Tending Sir Ernest´s Legacy: An Interview with Alexandra Shackleton

Clad in a dry suit and Trisar harness, rescue swimmers will jump from the helo no matter the temperature or weather. A folding litter hoists injured survivors to safety and the rocket-shaped datum marker buoy keeps tabs on drifting wreckage. Mark Farmer/Topcover.com

In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton and twenty-seven men set forth on a south polar expedition, only to become trapped in pack ice and stranded for nearly two years in one of the most inhospitable regions of Earth. Shackleton’s miraculous escape with his entire crew from certain death in the arctic unfolds in unprecedented detail on Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance, a two-hour documentary on NOVA, airing Tuesday, March 26, 2002, from 8 to 10 PM ET on PBS.

Sir Ernest could do far worse than have as his only granddaughter the
Honorable Alexandra Shackleton. Life-president of the James Caird Society,
which was founded to honor Shackleton and provide information about his
expeditions, Ms. Shackleton looks after her grandfather´s legacy about as
well as the great man himself looked after his men.

Based in London, she has been instrumental in furthering Shackleton
historical research, has contributed forewords to books on Antarctic
exploration, and is currently consulting for the forthcoming Channel
Four/First Sight Films television drama Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh.
She has even had the honor to christen three ships: the Royal Navy´s Ice
Patrol ship, HMS Endurance; the trawler Lord Shackleton; and, most recently,
the British Antarctic Survey ship, RRS Ernest Shackleton.

In this intimate interview, hear insights about Sir Ernest´s motivations and
beliefs, strengths and imperfections, crushing disappointments and
unparalleled achievements, as only a devoted granddaughter can have them.

NOVA: What was really pushing your grandfather to do this expedition to cross

Shackleton: Well, the Pole had been attained, so he had to abandon that
dream. I think he considered it the last great Antarctic adventure-to
cross the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, a distance of about
1,800 miles. Of course, in those days it was felt that it should be done by
somebody British. All of the nationalities felt that. The Germans felt that.
The Americans felt that. The French felt that. And he considered he was
pretty well fitted to do it, having built up a reputation as a successful
leader of the Nimrod Expedition (1907 attempt to reach the South Pole, of
which he got within 100 miles before having to turn back).

NOVA: It was a pretty ambitious plan, given the stage of Antarctic
exploration at that time. Was the monumental challenge part of the attraction?

Shackleton: It was ambitious, but I think he thought it was possible. He was
a very practical person, and he would have never attempted anything that he
thought could not be done. The main reason was that, above all, he had the
lives of his men to consider.

NOVA: When your grandfather left England on the Endurance, the First World
War was about to start. What effect did that have on him?

Shackleton: Well, he offered his ship and men to Winston Churchill, who was
Secretary of the Admiralty at the time. But he received a telegram back
saying simply, “Proceed.” So he felt it was perfectly honorable for him to
proceed. He was then 40 years old, which would have been too old to fight,
and he did lose two members of the expedition who were already in the army.

The thing one has to remember is that nobody thought the First World War
would last more than a few months. It was a huge shock when they got back to
South Georgia after their many, many adventures and found that the war was
still raging.

NOVA: How do you think your grandfather felt at the moment when the Endurance
was finally stuck in the ice, and he realized he would never attain his goal
of crossing Antarctica?

Shackleton: Well, when the ship got locked in the ice, it wasn´t a sudden
event, of course. The realization gradually dawned on them that the ship was
not going to get out, that she was stuck-I think one of the crew members
said “like an almond in toffee.” Eventually, it became clear that she was
being crushed by the ice and had no chance of rising above it. And my
grandfather said to the captain, (Frank Worsley), “the ship can´t live in
this, skipper.” Then he started making plans for what could be done when the
ship finally had to be abandoned. He was a great planner who was always
working out what to do in every conceivable eventuality.

For several weeks the ship had been letting out terrible creaking and
groaning noises like a human in agony, and then eventually my grandfather
called out, “she´s going boys,” and they saw her disappear. He wrote in his
diary, “I cannot write about it.” He found it extremely distressing. Of
course, it was the abandonment of his dream.

