Shackleton’s Death: The Lost Letters Part 3

The Shackleton Legacy

After Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Death in January 1922 he was buried at South Georgia. For the next thirty-years he was largely overshadowed by Robert Falcon Scott who, along with his polar party, died while returning from the South Pole in 1912. The heroic story of Captain Scott and his epic struggle in Antarctica was used to stimulate national sentiment. Following World War I, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ remained a national British hero and was honoured with statues, monuments, memorial plagues and even stained-glass windows. Also, the same year that Shackleton died, Apsley Cherry-Garrard published The Worst Journey in the World, telling the story of Scott’s ill-fated expedition. It became a bestseller, remains in print today, and is considered a classic of polar literature. People began to forget, or overlook Shackleton.

That changed in the 1950s, when two books were published that praised Shackleton as an explorer, and led to a reassessment of his expeditions, as well as an increased appreciation of his achievements. The books were Shackleton by Margery and James Fisher, and Endurance by Alfred Lansing. A new generation of readers began to learn about Shackleton.

Shackleton by Margery and James Fisher, and Endurance by Alfred Lansing.
Shackleton by Margery and James Fisher, and Endurance by Alfred Lansing. The books brought Shackleton back to public attention in the 1950s

During the research for their book Shackleton, Margery Fisher wrote to Sir Hubert Wilkins, who had sailed with Shackleton on the Quest. Wilkins at the time, was living in a hotel in Framingham, Massachusetts. Fisher sent Sir Hubert Wilkins a series of questions about Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Quest expedition.

For Part 3 of my blog series, Shackleton’s Death: The Lost Letters, I am going to publish Fisher’s questions to Wilkins and his responses. Parts 1 and 2 are at

Shackleton-Rowett Expedition

Question: Did you know Shackleton before the Quest Expedition?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: I met Shackleton in 1912 and talked with him about my desire to do work in the Polar Regions, but I did not get to know him before joining the Quest.

Q: How did you come to go on the Quest Expedition?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: I was in New York – had two German planes and was about to start on my own Antarctic expedition. Shackleton apparently knew of this and his secretary, probably in New York for other purposes, came to me with an offer from Shackleton to join the Quest Expedition. He said that I should not, so soon after the war use German planes and that if I would join him he would see to it that I had a British plane to fly and that he would accept me as an apprentice in the leadership of expeditions because, he said, he felt that the Quest Expedition would be his last and he would like to see someone else prepared to carry on with the work in the Antarctic.

I agreed to accept the offer and turned the two planes I had over to Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, not direct, but through the man in the first place had given me the two planes.

Q: What was your first interview with Shackleton like, and do you remember what he asked you?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: I met Shackleton in London. He was extremely cordial, but I do not remember the first thing he asked me.

Q: What were the terms of your engagement?

I do not remember the amount of pay; it probably was considerable and I eventually received all pay due. Shackleton arranged for me to obtain, and have modified, a single-seater Fairey type monoplane. I arranged to install a more powerful engine, for two seats, and conveniences for photography and navigation. A New Zealander, Captain Roderick Carr, late of the Royal Air Force, was appointed pilot. Together Carr and I tested the plane in England. At the start of the expedition, the Quest was so heavily loaded that it was arranged to the plane to be shipped to Cape Town, South Africa, which, it was expected, was to be our first port of call and from where we were to proceed to the Antarctic. However, the Quest’s engines broke down repeatedly, even before we reached the Thames Estuary – that finally the vessel proceeded to South America and did not call at Cape Town until the return journey.

Q: Did you have any special duties?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: Apart from the work I expected to do with the airplane, I was appointed Naturalist with the Expedition, together with George Vibert Douglas, a Geologist. I would do oceanographical work at sea and other natural history work on shore. The British Museum of Natural History received the results. Douglas and I shared a small cabin and a laboratory in the fore-peak of the Quest.

Shackleton’s grave in the cemetery at Grytviken, South Georgia
Shackleton’s grave in the cemetery at Grytviken, South Georgia

Q: Did he make any suggestions to you about how you were to carry these out, or did he leave all arrangements to you?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: All arrangements in connection with the work I was to do were made by me personally with the funds made available, and with some expenditure of my own money. Shackleton many times said to me, in effect, “Don’t saddle yourself with too much scientific work. I, myself, in the beginning of my Antarctic experiences, was intensely interested in the scientific aspect, but I soon found out that to be a leader of an expedition and a popular hero was more than enough for a man to do. You must decide whether you want to be a scientist, or a successful leader of expeditions, it is not possible to be both.”

This he said, was part of the apprenticeship training. My attitude then, has been throughout my life, and still is, that I do not want to be bound to do many things apparently necessary to become a popular hero, but I did want to lead expeditions and I did want to contribute to scientific knowledge, not necessarily as a scientific specialist in any particular field, but in a wide exploratory manner.

