Sir Ernest Shackleton never became what he had long hoped to — the first man to reach the South Pole. He was beaten to it in 1911 by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Yet a century after what’s now known as the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, his name lives on in a way that those of his rivals do not. Shackleton is known not only for the attainment of his goals, but for the quality of his leadership in the pursuit of them; his clear headed judgement in times of panic and his unfailing selflessness when those around him were in need.
He was recognised for this during his lifetime, and became the most decorated of all polar explorers, being awarded more than 40 medals and awards. Fifteen of these medals are to go on sale at Christie’s South Kensington on 8 October, and each of them tell a chapter in the life of this remarkable man.
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Royal Geographical Society Silver Medal, 1904. Incused on the rim ‘LIEUT. ERNEST SIR ERNEST HENRY SIR ERNEST HENRY SHACKLETON (1874-1922), (1874-1922), R.N.R.’ Estimate: £20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in the Travel, Science and Natural History sale on 8 October at Christie’s South Kensington
Shackleton wanted to be an explorer from a very young age, his fascination with faraway places sparked by his voracious reading as a boy. Bored by the school curriculum, he left Dulwich College at the age of 16 to work in the Merchant Navy, but his big break came at the age of 27 when he was selected to join Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition. Setting sail on 31 July, 1901, it was the first major British exploration of the Antarctic for sixty years.
The expedition ended early for Shackleton, however, when Scott sent him home after just one winter, on account of ill health. Though he did receive the Royal Geographical Society Silver Medal for his involvement, he was bitterly disappointed that he didn’t stay the course.
Shackleton’s bitterness was to ferment over the next few years, stirred by a lingering rivalry with Scott, with whom he reportedly had disputes during the expedition. It was these complex feelings that would impel him to set sail four years later on what would be his most successful expedition, aboard the Nimrod.
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Dannebrog of Denmark, 1909. Estimate: £2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in the Travel, Science and Natural History sale on 8 October at Christie’s South Kensington
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), St Olaf of Norway, 1909. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in the Travel, Science and Natural History sale on 8 October at Christie’s South Kensington.
When Shackleton stepped off the Nimrod at Dover in 1909 he suddenly discovered that he was famous. News of the successes of the expedition had spread throughout Europe; the discovery of the Beardmore Glacier, the ascent of Mount Erebus, the exploration of the South Polar Plateau and, most of all, a new record for the furthest south ever travelled.
He set off on a lecture tour, and was received by many of the major European courts. The medal shown above was received in Denmark where, before his lecture in Christiania, he was led in a torchlight procession from his hotel to the lecture hall.
Shackleton failed to capitalise on his public celebrity however, and he lived mostly off the proceeds of his lectures. Once his touring had come to an end, he found readjusting to normal life difficult, and his eyes were already set on another voyage.
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp Gold Medal, 1909. Inscribed ‘AU LIEUTENANT / E.H. SHACKLETON C.V.O. / COMMANDANT L’EXPÉDITION / ANTARCTIQUE ANGLAISE (1907-1909 / 21.OCTOBER.1909’ 2in. (6.1cm.) diameter. Estimate: £2,000-4,000. This lot is offered in the Travel, Science and Natural History sale on 8 October at Christie’s South Kensington
At the Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp, where he received the gold medal shown above, Shackleton projected film of the Nimrod expedition with footage of the automobile, a four man sledging party, a penguin colony and the reception of the expedition at Dover.
An interesting aspect of Shackleton’s career was that it coincided with advancements in film technology, and he is notable for using modern media to give the public an intimate insight into his expeditions.
On 16 September, 1921, Shackleton recorded a farewell address when he was embarking on what was to be his final voyage. He used a sound on film system created by Harry Grindell Mathews, who claimed that it was the first talking picture ever made.
In 1914, Shackleton set sail aboard the Endurance on what was to be the most extraordinary voyage of his career. The South Pole had already been reached in 1911, so he set himself the ambitious target of crossing the continent of Antarctica.
Disaster struck early however, when the Endurance was frozen in an ice floe in the Weddell Sea. When the ice broke the next spring, it put so much pressure on the hull of the ship that it sank, forcing Shackleton and his crew to camp out on the floe in the hopes that it would drift toward Paulet Island. Their hopes were frustrated however, and eventually the floe split in two, forcing the men onto lifeboats. After five exhausting days at sea, they landed on the inhospitable Elephant Island.
For fifteen days the boat was buffeted by severe storms and hurricane force winds so strong that they had sunk a 500 ton steamer across the coast
They desperately needed help, but the nearest ports were at South Georgia, which stood 720 nautical miles distant. With only three lifeboats at his disposal, a journey of that length was a terrible risk, but with no other options, Shackleton chose five companions and set sail.
For fifteen days the boat was buffeted by severe storms and hurricane force winds so strong that they had sunk a 500 ton steamer across the coast. Their wooden lifeboat made it through, however, and at length they arrived at a remote point of South Georgia.
‘Not a life lost and we’ve been through hell,’ wrote Shackleton to his wife after he and his five companions landed in South Georgia, having spent 15 days at sea in three lifeboats
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Order of Merit (Chile) 1916. Estimate: £4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in the Travel, Science and Natural History sale on 8 October at Christie’s South Kensington.
Travelling 36 miles over mountainous terrain, Shackleton arrived at the nearest whaling station and immediately set about negotiating with the Chilean Navy for the rescue of his men from Elephant Island.
Miraculously, none of Shackleton’s men were lost on this fraught expedition. For astounding resolution in the face of danger and for his indefatigable commitment to the welfare of his crew, Shackleton was awarded the Chilean Order of Merit in 1916 (above).
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Sir Ernest Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s British Decorations: Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, 1909; Officer of the Order of the British Empire (Military), 1909; British War Medal, 1914-18 (incused on the rim ‘MAJOR SIR E.H. SHACKLETON.’); Victory Medal, 1914-18, with emblem for Mentioned-in-Dispatches (incused on the rim ‘MAJOR SIR E.H. SHACKLETON.’) with ten silk ribbons. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in the Travel, Science and Natural History sale on 8 October at Christie’s South Kensington
In Britain, Shackleton was a national hero, as these four medals attest, but he was never comfortable with a land bound life. When he returned home from his voyage aboard the Endurance, he began considering a final voyage. By now, though, was exhausted and had lingering heart problems, exacerbated by heavy drinking. He nevertheless set sail again in September 1921.
In January of the next year, Sir Ernest Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack. While his body was en route to England, a message came from his wife, Emily, requesting that he be buried in South Georgia. He was laid to rest in March 1922 at the Grytviken cemetery.
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