“Shackleton” is one of those names that is guaranteed to stir the blood of a certain type of Briton. In company with stablemates such as Churchill, Nelson, Scott, and Lawrence, the surname evokes an association with a supposedly glorious past that somehow stiffens the sinews.
The sound of those sinews twanging tight was audible across Britain earlier this month at the news that polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship, the Endurance, had indeed endured, having been discovered all but intact nearly two miles below the surface of the Weddell Sea, 106 years after it was crushed by the ice and sank in 1915.
Remarkably, thanks to the absence of wood-munching parasites in the cold Antarctic waters, the ship was as whole as the day it went down.
Equally remarkable, the reputation of the man whose hubristic incompetence as a leader sent it to the bottom is also intact, suggesting that national heroes are not chosen objectively for their achievements so much as for how the myths that accrue around them chime with a nation’s psyche and perception of worth.
Of course, one country’s hero is often another’s nemesis. In Britain, TE Lawrence is glorified for his martial exploits in the Hejaz during the First World War. In Arabia, he is remembered for having persuaded the Arabs to rise and side with Britain against the Ottomans by falsely promising that they would be rewarded with the creation of a pan-Arab state.
Lawrence could at least claim success, albeit on his country’s terms. Shackleton, on the other hand, was an inept explorer who nevertheless became a beneficiary of that peculiarly British tendency to repackage failure for palatable consumption as a form of success (think Dunkirk, Sir John Franklin, and the doomed search for the northwest passage).
In 1902, Shackleton was one of two men who accompanied Robert Scott on his first attempt to trek to the South Pole. The attempt failed, and in his 1905 book about the expedition, Scott blamed Shackleton, who had proved ill-equipped for the demands of the journey and was sent home against his will.
Irked, Shackleton raised the funds for his own expedition, which was poorly organized, badly provisioned and, almost to a man, inexperienced. Despite being sure to pack enough goodies to celebrate Christmas 1908 on the ice with plum pudding, brandy, cigars, and other treats beloved of Edwardian gentlemen, Shackleton and his four-man polar party found themselves running out of food and turned back within 150 kilometers of the pole.
On his return to London, however, the “ass,” as he described himself in a letter to his wife, found himself lionized as a hero, knighted, and made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII. The adulation was enough to persuade him to try again.
In December 1911, however, the main polar prize was claimed by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Shackleton’s ex-boss Scott (who died during his own repeat attempt a few weeks later) in a race to the pole.
Deprived of the polar crown, Shackleton instead conceived an ambitious plan to become the first person to walk across Antarctica. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 was an unmitigated disaster. The Endurance became trapped in pack ice in January 1915 and was finally crushed and sank 10 months later.
In October 1915, Shackleton and his 26 companions abandoned the doomed ship and spent the next six months camped out on an ice floe. When it finally started to break up, they boarded the ship’s three lifeboats and made their way to the wholly inhospitable Elephant Island, some 240 kilometers north of Antarctica.
Here, there was no hope of rescue. Shackleton left most of his crew on the island, and set off on April 24 with five men to seek help from a whaling station on the island of South Georgia, more than 1,500 kilometers away.
The dreadful voyage through the Southern Ocean took them 16 days. The true hero of this remarkable feat of navigation and seamanship was the ship’s captain and navigator, New Zealander Frank Worsley, but of course in posterity it is Shackleton who would get the credit.
What was overlooked, however, and remains so to this day, was the fate of Shackleton’s Ross Sea party, which, as part of his grand transantarctic plan, had sailed to the far side of Antarctica to lay supply depots for the crossing that never happened. They, too, were stranded and, by the time they were rescued, three men had lost their lives.
Nevertheless, back in England, Shackleton was greeted as a returning hero. In a country by now in the grip of a world war and desperate for good news, it didn’t matter that all Shackleton had really done was fail yet again.
A true hero is someone who, without being compelled to do so, does something without thought for their own safety or self-interest, purely for the sake of others. A fireman, perhaps, who rushes into a burning building to save a child. On the other hand, non-heroic “heroes” like Shackleton, chosen or fabricated by popular demand, are dangerous things, ciphers upon whom it is too easy to project dubious political constructs.
The likes of Shackleton, Scott, and all the rest underpin the misguided nationalism and unwarranted sense of exceptionalism that has discolored Britain’s ungenerous attitude toward desperate migrants (just-like-us Ukrainians aside) and sabotaged its highly beneficial membership of the European Union, sacrificed in the name of some vague and misguided notion of sovereignty.
In reality, such heroic failures were little more than bit players in the tragedy of Britain’s slow decline into insignificance.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.