Monthly Archives: February 2014

Marcus Aurelius’ Morning Ritual

From the “Meditations”.

Begin each morning by saying to yourself:

Today I will deal with men who are meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, envious, and uncharitable. These attributes have come to them because they are ignorant of what is good and evil.

But I understand that good is beautiful, and that evil is ugly, and that my transgressor is related to me; not by blood or seed, but of the same mind, and the same portion of the divine. I can neither be hurt by any of them, since no-one can implicate me in ugliness; nor can I be angry at my relative, nor hate him.

We are all born to work together, just like feet, hands and eyes, just like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To oppose each other is against Nature. To be irritated by another, to turn away; these are obstructions.

In Praise of Ray Mears

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We live in a time when purportedly educational documentaries provide little in the way of education. One need only browse the schedules of the various channels under the Discovery and History labels to see an endless tide of witless “reality” shows. To call them “infotainment” would be an insult to the concepts of entertainment and information.

Programming dealing with outdoor pursuits and the wilderness in general have been especially stung by this trend to dumb down television (I use the term advisedly as people have complained about dumbing down since before I was born). The airwaves are polluted with shows that conform to the exceptionally popular genre of “survivalism”. This silly word has been coined at the expense of the perfectly serviceable term “bushcraft”.

In typical “survivalist” shows like Man vs Wild and Dual Survival to name just two examples, supposed outdoors experts venture into the wilderness (forest, desert, tundra et al), invariably to simulate being stranded following a plane crash, shipwreck, or car breakdown. This allows our intrepid explorers to indulge themselves by jumping gorges, scaling cliffs, wading through allegedly crocodile-infested waters, and so forth. All of this gives the viewers the impression that we are learning how to fend for ourselves in the wild should disaster befall us. Of course we are learning nothing of the sort.

One could watch a hundred hours of these programmes and, in a real-world survival situation, be as helpless as someone who never watched a single minute. They merely offer the comforting illusion of education. They are not informative in any practical way, and could only hold serious appeal for children and rednecks. The rest of us can enjoy these shows only as un-taxing entertainment.

It is a mercy then that one man at least strives to produce outdoors shows which do not insult the intelligence of the viewers. That man is English television presenter and bushcraft expert Ray Mears. He does not make dubious claims about having received elite military training. He does not claim to be a rugged action man. He is simply honest, knowledgable, educational, and quietly inspiring.

When he was a boy, Mears wanted to go camping in the local woods. He could not afford a tent, so he resolved to make his own shelter with the available natural materials. When he wanted to see wildlife, he learned how to track animals. Over the years, he gradually built up his knowledge of bushcraft using only library books and practise. When he found that the selection of books in this field was inadequate, he decided to write his own.

Mears soon set up a bushcraft school, teaching people lost skills like starting a fire without matches, building a shelter out of branches and ferns, and foraging for wild food. Eventually his work caught the attention of television producers, and he began making hugely popular shows on British television. Watching Ray Mears, one actually learns practical skills that could be used in real life. He does not feel the need to jump off waterfalls; he makes sober programmes that demonstrate you don’t need artificial jeopardy to make good television.

What makes Mears’ brand of outdoors skills so appealing is that he does not feel nature is something that must be conquered. It’s not about Man vs Wild; it’s about man living alongside nature, and within it. Without wishing to over-egg the point, the similarities with the fundamental Stoic principle of living a virtuous life in accordance with Nature are apparent.

In an episode of one of his programmes he says that going to spend time in a beautiful part of the wild is the closest he ever gets to a religious experience. This sense of harmony with the natural world echoes beautifully with Stoicism, which – let us not forget – was originally a belief system of what we would now call pantheism. Although Stoicism makes no claims of life after death, and holds no specifically superstitious or supernatural tenets, it did have a spiritual underpinning, something often ignored in modern discussions of the philosophy.

