Endurance.

In spite of the shipbuilder’s care, in January 1915, the height of the Antarctic summer, Endurance became stuck fast in the ice. For nearly a year, she and her crew drifted north with the moving ice pack until, crushed by the ice, she finally sank on November 21, 1915. The crew never set foot on the land surface of the great southern continent.

Shackleton’s crew rescued their lifeboats from the Endurance, dragging them over the disintegrating ice for more months until they found open channels. Their struggle to survive would last until May 1916. In the course of it, they would endure voyages in their small open boats through some of the world’s coldest, and stormiest, seas. They all survived.

Shackleton would die in 1922 of a heart attack. His fame was soon eclipsed by that of Scott, who had perished with his picked band of companions on a final push for the South Pole. Not until Lansing’s 1959 book did his reputation recover. Because, after all, he returned with all hands safe. It was a lesson the world had finally learned to appreciate.

I’d slotted another sea adventure story, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, for today’s post. But on reading it, I learned that Verne proclaimed his crew of castaways the most ingenious in fiction, even surpassing those of Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, scheduled for the first week of September. So I’ve moved Verne’s book to the last Wednesday of August, toe to toe with Wyss’s. May the best castaways win!

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an August of adventures at sea with another story of World War I, Colin Simpson’s The Luisitania.)

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