Yet he said to his men, quite calmly, “ship gone, stores gone, now we will go
home.” And he wrote in his diary, “a man must set himself to a new mark
directly the old one goes.” And what became his new mark was bringing every
one of his 27 men home alive, from a part of the world where nobody knew they
were. He knew there was no chance whatsoever of rescue. There were no
communications. They might as well have been in space.

NOVA: That was probably one of the toughest tests of his character, because
he must have been bitterly disappointed.

Shackleton: Bitterly. Also, a ship is more to a sailor than just a floating
home. It is a symbol. It´s distressing for any captain, any leader of an
expedition, to lose his ship.

NOVA: And yet he held himself together.

Shackleton: Indeed, and the men apparently felt reassured. After losing the
ship, they felt rather adrift in every sense of the word, and yet he helped
them to feel reassured. There was something to set themselves to do.

NOVA: What do you think was going through your grandfather´s mind when they
had to move onto the ice?

Shackleton: It was an awareness that there would almost certainly have to be
a boat journey or several boat journeys. Each man was told he could bring two
pounds weight of his own possessions. (Leonard Hussey), who had a banjo,
thought that he would have to leave it behind because it was too heavy, but
my grandfather described it as a vital mental tonic. It proved to be that,
though people got quite tired of his repertoire of six tunes.

My grandfather himself set an example. He threw out a handful of gold coins
and his gold watch onto the snow, along with the Bible that Queen Alexandra had given him. He tore off the flyleaf and put it in his pocket and threw the
Bible onto the snow, but it was rescued by a sailor who thought it was very
bad luck to throw a Bible away. Eventually both found their way to the Royal
Geographical Society in London.

NOVA: How did you think he felt when he realized that his plan to travel over
the ice was just not going to work?

Shackleton: When that method didn´t work, I think he simply switched to the
next method. He was extremely pragmatic, and he always had many alternatives
in his mind. Ernest Shackleton did not go in for soul-searching and
recrimination. He would have called it a complete waste of valuable time.

NOVA: During the final night of the boat journey to Elephant Island, he
feared that all of the men might not survive the night. How do you imagine he
felt at that moment, and how do you think he felt at daybreak when he saw
that they all lived?

Shackleton: Well, in his book South, he simply said, “I was afraid they would
not last the night.” He did not add anything to it. But naturally this must
have caused him extremely acute anxiety, and commensurate relief the next
morning when he saw they were all well.

NOVA: Now, on the journey to South George aboard the Caird, how did your
grandfather help the men cope with the horrendous conditions?

Shackleton: Well, he was well aware of the importance of a hot drink. Every
man was fed every four hours, but if he noticed any member of the expedition
failing slightly, he would order hot milk then and there, not just for him,
but for everybody, so this man would not, as he put it, have doubts about
himself. When he noticed one man suffering particularly from cold, he would
rummage in the damp supplies and dig him out a pair of gloves, say.

They also all suffered dreadfully from the fact that their sleeping bags were
made of reindeer skin, which rotted. The bags became extremely smelly and
were also very heavy. Eventually they were thrown overboard, because when one
watch took over and got back into the bags, they did not need one of their

NOVA: How do you think your grandfather felt when South Georgia appeared on
the horizon?

Shackleton: When they saw South Georgia for the first time, and he realized
that Worsley had accomplished his miracle of navigation, he felt huge relief,
but sadly that was tempered instantly by the fact they could not land. There
was a lee shore, and they were very nearly driven onto the reefs and sunk. It
took two days of agonies of thirst before they could actually land.

While they were struggling to land, Worsley said he felt this almost detached
resentment that no one would ever know what they had accomplished. They would
just be sunk as if they had been sunk at the beginning of the journey.

NOVA: Even today that journey is seen as nothing short of miraculous.

Shackleton: Yes. They had accomplished what many regard as the greatest small
boat journey in the world, 800 miles across the stormiest seas in the world
in a little boat not even 23 feet long-all the while encountering
extremely harsh weather and suffering gales, privations of thirst, hunger,
and everything. It was a colossal achievement, and when they saw the black
peaks of South Georgia, they felt huge relief and happiness.