For those of us of a secular disposition, and those who may struggle with the pantheistic tendencies of classical Stoicism, perhaps Ray Mears’ informed beliefs about our place in nature could serve as something of an inspiration.

Book Review: “An Unsung Hero” by Michael Smith

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Tom Crean was an unassuming seaman from Ireland who distinguished himself as one of the hardiest antarctic explorers in history. He served twice under Scott (on the Discovery and the Terra Nova) and once under Shackleton (on the Endurance), both of whom held him in high regard as a supremely dependable crewman.

He proved his bravery time and time again. On the Terra Nova Expedition, while returning to base camp following a depot-laying trip, the ice on which he and his comrades Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Bowers had been camping broke away and started drifting off, taking them with it, away from their sledges. Crean salvaged the situation by jumping across the broken ice floes to fetch help, saving the two men’s lives.

On another occasion, Crean, Edward Evans and William Lashly were trekking back to base when Evans was struck by slow blindness, and had to be aided by the other two. Soon he began to develop scurvy. With provisions running low, and 35 miles still to go to safety, it was decided that Crean would go alone. He set off with just three biscuits and some chocolate, and walked for 18 solid hours. He reached the base just in time to avoid a blizzard, and Evans and Lashly were soon saved.

In his native country, though he has been long admired, there is a perception that his legacy has been underappreciated. Michael Smith set out to restore Crean to his rightful place in history, with his book “An Unsung Hero; Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor”. The book examines Crean from his early days working on the family farm in Kerry to his death in 1938, but obviously the book is primarily concerned with his polar adventures.

To write about Crean must have been a challenge. He was a modest man who did not seek fame and attention. Because of this, there is no record of him ever giving an interview to the press. He did not write an autobiography. He did not make speaking engagements. He left very little personal correspondence. Many other characters from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration thoroughly documented their exploits; we have a wealth of diaries and memoirs covering every moment of every expedition, but Crean was a more private person.

The author makes a game attempt to provide a full account of a man whose thoughts and feelings largely remain a mystery. Smith knows that it is Crean’s actions which must speak for him, not his words, and wisely avoids unnecessary interpretation. To use an odd turn of phrase, he lets the story tell the story. He paints a strong picture of a loyal, reliable, and unerringly brave man. The book is well-paced and as well-researched as can be considered possible with a such an elusive figure.

There are, however, stretches of the book where the relative lack of information about Crean becomes apparent; there are times when the author must make do with talking about the general work of the expedition with only occasional sentences to remind us of Crean as a specific presence. He was, after all, part of a crew. Such sections are excusable, and do not hinder the book. It is in these moments that the author provides a good overview of the various voyages. In many ways the book would serve as a solid introduction for those who wish to start learning about the Heroic Age (This does not mean that the book would hold no appeal to those who are more well-versed in the era, as there are some new insights to be gleaned).

Crean comes across as a thoroughly likeable person, full of dedication; a good-natured man who kept his spirit up (and the spirits of everyone around him) in the midst of one of the most inhospitable parts of the world. He was more than capable of emotion, but would not let circumstance get him down for too long. As with Shackleton, there is much a Stoic could learn from such a man as Tom Crean.

Smith has written an exciting, inspiring book, one which makes a strong case for recognition of this previously under-appreciated explorer, and one which I heartily recommend.

Book Review: “Marcus Aurelius” by Frank McLynn

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Any work by historian Frank McLynn is destined to be a decidedly mixed bag. On one hand, McLynn clearly undertakes a gargantuan amount of research, and any reader will not want for sources. He is undoubtedly an intelligent writer, with a strong (though occasionally archaic) command of the English language. He is able to describe not just the individual subject of each biography, but also the wider world in which they operated, thus offering us a better understanding of the geo-political context than we would otherwise have.

