Ernest Shackleton testifies

Jan C. Nielsen

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Dec 12, 1999
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In a recent biography entitled "Shackleton," the biographer says that the owners' lawyer, Sir Robert Finlay, was quite effective in discrediting Shackleton on cross-examination, at the British Inquiry. It doesn't appear to me that way. Shackleton held his own, as follows:

25102. (Sir Robert Finlay.) You have been following this case I take it? - I have to a certain extent.

25103. And you know we have had evidence as to the practice existing among gentlemen who have been in the trade for 25 years? - Yes; I think the gentlemen that have been in the trade for 25 years have been acting under the instructions of their owners.

25104. Have you any ground for saying that? - No more than a general feeling that I have had, and the feeling I have had that when the owner is on board you go.

25105. And supposing the owner is not on board? - I do not want to make surmises and I do not want to lay down any particular Rules, but there is a general feeling amongst people at sea that you have to make your passage. If you do not make your passage it is not so good for you. That is only my own personal point of view. I do not know whether I should not refuse to answer this particular question.

The Commissioner: I think not; you are giving us very useful evidence.

25106. (Sir Robert Finlay.) You have been in the North Atlantic trade to some extent yourself? - I have only been as a passenger. Well, once in 1891 I was across the Atlantic in March.

25107. Were you in command of a vessel? - No, I was only 17 years old then.

25108. But the other times you speak of in the North Atlantic you have been merely as a passenger? - Yes, that is all.

25109. But apart from this voyage when you were 17 of ice in the Atlantic, you have had no experience? - I have had no experience, no, of actual ice in the North Atlantic. I happen to be aware of the conditions, though.

25110. Now with regard to the coldness, the connection of cold with the presence of icebergs. You know, of course, of the Labrador current? - Yes.

25111. Is the cold very often due to the Labrador current? - I would not say that so much, but I would say the breaking up of the ice was due to the Labrador current. I mean it comes down with the Labrador current, but the other current goes up to the North. It is sometimes very clearly defined, but then again these currents sometimes come far out of their usual route.

25112. You would not say, I suppose, that a fall in temperature was anything like a certain indication of the presence of ice? - No, I would not at all.

25113. Not at all? - Excepting under very definite conditions, such as a dead calm and a sudden fall in the temperature, because if you are in colder water, and as I said before you have not an equal temperature of the air, then you have a haze. If both the air temperature and the water temperature are the same the effect is that the weather is clear.

The Commissioner: My recollection is that the fall of temperature began on the Saturday.

The Attorney-General: Yes, it did; it became more acute on the Sunday afternoon.

The Commissioner: It gradually fell and fell rapidly, but began Saturday.

The Attorney-General: Yes. We know very little of the wind on the Saturday.

Sir Robert Finlay: I think we have information on the morning of the Sunday that there was wind.

The Commissioner: There was wind of a kind up to three o'clock in the afternoon of the Sunday, and then it fell and became a dead calm.

Sir Robert Finlay: Yes. The point is the cold had begun before the wind dropped.

The Commissioner: Oh, it began on the Saturday.

25114. (Sir Robert Finlay - To the Witness.) I think you said that the importance you would attach to a fall of temperature in this connection was if there was a dead calm? - Yes. If the sea and the air are about the same temperature I would consider ice; but all those methods such as dipping up water in buckets to get the temperature are no good.


Unless I'm missing something here, it doesn't appear to me that Shackleton has been discredited at all. Finlay is asking open-ended questions a lot of time, and Shackleton fields them well --even the commissioner complements Shackleton. So much for that aspect of his biography.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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Easley South Carolina
Hi Jan, your take on this as opposed to that of the biographer looks to me like one of the best reasons to get the first hand source for yourself as opposed to taking somebody's word for it. FWIW, I think Shackleton held up well too, at least in this part of the questioning. I haven't had a chance to get to that part of the transcript yet.

Was this biographer by chance somewhat hostile to the man?

From the looks of it, it appears as if the wreck commissioners were trying to find out if there were warning signs that would tip a mariner off to the presence of ice, and falling air/water temperatures were something that they became obsessive about on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 

Jan C. Nielsen

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Dec 12, 1999
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Michael,

It's a long biography, and I only read the part about Shackleton's testimony before the British Board of Trade. The biographer noted that Shackleton was personally very shocked by the disaster, and so noted in his letters.

