Who is Ernest Shackleton?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, better known simply as Ernest Shackleton, was a leading figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, a period of Antarctic history characterized by repeated expeditions which attempted to penetrate the mysteries of the ice-bound continent. While Shackleton didn't achieve the fame of some of his fellow adventurers at the time, he later came to be a heralded figure in the history of Antarctica, and he is the subject of numerous books and films which celebrate his leadership and bravery.

Ernest Shackleton volunteered for the Discovery expedition in 1902.
Ernest Shackleton volunteered for the Discovery expedition in 1902.

Shackleton was born in 1874 in Ireland. Despite his father's wishes that he become a doctor, Ernest Shackleton chose to join the Merchant Marine instead, ultimately volunteering for the Discovery expedition in 1902 with Robert Scott. Shackleton was bitten by the bug of Antarctic exploration on the Discovery, returning in 1907 with the Nimrod and ultimately getting very close to the South Pole. For his achievements while leading this expedition, Ernest Shackleton was knighted, but he did not intend to rest on his laurels.

Ernest Shackleton became famous for his dedication to Antarctic exploration.
Ernest Shackleton became famous for his dedication to Antarctic exploration.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton set out again, this time on the Endurance, as part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which was going to attempt to cross Antarctica. Unfortunately, the Endurance became trapped in sea ice before breaking up, forcing the men to abandon ship and trek their way on foot and later in lifeboats until they reached remote Elephant Island before traveling to South Georgia Island, where they were ultimately rescued.

In an era littered with accounts of serious injuries and death on Antarctic expeditions, the fate of Shackleton's men is remarkable: not a single man died, although the sled dogs and ship's cat were shot by the crew when they were stuck on drifting sea ice without apparent hope of rescue. Astoundingly, the men also managed to carry 150 photographic plates documenting the fate of the Endurance, many of which can be seen on display today. Many people credit the survival of the men in the Shackleton expedition to Shackleton himself, as he demonstrated formidable leadership skills and heroism in his attempt to save the crew.

Despite the events of the Endurance expedition, Ernest Shackleton set out on expedition again in 1922, aboard the Quest, with the goal of sailing all the way around Antarctica. Before the expedition could even begin, however, Shackleton felt ill, and died of a heart attack off the coast of Georgia Island, where he was buried at the request of his wife.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@jmc88- I agree partially with your assessment. People like Shackleton did want to explore the area simply to say someone explored it, but they wanted to be the first ones to explore the area and claim the fame off of it.

By becoming the first person to explore the area it meant a big deal in the press and they would be able to achieve fame and fortune off of their achievement. Shackleton saw no other reason to go to the to Antarctica besides this reason, with the exception of maybe a look and see what the land has to offer. There are many men like him but he makes a great story when reading about Antarctic history.


I always find it interesting to study Arctic and Anarctic explorers. Guys like Shackleton were people that had a vision of exploring all parts of the world that had never been seen before, even though it was just a barren wasteland that could offer nothing such as colonization to society.

Explores like Shackleton, simply had the mid set that there was a portion of the world that had not been explored yet, so someone had to and see what it had to offer people. I am sure that he knew there was little chance that he would find much of anything there, but he explored anyway for the purpose of claiming the area as a place that mankind had set foot on.

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