Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

“May, 1916. 15.

A cold night followed by a calm day with a calm open sea. Ninety penguins came up and all were killed. Wild asked me, sarcastically, if I was satisfied. He seems to think that I am personally afraid of having to starve. This is not exactly the case, it is rather the whole party that I am concerned about. I should not like to see a repetition of the Greeley disaster, and upon my word, I think we are asking for it.

"Endurance under Full Sail" - courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

“Endurance under Full Sail” – courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

We are now burning nothing but penguin skins on our indoor stove and nearly all the cooking is being done on it. It requires about fifteen skins per day and it behooves us to get all the penguins we can if only for the value of their skins as fuel.

To burn them it is necessary to cut them into thin strips which are laid over the two cross bars of the stove. The heat of the burning oil on the bottom of the stove causes the oil to “render” from the strips of skin; it drops on to the heap of ash and debris at the bottom and in due course ignites and helps to render the oil our of the next two strips and so on. It is necessary to replenish the strips every five or ten minutes. We leave the feathers on the skins just as they are and being very oily there is no unpleasant smell such as burning feathers usually make. The fire is lighted by a few wood-shavings and splinters derived from the little wooden “sweet-boxes” in which every ten pieces of nut food are packed.

There are therefore ten of these wooden boxes in a case of 100 blocks of nut food or seventy of them in all and, as each box will light two fires we have enough to get our stove going for a period of four months at least. We could quite easily light the fire by pouring seal oil on to the ashes of the previous night and inserting a wick when the whole lot would soon be in a blaze, but as the wood is available and blubber scarce we use the former for the present.

We are fortunate in having a good supply of matches, but even if we had none we could easily manage to get a light, in the first instance, with a “burning glass” on one of our rare sunny days and thereafter maintain a constant flame night and day with a blubber lamp.”

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One hundred years ago this August, Ernest Shackleton rescued his crew after the failure of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Rauner holds a complete transcript of the diary and the manuscript diary from March 24th, 1915, through April 16th, 1916.” These entries are a selection from the diary of the expedition’s quartermaster Thomas Orde-Lees.

Rauner Special Collections Library in Webster Hall holds a complete transcript of the diary and the manuscript diary from March 24th, 1915, through April 16th, 1916. To see them, come to Rauner and ask to see MSS-185 or Stefansson G850 1914 .O7 1997 during normal hours of operation.  An exhibit on Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations will be on display in Rauner from July 1-September 2, 2016.

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