Nick Smith’s feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, Summer 2009

The mighty Nimrod – a century on

This year sees the centenary of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, otherwise known as Nimrod, after the ship on which Ernest Shackleton and his men travelled to the White Continent. Explorers Journal Contributing Editor Nick Smith discussed the significance of the Sir Ernest’s first major expedition as leader with his only granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton.

The story of Nimrod, the first major expedition to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is one of the great tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Admiral Sir Edward Evans – who had been on Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902–1904 with Shackleton – described it as ‘a good, sound, scientific programme’.

But the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, to name it correctly, has been overshadowed by other events in the Polar Regions, including the failure of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s heroic rescue mission of the crew of the Endurance. So well known are these later expeditions that it is easy to forget the real impact of Nimrod, the stout little sealer that departed London on 20th July 1907. Having been tugged from New Zealand to the limits of the Antarctic ice, the vessel, overloaded with coal, had a steaming radius that would allow its captain to explore as far as the Bay of Whales, before settling on Cape Royds as the expedition’s shore base.

From this historic hut – where Shackleton wintered in 1908 – a party of four men set out on one of the greatest sledge journeys in history. After passing Scott’s ‘farthest South’, every new feature became Shackleton’s own discovery. His expedition attained the South Geomagnetic Pole, made the first ascent of the White Continent’s highest mountain, discovered coal and fossils, experimented with motorised transport and made an heroic attempt on the Geographical Pole. Despite the many brushes with death, Nimrod was, as Evans later wrote, an ‘eminently successful expedition.’

On 4th March 1909 Nimrod departed the Antarctic ice edge on the home leg of the British Antarctic Expedition. And although the expedition had not succeeded in its ultimate goal ­– the attainment of the South Pole – it was arguably the most important and significant excursion to Antarctica up until that date. Every one of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic band of men returned to safety.

Nick Smith: How did the Nimrod expedition come about?

Alexandra Shackleton: Nimrod was Shackleton’s first expedition as leader. He went South originally with Captain Scott on the Discovery expedition. He was part of Scott’s Southern Party that got to within a few hundred miles of the Pole. But he regarded the Pole as unfinished business. And so he put together the Nimrod expedition. There were scientific objectives as well as those of exploration, but in fact what he really wanted was the Pole.

NS: What do you think that Nimrod achieved?

AS: Nimrod did achieve a lot: The first ascent of Mount Erebus as well as the publication of the first book in the Antarctic, Aurora Australis. Lots of valuable scientific work was undertaken. Coal was discovered and the South Magnetic Pole was reached. It sounds quite simple to reach the magnetic pole, but in fact it moves about according to the angle of the earth’s magnetic field. After an epic trek of 1,260 miles unsupported ­– a record that stood for 80 years – the expedition managed to achieve that. But it wasn’t all success. The first motorcar was taken and that didn’t work out.

NS: But your grandfather didn’t get to the South Pole?

AS: Ernest Shackleton did not get what he most wanted from the Nimrod expedition. He did not get to the Pole. He got 366 miles nearer than the Discovery expedition, but at 97 miles from the Pole he took the decision to turn back. They were all in a bad state physically. The altitude of the Polar Plateau was affecting them badly as well as the lack of food. He could possibly have struggled on to the Pole, but he knew it was unlikely that he would bring his men back alive. So he decided to turn back: a decision that has been described as one of the great decisions in polar history, one of which I am extremely proud. To turn his back on glory for the sake of life – it really defined him as a leader and it defined his priorities. We are all defined by our priorities. His priorities were quite simply his men. Afterwards he said to my grandmother: ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’

NS: The British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 is more commonly known after the ship Nimrod. What can you tell me about the ship itself?

AS: The ship was a very small, forty-year old sealer, originally called Bjorn. Small and tatty. All my grandfather’s ships were secondhand. In fact, the only purpose-built polar ship of the time was Scott’s Discovery, which cost Scott as much as the entire Nimrod expedition. Nimrod set sail from London, but in fact Ernest Shackleton joined the ship in New Zealand. In order to save coal Nimrod was then towed ­­– the longest tow for a very long time – down to the Antarctic Circle. Nightmare tow, nightmare weather. The Koonya was the tug that carried out the tow and at one stage the weather was so bad the ships could only just see the tops of each other’s masts. It was an incredible feat of seamanship that the line was kept as it should have been. And Nimrod was quite overloaded with supplies for winter. My grandfather said that the ship looked like a reluctant schoolboy being dragged to school.

