Lyttelton, New Zealand, New Years Day 1908 – Ernest Shackleton bade farewell to friends and colleagues and boarded his 40-year-old converted Norwegian sealer Nimrod. Cheered on by a crowd of many thousands who had come to the port to farewell them, Shackleton and his men were heading into the unknown, to a place with the harshest climate of anywhere on earth, where the first wintering over had been made less than 10 years before – Antarctica.
What drove men like Shackleton to endure extreme hardship and risk their lives in the discovery of the last continent? The Norwegians describe it as the yearning forever to go to the far, dark cold places. Shackleton had his own answer. In the first paragraph of The Heart of the Antarctic, his account of the Nimrod expedition, he writes:
Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by the love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and other again are drawn by ‘the lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.
Since being invalided home with scurvy in 1903 from Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, on which he was a Third Officer, Shackleton had been consumed by a passion to get back to the Ice. But organising an expedition was far from an easy task, even for one with Shackleton’s famously charming and forceful personality. Since his return from Antarctica he had held a variety of jobs. He had been a magazine journalist, secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society, stood unsuccessfully for Parliament and worked in public relations for a large Glasgow steelworks owned by William Beardmore. But his desire to get back to Antarctica never dimmed. The day after his first child was born he wrote a letter to a friend: ‘What would I give to be out there again doing the job and this time really on the road to the Pole’.
However his determination was tested from the outset. For more than a year he drew up cost-cutting schemes and engineered introductions to rich businessmen and by late 1906 he was close to giving up. As he wrote, ‘the difficulty that confronts most men who wish to undertake exploration work is that of finance, and in this respect I was rather more ordinarily handicapped’. But Shackleton was an exceptionally determined man ho lived by his family motto ‘Fortitudine Vincimus’ – by endurance we conquer. Finally, with a promise from his erstwhile employer William Beardmore, and several other influential businessmen, to guarantee a bank loan for some £20,000 pounds, Shackleton was able to announce his plans on 11 February 1907 at a dinner lecture held at the Kosmos Dining Club of the Royal Geographical Society.