On the other hand, he can be biased; allowing his prejudices or preconceptions to shape the narrative. This can give some passages an arrogant flavour. Frequently he appears to use evidence to fit his foregone conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the evidence. A strong ability to research does not imply a strong ability to interpret. Once he has made up his mind, he will not budge, the result of which is proclaiming opinions as facts. Finally, (in my opinion, for fear of hypocrisy) he has limited aptitude for describing battles, a significant disadvantage when examining great military commanders like Marcus Aurelius and Napoléon I.

McLynn’s biography of Napoléon was my introduction to his work. Although the author made one or two elemental errors (propagating the now-discredited myth that Napoléon was ridiculously short), and delved a little too often into the unconvincing world of Jungian psychoanalysis (with every decision invariably being described as the result of some baseless complex or another), I nonetheless found it very well researched down to the most personal details (he seemed to have pinned down every dalliance the Emperor ever had, for example, no matter how casual), and despite its length, well-paced. He skilfully kept track of a huge cast of generals, relatives, and assorted hangers-on. He gave equal attention to Napoléon the Emperor, the General, and the Man. The book offered a fairly balanced view of the great leader, never overlooking his faults and never denying his achievements. I hoped to find the same qualities in his examination of Marcus Aurelius. Sadly, I did not.

First, we must consider the reasons why a reader would be drawn to a book about Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps they are interested in Ancient Rome in general. Perhaps they are interested in military and political leaders. Let us especially consider those who are interested in Marcus as one of the most noted Stoic philosophers, a man whose Meditations, despite never being intended for publication, offers wisdom and guidance to modern readers, almost two millenia after being written. In my estimation, any advocate of Stoicism will be dismayed at this book (or rather they would be dismayed if they did not reject this emotion as they should). It is clear from the earliest chapters that McLynn detests this great – and proven – philosophy.

While I can accept a difference of opinion, even a difference of philosophy, it seems that the author hates Stoicism for imagined reasons. His dismissive treatment of the entire school of thought appears to stem from a simple lack of understanding, as evidenced by his assertion that Stoicism “denies human nature by recommending what most sane people would regard as chimerical: braving torture, mocking death, conquering sexual passions. It subscribes to the dreadful doctrine that if someone suffers misfortune, he himself is responsible.”

I am unaware of any Stoic tenet which demands the practitioner to mock death, nor does the philosophy blame anyone for having suffered misfortune. Perhaps McLynn has misinterpreted Epictetus’ saying “If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone” as meaning “If anyone has suffered a misfortune, let him remember he brought it on himself, and we have no sympathy for him”. This of course would be a ridiculous reading of the philosophy.

As for braving torture, stoic philosophy has indeed helped people in such dreadful situations. Let us take an example from the Vietnam War. In 1965 American fighter pilot James Stockdale, having ejected from his plane and parachuted to the ground, was taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese. He was in captivity for the next seven and a half years, during which time he was denied medical care, and regularly tortured. He specifically credited Stoicism with helping him to survive the ordeal.

The author fares much better when he deals with the culture, politics and history surrounding Marcus. This is not a blinkered biography of the kind obsessed with just one person at the expense of the wider world. It could read as an insightful overview of the history of Rome during Marcus’ reign as much as a history of the man himself. That is not to say Marcus is neglected; we are presented with a lot of information about a person who lived so long ago, for whom limited sources exist.

Unfortunately, these virtues do not excuse the wrong-headed attack on an entire school of thought. It is hard to imagine why someone who holds Stoicism in such low regard would choose to write a book about one of its leading proponents. It is equally hard to imagine why someone who advocates stoicism as a timeless and practical guide to living would choose to read it. I cannot recommend this book.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part VII – Conclusion)

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We rejoin the story with Shackleton, Worsley and Crean having reached the Husvik whaling station at South Georgia’s Stromness Bay. They were exhausted after their mighty 36 hour trek, but could not rest for long; their fellow crewmembers were still at the mercy of the elements. Worsley was sent on a whaling ship to collect McCarthy, McNish and Vincent from the other side of the island (they did not recognise him when he arrived, as he was now clean-shaven), while Shackleton and Crean planned the rescue of the men who were on Elephant Island.

