Finding Shackleton’s ship: why our fascination with Antarctica endures

The discovery of Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance in pristine condition at the bottom of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea was one of the few good news stories this month.

It marked the coming together of modern stories of technological and logistical achievement with older tales of exploration and struggle. Located 3,000 metres down, 107 years after it was crushed by ice, finding the Endurance was a significant moment in polar history.

As a result of his egalitarian leadership style and the fact he “never lost a man”, Ernest Shackleton is one of the most admired explorers of Antarctica’s “heroic age”. This spanned a 20-year period of intense exploration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that became most famous for the race to the South Pole between Britain’s Captain Robert Scott and Norway’s [Roald Amundsen] in the summer of 1911.

Shackleton’s Endurance expedition set out in 1914 with the goal of becoming the first to cross the whole continent, but the loss of his ship led instead to a desperate struggle for survival. Stories of polar exploration have always captured the popular imagination, but what are the implications of this enduring fascination?

Obstacles, goals and distractions

The extreme environment of Antarctica features prominently in the story of the search for the Endurance, as the Weddell Sea is notoriously dangerous for shipping. The use of state-of-the-art technology adds an extra layer of interest, and the striking images produced by the expedition immediately transport us to this distant, murky, undersea world.

In the current tense geopolitical environment, there is something reassuringly optimistic about the search for the Endurance: a classic narrative of overcoming serious obstacles to achieve a spectacular goal.

A similar sense also helps to explain the excitement generated by the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century, much in the way space exploration excites people now. When the Endurance set sail for Antarctica from London in 1914, this too was a time of geopolitical tension, with imperial rivalries escalating into the first world war.

The expedition was given instructions to proceed because the government thought the Antarctic adventure would serve as a morale-boosting distraction. But when his ship became stuck in the ice and then sank, Shackleton’s original goal of crossing the continent gave way to the simple desire to stay alive.

Heroes, problems and challenges

While there is much to celebrate in the exploits of polar explorers, the enduring fascination with polar exploration also poses some challenges. A tendency to focus on the heroic age over all other periods of Antarctic history means that other interesting episodes are frequently overlooked. Just because Antarctic exploration served as a distraction from the complexities of imperial politics, for example, does not mean that the continent has stood outside wider imperial history.

In the early 20th century, Britain drew upon the exploits of its polar explorers and scientists in making its sovereignty claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies, known today as the British Antarctic Territory. Assertions of sovereignty made by 19th century British explorers and whalers helped to justify the British claim in international law.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which functions as the overarching governing mechanism in the region, perpetuates the connection between science and politics by requiring a country to conduct substantial scientific research on the continent before it can be admitted as a full consultative member.

The number of consulative parties has increased from 12 to 29 today, with an additional 25 non-consultative parties having the right to attend meetings but not particpate in decision making. Taking a broader perspective not only widens an appreciation for the history of Antarctica, but can also add depth and nuance to the history of exploration.

Polar exploration also tends to be a history without much diversity. A single expedition from Japan broke the near monopoly of white male explorers during Antarctica’s heroic age. While not surprising for the early 20th century, this lack of diversity raises important questions about who is included and who is excluded from heroic age narratives – and who benefits from the ongoing interest. If you can’t see yourself reflected in those who feature in prominent stories about Antarctica, it may be harder to make an emotional connection to the continent and want to pursue a career there, for example.

The same goes for women and the contribution they have made to polar exploration over the last century. Very little is heard of their work and endeavours. Visiting Antarctica over the past few years, I have seen a growing gender balance in polar science. But the prominence of groups of white men in the publicity photographs of the Endurance search expedition gives the impression that not much has changed over the past century.

Another potential problem of the ongoing interest in exploration and adventure is that it tends to set up a relationship of conflict between humans and the non-human natural world. This is rarely binary, and explorers often demonstrate a deep appreciation for the polar environment.

But at the heart of interest in Antarctica during the heroic age was a desire to demonstrate individual and national prowess through the conquest of nature. Viewed from this perspective, interest in the heroic age might be seen as perpetuating the attitudes of control and dominance over the natural world that have contributed to our current environmental crisis.

A sepia photograph of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Ernest Shackleton. Olga Popova/Shutterstock

The finding of the Endurance is a welcome reminder of Shackleton’s incredible story of survival. But we need to start thinking a little more critically about the values and attitudes embedded in our continuing fascination with polar exploration and adventure.

Doing more to acknowledge the gender and racial politics of the heroic era might help to start a conversation about the enduring inequalities that persist in an effort to move towards a more diverse Antarctic community, and beyond the achievements of early 20th-century white men.

The Conversation

Adrian Howkins receives funding from the British Academy and the US National Science Foundation.