History of Shackleton's Expedition

The British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 Cape Royds

Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Ernest Shackleton was 33 when he led his first expedition to Antarctica, determined to be the first to reach the Geographic South Pole. 

His ship Nimrod departed England in August 1907, sailing via New Zealand before anchoring at Cape Royds in early 1908. The expedition recorded many firsts, including climbing the world’s southernmost volcano, Mt Erebus.

In late 1908, Shackleton led a party of four in an attempt to be the first to reach the Geographic South Pole. After man-hauling for two-and-a-half months, and 97 nautical miles from the Pole, Shackleton famously made the decision to turn for home. Today his only Antarctic base still stands at Cape Royds.

The Nimrod, under sail and steam, forcing her way through the pack ice towards Cape Royds

EXPEDITION BEGINNINGS

Since being invalided home with scurvy in 1903 from Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, on which he was a Third Officer, Shackleton was fixated on getting back to the Ice.  Since his return from Antarctica he had a variety of jobs which included magazine journalist, secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society, and public relations work for a Glasgow steelworks. For over a year he drew up cost-cutting schemes and engineered introductions to rich businessmen and by late 1906 was close to giving up.  

Finally, his steelworks employer William Beardmore and several other businessmen agreed to guarantee a bank loan for £20,000 pounds, and Shackleton announced his plans on 11 February 1907. He was leading an expedition to Antarctica with the primary goal of reaching the South Pole.

Shackleton intended to establish his base in King Edward VII Land at the eastern end of the Ross Ice Shelf, and from there make the journey to the South Pole.  He assured Scott that he didn’t intend to enter McMurdo Sound or make use of Scott’s old base at Hut Point, since Scott claimed rights not only to the hut he had built in 1902 but also to the route to the Pole that he had pioneered. 

Although funds were tight, Shackleton recruited 14 men who would make up the shore party of the expedition, and purchased the 200 ton Nimrod. He also procured a specially designed, prefabricated hut, 15 Manchurian ponies, nine dogs and an air-cooled, four-cylinder 11kW (15 hp) motorcar, the new Arrol-Johnston. Nimrod sailed from Torquay, England, bound for New Zealand on 30 July 1907. 

In March 1908, Shackleton and his team made the first ascent of Mount Erebus

THE JOURNEY SOUTH

The Nimrod sailed from Lyttelton, New Zealand, on New Year's Day 1908, waved off by a crowd of thousands.  The ship was dangerously overloaded with 255 tons of coal, equipment and food, and had just one metre of freeboard. 

To save her limited cargo of coal, she was towed south by Koonya, a steel-built steamer. Within days Nimrod was taking on water through the scupper holes and wash ports – it was an arduous trip which Shackleton likened to ‘a reluctant child being dragged to school.’  Finally the tow, of 1,510 miles (2,410 km), finished on 15 January with the sighting of the first icebergs. 

Shackleton headed for an inlet on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf where he intended to establish his base, but since his last visit many kilometres of the ice shelf had caved into the sea. Faced by impenetrable pack ice he was forced to head for McMurdo Sound, despite his promise to Scott to avoid it.  

Again he was frustrated by pack ice and unable to reach Hut Point near the site of the present-day United States McMurdo Station. Finally, he selected a site to winter over at, 32km further north at Cape Royds, named by Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition after its meteorologist, Lieutenant Charles Royds, RN.   

Douglas Mawson (1882-1958) on night watch in Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, Ross Island, Antarctica, by an unknown photographer

Share

STAY IN TOUCH
Subscribe to our quarterly Antarctic Heritage Trust newsletter.