Shackleton, warts and all
19 November 2015
Another day on the Southern Seas, another day closer to South Georgia, with time to take in a few lectures on the way. Thank you historian Victoria Salem for reminding us that Shackleton wasn’t a god but mere mortal – one with multiple flaws at that.
Shackleton was a bit of a dilettante, dabbling in just about anything to make a quick buck – taxi fleets in Bulgaria, gold in Hungary, fancy cigarettes to the Americans, as well as journalism, and, unsuccessfully, politics. He was something of a philanderer as well. Rumour has it he raised substantial sponsorship for his ventures from wealthy Londoners keen to rid him from the company of their wives.
But let’s get back on track. It’s in exploration he made his name. He was a man frankly hopeless at domesticity who needed a challenge to show his colours, and he had an unusually sensitive nature capable of extraordinarily enlightening feats of leadership.
‘The Boss’, as his men called him, was according to Raymond Priestly, ‘the greatest leader on God’s Earth, bar none’.
He signed up with the Merchant Marine at 16. For a while he refrained from the pleasure of drink and tobacco and regularly read passages from the Bible, but the tough life at sea put stop to that. It was dangerous, physically crushing work – and he had good captains, and bad. Lessons learned in these early years were to mould his famous style of leadership that we remember him for today. Just as examples:
- he believed passionately that a good boss could lighten the burden of work and create a conducive atmosphere for the whole working team
- that refusing to use the best tools available unfairly burdens workers
- and most importantly, there was no failing in showing compassion toward those who were ill, or miserable, or homesick – as Shackleton had been.
His first trip down south in a quest to reach the South Pole was with Captain Robert F. Scott’s ‘Discovery’ expedition of 1901-1904. Three of them – Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson – man-hauled sleds across the icy wilderness, but didn’t get so far. At 83 degrees south they turned around.
It was a bad trip for Shackleton. All three of the men suffered scurvy but Shackleton also showed signs of heart and lung problems that were to plague him through his life – and Scott made a decision to send Shackleton back to England before the expedition had reached fruition.
More lessons for Shackleton: he was only human and super competitive! He wouldn’t be travelling with Scott again. And perhaps, too, as an outsider – the boy with an Irish lilt in a smart London school – he discovered what he didn’t want to be.
- he didn’t want to be overly controlling, rather give his men responsibility and a measure of independence
- he didn’t wan to stand aloof, rather build trust and communicate openly
- and most importantly – and in my mind what set him aside – was that he rejected the military training of the day which dictated that to win the prize, the loss of life might be necessary. No pyrrhic victories for Shackleton. He called himself ‘Old Cautious’ and in his view, nothing was worth the loss of a human life. On this point, he was way ahead of his time.
So, after those various business dabblings mentioned before, Shackleton successfully raised funds to go South again on his own ‘Nimrod’ expedition (1907-1909), and travelled further south than anyone had done so before, to 88 degrees 23 minutes South, just 97.5 nautical miles from the Pole. But turned back, knowing that to go a step further would jeopardise lives.
‘Better a live donkey than a dead lion,’ he old his wife.
It was for the extraordinary efforts made on this expedition that plain old Ernest was knighted Sir Ernest Shackleton by King Edward VII.
Apologies this posting will – hopefully – be delivered a day late. WiFi continues to be unpredictable in the South Atlantic, but as a taster for today’s blog (maybe delivered tomorrow?!) we are now cruising along the north westerly coast of one of the most beautiful and mysterious islands in the world, South Georgia.