Flawed, unproductive and heroic: the real Ernest Shackleton

A review of Shackleton, by Michael Smith. It’s a classic story and Smith tells it with passion and commitment – especially when he tames his clauses

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Shackleton Michael Smith

Oneworld, pp.435, £20, ISBN: 9781780745725

Polar explorers are often cast as mavericks, and this is hardly surprising. The profession requires a disdain for pseudo-orthodoxies and, besides, the urge to dwell on a frozen ocean or forbidding glacier is maverick in itself. In the so-called Heroic Age (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) both Poles remained ‘unconquered’ and the margin between glory and opprobrium was slender. Frederick Cook and Robert Peary claimed that they reached the North Pole in 1908 and 1909 respectively. Their accounts were later discredited. When Roald Amundsen beat Captain Robert Scott to the South Pole in 1911, he was accused (unfairly) of concealing his plans and was summarily shunned by the British establishment. Scott meanwhile forced his expedition on, but in doing so condemned it to disaster. Fending off his critics like an irascible eagle, Amundsen went north again and again, by boat, airship and plane, until, in 1928, he vanished into the ice.

Ernest Shackleton has traditionally been commended for restraint and for sparing the lives of his men. In 1901, Shackleton had served as third officer on Scott’s Discovery expedition, but he fell ill and was shipped home early.  This was fairly ignominious; so in 1907 Shackleton led the Nimrod expedition south, hoping to redeem himself. With the Pole 97 geographical miles away, he made the decision to turn back and survive. Later, Shackleton famously escaped from impossible carnage when his ship Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea, miles from habitable land.

Michael Smith describes such trials in the ferocious and beguiling detail favoured by polar historians. Smith has previously published works on Irish explorer Tom Crean, Irish exploration in general, Captain ‘Titus’ Oates, and an introduction to Shackleton aimed at children, Shackleton: The Boss. His new biography is clearly aimed at adults; he is more loquacious on Shackleton’s financial woes and extramarital affairs, for example. He muses on Shackleton’s mercurial personality and the strange predilections that compel a man, in defiance of general advice, and irate doctors, to go south. The major biography of Shackleton has been that of Roland Huntford, published in 1985. Smith suggests that it is time for a new one: ‘Much has changed in the three decades since Huntford’s Shackleton, just as the Heroic Age is viewed differently today than it was 30 years ago.’ However, this shift is indebted to Huntford, whose polemical scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s demolished the reputation of Scott and salvaged Shackleton from relative obscurity.

Smith proposes to ‘untangle the myths from the reality’ of Shackleton’s life. He argues that there were two different Shackletons: ‘the charismatic, ambitious, buccaneering Edwardian explorer with a love for poetry, who touched greatness, combating unimaginable hardship and depths of adversity in the most unwelcoming region of the world.’ And there was also ‘the complex, flawed, restless, impatient and hopelessly unproductive character on dry land, who struggled to come to terms with the civilising forces of day-to  day routine and domestic responsibilities.’

Shackleton was ‘a one-off, a unique and compelling character who raced through life, rarely glancing sideways and never looking back.’ Smith’s research is detailed and meticulous. He writes in sparsely punctuated, elongated sentences:

Dawn was minutes away on the remote island of South Georgia and the emerging daylight was slowly illuminating the magnificent natural amphitheatre of snow-capped mountains and grassy slopes surrounding the grubby, foul-smelling whaling station at Grytviken.

Yet, when Smith tames his clauses, this is a fascinating book. The story of Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance expedition is well told. Shackleton hoped to traverse the Antarctic continent, but his ship was crushed by sea ice before he even landed. He conveyed his men through hazardous waters in three small, open boats. They landed on Elephant Island, in the Southern Ocean, where most of the party remained, while Shackleton and four others continued by boat to South Georgia. There they made a truly insane crossing of the mountainous interior, and arrived in May 1916 at a whaling station, greeted by startled Norwegians. They emerged into a ruined world, as Smith explains:

Like travellers from a different time, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley were among the few people in the civilised world who knew nothing about the horrific slaughter on the Western Front.

It is a classic story, and Smith tells it with passion and commitment. His Shackleton is billed at the start as a split personality— chaotic in private, disarming in public — and at times, of course, he is neither. The portrait absorbs inconsistencies and anomalies, and becomes more interesting.

Smith’s biography does not replace Huntford’s; the emphases are inevitably different. Besides, a biography is simply one person’s version of reality, and can never be objectively definitive. Of mavericks and heroes there is much to be said.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17 Tel: 08430 600033. Joanna Kavenna, is the author of The Ice Museum, an account of her journeys through Norway, Iceland, the Baltic and Greenland.

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Show comments
  • mactep

    Great to see more literature telling this incredible life story of the great man. Find out more about Shackleton and the centenary of the Endurance mission at with videos and interactive content.

  • Shenandoah

    What’s ‘impossible carnage’?

  • Alistair Kerr

    This is an absorbing review. I am always happy to read another book about Shackleton, who is a fascinating and attractive character, about whom I suspect that there is more to be discovered. However I would take issue with the reviewer’s uncritical acceptance of Roland Huntford’s “polemical scholarship” which has allegedly “demolished the reputation of Captain Scott” and rescued Shackleton’s. Shackleton’s reputation did not require rescuing, particularly as he has other claims to fame than just being a polar explorer. However Huntford on Scott has been comprehensively discredited by Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ more recent “Captain Scott”, which makes it clear that Huntford did not know what he was writing about when he penned his bitterly unfair account of Scott, published and then re-published firstly as “The Last Place on Earth” and later as “Scott and Amundsen”. It was also the basis of a TV mini-series, which did further damage to Scott’s reputation. One example is that Huntford takes Scott to task for having consulted Nansen about snow work and then ignored his advice. The reality is that Nansen had no South Polar experience. His advice was based on the types of snow that Scott would have encountered had he been going to the Arctic. Antarctic snow types are quite different and require different equipment. Scott later discovered this, which is why he did not always follow Nansen’s advice. Sir Ranulph, who has visited both Poles, replicating the conditions of Scott’s last journey, explains this in exhaustive detail. Worse, Huntford seems to have used information in a selective way, to damage Scott’s reputation and enhance Amundsen’s, Shackleton’s or anyone else’s whom he sees as Scott’s rival. He incorrectly implied that his book had the approval of the Scott family, who had let him see some papers. It followed that this lent authority to his account. Some assertions are just wrong: e.g. that Lady Scott was enjoying a torrid affair with Nansen (then Norwegian Ambassador in London) while her husband was dying in Antarctica. There is no real evidence for this. Finally, Huntford implied in his book that he had polar exploration experience. Sir Ranulph has also discredited this.Huntford seems to have no polar expertise worth the mention. On the showing of his writings on Scott (I cannot comment on his numerous other writings), he comes across as a bit of a mountebank. Unfortunately he is also a very good writer. I was one of many who was persuaded by his well-written but misleading book that Scott really was his own worst enemy and that much or all of the blame for the failure of his last expedition should be laid at his door. But as is so often the case in real life, the causes of the Antarctic tragedy are very complicated, including an element of sheer very bad luck: a fascinating historical detective story in themselves.

  • C.U. Jimmy

    I’ve read quite a few books on the Antarctic heroic age (favourite being Apsley Cherry Garrard’s) and my first reaction on seeing this was ‘oh no, not another one’. However, I do agree with the reviewer that ‘of mavericks and heroes there is much to be said’ – and I suppose it’s always worth another re-visit. I’ll give it a whirl, hoping to find whatever it is that’s out there, from the comfort of my armchair.