Worsley returned with the men, and three days later he joined Shackleton, Crean and volunteers from the whaling station as they set sail for Elephant Island. The ice conditions prevented them from reaching Point Wild, so they diverted to look for a more suitable ship. Few were forthcoming; World War I had broken out shortly before the Endurance Expedition set sail, and was now in full swing, leaving British ships unavailable. A vessel from Uruguay was procured, but it too failed to reach the island, as did a subsequent Argentinian ship. Finally, a Chilean ship made it to the island, and the 22 men were rescued at last.

It is remarkable that despite all the calamities which befell the crew of the Endurance – the destruction of the ship, the months spent living on the ice, the perilous lifeboat journeys and the mighty trek across South Georgia – not a single man died. There was exhaustion, injury and a some amputated toes, but everyone under Shackleton’s command had survived almost unbearable hardship (It should, however, be remembered that the Aurora – the ship on the other side of the continent, tasked with depot-laying – lost three of its men: Victor Hayward, Rev Arnold Spencer-Smith, and the ship’s Captain Aeneas Mackintosh).

One wonders how they did it, particularly in such an unforgiving climate. I believe the main explanation for their success (and it can be called success, in spite of failing their original mission) lies in Shackleton himself. He was the ideal leader: calm under pressure, logical, reasonable, a good judge of character, strong-willed, brave and always undeterred by adversity. Chief amongst his qualities was that which he shared with the name of the ship: endurance.

His excellent command of an almost doomed expedition can serve as a lesson to any budding Stoic (or even an experienced one). Turn after turn he and his men were faced with another fresh difficulty. To face one of these situations would be too much for most people; Shackleton faced each new low with undeniable stoicism (at least on the surface).

This is not to say he was a model person. He had a terrible way with money, and his many failed business dealings landed him heavily in debt. Upon his death (he died of a heart attack while preparing another antarctic adventure) he had not made sure that his family could be provided for after he was gone. He was a frequently restless man between expeditions, always itching to return to the polar regions (it is fitting, therefore, that he is buried in South Georgia). These are not stoic qualities.

Additionally, some have accused him of holding grudges, as apparently evidenced by his denying four men the Polar Medal (McNish, Vincent and two fire-stokers named Holness and Stephenson) while everyone else was awarded. I am less inclined to judge him on this point. If he felt that the men’s conduct or attitude did not deserve recognition, I would not begrudge him his decision.

This has not been a hagiography. It has been a look at a man whose noble words were backed up by his determined actions. He did not spout empty aphorisms. When he said: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”, he meant it. What’s more, he proved it.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part VI – Resolve)

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16 days after leaving Elephant Island, and having braved some of the worst elements imaginable in a boat never designed for such navigation, the six man crew of the James Caird finally landed on the shore of South Georgia.

Shackleton was faced with a tough decision. As the only known human outpost was the on the other side of South Georgia, they could either set off once again and sail around the island, or attempt to make their way on foot. The interior land was completely unexplored, so the men had no idea if it was impassable. The boat was not in very good condition, so Shackleton chose the latter option.

McNish and Vincent were in no fit state to make the journey, so Shackleton decided that those two, under the care of McCarthy, would stay by the bay with the James Caird while he, Worsley and Crean would make the trek across land. With no maps, and no knowledge of the geography of the island, they would have to navigate largely on intuition.

The three men set off before dawn, and soon made their way up to a height of 3000 ft. From there they had a better idea of where they needed to go. There was one major challenge, however. They needed to descend before nightfall, which would be almost impossible without the proper mountaineering equipment. Another difficult decision therefore presented itself to Shackleton: they could climb down and risk darkness falling while they were doing it, or try to slide down the slope on a makeshift rope sledge, saving valuable time.

