“Shackleton” is one of those names that are guaranteed to stir the blood of a certain kind of Brit. In the company of stable mates such as Churchill, Nelson, Scott and Lawrence, the surname evokes an association with a supposedly glorious past that somehow stiffens the nerves.
The sound of those clenched tendons was audible across Britain this month at the news that polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship, the Endurancehad indeed endured, having been discovered almost intact about 3 kilometers below the surface of the Weddell Sea, 106 years after being crushed by the ice and sunk in 1915.
Remarkably, thanks to the absence of wood-chomping parasites in the cold waters of Antarctica, the ship was as whole as the day it sank.
Equally remarkable, the reputation of the man whose prideful incompetence as a leader sent him to the bottom is also intact, suggesting that national heroes are not chosen objectively for their accomplishments as much as for how the myths that accumulate around them ring with the psyche of a nation. and the perception of value.
Of course, the hero of one country is often the sworn enemy of another. In Britain, TE Lawrence is glorified for his martial exploits in the Hejaz during the First World War. In Arabia, he is remembered for persuading the Arabs to rise up and side with Britain against the Ottomans by falsely promising that they would be rewarded with the establishment of a pan-Arab state.
Lawrence could at least claim success, but on his country’s terms. Shackleton, on the other hand, was an incompetent explorer who nonetheless became a beneficiary of this peculiarly British tendency to repackage failure for palatable consumption as a form of success (think Dunkirk, Sir John Franklin and the doomed search for the Northwest Passage).
In 1902, Shackleton was one of two men who accompanied Robert Scott on his first attempt to trek to the South Pole. The attempt failed, and in his 1905 book on the expedition Scott blamed Shackleton, who had proven ill-equipped for the demands of the journey and was sent home against his will.
Angered, Shackleton raised the funds for his own expedition, which was poorly organized, poorly supplied and, almost one man, inexperienced. Although he was sure to pack enough goodies to celebrate Christmas 1908 on the ice with plum pudding, brandy, cigars and other goodies loved by Edwardian gentlemen, Shackleton and his polar party of four men got found themselves out of food and turned back less than 150 kilometers away. from the pole.
On his return to London, however, “the donkey”, as he described himself in a letter to his wife, found himself considered a hero, knighted and made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII. Adulation was enough to persuade him to try again.
In December 1911, however, the main polar prize was won by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Shackleton’s ex-boss Scott (who died on his own repeat attempt a few weeks later) in a race to the pole.
Deprived of the polar corona, Shackleton instead devised an ambitious plan to become the first person to cross Antarctica. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 was an absolute disaster. the Endurance became trapped in pack ice in January 1915 and was finally crushed and sunk 10 months later.
In October 1915, Shackleton and his 26 companions abandoned the doomed ship and spent the next six months camping on an ice floe. When it finally started to fall apart, they boarded the ship’s three lifeboats and headed for the totally inhospitable Elephant Island, some 240km north of Antarctica.
Here there was no hope of rescue. Shackleton left most of his crew on the island and departed on April 24 with five men to seek help from a whaling station on South Georgia Island, more than 1,000 miles away.
The terrible journey across the Southern Ocean took them 16 days. The real hero of this remarkable feat of navigation and seamanship was the ship’s captain and navigator, New Zealander Frank Worsley, but of course, in posterity, Shackleton would get the credit.
What was overlooked, however, and remains to this day, was the fate of Shackleton’s team on the Ross Sea, who, as part of his grand trans-Antarctic plan, had sailed to the other side of Antarctica to establish supply depots for the crossing that never happened. They too were stranded and by the time they were rescued three men had lost their lives.
Nonetheless, back in England, Shackleton was greeted as a returning hero. In a country now in the throes of a world war and desperate for good news, it didn’t matter that all Shackleton had really done failed again.
A true hero is someone who, without being forced to, does something without thinking for their own safety or self-interest, only for the good of others. A firefighter, perhaps, rushing into a burning building to save a child. On the other hand, non-heroic “heroes” like Shackleton, chosen or fabricated by popular demand, are dangerous things, figures on which it is all too easy to project dubious political constructs.
The likes of Shackleton, Scott and everyone else underpin the misguided nationalism and unwarranted sense of exceptionalism that has discolored Britain’s ungenerous attitude towards desperate migrants (just like us Ukrainians part) and sabotaged its very beneficial membership in the European Union, sacrificed in the name of a vague and erroneous notion of sovereignty.
In reality, such heroic failures were little more than actors in the tragedy of Britain’s slow decline into insignificance.
This article was provided by syndication office, who owns the copyright.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly of The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.