NOVA: Was the Endurance expedition the greatest achievement of his life?

Shackleton: I think so, because against almost impossible odds he brought his
27 men home safely. The boat journey to South Georgia was an epic in itself,
and climbing across the uncharted, unmapped island of South Georgia with no
equipment was remarkable. To this day, no one has ever beaten his record of
30 miles in 36 hours.

NOVA: Some have complained that there was a certain amateurishness to the
Endurance expedition. Do you accept that?

Shackleton: I don´t think there´s such a thing as a perfect expedition; I
don´t think Endurance was. Mistakes were made, but it´s hard to think of an
expedition where mistakes were not made. I think the difference between
Ernest Shackleton and explorers before and since is that he learned from his
mistakes. For instance, he was a member of an expedition sometime before his
first as leader during which they suffered terribly from scurvy. There was
not much known about it then, but on his expeditions thereafter few suffered
from it, because he was aware of the importance of eating fresh meat.

NOVA: What did your grandfather think were the most important qualities for a
polar explorer to possess?

Shackleton: Well, he actually listed them. In order of priority, he said
first optimism, secondly patience, third imagination (with which he coupled
idealism), and fourthly, courage. He thought every man had courage.

Now, those are very practical qualities, and yet Ernest Shackleton was a very
romantic man who wrote poetry. This was an era in which fine words abounded,
and I might have thought he would have chosen qualities such as
self-sacrifice or going for glory. After all, the search for the pole was
likened to the search for the Holy Grail. But his practical qualities did not
war against his romantic aspects. They made a harmonious whole, which I think
was one of his strengths.

NOVA: What qualities do you think he possessed that made him such a
compelling leader and instill such loyalty in his crew?

Shackleton: I think that the fact that his men were so important. Leadership
was a two-way thing for him. It wasn´t a case of men following him just
because he was the leader; he was devoted to them. It was a reciprocal, very
close relationship. That´s why any discord and disobedience he took
personally. He was the ultimate leader because his men were his priority at
all times. It took four attempts to rescue his men from Elephant Island and
he visibly aged, particularly after the third one did not succeed. But when
he got to Elephant Island, counted the heads frantically, and found all safe
all well, well, the years rolled away.

NOVA: It´s been said that your grandfather had an almost feminine concern for
his men.

Shackleton: Yes, he was almost fussy at times in his care for them. Watching
to see if anyone was succumbing to frostbite, making hot drinks for everyone
whenever he saw that any one man was in need of one, and so on. He actually
described this side of himself in a letter to his wife. Perhaps because he
was part of a large family, this kind of concern came with the territory.

NOVA: The expedition had people from all ranks in society. How did your
grandfather handle this range of people, and did he have any favorites?

Shackleton: No, he never had favorites. He handled them by knowing all
members of the expedition very well, their strengths and their weaknesses.
There was no discord in his expedition. He also was not very keen on
distinctions of rank. He could and often did do any job on an expedition,
however menial, and his men knew that. It was a relationship of such mutual
trust that it worked out very smoothly even though at the time it was quite
unusual for an officer to talk on equal terms with his men.

NOVA: How did he ensure that everyone was the same, regardless of their

Shackleton: Well, scientists had to scrub floors, and sailors could help with
meteorological observations. They were almost a family.

NOVA: So everyone did everything?

Shackleton: Everyone did everything that he was capable of doing, and that´s
the crux. He didn´t ask any man to do more than he ever felt he could do, but
he inspired people to do more than they felt they could do themselves.

NOVA: How did the crew perceive their captain?

Shackleton: Worsley was a brilliant navigator, as we know, but he was also
regarded as rather eccentric and even sometimes irresponsible. He came into
his own in a crisis: when the ship was in distress but above all in the two
boat journeys-the journey of the three boats to Elephant Island and the
single boat journey to South Georgia. I would say quite simply, he was a geniu
s as a navigator. If the little James Caird had missed South Georgia, they
would have gone out into the Atlantic and never been heard of again. As the
men on the expedition realized what he could achieve, they began having more
respect for him.