Although Shackleton, Worsley and especially Crean were brave and resilient men who were willing to put their lives on the line, this was no longer about their own personal safety. Even if they could accept the possibility of being killed, the rest of the crew depended on them. If Shackleton’s three-man team perished while crossing South Georgia then the helpless McCarthy, McNish and Vincent would soon die too, and if the crew of the James Caird failed, this in turn would spell doom for the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island. Everything relied on the survival of Shackleton and his two companions.

With time running against them, Shackleton made his decision: they would sled down the mountain. Sitting on their unpromising rope-sledge, they held onto each other and pushed off. They shot down the slope, and soon came to a stop at the bottom. To their collective amazement they were uninjured. Once again Shackleton had chosen the right option; one which most other people would be too scared to even consider. Like a Stoic, Shackleton showed no fear (though he must doubtless have felt it).

Their journey was not over yet; there was much ground still to cover (including a frozen waterfall). They trudged through the night and into the next morning, without resting since setting off at 3am the previous day. Later that day, unimaginably exhausted, the three bedraggled men reached the whaling station. Since the Endurance had become stuck in the ice, the entire expedition had been a series of events where things went from bad to worse. For perhaps the first time, the situation had got better. What remained now was to collect the three men from the other side of South Georgia, and then make way to Elephant island to rescue the main body of the crew.

We will conclude this remarkable journey in part VII.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part V – Lifeboats)

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When the ice had sufficiently broken up, the crew of the sunken Endurance launched the three lifeboats, each of which had been named after an expedition donor. Shackleton commanded the James Caird, Frank Worsley was in charge of the Dudley Docker, while the Stancomb Wills was under the control of Hubert Hudson (nominally) and Tom Crean (de facto).

Their target initially was Deception Island, a distant prospect, but Shackleton soon changed his mind and selected Hope Bay. Always willing to review his plans when necessary, rather than blindly and stubbornly sticking to one idea, he ultimately settled on Elephant Island as their destination. His decision was influenced by the unavoidable facts that provisions were running low, the temperature was below freezing, and the men’s strength was depleted. Elephant Island may not have been the ideal place to land, but it was the nearest. Trying to push the men further could have been fatal. Shackleton made a sensible decision.

When the men landed at Elephant Island, it became apparent that the beach was not a suitable place to camp, and another location on the island was sought. They found a better spot on the western side, and named it Point Wild.

Elephant Island was utterly desolate; a remote place which antarctic whalers rarely had any cause to visit. There was very little chance that anyone would stumble upon the crew. If they wanted to be rescued, they would have to go looking for help. Shackleton devised a plan that one of the lifeboats would be fortified to better endure the rigours of seafaring. He and a select few men would sail this boat to South Georgia (over 900 miles away) to seek assistance, while the rest would stay behind and wait.

The James Caird was deemed the most suitable boat for this journey, but still required some modifications at the hands of Endurance’s carpenter Harry McNish (the same man who had refused to obey orders when they were stranded on the pack ice). Shackleton selected five men to accompany him: Endurance’s captain Frank Worsley, the ever-reliable Tom Crean, the aforementioned McNish, and sailors John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy. Frank Wild would be in charge of the men remaining on Elephant Island.

McNish and Vincent had reputations as trouble-makers, and it has been suspected that Shackleton took them along to keep an eye on them (presumably on the principle that you should “keep your enemies closer”), and also to relieve the others of their presence. He knew that waiting on Elephant Island would be a grim existence, so everything should be done to maintain a sense of cohesion.

The boat was launched and began its difficult journey to South Georgia, an ordeal in which Worsley demonstrated exceptional navigational skill under horrendous circumstances. The six men had to contend with terrible weather, biting winds, extreme cold and dangerous icebergs. Their rations were slim, and their clothes were not waterproof. True to form, Shackleton was stoic throughout, and never let the situation dampen his resolve.

