Shackleton’s Death The Lost Letters Part 2

Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

In September 1921, polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed aboard the Quest on his last expedition to Antarctica. Famously, he would never return. Aboard the Quest with Shackleton was a young Australian explorer, George Hubert Wilkins, who would later be knighted and known as Sir Hubert Wilkins. During his time with the Quest, Wilkins wrote letters to his mother and reports for the British Museum, as well as took photographs. Also, in the 1950s, when Sir Ernest Shackleton’s first biographer, Margery Fisher, was planning to write a book about him, Sir Hubert Wilkins wrote long letters to Fisher recalling what happened aboard the Quest, and Shackleton’s state of mind before he died. These letters and reports by Sir Hubert Wilkins are still in private hands and have never been published.

This is Part 2 of my blog series, Shackleton’s Death – The Lost Letters, which gives new insights into the last days of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton’s original plan for his expedition was to reach South Georgia, then make a high-latitude circumnavigation of Antarctica, discovering new coast lines. But after the Quest limped into Rio de Janeiro with mechanical problems, he had to modify his ambitions. Realising the Quest would be delayed for many weeks, Wilkins decided to go on ahead South Georgia, so he could continue his work as a naturalist, collecting flora and fauna for the British Museum. Wilkins travelled to South Georgia on a whaling ship.

George Hubert Wilkins’ photograph of the harbour at Grytviken, South Georgia
George Hubert Wilkins’ photograph of the harbour at Grytviken, South Georgia as he arrived to find the Quest (seen at left) with Shackleton on board.

On 1 January 1922, he wrote to his mother from the Prince Olaf Station, South Georgia. The following is an extract:

It will be some time after New Year’s Day when you get this, but as there is a boat going from here to South Africa in a day or so, you should get this in a month or so, so I will wish you and all brothers and sisters a happy and prosperous New Year.

I am spending the day quite comfortably and I suspect, contrary to your surmises, in a really comfortable steam heated and electric lighted house with servants, excellent meals, etc. I think I wrote you from Montevideo, saying that two of the expedition members, Douglas, the geologist and myself, left the Quest at Rio de Janeiro and would go to South Georgia via Montevideo on passenger and whaling boats in order that we may do some work on shore while the Quest was undergoing repairs. We expected to have three weeks’ work here before our own boat arrived, but it is now nearly a month and she is not yet here. We are expecting it to arrive any day, but because there is so much of interest to see and do here, we don’t mind if she is a week or so late.

[Shackleton’s] plans after leaving here were, when we left Rio, to proceed south to the Antarctic continent and move along the coast for the rest of the summer, returning here in April. We will then go to Tristan da Cunha and South Africa and on to New Zealand, from which place I hope to have time to come home. I am not sure that I will, but I will try. We do not know of course how the Quest will behave after the repairs at Rio and it will depend on this whether we can carry out the plans, but I would not be at all surprised to find them altered materially when Sir Ernest arrives.

This is the island that he landed on after his long boat journey at the end of his last expedition and many of the men here now were here then, and know all about him and the trip. They are naturally interested to meet him again. He has a way of interesting people.

A section of Wilkins’ unpublished manuscript, in which he wrote about the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
A section of Wilkins’ unpublished manuscript, in which he wrote about the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

In an unpublished manuscript, Wilkins recalled the actual death of Shackleton:

The Quest was at anchor, only one man on watch. There were four doctors on board. It happened that one of them was standing watch from two o’clock to four in the morning, and when he passed Shackleton’s cabin, he saw the light burning. He knew that Shackleton had gone to bed early to get a good sleep, so he paused at the door and Shackleton called out and asked him to come in. Shackleton said he had not been able to get to sleep. He said, “I have a bit of pain in my left shoulder. I think you’d better give me a sleeping potion.”

The doctor had been with Shackleton on the Endurance and knew him well. He said, half joking, “You can’t take sleeping powders. Give up good living and you’ll sleep.”

Shackleton asked for the powder anyway, so the doctor went to his cabin and mixed the medicine. When he came back and handed it to Shackleton, Shackleton took the glass in his hand and said, smiling, “You’re always telling me to give up something. First you made me give up drink, and now—what will I have to give up next?”

He lifted the glass to his lips and it fell out of his hand. He collapsed back on his pillow. The doctor felt Shackleton’s pulse; he was dead.

On 6 January 1922, Wilkins wrote to his mother again:

You will have seen by the newspaper reports of our loss and that we are going on with the programme. I am quite well and although we will feel the loss of Sir Ernest Shackleton very much, we may still do good work under the command of Frank Wild, who is a fine man indeed.

