In 1901 it is said that an advertisement appeared in The Times of London, possibly placed by Ernest Shackleton on behalf of his future Antarctic expedition leader, Robert Scott.
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
This ad seems to personify Shackleton’s life. Yet he did not die of misadventure as did most of the other great polar explorers, unless, of course, for Shackleton, failing to treat an overburdened heart could be termed misadventure.
Possibly, his wife and only legitimate lover, Emily, with whom he seems to have been lucky to have produced his only three children, judged the true love of Sir Ernest’s life when she instructed that Shackleton be buried far away from the arms of others on South Georgia Island, just a hop step and a jump away from the end of the earth – the cold end that is, and a place, at that time, solely inhabited by dead whales and lost Norwegians.
Earlier in his career when Ernest Shackleton was ‘shipping’ home from Capetown in 1903 after falling ill on a Scott expedition, he is said to have become smitten with a lady after whom he later (1908) named a mountain, Mount Hope, somewhere deep in the Antarctic, and his poetic strain left us two lines recording the apparent engagement of hearts (though this did not prevent him wedding Emily the following year).
The poem concludes:
‘Though the grip of the frost may be cruel and relentless its icy hold
Yet it knit our hearts together in that darkness stern and cold.’
Whether this is in memory of his lady Hope or a record of ‘mateship’ will never be known. Somewhat quaintly, Hope’s descendants refer to her as ’a bohemian woman’ so there could have been a strong reason for Shackleton to share a memory or two of the sea voyage back to England.
But, as is so true of the British tradition towards its explorers, Shackleton is remembered more for his exploits in the deep Antarctic waters than his many foibles on land.
There is little doubt that the conclusion by Shackleton was justified – that God walked with them when they walked across the frozen mountains of South Georgia from the south to the whaling station on the north to mount a rescue for his men, left stranded on Elephant Island some 800 miles away.
Having even reached South Georgia, after starting from the middle of nowhere in a small boat and navigating in the dark storms, was an amazing feat by Shackleton and his four companions .
And, of course, once God had decided that Shackleton was a good bet, He stayed with them until the rescue was complete. And then he waited patiently, until Sir Ernest returned to South Georgia, to take him as one of the immortals, leaving his men to follow his leadership for the rest of their lives.