Chapter 4: Death of Sir Ernest Shackleton

On Thursday, January 5th, I was awakened about 3.0 A.M. to find both of the doctors in my cabin—Macklin was lighting my oil lamp. McIlroy said:

“We want you to wake up thoroughly, for we have some bad news to give you—the worst possible.”

I sat up, saying:

“Go on with it, let me have it straight out!”

He replied: “The Boss is dead!”

It was a staggering blow.

Roused thus in the middle of the night to receive this news, it was some minutes before I felt its full significance. I remember saying mechanically:

“The Boss dead! Dead, do you mean? He can’t be dead!”

The Resting Place of a Great Explorer | Photo: Wilkins
The Picturesque Setting of Prince Olaf Station | Photo: Wilkins

On asking for particulars, I learned from Macklin that he was taking the 2.0-4.0 A.M. anchor watch. He was patrolling the ship, when he was attracted by a whistle from the Boss’s cabin, and on going in, found him sitting up in his bunk. His own account, written almost immediately after, is as follows:

Was called at 2.0 A.M. for my watch. A cold night but clear and beautiful, with every star showing. I was slowly walking up and down the deck, when I heard a whistle from the Boss’s cabin. I went in, and he said: “Hullo, Mack, boy, is that you? I thought it was.” He continued: “I can’t sleep to-night, can you get me a sleeping draught?” He explained that he was suffering from severe facial neuralgia, and had taken fifteen grains of aspirin. “That stuff is no good; will you get me something which will act?”

I noticed that although it was a cold night he had only one blanket, and asked him if he had no others. He replied that they were in his bottom drawer and he could not be bothered getting them out. I started to do so, but he said, “Never mind to-night, I can stand the cold.” However, I went back to my cabin and got a heavy Jaeger blanket from my bunk, which I tucked round him. He was unusually quiet in the way he let me do things for him…. He talked of many things quite rationally, and finding him in such a complacent mood, I thought it a good opportunity to emphasize the necessity of his taking things very much more quietly than he had been doing…. “You are always wanting me to give up something. What do you want me to give up now?” This was the last thing he said.

He died quite suddenly.

I remained with him during the worst of the attack, but as soon as I could leave him I ran to McIlroy and, shaking him very roughly I am afraid, said: “Wake up, Mick, come at once to the Boss. He is dying!” On my way back I woke Hussey, and told him to get me certain medicines. It must have been rather a shocking awakening for both of them, but they leapt up at once. Nothing could be done, however. I noted the time—it was about 2.50 A.M.

I had Worsley called and informed him of what had occurred. To the rest I said nothing till the morning.

At 8.0 A.M. I mustered all hands on the poop, and told them the bad news. Naturally it was a great shock to them all, especially to those who had served with him before and thus knew him more intimately. I added briefly that I now commanded the expedition, which would carry on.

On that day, and on the several that followed, rain fell heavily, fitting in with our low spirits.

I immediately set about making arrangements for sending home the sad news to Lady Shackleton, and for notifying Mr. Rowett.

I sent for Watts, our wireless operator, and asked him if he could establish communication. He said he would try. From his log: “My ambition was to get the type 15 set working, so as to pass the news as quickly as possible. The whole set I stripped and tested thoroughly, and ‘made good’ minor defects, but luck was still against me. The dynamo was run at 5.45 P.M., and whilst testing the installation the machine suddenly raced, and fuses were blown out, so further working of the set had to be abandoned.”

I went ashore to see Mr. Jacobsen, who was deeply shocked at the news. I learned from him that there was no wireless apparatus on the island other than those carried by the oil transport steamers, none of which, however, had a sending range sufficient to get into touch with a receiving station from here. He told me that the Albuera, a steamer lying at Leith Harbour farther round the coast, was due to sail in about ten days. He said that if I cared to go to Leith and make arrangements with her captain for sending the news, he would put at my disposal the Little Karl, a small steam whaler used by him for visiting different parts of the island.

