Monday, July 12, 2021


My first brush with Ernest Shackleton did not end happily. I was on one of those long, lonely trips — and feeling so inadequate as a leader. With me to read, I had Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer. But I felt battered by it. It made things worse. I don't do heroic so well. I gave up.

However, when I read my friend Ben Carswell's Lessons from Endurance (link), I decided to give Ernest a second opportunity to shape my life. 'Shackleton's Incredible Voyage' is a staggering story. Fleetingly, the word 'incredible' sidetracked me to the story from my childhood of two dogs and a cat (although the dogs and cat in this story get shot!) — but I was soon back on track, entering into a story about 28 men whose 'plight was naked and terrifying in it simplicity' (10).

Attempting to be the first people ever to walk across the Antarctica, they are within a day of reaching port when they are caught in the ice and then crushed by the ice, with their ship dying like a groaning beast. They float on ice floes for months, including 79 days of total darkness, and then take to three 22 foot lifeboats and somehow land on Elephant Island, 'a refuge of rock and ice', with 'a meagre grip on a savage coast' (221). Six of them hop into one of the boats to seek help from South Georgia Island (where they started) and cross The Drake Passage, 'the most storm-torn ocean on the globe' (155) on what has been referred to as 'the greatest small boat journey in the world'. They land on the wrong side of the island and so three of them walk across untraversed snow mountains and glaciers, at one point becoming 'tobogganers without a toboggan' (338) as they wooshed two thousand feet down an unknown mountain before knocking on someone's door, asking for help. All 28 men returned to London safely, two years later, only to find Britain in the depths of World War I and being accused of dodging the war. A number enlisted almost straight away, with one man dying in the trenches of France one month later.

It is not so much staggering, as ridiculous. Incredible, as in In-credible.

As a map-lover, the maps in the book are disappointing. These ones are better...

Endurance is the great labour of Alfred Lansing's life, one lived and died with its own incredulity. Meticulous in his research, he wrote down the story. But initial reviews were poor and readers few in number. It was the height of the space race and imaginations had long since shifted from the South Pole.  He was the editor of the Bethel Home News when he died at 54 years of age. A few years later another publisher took over the book. It became a bestseller and was into its 49th printing in 2013. 

'Incredible' is just the first adjective we encounter in the book. By page 85, I had twigged to the fact that the adjective was integral to Lansing's writing style — and so I started collecting them. Fill the spaces between them with your imagination and you begin to grasp the contours of a poignant story:
... unending wet (85) ... inescapable cold (85) ... astonishing optimism (106) ... indomitable self-confidence (129) ... unrelieved monotony (138) ... unbroken whiteness (149) ... undisguised immensity (202) ... unforgettable brilliance (207) ... incredible coincidence (219) ... sublime solidity (225) ... absolute dead dreamless sleep (226) ... daily hope (251) ... interminable discussions (269) ... staggering trust (277) ... matchless tenacity (278) ... uninterrupted misery (284) ... infinitely distant (300) ... frowning cliff (309) ... blinding sameness (314) ... .
I succumbed to my compulsive behavioural disorder with books like this one, spending as much time in Wikipedia, google maps and YouTube as I do in the book itself. Actually, we were on holiday without wifi at the time, and so my disorder was fed by binge-ing on Skinny's 'Data Binge' mobile plan, setting up a hot-spot for my laptop ... and indulging. This documentary is a bit rough, but it is the best thing I found on the story...

Shackleton was a remarkable leader. He had this optimism about him that 'set men's souls on fire' (129). I enjoyed the three discernment-passages in the story: (a) when selecting the initial team (18-21); (b) when assigning tents after being cast off the boat onto the ice floe (91-97); and (c) when deciding who to take and who to leave, on the dinghy-trip across to South Georgia (235-236). He had such insight, such instincts: 'intensely watchful for potential troublemakers who might nibble away at the unity of the group' (91). His determination to care for his men — yes, even through a gruff exterior from today's vantage point — is the engine that drives this story to its triumphant conclusion. In his own way, he was attentive to his people: 'Of all their enemies — the cold, the ice, the sea — he feared none more than demoralization' (111). He knew how important it was to 'make every effort to remain cheerful in order to avoid antagonisms' (304).


Yes, there is a 'but' — I do have questions.

