Ditch the dictionary, bring the banjo
We’ve been thinking and talking a lot about Antarctica these days. The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander, was even found under the Christmas tree. Illustrated with the very few photos to survive the trek, it captivates.
In 1914, Earnest Shackleton began a journey across Antarctica in a glorious attempt to atone for Captain Robert Scott’s dismal and deadly defeat in the race to the South Pole. The Endurance was a wooden sailing ship beautifully fitted for the ice—originally designed as a pleasure vessel for well-heeled tourists with a taste for adventure. Scientists, sailors and sled dogs served as cast and crew for what would become an epic battle with nature. On the eve of the First World War, civilized long-term travel across Antarctica required generous stores of supplies and tools and harsh weather gear. Scientific instruments, photography equipment and ship’s library complete with a full copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a gramophone addressed intellectual pursuits.
As extreme weather conditions elongated the several month voyage beyond a year… beyond two years… Shackleton managed to maintain a spirit of hope, courage and collaboration alive across the class boundaries of sailors and scientists. In fact, according to Alexander, he hired crew members for personality as much as ability. Leonard Hussey, “meteorologist, archaeologist, explorer and medical doctor” also came equipped with a fine voice and a banjo.
A year into the adventure, when the Endurance became hopelessly encased in pack ice, evening singing sessions or “sing songs” became a staple activity. Black and white images show a band of bearded and sweatered fellows raising their voices in a rollicking round of ragtime tunes, operetta favorites, wistful love songs and the occasional hymn.
The physics of weather won the battle and the beautiful pleasure craft turned research expedition vessel was squeezed out of existence by rapidly expanding ice. However, not before most of the stores and equipment were offloaded. The trans-Antarctic trek was transformed into a quest for survival. Shackleton determined to bring every single member of his crew home alive. They camped for weeks on an ice floe, living in soggy huts built from salvaged timbers and sails. Seal and penguin meat first supplemented then became staple foods.
As conditions worsened, Shackleton determined they must march to the open sea where they could set sail in the lifeboats in hope of rescue. They would need to drag the lifeboats themselves for miles. In a massive purge to reduce the burden to barest essentials, every man was permitted to keep just two pounds of personal possessions plus a pound of tobacco. Memorabilia was cast off without mercy. The pile of the superfluous included their scientific instruments, the set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, gold watches, even the Bible sweet Queen Mary herself had dedicated to the crew—except for the flyleaf she had inscribed—and a page from the book of Job that Shackleton ripped out. One exception to the two-pound rule? The banjo.
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