Shackleton’s odyssey will continue in Part VI.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part IV – Stranded)

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It had long been apparent that the transcontinental trek was not going to happen. With the ship wrecked beyond repair, and the crew stranded on the ice, it seemed that the expedition was in tatters. Shackleton’s mind now turned to rescuing his men. This would not be easy.

It was time to start weighing up the possibilities. One option was to march west to Paulet Island, where Shackleton knew there was a food depot (a 12-year leftover from the relief mission for a Swedish expedition led by Otto Nordenskiöld). Or perhaps they could try to reach Snow Hill Island, or Robertson Island, and from there make their way across Graham Land to a whaling outpost on the other side. The problem was that all of these targets were hundreds of miles away. Arduous man-hauling would be required.

Before they could set off, there was one particularly dreadful task to be carried out. It would be impossible to take the animals on the long journey, so they would have to be put down. Shackleton stoically ordered all of the dogs – and Mrs Chippy, the ship’s cat – to be shot. This was a terrible blow to the animal lovers among the crew, like Chief Petty Officer Tom Crean (one of the bravest and hardiest men in the history of polar exploration), but Shackleton knew there was no choice. It had to be done. In pragmatic terms, the dog meat would provide a welcome boost to the dwindling rations.

Two of the lifeboats were put on sledges, and the hauling began. It should be explained that the ice was not flat like a frozen lake; it was littered with ridges and troughs, and made an already difficult task even more difficult. It was Shackleton’s belief that “Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results”. This echoes Seneca’s writing, in which he said: “I should rebuke men who toil to no purpose”. Once again, Shackleton was behaving like a stoic. He ordered the march be abandoned. They would wait until the ice broke up, then use the lifeboats for their intended purpose. Now came the waiting game.

They retrieved the last of their supplies from the Endurance, and watched it finally sink, a surely disheartening sight. To make matters worse, the ice was subtly but continuously drifting, and only served to drag them farther away from Snow Hill Island. Many supplies and personal effects had to be abandoned for being too large, heavy or unwieldy. It is notable that one of the items Shackleton insisted be salvaged was a banjo. A lesser leader would have discarded this instrument, failing to see the morale-boosting opportunities it provided. Shackleton, as ever, knew that keeping spirits up was supremely important.

Unable to set the boats on the water because of the ice, and unable to cross the ice by foot because of the boats, the choices were extremely limited. After some calculations, another march was attempted, this time in the direction of Paulet Island, which was still in reach. Unhappily, conditions had not improved since the last effort, and tensions were starting to flare. One of the men lost his cool and refused to obey orders, but was firmly rebuked. Shackleton had to maintain discipline in exceptionally tough circumstances, and it is to his eternal credit that he kept order was well as he did.

Progress was glacial. After a week of hauling the men had covered just over a mile a day. Once again Shackleton had to call off the march, set up camp, and wait. Six months would pass before the ice had broken up sufficiently to launch the lifeboats. What followed was one of the most dangerous stretches of the entire expedition.

Part V is coming soon.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part III – Patience)

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We rejoin Shackleton and crew with their voyage well underway.

The Endurance had reached the Weddell Sea, a tricky area riddled with icebergs and impenetrable stretches of pack ice. With the ship getting nearer to the antarctic continent, Shackleton was looking for an area to land, but could not locate an ideal spot. Progress slowed to a halt, and eventually the ship was surrounded by ice. Soon it was stuck fast.

Realising that they were encased in all directions, Shackleton ordered the fires to be banked in order to preserve fuel. He had the men set to work trying to free the ship from the ice. Despite their toil, they did not make any significant progress. The chances of breaking free looked slim. There was no option but to sit and wait until the spring.

The men were now faced with the unenviable prospect of spending the antarctic winter afloat – but immobile – in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation. There was no way to communicate with the rest of the world, and therefore no possibility of rescue. The crew was well and truly alone, entirely at the mercy of nature.