NOVA: How about (Frank Wild)? What did your grandfather think of him?

Shackleton: Frank Wild was his second-in-command, totally devoted, totally
able. He was probably one of the smallest men in the expedition, but he was
very, very strong. He´d explored with my grandfather on the Nimrod
Expedition, and he was utterly, utterly reliable. My grandfather described
him once as “my other self.”

They had very different personalities, but Wild was an absolutely ideal
second-in-command, because he was capable of running things if necessary on
his own, as he did on Elephant Island. For several months he kept the men
together. Every day they´d “pack up the stow, boys, because the boss might
come today.” He was aware of the vital importance of a routine. Members of
previous expeditions had met with alcoholism and suicide and insanity. But
this expedition´s members were all kept together pretty well, and that´s

NOVA: How about difficult personalities like (Thomas Orde-Lees)? How did your
grandfather feel about him?

Shackleton: Orde-Lees was extremely eccentric, and I think my grandfather
found him quite irritating. He also had abilities that no other member of the
expedition had; he was an expert skier, for instance. He himself had a lot of
admiration for my grandfather.

In lots of ways Orde-Lees was the most unpopular member of the expedition,
though he had this amazing imperviousness. He didn´t really mind. When he
heard the story, which was probably apocryphal, that they´d voted if they
ever had to eat one another that it would have been him first, he just noted
in his diary “no doubt this is because I´m the fittest member of the

NOVA: How about the carpenter (Henry McNeish)? How did your grandfather
handle his attempted mutiny?

Shackleton: Well, that was the only serious instance of discord on the
expedition. My grandfather came upon Worsley confronting McNeish. McNeish was
refusing to obey orders, and Worsley was not handling it as well as he should
have. McNeish thought that he could make some decisions better himself, and
he said that since the ship was sunk, their obligations were over. They did
not have to obey orders.

My grandfather quietly went away and got a copy of the ship´s articles and
read them to the ship´s company. He said that though the ship had sunk, their
pay would continue until they reached port, and therefore they were all still
under his command. That ended the confrontation.

NOVA: If he hadn´t dealt with this problem immediately, what was at stake?
What could have happened if discipline had been lost on the expedition?

Shackleton: Well, I don´t think that because of McNeish´s behavior all
discipline would have been lost. But it was a hugely selfish thing for
McNeish to have done, because they could only get back alive by staying
together and staying united. Of course, McNeish was the oldest member of the
expedition, and he was in pain from dragging the sledges, but still, it was
an extraordinarily arrogant thing to do.

There is one story that my grandfather threatened to shoot him, which doesn´t
really seem his style, because he commanded by leadership qualities, not by
threats. Whatever it was, McNeish sort of knuckled down. Interestingly
enough, McNeish never referred to the confrontation in his diary.

My grandfather, for his part, referred to it obliquely saying, “I shall never
forgive the carpenter in this time of storm and stress.” You see, he was hurt
by it, not furious but very hurt.

NOVA: Your grandfather dealt with the most difficult people by keeping them
in his own tent, right?

Shackleton: Yes, so they couldn´t spread their discord to other tents. In
confined spaces, when people don´t have a lot to eat, enmities can sometimes
be extremely destructive to the harmony of an expedition. So can alliances.
So he moved people around and noticed how people were getting on with each
other or not getting on with each other. It worked pretty well.

NOVA: Do you think that was one of his greatest skills, his ability to handle

Shackleton: Yes, but it was all based on knowing his men. It´s no good
knowing theoretically how to handle people if you don´t really notice what
people are like. He was extremely observant, and he was also pretty tolerant.
He made allowances for different priorities, with the exception of loyalty.
Loyalty was the most important thing to him.

NOVA: What do you think your grandfather´s greatest strengths were?

Shackleton: Not to sound like a broken record, but his greatest strength lay
in the way he viewed his relationship to his men as his number-one priority.
Sometimes I´m asked why is he of such interest nowadays, and I answer that I
think there is a yearning for what I call raw leadership, by which I mean
leadership growing naturally out of the sort of person one is, not as a
learned, self-conscious skill. And to Ernest Shackleton what was natural was
to put his men first.

