Henry Hudson’s voyages to the ice were to the north, and three hundred years before Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to Antarctica. However, they share some similarities.
Hudson sailed under the direction of investment companies of the early-seventeenth century. These companies were motivated by a variety of factors and were supported by the patronage of the nobility and royalty. Prince Henry Stuart was a strong supporter of the enterprises.
The Prince’s interest in the icy north was not for the region’s own value or worth in knowledge of its features and peoples, but for the glory and wealth that came from its resources, colonial potential and access to the East via the prized yet unachieved North-West Passage. The motto ‘juvat ire per altum’ (he delights to go upon the deep) was given to the Company of Discoverers of the North-West Passage. Getting somewhere before the Spanish was also a motivator for the investors and ruling elites.
Shackleton had a variety of sources of income. His funding came from private loans, gifts & donations, parliamentary & royal backing, support from the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society (not as much as he would have like, of course) and through the sale of newspaper and image/ film rights.
The ship of Hudson’s fourth and final expedition was named Discovery. As it happened, the ship of Shackleton’s first of four journeys to Antarctica was also called Discovery.
Hudson’s 1610 expedition with the Discovery aimed to navigate the famed North-West Passage. Hudson had the ship pushed through the ice-choked waters of the Hudson Strait and spent time mapping and exploring Hudson Bay–which he initially thought had to be the Pacific Ocean. Journeying then into James Bay, winter approached. On 1 November, 1610, the ship was hauled close to the shore in a safe place to remain for the severe cold winter. By 10 November they were frozen in.
While Hudson’s Discovery was free to sail again once the ice retreated in James Bay in 1611, Shackleton’s third expedition with the Endurance had a different experience. The ship became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea whilst manoeuvring its way south through the leads in the pack ice. Despite efforts and hopes to keep her free and mobile, the ship became a winter station for the Antarctic winter, at the whim of the ice. On 27 October, 1915, Shackleton gave the order to abandon the ship. The Endurance was squeezed, crippled and crushed by the power of the ice and finally disappeared from view 21 November, 1915.
Hudson’s Discovery voyage is mostly remembered for its mutiny. In Richard Cavendish’s assessment, ‘though Hudson was a good navigator, he was a poor leader of men’. The problems that he and the crew faced–hunger, scurvy, the stranded winter–were not addressed in a reassuring manner and, if anything, Hudson augmented the dissatisfaction of the men. Following the thaw in James Bay, Hudson was determined to continue in his quest of exploration. The crew, however, had enough. An argument over food distribution was the last straw. Mutiny, it was decided, was the only option. Hudson, his young son and seven men were put in a shallop, a small boat for use in shallow water, cut adrift and were never seen again.
Shackleton was a different kind of leader. He was a chatter, a people person and he showed concern for the men under his command. There was always going to be grumbling on an expedition that got stuck in the Weddell Sea ice, but Shackleton and the more senior men of the team engaged with the others. A very disgruntled Henry McNish staged what amounted to a mutiny but this was addressed quickly and successfully by Shackleton and Frank Wild.
Shackleton felt a strong responsibility for the safety of his men. This was a major driving force behind the sailing in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia (with Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Timothy McCarthy, Henry McNish and John Vincent) and the crossing of the island with Worsley and Crean. One can’t imagine the Endurance story with an abandonment of the Boss by the twenty-seven men that made up the Imperial Trans-continental Antarctic Expedition.
The route through the Hudson Straits into the Hudson Bay (both, and much more besides, now bearing his name) became a standard for explorers and colonists after Hudson’s voyages. His mappings opened up the areas otherwise inaccessible from the west. Far from being hanged for mutiny upon their return, Hudson’s crew were acquitted and often hired for other expeditions in search of the passage.
Shackleton’s legacy is one of hope and resilience against the toughest conditions the Southern Ocean and the Weddell Sea can muster. His charm, management of his men and sheer strength of character has been a guiding light for many fans. The sense of wonder, adventure and determination of the man also puts him in the line of ‘great men’ of his ilk. There are features, of course, in Antarctica that now bear his name, but don’t forget that there are also features named after Wild, McCarthy and McNish too, amongst others.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.
Fraser, S. The Prince Who Would Be King: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart. London, 2017.