Cold journey becomes hot topic

SUN JOURNAL

Leadership: The world is taking a new interest in the accomplishments of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton in the early 20th century.

January 03, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Alexandra Shackleton has watched in wonderment as the world again took notice of the life, times and epic tale of survival of her grandfather, Ernest Shackleton.

Through books, exhibitions and television specials over the past few years, she sensed a yearning among others to find a hero in her grandfather, an explorer who at the outbreak of World War I led a crew of 27 on a journey to a frozen hell and back, from a sunken ship off Antarctica to safety.

"There seems to be a need to identify with raw leadership, a leadership growing out of the person you are," she says. "Initially, I was surprised by the interest. But it does make sense."

The interest for all things Shackleton shows no sign of abating as another exhibition detailing the great man's great adventures is now on display.

"Shackleton: The Antarctic and Endurance" is drawing the curious and the faithful to Dulwich College, south of central London. Billed as the first exhibition in Britain devoted solely to Shackleton, it might also be the best at charting the remarkable journey of a singular leader.

Bound aboard the "Endurance" in a 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica by foot, Shackleton and his crew were caught in ice floes that held them captive for months. The ship sank and the crew desperately made its way to Elephant Island, an inhospitable speck.

Most of the crew remained marooned there as Shackleton and five others climbed into the 23-foot lifeboat James Caird and embarked on a terrifying 800-mile voyage through dangerous seas to South Georgia. Once landed, they trekked 22 miles over mountains and glaciers to reach a whaling station. It would take four tries and three months before Shackleton could retrieve the men from Elephant Island, Aug. 30, 1916.

In one sense, the expedition was a miserable failure; the men never landed on Antarctica, much less crossed it. In another sense, it was a glorious triumph, true heroism discovered in unspeakably harsh circumstances. Yet with World War I raging, the tale was put aside as being out of place as Europe devoured a generation of young men in the war.

"Never since his lifetime has his reputation stood higher," Shackleton's granddaughter has written in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue. "Never, I do believe, will there be an Exhibition to surpass this one."

Dulwich College is an appropriate setting for the imposing display. Shackleton attended the school from 1887 to 1890, making him, with author P. G. Wodehouse, among the school's more famous former students, or "old boys."

In the school's cathedral-like Old Library, Shackleton's adventures play out, from records of old school grades to the Union flag that draped his casket in 1922 after he died of a heart attack while sailing toward a final polar journey.

Another age is evoked in such curiosities as Shackleton's worn sledge harness, engraved compass and journal, with a final entry in which he writes of seeing a "lone star hover Gem-like above the bay." From a 1908 expedition, there's a hearty menu for a "Midwinter Celebration" that included turtle soup, penguin patties and seal cutlets.

An adjoining building houses the James Caird, restored with a fresh coat of whitewash and three sails. It was only 25 years ago that the boat sat on the side of the school cricket field, upturned, undisturbed and unappreciated by society.

But Shackleton's journey has come back to inspire another generation. Interest is so strong, there's now a "James Caird" society, 700 strong, that meets twice annually next to the boat at Dulwich College for a dinner and lecture.

"It's a stirring heroic story for rather unheroic times," says Jan Piggott, an English teacher and keeper of the archives at Dulwich College. "The story reminds one of old-fashioned values of being stoical. And Antarctica is still so fascinating and so strange."

Piggott says Americans might in fact know the Shackleton story better than the British, who were raised on stories of another explorer, Robert Falcon Scott. It was Scott who trekked to the South Pole in 1912, reaching his destination only to discover he had "lost" the race to the Pole to Roald Amundsen.

Scott and four others perished during the return journey, their sacrifice matching early 20th- century British sensibilities of duty and heroism.

William Mills, the keeper and librarian at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, lectures on Scott and Shackleton and notes that it's easier to reach an audience with Shackleton because "you end on a high note."

"With Scott, you don't want to leave people in the depths," he says. "Scott was a cultural phenomenon."

What's driving the Shackleton renaissance?

Mills contends the interest is part of a larger fascination with remote regions on the planet. There is a general high level of interest in travel literature, as populations around the world deal with being part of a global village. "Polar regions are the most extreme part of the village," he says.

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