NOVA: Did he have any weaknesses?

Shackleton: It sounds terrible, but I can´t think of that many weaknesses he
had as a leader. I think he is the leader that we all would have wanted. The
ultimate gift a leader can give is to inspire confidence. During the
agonizing boat journey to South Georgia, Worsley wrote in his diary, “however
bad things were, he somehow inspired us with the feeling that he could make
things better.”

That said, I wouldn´t say Ernest Shackleton was a perfect leader. He took too
long to realize the advantages of skiing and dogs, for instance.

NOVA: Why did your grandfather hide his heart problem from the crew?

Shackleton: He must have had doubts about his health. For instance, during
the boat journey to South Georgia, he had agonizing sciatica, and he had
episodes of what he called suppressed flu, but he must have wondered if it
was a heart problem. Since he always refused to let the ships´ doctors
examine him, however, he couldn´t have been sure. In retrospect, it looks as
if he was afraid at what they might find, afraid of what they might forbid
him to do.

NOVA: Are there any anecdotes handed down to you that shed light on his
character whilst at home?

Shackleton: Well, he was a great practical joker. Once when he was out with
his three children on the beach at Eastbourne with my grandmother, the
children implored her to bathe, and she wouldn´t let them. So he walked into
the sea fully dressed and said, “Oh, why is everything all wet?” The children
were delighted and rushed in, too, and then they had to walk back to the
house, sopping wet, stared at by everybody. I think my grandmother was very

I think during his last leave before he went on the Quest Expedition, my
grandfather helped to prepare a picnic. There was a mysterious basket and
inside was a stuffed penguin with a knife and fork. (The Quest Expedition was
Shackleton´s ill-defined 1921-22 journey to South Georgia, where he died of a
heart attack at age 47.)

NOVA: Do you think South Georgia is an appropriate resting place for your

Shackleton: When my grandfather died on South Georgia, originally his body
was going to be brought back to England. But my grandmother realized that the
best place for him to lie was in the gateway to the part of the world that
meant most to him, the Antarctic. So she asked for him to be buried in the
whaling cemetery on South Georgia. I cannot think of a better place.

NOVA: Do you think he was happiest when he was in the Antarctic?

Shackleton: Grandfather was, I think, happiest in the Antarctic, yes. He
wrote once to my grandmother, “I´m not much good at anything else but being
an explorer.” He loved her and he loved his home, but he chafed in the
confines of this country. For a man who loved wide open spaces, Antarctica
does get a grip of one. If one has never seen it, it´s like nowhere else. He
wrote once to a little sister, “you cannot imagine what it is like to tread
where no man has trod before.”

NOVA: Are you proud of your grandfather?

Shackleton: I´m very proud of my grandfather, and the more I know about him,
the more proud I am, particularly of his care for his men, and his knowledge
of each man. It was quite unusual in that era.

About Alexandra Shackleton

Alexandra Shackleton is the only grandaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton, born to his youngest child, Edward, who later became Lord Shackleton. She studied History at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, worked for the National Book League, and later worked in government service. She was a judge for the prestigious Thomas Cook Literary Travel Writing Prize and is life-president of the James Caird Society, which was founded to honor Shackleton and provide information about his expeditions, especially the Endurance expedition, for which the James Caird lifeboat was built.

A prime mover in Shackleton historical research, Alexandra Shackleton was very involved in the recent acclaimed exhibition at Dulwich College, London. She is a member of several committees concerned with the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and Antarctica and is a member of the Associate Parliamentary Maritime Group. She has close ties with the British Antarctic Survey, Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Royal Geographical Society.

She has had the honor of naming three ships †the Royal Navy´s Ice Patrol ship, HMS Endurance; the trawler Lord Shackleton; and, most recently, the British Antarctic Survey ship, RRS Ernest Shackleton.

She is a dynamic and eloquent speaker, with a smart and witty delivery. She holds the title “the Honourable” as her father was the peer Lord Shackleton. She has visited the Antarctic, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands. She lives and works in London.

She is currently a consultant for the forthcoming Channel Four/First Sight Films television drama Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh.