The Courage of Exploration


Chapter Five

The Courage of Exploration

The Stories of Captain Cook and Ernest Shackleton

Subjects Covered: Maritime History, The British Empire, Historical Ancedotes

‘’An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose the chain of things, and a huge land lie revealed; when Tiphys will disclose new worlds and Thule no longer will be ultimate.’’

----- Seneca, Medea

‘’And if there had been more of the world, they would have reached it.’’

------- Cameons, The Lusiads, VII, 14

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was a lowly non-commissioned officer who became the first person to lead an expedition to the Antarctic. The bright son of a migrant farm laborer from Scotland who had settled in Yorkshire, Cook had only a basic education. At eighteen be was taken as a sea apprentice by a local ship owner who ran a fleet of sturdy coal-carriers known as ‘Collier Barks.’’

After several years of valuable seafaring experience in the rough North Atlantic, Cook was asked to lead an expedition to Tahiti. He had many similarities to Columbus in that he was a skilled astronomer and meteorologist who had a pension for taking on the greatest of challenges. His natural curiosity made him ideal for the discovery of new land with new resources and beautiful scenery.

Traveling with a relatively small cargo, Cook christened his Collier the ‘’Endeavor’’ and set it up for eighteen months on the high seas. Cook’s own journal indicates his excitement about the Natural History yet to be uncovered. In fact, Cook chose a prominent zoologist and botanist to join the crew. Joseph Banks was the most prominent patron of natural history and was destined to become president of the Royal Society. This was a collection of scientists and thinkers who met frequently to share knowledge with one another.

Cook was also conducting a top-secret mission that only he and the royal family of England were aware of. After sailing to Rio De Janiero and around Cape Horn, Cook made it to Tahiti on April 10, 1769. Upon completion of surveying the land, the newly commissioned Cook set about to complete the larger mission, to discover a great southern continent. There was as much interest in proving that such a place did NOT exist as there was in actually finding it! Imagine having to sail forward on a journey of NEGATIVE discovery! This was a task all-in-of-itself. Cook was well-suited for the task as he was restless with energy and a vast knowledge of the seas.

Cook sailed southwestward around the continent of Australia and unknowingly sailed right into the then unknown Great Barrier Reef. The Endeavor quickly took on water and the situation was dire. Cook ordered ballast thrown overboard, and through a combination of skill and luck, the ship began to ride the waters again. However, due to the damage done to the keep of the ship, Cook lost nearly a full month to make repairs on it.

The result was that Cook had to return to England without having proven, or disproven the existence of a southern continent. Now, he was determined to make this a mission of his, and for King George III. His plan was to take the farthest latitude one can take in the southern part of the world. This trip included both possibilities – that a continent was truly there and habitable, or that it was not there at all. If Cook found any part of the mythic continent, he would survey it and have it claimed for Britain and King George.

Now you might find yourself asking what else was happening in England for this to take on such importance. The answer is that King George III was slowly losing bits and pieces of the English empire. The colonial world was coming to an end and King George III was looking to set claims for new land to replace the ones that were being fought over and lost.

Cook returned to Britain with a fantastic array of new specimens. The British Museum was awash with scientists eager to see all of the new and other-worldly things. For his second voyage, Cook decided to honor King George III and to set about to uncover a southern route. To do this, he would take the opposite direction, from Cape Horn towards South America, riding the westerly winds and dipping far enough south to be able to determine if there was indeed a southern continent. The mission was still a secret and Cook ordered all logs to be given to him each day.

The voyage that began in the summer of 1772, would be the longest and one of the greatest ship-sailing voyages in all of history. The trip would tally more than 70,000 miles for one purpose. This spirit helps to explain the seafaring spirit of subsequent explorers for Britain. He named his ships the Resolution and the Adventure. Four months into the voyage, Cook crossed the Tropic of Capricorn into the far South Atlantic Ocean. It was November and a perfect time to be that far south of the equator.

There was a feeling that the landscape and life of the Arctic might be the same in the Antarctic. All across the Arctic-Circle are peoples who live within the climate. There are geese, salmon, crab and numerous other fish with which to eat. But in the southern hemisphere the animals are less numerous and less edible. Secondly, there are hardly any examples of humans living that far south. Both of these would be a surprise to Cook.

In January, Cook sailed into the Antarctic. The awe- inspiring beauty of the landscape transfixed them. They continued to set sail to the south until crushing ice sheets began to squeeze the ships and crunch them under pressure. He was close to the continent but a heavy fog and wet snow began to impede the ships. He debated with himself as to whether it was all worth it and decided to turn back in what had to be an agonizing and desperate decision. It was as close as he would get to the continent of Antarctica. On his way home he discovered countless other islands including Tonga, New Caledonia, and South Georgia Islands in the Pacific. Just one year before the Americans declared themselves independent from King George III, Cook returned home, a Negative Discoverer who changed the world.

That same British spirit would inspire Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) and it would lead to one of the most inspirational stories I have ever heard.