I doubt very much that we will go beyond South Africa [in the circumnavigation of Antarctica] and in that case will not go to New Zealand, but that remains to be seen. The next news I expect you will hear from me will be when we reach South Africa ourselves, perhaps in June or July.

The Quest sailed south, but returned to South Georgia in April. Little exploring had been done, for Shackleton’s crew had little motivation to go on. In the meantime, Shackleton’s body had originally begun a journey back to England, but his widow had insisted he be buried at South Georgia. The body was returned to South George and been buried by the time the Quest and the members of the expedition, led by Frank Wild, had arrived back. Wilkins wrote to his mother from South Georgia on 12 April 1922:

We are back again from the Antarctic all safe and sound and although we were held firmly by the ice for seven days, a favourable wind blew us towards the open water and the ship got free. We reached as far south as other explorers in that region at a slightly different point but failed to find a new coast line. A cold snap of 20° below freezing overtook us at the Farthest South and the ship could not steam though the young ice. I daresay if we could have gone another 100 miles we should have sighted land for the sea was getting rapidly shallower as we went south.

We have found it very different on board since Sir Ernest died and although all the other fellows are quite good sorts, we miss the leader.

Unfortunately, the present leader Frank Wild is as little interested in scientific work as Shackleton was, so we cannot hope to get much done apart from navigation.

The Quest is a wonderfully safe sea boat but is so small that the continual pitch and roll make it almost impossible to do much writing or drawing at sea, so I am keeping very busy while in port. We stay here for a few days and then go to South Africa where I hope for news from you.

The members of the crew of the Quest built a special memorial cairn to Sir Ernest Shackleton
The members of the crew of the Quest built a special memorial cairn to Sir Ernest Shackleton. George Hubert Wilkins is standing at the rear, to the right of the cairn.

On the way to Cape Town, South Africa, the Quest stopped at Tristan da Cunha, the remote island in the South Atlantic, with a small British colony. Wilkins filmed and photographed the island and its inhabitants, then wrote to his mother on 25 May 1922:

This is just a note to post to you in the very first mail bag that has been sent from this island. No mail has ever been sent from here before and may never be sent again, for our investigation of the island does not disclose anything that would encourage people to settle here apart from the fact that it is perhaps the most isolated island in the world.

It is much too mountainous and difficult to land on for it ever to be used, but it is very interesting and from my point of view as a naturalist. Many plants, trees and shrubs and some of the birds are not found anywhere, but on this island and you can imagine that I have been very busy collecting and taking notes.

We go from here to Cape Town, from which place I will write you as soon as I get an idea of our plans for the future.

DuringGeorge Hubert Wilkins photographed the local inhabitants of the tiny British outpost of Tristan da Cunha
During the stop at Tristan da Cunha, George Hubert Wilkins photographed the local inhabitants of the tiny British outpost.

From Cape Town, South Africa, Wilkins wrote to his mother again, on 21 June 1922, hinting that Rowett was dissatisfied with his investment in the expedition. Wilkins also began to articulate his own developing plans to explore Antarctica:

Today we had lunch with General Smuts, the premier of the Union at Parliament House. Yesterday we were entertained by the Industrial Department and afterwards went on a wonderful motor drive, back to dinner and a theatre. Many private people offer hospitality, but as usual I have a good deal of work to do and have to rush off from most of the public engagements which we must all attend and can rarely accept private ones.

So far as we know the reason for us being sent home from here is that the expedition, as a business of Shackleton and Rowett as partners must have all the assets valued and sold so as to dissolve the business and this must be done in England. Rowett no doubt would be glad to continue with the expeditions, but he is bound to have things settled in a business way.

We shall get home in September and I will probably spend three months in writing up reports and after that will more than likely start to develop a scheme for meteorological investigation in the Antarctic which will interest the whole Southern Hemisphere. It would involve an outlay of 2 million pounds at least, extended over 10 years. I have met with a good deal of encouragement from each of those I have spoken to about it, both in America and England. In Africa there is a little diffidence about taking up meteorology seriously, although there is a big campaign about it starting now and the farmers are beginning to realize its value.

I wanted it for a small expedition I was taking to the Antarctic myself last year and would have gone if Sir Ernest had not asked me to go with him. I should like to get back and go on with that small expedition this and next year, but I am afraid it can’t be done, so I will postpone it and try for a bigger thing next year, that is if things look promising when I am free from this one.

The mail leaves here tomorrow for Australia, so I daresay as we are not going to reach England until September, your letters addressed to me c/o the Expedition, 19 Eastcheap Buildings, Eastcheap, London, will be waiting for me when I arrive. There are no recent letters from the family, that is none dated later than November last year, but I suppose you did not know we would be in Africa at this time.

To be continued …

The limited-edition book, The Illustrated Sir Hubert Wilkins is available from

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