Isolation during the Age of Exploration

Lessons from the past – historian Michael Smith looks how legendary polar explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott and Edward Parry kept their spirits high when cut off from the rest of the world.

Venturing to the polar wastes of Antarctica or the Arctic centuries ago carried the inevitable danger of being cut off from other humans for years without access to radio, proper shelter or reliable sources of food. Yet incredible explorers somehow adapted to the loneliness and constant hazards – Shackleton, the consummate leader, adapted better than most.

Ernest Shackleton

When the expedition ship, Endurance, was trapped in the Antarctic ice in 1915, Shackleton leapt into action. He recognised that idle hands might cause friction between the men or even provoke mutiny. Understandably, he also worried that some would descend into a melancholic spiral of despair.

Shackleton seized the initiative by designing all manner of activities to keep the 28-strong party busy and maintained routines, with regular mealtimes. More importantly, he inspired the men to believe that, despite their isolation, they would all be going home.

Many of the distractions were straightforward: games of chess or cards; discussions on books taken from the ship’s sizeable library; and lantern slideshows delivered by the well-travelled photographer Frank Hurley. Below deck in the cramped confines of Endurance, the expedition found room for a small billiards table which was in constant use. In one bizarre episode of mid-winter madness, the entire party (Shackleton included) had their heads shaved like convicts.

Shackleton also ensured there were no favourites and all ranks, from sailors to scientists, were compelled to undertake routine tasks like scrubbing floors and joining in the lusty after-dinner sing-songs. He welcomed advice from all quarters, mixed freely with officers and seamen, and never adopted the rigid regimes of Royal Navy-led expeditions.

More energetic pursuits saw the men harness teams of huskies for an unlikely Antarctic Dog Derby across the ice, accompanied by raucous cheering and fierce gambling.

Before the 24-hour darkness descended in winter, the men also staged a full-scale 11-a-side football match in sub-zero temperatures, hundreds of miles inside the Antarctic Circle.  Makeshift posts were erected, a referee took charge and the dour Scottish biologist Robert Clark, who normally preferred his specimens to his shipmates, surprised everyone by emerging as the best player. (The Reds beat the Whites 2-1.)

Robert Scott

Shackleton’s rival, Captain Robert Scott, devised his own plans to cope with the isolation during his Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions to the Antarctic, including similar slide shows and the odd game of football. Like Shackleton, Scott fully understood the importance of keeping the men busy, particularly during the dark winter months when the sun disappears for four months.  

However, Scott was a Royal Navy thoroughbred and his routines were generally more conventional than Shackleton, who came from a merchant navy background. Officers and the lower ranks did not mix as easily and lectures were often dry academic affairs on subjects like meteorological instruments or mineralogy, which had limited appeal.

The more formal tone was reflected in one unhappy episode in 1912, when a group of six men were stranded in a remote part of Antarctica hundreds of miles from Scott’s base camp. It was an epic story of survival and Edwardian class distinction. The men – three naval officer-scientists and three seamen – spent over eight months trapped together in an ice cave measuring 12ft x 9ft. Food was scarce and the cave was so small they could not stand upright. Lieutenant Victor Campbell, the resolute officer in charge, ensured that naval discipline was maintained by using his boot heel to mark a line in the snow to distinguish separate quarters for the ‘officers’ and the ‘men’.

Time passed with yarns, hymns or sea shanties and they read from a small selection of books such as David Copperfield or The Bible. Privacy was impossible. On finally reaching base camp in late 1912, the filthy, beleaguered stragglers learned that Scott had perished on his return from the South Pole.

Edward Parry

Long before Shackleton and others ventured to Antarctica in the early 20th century, navy ships spent over 300 years in Arctic waters searching for the North West Passage or the North Pole, where isolation and ennui were constant challenges. Ships and men were often stuck in the ice for two, three or even four years and some of the lessons from the entrapment were readily picked up by later generations of explorers.  

Captain Edward Parry, one of Britain’s finest Arctic explorers, went as far as staging full-scale theatrical productions to keep the men occupied while his ships were trapped high above the Arctic Circle in the 1820s.

Parry’s ‘Royal Arctic Theatre’ staged lavish costume dramas below deck, with officers shaving off their whiskers and dressing in extravagant women’s clothes. One popular play was Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of manners, The Rivals, which left the seamen laughing uproariously at their officers. It was a stunning piece of man-management because such insubordination would normally lead to a flogging.

Augustine Courtauld

However nothing exceeds the remarkable isolation of Augustine Courtauld, a British explorer who was buried alive in the 1930s after volunteering to spend five months alone monitoring winter weather conditions above 8000ft on the remote Greenland ice-cap. Courtauld, a member of the wealthy Courtauld textiles and art collecting family, lived in a snow shelter on reduced rations and fully understood the hardship and severe mental challenges before accepting the perilous assignment.  

Fortified only by half rations and small luxuries like scraps of chocolate, tobacco and a few books, Courtauld duly suffered appalling hardship. A storm collapsed the snow shelter and he was even prevented from keeping his weather records. He lay in darkness, eating raw food and lighting the stove only to melt snow for drinking water. “Now that I was prevented doing my job, I naturally felt that I was wasting my time,” Courtauld wrote.

A rescue party finally dug Courtauld out of the ice tomb after five months. His food was almost gone and the primus stove had run out of oil. But he was perfectly fit, though a little stiff. Alone in the darkness, hungry and fearing the rescuers would not see the Union Jack marking out his refuge, Courtauld concluded that some “Outer Force” watched over him and he was “not destined to leave my bones on the Greenland Ice Cap”.

It was a sentiment voiced by Shackleton 15 years earlier after he trekked over South Georgia’s unexplored wilderness with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley following the loss of Endurance – a palpable sense that a fourth person walked alongside them.

Michael Smith is an author-journalist and authority on the history of polar exploration.