Shackleton’s Bible given to him by Queen Alexandra

April 22, 2015

My apologies for the tardiness of this post, another piece of writing has been occupying my attention of late. John O’Reilly, the exhibition’s managing director, asked me recently to research Perce Blackborow for the exhibition. I became immersed in books and piecing together the story with an emphasis on Perce, the young Welsh stowaway aboard the Endurance. I am currently nearing the end of writing this piece and so have taken a break to put this post together! Dear reader, if you are interested in knowing more on the Blackborow writing—or happen to know books, articles etc. about Perce, or know anyone with connections with Perce—please contact us and let us know.

This post will look at the Bible given to Shackleton by Queen Alexandra as well as Biblical verses that were of comfort to the Boss during the struggles of the Endurance. Also, the potential religiosity or spirituality of the man himself will be considered. This piece will finish with the ‘fourth man’ feelings of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley as they crossed the internal of South Georgia island.

In July 1914, Queen Dowager Alexandra, her sister Empress Maria Feodorovna visited Shackleton’s ship the Endurance shortly before departure. Emily Dorman Shackleton, Sir Ernest’s patient wife, and their children were also present for the occasion. Alexandra presented Shackleton with two Bibles, one for the ship and one for his own personal use. Inspired by Psalm 107:24, Queen Alexandra inscribed one of the Bibles with the following words:

May the Lord help you to do your deeds, guide you through all dangers by land and sea. May you see the works of the Lord and all His wonders in the deep.

[Psalm 107:24: These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. (KJV)]

Following the abandonment of the ship in October 1915, Shackleton was keen to be rid of, and discard, any needless weight to be carried by his crew. In a dramatic and exemplary action, Shackleton tore out the pages of the Bible that Alexandra had written her personal messageand left it and the ice and walked away. The rest of that Bible was picked up and kept, however, by McLeod, a devout Scot, who smuggled it along, thinking it unlucky to throw away scripture.

As well as the writing of Alexandra, Shackleton also tore out the ‘wonderful page of [the Book of] Job’ that contained the verses:

Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.

Although Sir Ernest used and referred to Christian scriptural texts, he may have had what could be called a spiritual sense of the world as opposed to a religious view of any of the Christian churches. Shackleton’s companion, Harold Begbie, published a memoir containing recollections of conversations with Sir Ernest. In it he assessed his friend’s views:

He [Shackleton] was really profoundly conscious of the spiritual reality which abides hidden in all visible things—a strange, mysterious depth in the soul of one whose surface was a reckless gaiety and a playful, easy, tolerant good nature.’

This great sense that Shackleton held of an energy, power, or occasionally referred to as ‘God’ comes through in the description of the experiences of himself, Crean and Worsley as they crossed South Georgia in May 1916.

Jonathan Shackleton, in his book, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, wrote that Shackleton’s ‘use of strong spiritual language in recounting how the journey across South Georgia affected him is hardly surprising.’ His spiritual awareness led him to see the world in these terms. Shackleton’s love of using poetry and literature to explain his own feelings came through at these moments of intense experience also. Biblical verses and imagery of the divine deity and powers of the unknown were called upon as he looked to make sense of his emotions.

Almost seven years after their epic journey from Elephant in the James Caird and the crossing of South Georgia, Worsley wrote that ‘each step of that journey comes back clearly’. However, when he recalled the men on South Georgia, something changed:

I again find myself counting our party—Shackleton, Crean, and I and – who was the other? Of course, there were only three, but it is strange that in mentally reviewing the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves.’

He simply summed this up by stating: ‘Providence had certainly looked after us.’

Jonathan Shackleton points out the ‘echoes of Luke 24: 13-16 are unmistakable’:

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

Begbie recalled that Shackleton had said that the three men never doubted ‘there was always something above’. In a similar fashion to Worsley, Shackleton said that they called it Providence and that ‘we left it at that’. As Shackleton was willing to say:

We were comrades with Death all the time; there was no mistake in that; but I can honestly say it wasn’t bad. I mean we always felt there was something above…

In a more specific description, Shackleton said that the presence he felt was ‘of a Power that informed the whole living world.’ However following this, he didn’t want to discuss these feelings any further:

There are some things which can never be spoken of. Almost to hint at them comes perilously close to sacrilege. This experience was eminently one of those things.

To finish on this, a section from Shackleton’s South should have the final word.

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.’

[‘…the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ is a line found in John Keats’ poem, ‘Endymion,’ http://www.john-keats.com/gedichte/endymion_ii.htm; for a wider discussion of this kind of phenomenon in moments of intense trauma or when a human is close to the edge of existence, see: Geiger, J. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. New York, 2010.]

For Shackleton, perhaps more important than the power of an omnipresent Almighty was the individual persistence of human endeavour and spirit, assisting in the knowledge of a greater order in the universe by the power informing the whole living world. This power’s providence perhaps made the ventures and enterprises of ambitious people possible. Shackleton was drawn to lines of poetry that emphasised this kind of philosophy and the lines below from Browning were well-known to Sir Ernest:

Do your best, whether winning or losing it,

If you choose to play!—is my principle.

Let a man contend to the uttermost

For his life’s set prize, be it what it will!

In March 1917, Shackleton gave a lecture in Sydney. His words on death are illuminating for his character:

Death is a very small thing—the smallest thing in the world… I know that death scarcely weighs in the scale against a man’s appointed task… If we have to die, we will die in the pride of manhood, our eyes on the goal and our beating time to the instinct within us.

References

Begbie, H. Shackleton: A Memory. London, 1922.

Mill, H. R. The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton. London, 1923.

Shackleton, J. & MacKenna, J. Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica. Dublin, 2002.

Shackleton, Sir E. H. South: The Endurance Expedition. London, 2013.

Smith, Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Wilton, 2014.

Worsley, F. A. Shackleton’s Boat Journey. Cork, 2010.

Written and researched by Liam ÓMhaoldomhnaigh

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