1. How helpful is the heroic?
So few of us can scale these heights. I go 'wow', but how useful a 'wow' is it? I come back to the distinction between the inspirational and the aspirational. The inspirational story, like this one, can light a fire — but for the fire to be stoked and sustained it needs the aspirational. It needs a person that feels accessible, a character that feels achievable. The 'wow, I could be like this, I could do that' — this is the 'wow' that seems more valuable to me. For me, Shackleton is too untouchable. I am drawn far more to the members of his team and to their loved ones at home who live a brand of heroism that is more touchable for me. That is where I find myself in the story.

2. How critical is character-driven leadership?
It is everything, isn't it? As a Christ-following, biblically-shaped leader, it is 'where it is at'. Every one of us exerts influence on someone else. We all start out with potentialities for leadership and for its nurture, it starts with character. Because if you don't have character, what do you have? For all I can find out about Shackleton, I am not drawn to him as a character at all. He oozed charm and had an ego-driven ambition. Yikes! 'Shackleton was not an ordinary individual. He was a man who believed completely in his own invincibility and to whom defeat was a reflection of personal inadequacy' (128). Double yikes.

Like others have done, I cannot accept the way Shackleton handled Harry McNish. He was the oldest one on board. Yes, he was stubborn, but suffering from some serious stuff (piles, rheumatism) — and at one early point he was insubordinate, mounting a 'one man mutiny' (118). But he proved himself again and again, not the least in keeping that dinghy to South Georgia sea-worthy. Shackleton said he'd never forgive him — and he didn't. So vindictive! When it came to Shackleton handing out Polar Awards, on the return to Britain, McNish missed out.

Eventually, McNish emigrated to New Zealand, picking up work on the Wellington docks. He died destitute, sleeping under a tarpaulin in the wharf sheds, and buried in Karori Cemetery (with Thomas Orde-Lees, who also had an uneven relationship with McNish, buried 28 plots away in the same cemetery, having come to New Zealand via Japan!). The McNish grave was unmarked for 30 years — and then 64 years after McNish's death, Mrs Chippy (his beloved cat, whom Shackelton ordered to be killed, understandably, together with all the dogs) was added.

While I'd love to go to Shackleton's grave (he died of a heart attack on his next visit to South Georgia and is buried there), I am excited about my upcoming pilgrimage, on a date as yet undetermined, to Karori Cemetery...

3. Can foolishness be laudable?
As I read around the story, it is clear that Shackleton, while waiting on South Georgia, was cautioned by experts on Antarctica not to take the trip because the ice was especially bad, and early, that year. Yes, he did wait, but did he wait long enough? Probably not. Did his ambition, even his sense of adventure, cause him to make a mistake and put the lives of all these men at risk? Probably so. I know it was a different time and his team members knew the risks they were embracing, but still, I am not convinced...

4. Where is God in this story?
I suspect that Lansing was an irreligious man. God is nowhere to be found in the narrative. Lansing appears far more comfortable with coincidence, than providence. At one point, McNish is mockingly referred to as 'a devout Presbyterian' (138) and you can't help feeling that his troublesome presence in the team is being linked to his self-confessed Christian identity. It reminds me a bit of Shantung Compound where the seriously religious people tended to be problematic rascals, while one Eric Liddell shone brightly as he lived his intriguing Christian life under such pressure. I don't discern an Eric anywhere on the Endurance!  

Reading around the story, those three who made the 'toboggan' trip — the most in-credible part of the story in my mind — down the slopes of South Georgia's mountains did bear witness, independent from each other, to the sense of having a 'fourth man' on the trip with them, guiding and protecting them. Maybe God was in the story?! But most historians seem to do no more than affirm that 'Shackleton was a lucky man' ... and leave it at that. Hmm. Not sure about that one.

Let me finish with a lovely picture of heaven from the very final page of the story. The six in the dinghy finally return to Elephant Island to rescue the other twenty-two, possibly as much as three months later than was hoped — and so when hope was virtually dead...
Certainly no great urging was needed, and one at a time they jumped from the rocks into the boat, leaving behind them without a second thought dozens of personal little items which only an hour before had been considered almost indispensable (353).

nice chatting



Grant Adams said...

One of the great adventure stories of all time, possibly. And to add a piece to it, Richard McElrea, former Christchurch City Coroner, and once my boss, wrote a book on the other ship that was also part of this great saga. It's a lesser known story, but also attended by great drama.
See "Polar Castaways:The Ross Sea Party (1914-17) of Sir Ernest Shackelton." R McElrea and D Harrowfield.

Paul said...

That is really interesting, Grant.

I was wondering about the other ship as I was reading.

I shall track down this book!

best wishes