Of course, most everyone was shocked by it, but I think Shackleton was particularly troubled by it. Around this time, too, the Scott expedition at the South Pole proved to be a failure.

With both Titanic and Scott, the biographer notes that exaggerated issues of heroism and the like were passed around to sort of offset the horror of these failures.

Based on what I know, I have great respect for Ernest Shackleton. He needed funding from the wealthy for his own Arctic expeditions, yet he courageously spoke up against the "owners" at the Titanic hearings.

Further, unlike others of his age, his ambitions about achieving great things did not overcome his respect and concern for the lives of his men, or of others.

I understand that there is a movie being made about Shackleton. His book, "South" is excellent reading. He tells an incredible story of survival against great odds --I highly recommend it.
 
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James Maxwell

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Jan.
I'm not sure what book about Shackelton you are referring to - there are many, but I suspect that you mean the long biography by Roland Huntford entitled simply "Shackelton." As a life long devotee of polar exploration I have to say that this book is easily the best researched, most comprehensive and best written I have ever read about Shackelton. You mention "South" and I agree that it is excellent reading, but it was largely ghost written because Shackelton was never very comfortable as an author. On expedition with his back against the wall Shackelton was simply superb, exercising huge leadership skills and great compassion for his men. His open boat journey across seven hundred miles of the Southern Ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia and his subsequent crossing of this at the time unexplored island along with Worsley and Tom Crean was and will always remain one the great epics of exploration. In day to day life he was less effective however, his marriage was falling apart, he drank heavily, he could never manage his financial affairs properly and when he embarked on the Endurance expedition his health was suspect and he refused to let doctors examine him properly. It should also be remembered that this expedition left Britain poorly equipped, not very well organised and that his choice of personnel was suspect in important areas.
As to his performance at the Titanic enquiry-Huntford says he was "browbeaten"- I can't comment as I'm afraid I haven't read this part of the transcript, but I think he would be a difficult man to "browbeat", although at the time some of his friends described him as being "burnt out" and he was certainly jaded and tired. I think however that some of his comments about Titanic are very interesting and pertinent. he was of the opinion that Capt. Smith should have slowed the ship given the conditions and offers as a explanation that Smith was only pandering to the fact that the owners were aboard. It is also interesting that he believed that with the arrival of wireless such accidents should never happen, views that have been expressed by many people since that time.
regards.
Jim
 
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James Maxwell

Guest
Jan
Sorry but I've just noticed that I've mispelt Shackleton all the way through my last post - maybe I'm "burnt out" as well!!!
Jim.
 

Jan C. Nielsen

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Dec 12, 1999
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Thanks for the feedback, Jim. I first heard of Ernest Shackleton when I read an article about him in National Geographic magazine, only a few years ago. It's funny how you hear about the disasterous polar expeditions, like that of Scott, all the time -- but rarely anything about real heroes in situations when hardly any one dies. Your point that his personal life was a disaster doesn't surprise me: people strong in certain respects have great weaknesses, as well --I see that all the time. But in general, I think Shackleton was a caliber of person that markedly contrasted with other witnesses and participants at the Titanic hearings--many of whom towed the company line, dodged questions, pretended like they had never heard of the Titanic, etc. Knowing what I know now about Shackleton, I would have loved to have witnessed that cross-examination.
 

Jan C. Nielsen

Senior Member
Dec 12, 1999
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There is a report (from May 21, 2001, which I just ran across) that Robert Ballard is setting out to find the Endurance, the ship that Ernest Shackleton sailed to the Antartic. It was frozen in the ice, and destroyed, in 1915. Ballard will apparently have to drill through the ice, and then send the mini sub down some 9,000 feet to the Antarctic ocean's bottom. Sounds pretty scary to me. For more information, check out this link:

http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_299856.html?menu=
 

Jan C. Nielsen

Senior Member
Dec 12, 1999
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Did anyone watch the "NOVA" documentary on Ernest Shackleton? What an incredible story. One of the biographers commented that Shackleton was a brave man, and a great man, too --- but he was also a very lucky man.
 
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Addison Hart

Guest
As you are most surely aware, there is a movie about the great chap that is to be aired on April 7th, 2002 on A&E. It stars Kenneth Branagh as you know who. Robert Hardy is in it as well, so it must be fairly good...

God bless,
Addison