NS: In the context of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Nimrod is not the best known of expeditions, but perhaps is one of the most important. Why do you think it has been overshadowed?

AS: It’s not Shackleton’s best-known expedition, but I think it was as important as the others, quite honestly. Of course, with the Endurance expedition there was an epic rescue involving the James Caird, not quite 23-foot, 800 miles across the stormy seas of the world, with the men waiting on Elephant Island and the rescue party climbing the unclimbed peaks of South Georgia.

NS: In 1908 Nimrod returned to New Zealand and then in 1909 it arrived back in Antarctica to collect the expedition team…

AS: Every single man returned. That’s why when I recently went to visit my Grandfather’s Nimrod expedition base hut at Cape Royds – beautifully conserved by the Antarctica Heritage Trust – it looked as if they had just stepped out. It was an incredible experience. First you notice the smell of wood and leather, and then you notice that it’s lit by natural light. And then you notice the hams hanging up and the socks and the clothes and the Mrs Sam stove. I felt a great wave of grief because I’m looking at the past, and the past as the cliché has it, won’t come again. But afterwards, after I had processed the experience, I decided that the hut itself is not a sad place because everyone came back alive.

NS: The point of your recent voyage to Antarctica to visit your grandfather’s hut?

AS: Yes. A documentary was being made about me by a New Zealand filmmaker called Mary-Jo Tohill to record the visit to my grandfather’s hut for the very first time in the Nimrod year. It’s a long voyage. The Ross Sea is a very long way away. The ice was extremely bad and we couldn’t get to all the places we wanted to get to, even in a powerful icebreaker. But we did get to Cape Royds and it was an astonishing experience, for which I’m very grateful. All my life I wanted to visit it.

NS: What is the hut like?

AS: It’s about 30 by 15 feet. Fifteen men wintered in it, and other expeditions used it too. It’s a permanent building in that it’s still there, but it was prefabricated in England, taken apart and re-erected there. The packing cases were taken apart and used for things like furniture, and of course the covers of Aurora Australis. Two members of the expedition took a short course and they were lent a small press. But of course it was incredibly difficult because there was all the volcanic dust – the scoria – that one walks through because Erebus, a live volcano, is nearby. And the ink would freeze and you’d drop a plate and you’d have to start all over again. It was painstaking and a huge achievement of very high standard. You would not think that they had not printed before.

NS: Do you think Aurora Australis tells us much about the Nimrod expedition?

AS: Aurora Australis is effectively a Nimrod anthology. The subjects range from science to fantasy, from humour to poetry. Ernest Shackleton contributed two of his poems. The humour has changed a bit – some of the things they thought funny we don’t think quite so funny today. And of course generously illustrated too. We don’t know exactly how many were produced – probably not more than a hundred. One was discovered recently in a barn in Northumberland. I think it was sold for about £56,000 (around $100,000 dollars) and I think that was the top price. Obviously, condition makes a difference and whether Shackleton or any of the others had signed it. I think Aurora not only throws light on the members of the expedition and how they thought a hundred years ago, but also on the leader who chose these men. They are like this, and he chose these people.

NS: What do you think s the legacy of Nimrod?

AS: The significance of Nimrod is that it defined Ernest Shackleton as a leader. There has been a great upsurge of interest in him over the past ten years for one reason: Leadership.

Nimrod expedition in cold, hard facts

Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley. Tannatt William Edgeworth David leading a party of three reached the region of the South Magnetic Pole (72 • 42 º S, 155 • 27 º E) and took possession for Britain of Victoria Land there, 16 January 1909, and at Cape Bernacchi, 17 October 1908. Dogs and ponies used for some sledge hauling. Visited Macquarie Island, searched for ‘Dougherty’s Island’. First experiments in motor transport in Antarctica, an Arrol Johnston motor car was used with limited success; ciné photographs of penguins and seals were made. The expedition use New Zealand postage stamps specially overprinted ‘King Edward VII Land’ and an expedition canceller; Shackleton was appointed Post-Master. Book Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made. [To conserve coal, in January 1908, Nimrod was towed 2700km from Lyttleton to the ice edge by Koonya (reached 66 • 52º S) which visited Campbell Island during the return voyage. The hut at Cape Royds is now protected as a ‘historic site’.]

Extracted with permission from A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09, by Robert Keith Headland

Feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, by Nick Smith May 2009]

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