I accepted his offer, and whilst the vessel was being got ready went with McIlroy and Macklin to notify the resident magistrate. He was away at another station, but I saw Mr. Barlas, the assistant magistrate. It is curious how one notices small things at a time like this. One incident stands out vividly in my memory. At the moment of my telling him he was lighting a cigarette, which he dropped on the table-cloth, where it continued to burn. I remember picking it up for him and placing it where it could do no harm. This done I left for Leith with McIlroy, who during the whole of this time was of the greatest help and assistance. Everyone at Leith showed the greatest kindness and sympathy, and Captain Manson, of the Albuera, readily undertook to send off the message as soon as he got within range of any wireless station.

Arrangements for the disposal of the body I left to Macklin, and to Hussey I entrusted the care of papers and personal effects.

At first I decided to bury Sir Ernest in South Georgia. I had no idea, however, of what Lady Shackleton’s wishes might be, and so ultimately decided to send him home to England. The doctors embalmed the body, which was placed in a lined coffin kindly made for us by Mr. Hansen, of Leith. There was a steamer named Professor Gruvel lying in Gritviken Harbour, which was due to sail in about ten days, and her captain, Captain Jacobsen, offered to carry the body as far as Monte Video, from where it could be sent on by mail boat.

As soon as the necessary arrangements had been made we carried him ashore. All hands mustered quietly and stood bareheaded as we lifted the coffin, covered by our silk white ensign, to the side of the Quest, and passed it over into a motor launch. All the time the rain soaked heavily down. From the pier we carried him to the little hospital and placed him in the room in which we had lived together seven years before.

The next day we carried him to the little church, which is situated so romantically at the foot of towering snow-covered mountains, over ground which he had so often trod with firm, eager steps in making the final preparations for the start of the Endurance expedition.

Here I said good-bye to the Boss, a great explorer, a great leader and a good comrade.

I had served with him in all his expeditions, twice as his second-in-command. I accompanied him on his great journey which so nearly attained the Pole, shared with him every one of his trials and vicissitudes in the South, and rejoiced with him in his triumphs. No one knew the explorer side of his nature better than I, and many are the tales I could tell of his thoughtfulness and his sacrifices on behalf of others, of which he himself never spoke.

Prince Olaf Whaling Station | Photo: Wilkins
A Steam Whaler with Two Whales Brought in for Flensing | Photo: Wilkins
Huge Blue Whales at South Georgia | Photo: Wilkins

Of his hardihood and extraordinary powers of endurance, his buoyant optimism when things seemed hopeless and his unflinching courage in the face of danger I have no need to speak. He always did more than his share of work. Medical evidence shows that the condition which caused his death was an old standing one and was due to throwing too great a strain upon a system weakened by shortage of food. I have known personally and served with all the British leaders of exploration in the Antarctic since my first voyage in the Discovery. For qualities of leadership and ability to organize Shackleton stands foremost and must be ranked as the first explorer of his day.

I felt his loss, coming as it did, most keenly.

In order to ensure safe disposal of the body, and to arrange for its transference at Monte Video, I detailed Hussey to accompany it home. I could ill spare him, but I considered him the most suitable man I could select for the purpose. Naturally it was a disappointment to him to give up the expedition, but he accepted the responsibility without demur, and I am grateful to him for the spirit in which he complied with my arrangements.

As subsequent events turned out, Hussey received a message at Monte Video from Lady Shackleton expressing her wish that Sir Ernest should be buried in South Georgia, which was the scene of one of his greatest exploits, and which might well be described as the “Gateway of the Antarctic.” The coffin was returned to Gritviken by the Woodville, through the courtesy of Captain Least, and Sir Ernest was ultimately buried in the little cemetery beside our old “dog-lines.” Of his comrades, only Hussey was present at the funeral, for the rest of us had already sailed into the South, but there were many amongst the hardy whalers of South Georgia who attended, men who knew him and could, better than most people, appreciate his work. Nor was the sympathetic presence of a woman lacking, for at the funeral was Mrs. Aarberg, wife of the Norwegian doctor at Leith, who with kindly thought had placed upon his grave a wreath made from the only flowers on the island, those which she had cultivated with much care and patience inside her own house. She was the only woman on South Georgia.

I have not the least doubt that had Sir Ernest been able to decide upon his last resting-place, it is just here that he would have chosen to lie, and would have preferred this simple funeral to any procedure carried out with greater pomp and ceremony.

Not here! the white South has thy bones; and thou,
Heroic sailor-soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly Pole.[6]

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