A lesser commander would have struggled under such a heavy burden, but Shackleton was made of strong stuff. Like a Stoic, he knew that he had no influence on outside conditions, so it would be pointless to fret about things that were beyond his control. His duty now was to make the best of the situation; to concern himself only with those things he could change.

The men set about turning the Endurance and its immediate surroundings into a winter base. They constructed igloo kennels to free the dogs from being kept on board all the time, and to allow them to be exercised. Occasionally dog races were held to raise spirits. Everyone did their best to maintain a positive mood.

Although the ship could not move in the ice, the ice itself was drifting, and carrying the ship with it. For a brief time it seemed that they might reach the continent after all, but it was not to be. The longer they were surrounded, the more pressure was being exerted on the ship. If the ice did not start to break up, it would eventually crush the Endurance. For anyone else this would be a terrifying possibility, but not for Shackleton. He kept his head throughout the ordeal.

Things went from bad to worse. The pressure caused the ship to shudder and list. The hull began to buckle and break. Water started seeping in. With the ship now leaning at a concerning angle, and the men trying their best to mend the leak, the decision was made to lower the lifeboats onto the ice, along with supplies. The situation looked grim. Shackleton finally had to give the dreaded order: abandon ship.

The crew set up camp on the ice, climbing on board the broken ship for the occasional piece of equipment and supplies. It is hard to imagine camping on ice; to be essentially afloat in a frozen expanse must surely be a surreal experience.

Shackleton and crew were stranded, with three lifeboats as their only sea-worthy vessels. Amazingly, things would get even worse, as we shall see in Part IV.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part II – Planning)

endurance1“By endurance we conquer” – Shackleton family motto

The aim of Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition (or the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to use its official name) was to traverse Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, via the South Pole. It would prove to be the last major attempt of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

This would be a mighty undertaking. Shackleton was well aware of how dangerous this land could be; Captain Scott and his team had died partway through their return journey from the Pole. Any adventure of this magnitude would require planning, discipline, bravery, good men and a strong leader. Luckily, the Endurance Expedition possessed all of these qualities.

One of the absolute requirements of successful Antarctic travel was laying supply depots along the way. This meant the men would have to carry less provisions on their main journey, and would also provide a safety net if the elements turned against them. Scott’s party perished just 11 miles from their nearest depot, one which Scott had placed far short of its original intended location (due to the supply ponies struggling with the harsh climate). If Scott had perservered at the start, and pushed on with the depot laying, it is possible he might have saved himself and his men at the end.

The plan was to have two ships – the Endurance under Shackleton and the Aurora under Captain Mackintosh – one at either end of the continent. The respective crews would begin laying depots further inland, each covering half of the journey. Shackleton and six of his men (along with 69 dogs and two primitive motorised sledges) would make the complete trip to meet the Aurora at the other end. His remaining men would stay with the Endurance and carry out scientific research. It was a good plan, but it would never be carried out.

A few days after the Endurance set sail, a stowaway was discovered; a young man named Perce Blackborow. In order to make an example of the boy in front of the crew, Shackleton flew into a rage, culminating in the warning that if times got tough, the stowaway was always the first to be eaten. Unfazed by this tirade, Blackboro replied that the men would get more meat off Shackleton. Shackleton had to stifle a smile, the tension was broken, and the boy became part of the crew (to get the last word, Shackleton instructed that the young man should be introduced to the cook first).

This humorous episode provides an important insight into Shackleton’s character. Although he may have genuinely lost his temper at the beginning, he was able let this emotion go and see the lighter side of the situation. His amused response to Blackboro’s cheeky reply (some would say insult) shows that he was not vain or precious, and could accept a witty quip at his expense. Credit is also due to Blackboro for acting so laconically in such a heated situation.

Throughout the expedition, with all its gruelling hardships, Shackleton never forgot the necessity to maintain good humour. Keeping the men’s spirits up was just as important as their physical condition, as we shall see in the forthcoming Part III.