The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This simple granite column marks the grave of explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922).    Standing in a small whalers’ cemetery in Grytvikin, South Georgia, the stone is inscribed with a quotation from one of his favorite poets, Robert Browning, “I hold…that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize”.  Shackleton died on board the Quest en route to Antarctica (his fourth trip to the polar region).  The ship’s crew held a simple ceremony for the great man and after erecting a cairn marked with a white cross at Hope Point, they sailed on.  Initially Shackleton’s body was taken to Montevideo accompanied by one of his team, Leonard Hussey, but on arrival they were met with a letter from Lady Emily Shackleton requesting that her husband be buried on South Georgia.  His funeral took place at the Whalers Church at Grytvikin on 5 March 1922 in a ceremony attended by local whalers and Hussey.  This granite headstone made in Edinburgh was erected six years later in 1928, unveiled by the Governor of the Falkland Islands.

Shackleton had arrived back from his Endurance expedition in 1917, and after spending time in Russia assisting with the war effort, and then giving public lectures in London, his thoughts soon returned to Antarctica.  By 1920, despite the huge debts still outstanding from his earlier Endurance expedition, he began planning his next Antarctic journey.  The initial object of the expedition was to visit the sub-Antarctic islands, but was soon expanded to include an oceanographic programme alongside mapping uncharted sections of the Antarctic coastline.  Securing the bulk of his funding from his friend, the businessman John Quiller Rowett, Shackleton made preparations, recruiting his team of twenty, eight of whom had travelled south with the explorer previously including Frank Wild, his right-hand man on the Endurance expedition.  He bought a Norwegian sealer the Quest, and a host of innovative equipment including a small seaplane that he hoped to be able to use to survey Antarctica from the air.

Sailing from London on 17 March 1921, the expedition had intended to travel south to Cape Town and then on to the Weddell Sea, but soon found their way forestalled by a number of difficulties with the Quest.  The vessel proved itself to be largely unsuited for the voyage, rolling in heavy seas and suffering frequent breakdowns.  The team had to stop for repairs at ports along the way repeatedly, forcing Shackleton to change his plans and sail to Rio De Janeiro where the engine could be completely overhauled.  By the time repairs had been completed in Rio in late November, it was too late in the season to try and head to Antarctica, instead the expedition headed to South Georgia.

The constant delays and setbacks seemed to weigh heavily on Shackleton, and the crew recorded that he often seemed unwell.  Arriving at South Georgia on 4 January 1922, the team spent a relaxed day at Grytviken, returning in the evening to sleep.  Shortly after 2 a.m., Alexander Macklin one of the ship’s doctors was summoned to Shackleton’s cabin to find him suffering with severe back pains.  The doctor told him that he had been overdoing things and advised him to lead a more regular life, when the explorer suddenly suffered a massive heart attack, and died at 2.50 a.m. on 5 January 1922.   It fell to Frank Wild, now in command to break the news to the shocked crew the following morning.   Shackleton aged only  47, one of the great heroic era explorers, was dead.

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Shackleton’s grave lies in a small cemetery on Grytvikin, South Georgia.