Q: Did you find him sympathetic towards scientific research; did he give you enough scope for your particular work?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: My understanding of Shackleton’s attitude on the Quest Expedition was that he was definitely not sympathetic towards scientific research, but he did arrange for Douglas and myself to join a whaling ship and precede the Quest to South Georgia in order that we would have more time at that place to carry out such scientific work as we could.

Unfortunately, Shackleton died at South Georgia before Douglas and I joined the Quest – we did not see him after we left Rio de Janeiro.

After leaving South Georgia there was little opportunity to carry on scientific work on shore at the islands [we] visited. This was due partly to weather and partly due to lack of interest by the ‘council’ that directed the activities of the Quest after Shackleton died.

Q: What was your opinion of the final plan of Quest? Do you know at all how it was regarded in the outside world?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: I do not know how it was regarded in the outside world, but to those of us on the expeditions – or to me at least – it was obvious that the Quest Expedition was to be the ‘Boss’s’ last great adventure. He had gathered about him many of the men who had served with him before; he would visit and pay respects to many of the cities where he had been honoured; he would circumnavigate the Antarctic continent; it was to a long, but not entirely selfish joy-ride.

Q: What did you think of his general health when you first met him on Quest? Was his health discussed on the ship at all?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: When I met him on joining the Quest Expedition Shackleton obviously was not well. Being a popular hero had taken its toll. The worry of financing the expedition and the manner in which it was done had left its effect. I was not sufficiently well acquainted with the doctors on board to discuss with them Shackleton’s health. I believe everyone hoped that once at sea – away from the burden of being ‘lionised’ and consequent behaviour, Shackleton’s health would improve. The worry over the condition of the ship; the many setbacks and the reaction of some of the crew who had returned to England sustained the strain under which Shackleton had been for some considerable time. He was obviously tremendously weary when we reached Rio.

A 1922 artist’s illustration of the Quest Expedition, including dogs and a bi-plane. 
How it was meant to be: a 1922 artist’s illustration of the Quest Expedition, including dogs and a bi-plane

Q: Did he discuss previous expeditions with you, particularly did he ever mention Discovery, and his breakdown there.

Sir Hubert Wilkins: No.

Q: Did he speak of other explorers?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: Not specifically about other leaders of expeditions as persons, but one of the ‘indoctrination’ lessons repeatedly offered was, in effect – “Never have on your staff anyone that is better than you are. If you find you have a man with you who is superior – who commands greater respect that you do – get rid of him. That has been the practice of explorers – I have had to do so myself.”

Q: Did he ever discuss with you his reasons for exploring at all, what one might call his philosophy of life?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: To know Shackleton was to know that, in essence, he was a poet; all that word implies. At heart he had a keen interest in science; all that world implies. But as he often said, the necessities of maintaining a popular hero front, the distasteful methods of raising money, were burdens that for the most of the time, suffocated all other ambitions.

Q: Would you have called him an ambitious man?

Sir Hubert Wilkins: Yes, definitely.

Q: You say he was well-loved. Could you enlarge on that? Was it his conversations, his manner towards men, his actions, or what that made people want to go with him.

Men loved him for his real (and much more largely simulated) sympathy. His manner was judiciously patronising; his actions generally studiously guarded and controlled to meet the occasion. He had the gift of blarney. Men liked and loved him in spite of misgivings. Most men would like to go with him because of himself, but more because of the opportunities he offered.

Q: And conversely, can you suggest what were the faults which roused such fierce hostility in a few quarters?

It is my opinion that much of the fierce hostility there was based on jealousy – individually, or on account of other heroes. Some purists no doubt resented his ‘blarney’ which at times was perfectly designed and because Shackleton, more than any other man I know, realised the influence, and depended on the influence, of the spoken word, no matter the integrity.

Q: Did he ever talk to you of his future plans?

No, but he often said the Quest Expedition would be his last.

Q: Or of his family?


18: Was he fairly cheerful on the ship?

Seldom, and then apparently only by determination, or stimulation.

Q: Would you have called it a happy ship?


Q: Did Shackleton listen willingly to complaints? And do you think his judgement of people was fair and just?

Shackleton – any more than any other leader of expeditions – did not listen willingly to complaints. He tolerated them – some attended and removed the cause. His judgement of men was far from infallible.

Q: Do you think he was a good judge of character?

No, but his insight was such that he felt pretty sure that he could wield character to meet his requirements.

Q: Could you describe the general feeling on the ship after his death? Did the loyalty of the company transfer itself easily to Wild?

With no intended indictment of Wild, who was a likeable character, but no leader, the general feeling was that of amiable anarchy.


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