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Shackleton’s <i>Endurance</i> Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

"May, 1916. 5.

Overcast. Temperature 31 degrees. Mild, slushy.

There were some cold penguins to skin. It was cold work. When freshly killed it is easy, almost agreeable, work executed as follows: lay the penguin on his back, slit him from his neck to his tail with a knife, insert the hand and withdraw the stomach and other "utensils" taking care not to break the gall bladder, before doing this the windpipe and gullet has to be cut by holding it with one hand and passing the knife up with the other. Next tear the skin apart at the breast and work it off the carcass and legs, articulating the wings with a knife and cutting the skin round at the leg joints just above the gut (the penguin has feathers right down to, but not on, its feet). The tail is then articulated at its root and by holding on to it and pulling whilst standing on the penguins feet it can be skinned off the back and head all in one operation like pilling off one's vest inside out. What remains looks rather like a skinned rabbit. The two sides of the breast are easily cut off and the legs articulated, these portions are stored in the snow and the hearts and livers are all put into a box where they freeze into a solid cake. The skins are laid out flat and stored for fuel, but when one comes to one's last bird for the day one generally uses the blubbery inside of the skin to wash some of the blood off one's hands and even gives one's face a good wipe, using the feather side as a towel to dry oneself with. The blubbery nature of the inside of the skin forms quite a passable soap, but our hands and faces are always so black that it doesn't make any perceptible difference.

"Dogloos Endurance" - courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography
"Dogloos Endurance" - courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

We practically never wash now except for this and it is surprising how soon one becomes reconciled to this state of affairs.

The penguins usually come up from the sea about 3 p.m. They roost here and go off to sea the first thing in the morning to fish. It seems probable that it is mostly different birds that come up every day and as if they were making a passage from one spot to another and using this as a half way house for however many we kill, just about the same number come up the next day. Were it not so, we should soon exterminate them. Today as many as 118 came up and we secured them all.

Our daily routine is now as follows. Cook turns out at 7 a.m. and goes out to galley to cook steaks. The inside stove is lighted and water heated up on it for milk. As the pungent blubber fumes pervade the atmosphere we all get well inside our bags and cough oil 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. when the order comes to "lash up and snow" whereupon we turn out fully dressed all but our boots, which we put on at once, and the ground floor people roll up their bags and bundle them up on to the bags of the protesting occupants of the thwarts who, by this time are generally down on the floor.

Two"seat placers", told off daily in rotation, place the Venesta provision cases round in a rough circle amidst the execrations of the remainder on whose toes the cases fall. We sit down disconsolate and liverish until the cooks of groups ( the groups remain the same as the original tent's crews and are maintained owing to the necessity of dividing the food up into all the available receptacles) stumble in with their precious burdens. "Whacking out" these proceeds the old "whoseing" process being rigidly adhered to. This operation has to be carried out on the knees of one of the members of the group and the balancing of the pot and all the eight tin plates is matter of no little skill.

As breakfast proceeds tongues are gradually loosened just as used to be the case in the ship, which proves that the psychological reaction of food even under such circumstances of destitution as ours still persists. Breakfast over we go out, if fine enough, and do such works as may be required of us. Luncheon is ready at 12:45 p.m. Today we had boiled penguin's carcasses and they weren't at all bad, being boiled in sea water to salt them a bit. It is dangerous to use sea water too freely on account of the likelihood of dysentery occurring from the magnesium salts in solution.

About 2 p.m. we again go out and work or walk about to keep our bodies and especially our feet warm. It is unfortunate that we have only such a very short walk the length of the spit. It gets monotonous and the people one meets are always the same and all so dirty looking and the snow covered pebbles are difficult to walk on, but one gets too cold sitting in the hut and as there is only four feet of head room beneath the thwarts of the boats it gets very crampy. By 4 p.m. most of us are in the hut again and at 4:30 supper is served.

It invariably consists of stewed seal or penguin meat. At both luncheon and supper we have ice cold water as a beverage. It is always ice cold because of the necessity of economizing fuel and therefore having to put rather more ice into the pot than can possibly all be melted. Should the water be warm by any chance we add more ice to it in order to increase the amount of water to the utmost. We nearly all get thirst during the night and have a drink of water at midnight.

At 6 p.m., the "seats" are replaced in the centre of the hut for the cook to sleep on, bags are laid out, we get into them and chat or read if possible until 7:30 p.m. by which hour nearly every one is asleep. Some wrangle.

We sleep from 7:30 p.m. to 9 a.m., at least that is the time we have to spend in our bags and most of sonly wish we could sleep for all that long time for it is very wearying lying awake hour after hour as many of us do, thinking most of the time of how much better we might be off if only this - and only that and so on. Of course we ought really to be only too thankful that we are here at all after the peril and uncertainty of our life on the floe. Our only source of danger here is lack of food. I suppose Mr. Wild knows what he is doing all right but I certainly think that until we are certain of a stock enough to last all the winter we ought to economize more now; we could quite well do with rather less than we are having, at least I could; the penguin steaks at breakfast are huge. One would rather economize now than risk going short later on which may or may not the base. I have seen too much improvidence on this expedition, it is a well known characteristic of the Esquimaus, perhaps a polar climate engenders it in certain people, but I must say that in all polar books I have read the narrators lay stress on the expediency of laying in a proper store for the winter; thus Scott, Greeley, Nordenskiold, Amundsen, Campbell. Living from hand to mouth may suit some natures, not mine. Mr. Wild is evidently relying too much upon an early relief. It is counting your chickens before they've hatched.

An adult sea elephant spent an hour or two on a small floe in West Bay, not more than fifty yards from the shore but the pack was too intersected to permit of approaching it. Some could have done it with oars to bridge the gaps but Mr. Wild thought it too risky."

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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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