Ernest Shackleton was a British subject who decided, as some men do, to transverse the South Pole, going from one ocean to another by crossing the entire continent entirely. Almost everyone thought it to be a foolish venture which would accomplish little, something Shackleton actually agreed with. Yet he was determined to exorcize some personal demons of failure in order to make this happen.

The year was 1914 and Europe was on the verge of World War I. Britain was fighting to remain masters of the open seas. Like King George III before him, Britain was fighting for its own empire. As he prepared for this trip, he raised a considerable amount of money for the journey despite the fact that Europe was falling apart. Shackleton had two ships commissioned for this trip. One was the Endurance and the other was the Aurora.

Shackleton had some unusual requirements for his crew. The news of this trip drew considerable interests, and over 3,000 applicants came forward. When interviewing them, he would ask questions regarding whether the men could sing or otherwise entertain. He selected men as much on temperament in addition to technical and navigational abilities. In total, each ship would have 28 men on them for a total of 56. Finally befit of tonnage and men, Ernest Shackleton set forth for his epic journey just six weeks after the first shots of World War I were fired.

It was a deeply personal issue for the British explorer. Shackleton was stung by the fact that Robert Amundsen had just reached the farthest point south and there was no longer any notoriety in making this voyage. This was strictly speaking, a self-challenge, something a few rare people do these days. 
And those he chose to voyage with knew of the peril and furthermore, they knew there was really no gain in this. These men were true adventurers who sought to gain little more than the satisfaction of being able to say that they went and conquered the elements regardless of the odds.

He had left school at 16 and became a cadet on a Northwest Shipping Company, one of the few merchant marine companies still in operation. His status grew because he would essentially do everything that no one else wanted to do. He chose the dirty work, the tough jobs, and earned the respect, the loyalty of men much older than himself. Even as he rose in position, he never forgot where he came from, and even as First-Mate he could be seen cleaning out the bowels of the ships.

Hard work was paying off, but Britain was finding itself beginning to sell the merchant marine ships and equipping them for war. Shackleton became somewhat of a victim in a world filled with dread and worry, which he was powerless to change. Some historians believe his desire to go to the South Pole was to also remove himself geographically from the possibility of having to command a ship at war.

As the ships made their way to the south, everything seemed to go as planned. But on December 5th, the ships encountered pack ice. He was stuck in the ice through the month of February and the temperatures were rapidly dropping. Realizing that his ship was going to be crushed, he ordered his men to abandon ship and they did just that, setting foot on dry land for the first time in 497 days. For two months, the captain and his men camped out on an ice flow. The entire crew was essentially floating on raft made of ice.

I researched newspapers and it was definitely a story, but WWI dominated the front pages and Shackleton was but a sidebar. Nonetheless, Britain was looking for a source of National Pride at a time when its very existence was at risk. The captain took four men with him and told the remaining men that if he didn’t return within four weeks that he was to be assumed dead. His mission was to get to a nautical weather station where he knew he could get help. He gave himself four weeks, which beyond that, he knew everyone would perish. But, he would not

The men were now traveling over ice in the most inhospitable of conditions. They had to find a weather and whaling station on the mainland and after a short stay, the men trudged forward to the continent. Finally, they reached a peak at the top of a small mountain. Looking down, they saw the candlelight in the window of a small weather station manned by two Englishmen. Out of supplies, in the blistering ice-cold winds and a blizzard descending upon them in a deadly manner, Shackleton decided at that point to make a human-toboggan. There was no other way these men were going to survive. He had each man sit with one in front of the other; they mapped a course down the mountain and stated to slide. About half way down, Shackleton wrote, '..the men started cheering and laughing, joyous we were at this very moment, all of our hardships seemed to be forgotten."

The men made it and were able to summons a ship from Argentina to rescue the men. All but three men made it back to England alive. For his courage, Shackleton was made into a Knight of the British Empire. Later, he would petition Argentina and Chile to join the war on behalf of the allies. But the personal lessons in this great piece of history are many.

When you are faced with the most incredible of challenges, when you are looking at obstacles in your way to success, when you find yourself a little short on determination and a little short on passion (which happens to us all) then let this be your inspiration: Take your closest and most trusted of friends by their hands, and slide down that mountain and laugh and find your joy along the way..........Because in the end, when it all matters the most, these moments will be the ones that carry us through and help see the life we lead with the perspective we perhaps should have had all along! 



The quest to uncover new worlds and meet new people and take on new challenges is something very close to me. The age of discovery, whether it is on this planet or in space, is an exciting prospect for a historian. I find inspiration in the courage and the effort made in order to be the ‘first’ at anything. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that in my life, I have chosen to visit some of the most remote places on the earth. There is something incredible about feeling as if you are walking in a place where few humans have ever stepped foot. But friendships are everything along the way in our journey through life, and I have to ask, what is it that you not only share your trials and tribulations with your friend, but you share your moments of joy as well? ###

#shackleton #ernestshacletontheendurance #voyage #exploration #southpole #england

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