CBR 14 BINGO: Bodies, because the men on this ship were pushed physically beyond all reasonable limits, and also because one member of the expedition team lost all the toes on one foot. Also, it involves crossing bodies of water.
In 2019, I read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 Antarctic expedition, and it became one of my favorite books of the year. Shortly after, this book by Caroline Alexander, a companion piece to a 1999 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History (also co-curated by Alexander) showed up in a Little Free Library near me, and it’s been waiting for its turn to be read. Thanks to BINGO, I finally pulled it from the TBR pile. It’s also a timely read, as the wreckage of the lost ship was found and recovered this past March.
Without rehashing the entire story of the Endurance, suffice to say it was an expedition gone wrong that turned out to be one of the greatest human achievements ever recorded: an inspirational failure, if you will. The plan was to sail from South Georgia Island across the Weddell Sea to the Northwestern edge of Antarctica. From there, a small party would travel on foot across the continent and meet up with another ship on the other side. This was during the great age of exploration, and crossing Antarctica had never been done before (the South Pole had already been reached in 1911 by Roald Amundsen and his team, so that box had been checked).
Things went wrong when the ship got stuck in the ice and had to wait it out for the winter. Unfortunately, waiting it out proved to be unfeasible once the ice started to crush the ship. Shackleton and his crew had to eventually abandon the Endurance and make camp on an ice floe, where they watched helplessly as their ship fell to the crushing power of the ice.
Ice floes being made of frozen water that melts when it gets warmer, they couldn’t stay there forever, so they sailed in lifeboats through freezing waters to Elephant Island. It was on this part of the journey that a young man named Blackboro (who originally stowed away on the Endurance) suffered so much damage from frostbite that all the toes on one foot had to eventually be amputated. From there, a group of six men, led by Shackleton, took one of the boats, the James Caird, an additional 800 miles back to South Georgia, a journey that took two weeks. That’s 800 miles in an open boat, with minimal navigation equipment, in unforgiving, freezing water. After landing, Shackleton and two of his men finally crossed the interior of South Georgia on foot to get help.
This is a tremendous story, and if you want to get into all the dramatic details, you can’t do better than Lansing’s 1959 masterpiece. This publication, however, is also worthy of a spot in your library. I won’t say it’s the Reader’s Digest version, but it is more of the coffee-table version. I mean that in a positive way because, while it does include many direct quotes from the crews’ journals, what makes this book so worthwhile is that the photography is stunning. Most of the photographs were from the camera of Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer. That his photographs survived the almost 2-year ordeal is both miraculous and a blessing. When the men realized they might lose the ship, Hurley packed his photo album in waterproof cloth, “it being the only record of my work I shall be able to take, should we be compelled to take to the floe.” He also saved plate glass negatives that are now in the possession of the Royal Geographical Society’s Picture Library.
The book boasts 140 photographs, from dramatic shots of the sinking ship, to portraits of the crew, to sobering images of crewmen skinning penguins, to poignant memories of the sled dogs and one cat (Mrs. Chippy) who wouldn’t survive the expedition. Perhaps the most dramatic and possibly famous photo is one of the men standing on the shore of Elephant Island cheering on the small crew in the lifeboat as they set off for South Georgia. The almost victorious raising of hands suggests optimism while, in truth, the men knew that the chances of the lifeboat making it to South Georgia and sending back help were slim.
With the discovery of the wreck, I’m hoping that another exhibition about this incredible journey is in the works. Perhaps another book, too.