Amazing story of survival against the odds celebrated at National Library
The story behind one of the world's most celebrated feats of heroic courage and determination is being told in a Treasures display opening today (Thursday 20 November) at the National Library of Scotland.
It marks the centenary of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917, led by the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the South Pole.
Their ship the 'Endurance' soon became trapped in ice and was subsequently crushed, forcing the men to live on ice floes for months. They eventually made it to a rocky outpost called Elephant Island but were still 900 miles from safety.
Shackleton and five others set off in a small lifeboat called the James Caird — named after the Scots jute baron who was the major sponsor of the expedition. They braved raging seas to try to raise the alarm at the whaling station at South Georgia.
Landing on the southern shore, they finally faced a 36 miles trek in freezing conditions across mountainous terrain to reach the station on the northern edge of the island. The remaining men on Elephant Island were rescued on 30 August 1916, almost two years after the expedition first assembled. Their survival over such a long time in hostile conditions is one of the most remarkable ever recorded.
The Treasures display, entitled 'Beyond Endurance', relies heavily on the archive of the Scots geologist Sir James Mann Wordie who was a member of the Trans Antarctic expedition and later became one of the most influential figures in polar exploration of the 20th century.
The story is told through contemporary newspaper cuttings; maps and plans; photographs; fundraising appeal information; scientific papers; and books that were subsequently written about the expedition including several for children.
'If this was written as fiction, most people would find it hard to believe,' said Paula Williams, Curator of Maps, Mountaineering and Polar Collections at the Library, who has put the display together. 'The epic story of the crew's survival is, of course, very real and has become the stuff of polar legend. We are using many items from our collections to tell this remarkable story in this centenary display.'
Although the men were never far from danger, there were periods when serious work could be done. Wordie made use of this time to produce scientific papers about the ice and geology of the area that added greatly to geographic understanding of the polar region. Some of these papers are included in the display.
The personal collection of books and papers once belonging to Wordie form the heart of the polar collections at the National Library and items from them are included in the display. They help to tell the story of the Shackleton expedition and of the place that Wordie subsequently occupied in polar exploration.
He became Chairman of Scott Polar Research Institute, President of the Royal Geographical Society, and Master of St John's College, Cambridge. In these and other roles he shaped numerous polar expeditions, following a successful model of small, seasonal trips which has largely been followed down to the present day.
'Beyond Endurance' runs until 18 January at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.
See also related news story
20 November 2014