From below-zeros to absolute heroes

Nimrod - Sir James Wordie, Polar Crusader
August 12, 2005

Less than a decade ago, the exploits of Ernest Shackleton were largely forgotten in Britain and America. Then, in 1999, an exhibition in New York and a book by Caroline Alexander fixed attention on the astonishing story of Shackleton's Endurance expedition (1914-17). Books about the "heroic age" of polar exploration have proliferated over the past five years. Yet, amid this torrent of publications, the expedition that propelled Shackleton to fame in 1909 has been largely neglected.

Beau Riffenburgh's readable and superbly researched Nimrod presents the first detailed history of Shackleton's greatest expedition. It has been worth the wait. His book entertains the general reader and provides polar specialists with a definitive account of one of the key expeditions in the history of exploration.

Chapter one describes Shackleton's participation in Robert Scott's earlier Discovery expedition, in which Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson achieved a new "farthest south", about 772km from the pole. The three men barely survived, with Shackleton suffering worst. The chapter provides a dramatic opening and establishes the personal rivalry and feelings of failure that would drive Shackleton back to the Antarctic. Chapters two to ten narrate Shackleton's early life, interspersed with discussions of the history of exploration, the political climate and the popular imperialism that, Riffenburgh argues, dominated British society then.

Scott insisted that Shackleton return to England with the relief ship Morning after their southern march. The relationship between the two men appears to have remained healthy after the return of the Discovery in 1904.

But the stain on his reputation deepened, and Shackleton resolved to command his own southern voyage, a resolution that would fracture his friendships with Scott and Wilson.

Shackleton stretched his considerable powers of persuasion to the limit in gathering the finance for his expedition, which sailed in 1907 on board the battered sealer Nimrod . Chapters 11 to 22 chronicle the experiences of the seamen, scientists and adventurers, who spent 14 months in the Antarctic between January 1908 and March 1909.

The party established its base camp at Cape Royds on Ross Island. Although poorly funded and hurriedly prepared, the expedition achieved significant results, including the first ascent of Mount Erebus and the location of the southern magnetic pole. The most memorable achievement was the southern march by Shackleton, his second-in-command Jameson Adams, the surgeon Eric Marshall, and the seaman Frank Wild. Supported only by four ponies, the men succeeded in marching within 156km of the South Pole.

The party pioneered a route from the barrier up the great glacier to the polar plateau, a route Scott would follow three years later. Shackleton noted that they had beaten the previous southern record by 589km, and the northern by 124km.

The book is based on a thorough survey of the papers of the principal actors held in Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute. Riffenburgh deploys these sources with skill. He is sympathetic to Shackleton but works hard to offer a balanced interpretation of a complex man.

Although he underestimates the demands of loyalty in the Edwardian mindset, Riffenburgh's analysis of Shackleton's decision to break his promise to Scott and make camp in McMurdo Sound is essential reading on a dispute that has been raked over by so many authors. Riffenburgh also rescues the Nimrod 's scientific achievements from neglect, arguing that Shackleton's lack of enthusiasm for research has overshadowed the valuable work of Marshall, Edgworth David, Douglas Mawson and Raymond Priestley during the expedition.

Riffenburgh makes much of Shackleton's decision to turn back rather than to press on to the pole. Although Scott is not mentioned here, the contrast between them is clearly implied. Scott's party, however, was in much better shape than Shackleton's at the same stage of the journey. Had Shackleton come so close to his dream in such good condition would he still have turned back? Probably not.

The final chapter presents a fascinating account of the "Heroes' return", but there should have been more about the aftermath of the expedition. Why did a leader who showed such compassion for the wellbeing of his men in the Antarctic appear so indifferent to their finances once back in England?

The restless Shackleton sailed to the Antarctic again in 1914. After the Endurance was crushed in the ice, Shackleton and five companions embarked on an 800-mile voyage in an old lifeboat to South Georgia to raise the alarm. Michael Smith's Sir James Wordie, Polar Crusader is the first biography of one of the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island to endure an Antarctic winter beneath two upturned boats.

Wordie, who was born in 1889 to the wealthy owner of a Scottish haulage company, excelled as a geology student at Glasgow and Cambridge universities before sailing with Shackleton. Smith illuminates neglected aspects of the glittering career that Wordie forged after his rescue, crowned by the mastership of St John's College, Cambridge, and the presidency of the Royal Geographical Society in the 1950s.

Smith's central argument is that, influenced by the Scottish explorer William Bruce, Wordie pioneered a new style of polar exploration in Britain between the wars. In place of the unwieldy "heroic age" endeavours, Wordie favoured small, scientific expeditions confined to the summer months. Size and brevity reduced costs, while summer voyages fitted neatly into the rhythms of academic life. Smith estimates that Wordie had a direct role in about ten of the sixty British polar expeditions despatched between 1919 and 1939 and played a crucial part encouraging figures such as Vivian Fuchs and Gino Watkins. Wordie provided the "link between the old heroic age and the new mechanised and scientific age which blossomed in the 1920s and 1930s".

Smith, who was approached by Peter Wordie to write a biography of his father, has made good use of family papers to compose a conventional biography of a fascinating man. The book is aimed at general readers and includes an extensive abridgement of Wordie's previously unpublished Endurance diary.

The book highlights the need for a broader study of British cultures of exploration after 1918. The biographical format does not do justice to the distinctive culture of university exploration between the wars, which, though inspired by Scott and Shackleton, seems to have self-consciously turned its back on heroic endeavour. Wordie himself remains elusive. Smith clearly traces Wordie's reserved character, but the motivations that drove him to achieve such public success remain unexplored.

Max Jones is lecturer in modern British history, Manchester University.

Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the Extraordinary Story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition

Author - Beau Riffenburgh
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 358
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 7475 7254 2

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