Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part VII – Conclusion)

ElephantIsland1

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.

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