My history hero: Ernest Shackleton (d1922)

As a scientific expedition in the Antarctic sets out on a quest to find Sir Ernest Shackleton's lost ship, we look back in our archive at when television presenter Lorraine Kelly nominated the polar explorer as her history hero…

The Endurance, the ship of Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton led three expeditions to the Antarctic. But he is best known for his heroic leadership after his ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice at the start of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17. He was forced to make an 800-mile open boat journey, then cross the island of South Georgia, before the ship’s crew could be rescued. In 1922 he died at sea of a heart attack in the South Atlantic before he could embark on another Antarctic expedition. He was buried in South Georgia.

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When did you first hear about Ernest Shackleton?

I feel as if I’ve always known him, because when I was growing up in Scotland my father was interested in the Antarctic explorers and, in particular, Shackleton. I remember hearing about his incredible exploits and being fascinated by this larger than life individual who triumphed against the odds.

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London. (Photo by Dreamstime)

What kind of person was he?

Very much a born leader. Yes, leadership skills are something that can be taught, but you can have them instinctively, and he did. It is not just about barking orders, it’s about knowing the right thing to do at the right time. Not only he did make the right decisions after being forced to abandon Endurance, but he knew when he had to be tough and when to give his crew a break. He had that all-important leadership skill: emotional intelligence. He would also have been great company: just the sort of person you’d want to share a bottle of whisky with on a cold night. He must have had a pretty good sense of humour judging by the advert he placed before his 1914 expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages. Bitter cold. Long hours in complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.”

What made Shackleton a hero?

The fact that he managed to get to Elephant Island after the ship Endurance became caught in pack ice, crossing the most stormy and treacherous of seas in a tiny lifeboat to reach South Georgia. Then he scaled its mountains and crossed the island to get to its whaling stations. The journey seems almost unbelievable, given the harshness of the conditions and the unforgiving South Atlantic climate. A team tried to emulate his feat in modern times and failed, which gives an idea of just how extraordinary a feat it was. Shackleton showed an almost superhuman endurance, and an ability to repeatedly inspire his crew to rise to every challenge.

The members of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

What was his finest hour?

It has to be that epic journey he made after Endurance was trapped in ice. He encountered so many obstacles and found himself and his crew in such desperate circumstances again and again, but just pressed on, regardless of the apparent hopelessness of the situation. He showed incredible determination and self-belief – but an amazing lack of self-regard. When, for instance, one of the crewmen lost his mittens, Shackleton gave him his own – and suffered frostbite. He wasn’t afraid to make a self-sacrifice, and led by example.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

He was a bit of a womaniser by all accounts – and this isn’t to excuse it, but I suppose he was a man of his time. He doesn’t seem to have been the world’s greatest businessman either, making a number of poor investment decisions over the years.

Can you see any parallels between his life and yours?

I’m reasonably adventurous, and for instance did a 100-mile walk in Africa – though my idea of adventure pales beside his. Like him, I’m also pretty stubborn and tenacious, and while I’d love to go on an Antarctic expedition, I think I’ve probably left it too late in life. That said, the next big thing on my bucket list is to go to South Georgia – to see his gravestone and pay my respects.

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

If you could meet Shackleton what would you ask him?

I’d ask him what was going through his mind in the days after he and his crew abandoned Endurance, and what kept him going during the darkest hour. I’d love to know whether he was plagued by any self-doubt and if there were times when, deep down, he secretly wondered if they would make it to safety.

Lorraine Kelly was talking to York Membery. Lorraine Kelly presents a daytime chat show on ITV. She is also a patron of the Shackleton Foundation, which supports young people displaying ‘the Shackleton spirit’. shackletonfoundation.org

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This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine