The marine archaeologist who headed the 2022 Antarctic expedition that discovered the wreck of Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance has found two previously unknown letters which describe the explorer in the Falklands while he was trying to save 22 of his men stranded on the “hellish rock” of Elephant Island.
Ahead of today’s anniversary of the wreck’s discovery, Mensun Bound told the Observer that the correspondence is remarkable because there is no witness account of him in Port Stanley during this crucial period in 1916 after their ship had become trapped in ice.
Shackleton and five others had reached the island of South Georgia to seek aid, leaving their comrades behind on Elephant Island. He is known to have been tortured with worry for them, but the letters show that he concealed his anguish from officials with whom he was staying at Government House – regaling them instead with stories of his life of adventure.
He told jokes and was “screamingly funny”, one of the letters records.
Bound said: “The letters really are informative, enlightening and insightful. Shackleton doesn’t come out looking that good. But you’ve got to be forgiving because he had 22 men who were on this island possibly dead or dying and he was desperate.”
Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica is an epic story of valour and survival against all the odds. The Endurance became trapped in iceand the men somehow survived on ice floes for months, reduced to eating their expedition dogs. They reached Elephant Island, where they lived off penguins and seals, but they were eventually rescued and all 28 of the crew returned home alive.
Shackleton travelled over a hideously dangerous stretch of the ocean in a whale-catcher obtained from Norwegian whalers. He headed for Elephant Island to save his men but, unable to get through the ice, he headed for the Falklands, where he knew that there was a radio station to summon help.
As director of exploration on the Endurance22 project, a major scientific expedition, Bound and an international team made polar history in March last year by finding the wreck in an extraordinary state of preservation. Locating this symbol of the “heroic age” of polar exploration at the bottom of the Weddell Sea had long seemed impossible because of the harshness of the Antarctic environment – “the evil conditions”, as Shackleton described them.
The letters were written by a young Oxford graduate, Thomas Goddard, who was in the Falkland Islands on his first overseas Colonial Office posting when Shackleton turned up seeking help. Writing to his mother in England on 12 July 1916, Goddard wrote of Shackleton: “I have seen quite a lot of him and he really is a most fascinating person and has kept us in roars of laughter night after night; of course he is at present preoccupied about his party on Elephant Island and sometimes can’t sit still for thinking about them but when you can get his mind off it and get him on to telling yarns about his adventures, he is screamingly funny.”
On 5 September 1916, days after the men had been rescued, he wrote: “We have just had news that Shackleton has got his party off Elephant Island all right, and it is good to hear it; he has tried very hard and done everything he possibly could, although it seemed hopeless from the start; I am very glad he has pulled it off at last.
“I don’t suppose he will be back here any more. I should like to have had another yarn with him; he is a most amoosin [sic] person and very good company; but I fancy being amoosin and entertainin [sic] is part of his business and that he is quite ready to be amoosin behind your back if he thinks it will amoose the people he is with to hear you run down; I may be doing the bloke an injustice.”
Bound’s account of his expedition was published by Macmillan in his acclaimed book The Ship Beneath the Ice: The Discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance. He stumbled across the letters among his own Falklander parents’ papers. His father had been a collector of Falklands memorabilia and they were in a folder on the 1914 Battle of the Falklands.
• This article was amended on 5 March 2023. An image embedded in an earlier version of this story was captioned as being the crew stranded on Elephant Island in 1915. In fact it featured the crew at Ocean Camp in 1915.