Heritage: The draw of Antarctica

Why did the Frozen Continent captivate explorers? Expeditions were dangerous, expensive and often unsuccessful. Yet people persevered. Author Michael Smith looks at why men like Ernest Shackleton were compelled to explore Antarctica.

Sir Ernest Shackleton confronted unimaginable hardship and isolation in the frozen wastes of Antarctica a century ago. But why? It was not the lure of gold or even a rock-solid guarantee of fame and fortune, since not all polar explorers returned home to glorious fanfare. Some never came back at all.

Shackleton, for sure, was attracted by the glory and the trappings of fame. He relished the challenge and loved rubbing shoulders with kings and queens, statesmen and other influential people, even if he was never warmly welcomed by the establishment of the day.

But Shackleton was also influenced by the mood of the Victorian age, where exploration and expanding the Empire was a popular national theme. Explorers were celebrities of the day.  Shackleton was a product of this age which saw the newly emerging popular press of the late 19th century enthralling readers with lurid tales of dogged explorers venturing to undiscovered lands and encountering the strange customs and rituals of previously unknown native populations.

Shackleton’s favourite book as a child was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the Jules Verne adventure classic which fired the youngster’s imagination and set him dreaming of the day he, too, could become a famous explorer. He never stopped dreaming or lost his enthusiasm.

Men like Livingstone, Burton and Stanley were household names and rivalled great soldiers and statesmen for popular acclaim. Shackleton, with his restive ambition and untapped energy, possessed the same maverick qualities as a Burton or Stanley and the persona of the explorer as a national hero sat happily alongside Shackleton’s streak of ambition.

Shackleton also grew up at a time when nations were fascinated by the last great challenge of the age: conquering the ‘three poles’ of the North and South Pole and Mount Everest.

The exhilaration of standing where no human had stood before gripped men like Shackleton and Antarctica was the prize waiting to be captured by the boldest. Matters came to head in the final years of the 19th century.

By 1895, when a young Shackleton was still learning the ropes as a junior officer on cargo and passenger vessels, scientists knew more about the moon than Antarctica. But a special international conference was called that year to consider what delegates determined was the “greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken”. 

Right on cue, a Norwegian team returned to London in 1895 having made the first confirmed landing, thus ending 2000 years of speculation and mystery surrounding earth’s fifth largest continent. 

Antarctica had lived in the imagination for centuries before anyone set eyes on the continent. Ancient Greek scholars speculated about the existence of unexplored territory over 2000 years earlier. The Greeks reasoned that because known land existed to the north, it was necessary to have a southern landmass to balance the earth. Territories in the northern hemisphere lay beneath the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear or Arktos) and the unknown lands to the south were soon called Antarktos – even if no one had yet set eyes on the territory.

The first to cross the Antarctic Circle towards the continent was the great navigator Captain James Cook in 1773. However, Cook never saw land and dismissed the icy region as not worth exploring. The first to see Antarctica was Edward Bransfield, an Irish-born Master in the Royal Navy, who made the historic sighting on 30 January, 1820. Twenty years later, in the early 1840s, James Clark Ross and Francis Crozier mapped large chunks of the continent’s coastline and gave names to many of the geographic features familiar with the Shackleton era of exploration – including the Ross Sea and Ross Island, McMurdo Sound, Mount Erebus and Cape Crozier.

Britain was determined to lead the drive to explore the unknown wilderness by putting together the National Antarctic Expedition under Robert Scott in the specially built vessel, Discovery. After prolonged difficulties raising funds, Discovery finally left England in the summer of 1901 on a pioneering three-year journey, which opened the door for many subsequent Antarctic expeditions, including the discovery of the Pole by Norway’s Roald Amundsen in 1911.

The Third Officer on Discovery was 27-year-old Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, who was paid just £250 a year (roughly £15,000 in today’s money). The expedition was his Polar apprenticeship and Shackleton – with Scott and Dr Wilson – later earned the distinction of travelling further south than any human before. He was finally standing where no human had previously set foot.

One of the key expedition personnel remarked that Shackleton was a “marvel of intelligent energy” and a senior officer recognised that he had not lost his youthful passion for exploration. “I thought him extremely boyish and almost extravagantly enthusiastic,” the Officer observed.  

Shackleton employed an energetic passion and enthusiasm on his three later expeditions to Antarctica.

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