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100 years on

How do you tackle a HR crisis 1,300km from civilisation? Ask Ernest Shackleton

Here’s how the Kildare-born explorer dealt with an attempted mutiny, 100 years ago today.

s5 The crew of the Endurance. Royal Geographical Society Royal Geographical Society

THE NATION MAY be gearing up to mark the centenary of the Rising – but amid all the build-up, debate and surrounding hoopla, it’s worth sparing some time to remember the anniversary of another great Irish struggle.

2016 marks 100 years since Kildare-born Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton – accompanied by, amongst others, Kerry’s Tom Crean – completed what’s perhaps the most impressive feat of survival ever accomplished.

Not that the story’s forgotten, by any means: there are dozens of books about the grandly-titled but ultimately ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The tale has also been told in plays, exhibitions – and even in a two-part mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh.

The Irish explorer never did reach the South Pole, but he kept his entire 27-man crew alive – first on the ice, and then on an epic sea voyage to seek help, after their ship sank on the way to the Antarctic in November 1915.

That accomplishment, along with the explorer’s reputation as a planner and man-manager, has given rise to countless business courses in the last few years – as trainers and colleges seek to inject a little excitement into their schedule of evening classes (case in point). There’s even a business book based on his exploits called Shackleton’s Way.

One dramatic incident – how his quick-thinking managed to quell a potential mutiny amongst the crew as they trekked, hauling lifeboats, across the ice in December 1915 – shows why Shackleton is still celebrated and talked about today.


Antarctic veteran 

Shackleton, by 1914 when the journey began, was a veteran of the Antarctic.

He had been on Scott’s Discovery expedition in 1901 – and led his own journey south aboard the Nimrod seven years later, setting a record by coming closer to the Pole than anyone before.

Norway’s Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole in 1915 – as had Scott, who died on the way back. Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, therefore, had a new goal – the first-ever crossing of the Antarctic continent via the Pole.

You may be somewhat familiar with what happened next – the explorer and his crew were forced to abandon their ship after it was trapped and crushed by ice. With no other options available, they undertook a perilous open-boat trip to safety, before setting up a makeshift camp on a rocky Antarctic outcrop known (rather inaccurately) as Elephant Island.

Shackleton, Crean and four others then set out across the open seas, hoping to seek help some 1,300km away on the remote island of South Georgia.

end The Endurance, trapped in the Antarctic ice. Royal Geographic Society Royal Geographic Society

The subsequent journey has become the stuff of legend — as Shackleton led a 26-mile trek across the island’s hostile landscape, which had never been traversed before.

Accounts tell how the explorer — then a world-famous figure — was unrecognisable when he showed up at the Stromness whaling station on the far side of South Georgia, covered in blubber-smoke, with long hair and beard.

100 years ago this week

In Christmas week 1915, most of that lay ahead for the men, who had begun a march across the sea ice in the wake of their ship’s sinking, endeavouring to reach the safety of dry land.

Conditions were almost unbearably tough – with the men sinking deep into the melting snow as they attempted to haul their lifeboats through the uneven ridges of the southern ice. It had been six weeks since the Endurance slipped beneath the surface. Keen to get going, their leader had called an early Christmas on 22 December. The march began the following day.

The going, as author Roland Huntford describes in his award winning biography of Shackleton, was “abominable”.

haul Royal Geographic Society Royal Geographic Society

Attempted mutiny

On 27 December, the men were still sinking to their knees as they strained to make progress when the ship’s carpenter Harry McNeish suddenly rebelled – facing down Endurance captain Frank Worsley, and refusing to go any further.

As Huntford notes:

To McNeish, because of his piles, every step was agony. He was also a drinker deprived of his drink. Something seemed to snap.

The Scotsman disagreed with the strategy of marching. He had wanted to build a sloop from the remnants of their sunken ship, to sail the crew to safety – but that plan had been swiftly dismissed by Shackleton. As the Endurance had been lost, McNeish now argued that Ship’s Articles (essentially their contracts of employment) had lapsed – and that the crew were no longer obliged to obey orders.

shack1 Harry McNeish (left) and Ernest Shackleton. Royal Geographical Society Royal Geographical Society

It was the first real threat to Shackleton’s authority. He needed to act fast to ward off any possible mutiny.

From Huntford, again:

Shackleton said not a word. He went away and returned with the crew list of the Endurance. He called all hands. From the front page of the document he began to read out Ship’s Articles. 

The reading was made, as usual, in the Kildare-man’s characteristic quiet way “yet with unmistakable menace behind the Irish inflexion in his voice”.

Nothing about their conditions of employment had changed, he told the men – their contracts had not been terminated by the sinking of the ship. Ad-libbing at the spur of the moment, he added that their wages would continue as normal until they returned to a safe port.

“…it was good enough for the crew. It lifted the worry that had been gnawing at them since the ship went down. It had removed the cause of discontent. 

It was an impressive performance. At a stroke, McNeish had been isolated.

His authority secured, Shackleton also dealt with the carpenter privately – taking him to one side and telling him he’d be shot if he persisted with his insubordination.

The march started up again, and everyone returned to their assigned roles. But Shackleton’s relationship with the shipwright over the following years – both in the wild, and back in civilisation – demonstrates the value he placed on loyalty.

“I shall never forget him,” Shackleton wrote in his diary later, “in this time of strain and stress”. 

yel Chilean steamer Yelcho returns to Elephant Island to pick up Shackleton's remaining crew - in August 1916. Royal Geographical Society Royal Geographical Society

Despite his attempted mutiny, Shackleton still selected McNeish for the six-man party to crew the James Caird lifeboat on their 1,300km voyage to South Georgia, off the coast of Argentina, months later.

The shipwright’s carpentry skills were invaluable when it came to refitting the 22.5 foot lifeboat for that incredible journey – as he worked, again in incredibly tough conditions, to raise gunwhales and fit new decks fore and aft to make the craft seaworthy.

The following year, all 27 crew-members now saved, it fell within Shackleton’s gift to recommend his men to King George V for a Polar Medal.

McNeish was not on the list.

*The tiny vessel set off on 24 April 1916 – the same day as the Easter Rising. 

Read This Irish army officer is recreating Ernest Shackleton’s legendary Antarctic expedition

Read Here’s what Ernest Shackleton and his crew were having for dinner, inching through the ice 100 years ago today…

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