BOOK EXTRACT: Shackleton's Whisky Chapter 8 - Voyage to New Zealand

Nimrod at Cowes in August 1907, bound for New Zealand and the Antarctic.

This is the third of five extracts from Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat, available now, published by Random House. 

The book tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's heroic 1907 expedition to Antarctica with 14 other adventurers, and the case of  Mackinlay's Scotch whisky left under their hut, not to be found until 2007.

This extract is from Chapter 8: 'Voyage to New Zealand''. It describes the departure of the crew from England in the ageing but sturdy vessel Nimrod, which would stop in Christchurch before heading to Antarctica.


In May 1907, Mackinlay & Co. must have been told that the expedition ship’s name would change to Endurance. So in good faith the label around the neck of each bottle declared the transporting vessel to be Endurance.

Nimrod, however, was the name she still carried on 30 July, the day she cast off from the East India Dock and, with black smoke belching, steamed serenely down the River Thames.

Shackleton was on board for the first few days only. He planned to travel more quickly to Australia and New Zealand by a scheduled liner once he had tied up organisational loose ends and seen to last-minute arrangements, including any sponsorship he could secure.

To his brother-in- law, Herbert Dorman, the expedition solicitor, he left the task of banking late donations to the cause.

Nimrod, after calling the first night at Greenhithe, sailed for Torquay on England’s south coast, her old schooner configuration converted to a barquentine rig.

On the way, though, she was intercepted by an Admiralty tug, which passed a message to Shackleton requesting that Nimrod make for Cowes on the Isle of Wight, where the might of the Royal Navy was assembled for a Naval Review by King Edward VII.

The Solent roadstead off  Cowes was crowded with about 200 warships — cruisers, battleships and other classes, great lines of them.

King Edward, monarch for six years, and Queen Alexandra were aboard the 4000-ton Victoria and Albert III, which dwarfed Nimrod when the royal yacht approached her.

A royal visit to Nimrod on the eve of her departure for Antarctica was a dream start.

Not yet a major public figure, Shackleton knew this would greatly lift the expedition’s profile and sponsorship potential.

The King and Queen were welcomed on board Nimrod together with a retinue of three princes, a princess and a duke, as well as several Royal Navy eminences.

It was a stellar moment for the former Newfoundland sealing vessel and for Shackleton, too, who was invested with the Victorian Order (Fourth Class).

Queen Alexandra came with a gift for the expedition leader — a British flag. An attached note read: ‘May this Union Jack, which I entrust to your keeping, lead you safely to the South Pole.’

The royals and their entourage were shown various pieces of polar equipment, including the hut’s component parts, neatly packaged, and, uniquely for an Antarctic expedition, the modified car.

This was not the first time Their Majesties had farewelled an Antarctic expedition. Scott’s Discovery expedition had received a royal send-off  during Cowes Week — the same week, six years earlier.

Scott had ‘longed to get away from our country as quietly as possible’; Shackleton, on the other hand, treasured the publicity in The Times and other newspapers.

His was a private expedition requiring a lot more sponsorship, whereas Scott, who had support from well-heeled British institutions, was better funded.

After Cowes came Torquay, the fi nal port of call in England. It was something of an anticlimax, especially as the only members of the shore party still on board for the long haul around the Cape
of Good Hope to New Zealand were biologist James Murray and naval surgeon Alistair Mackay, who had studied biology as well as medicine.

The main group of eight expedition members — Adams, Day, Joyce, Marshall, Marston, Priestley, Roberts and Wild — were booked on the one-class emigrant ship Runic of the White Star Line, Shackleton’s former employer.

To save money, they were crammed into one small cabin, which cost just £19 per passenger.

Shackleton might have regarded the straitened accommodation as a form of team-building. They had six weeks to get acquainted aboard RMS Runic, time enough to sort out bunkmates for when they reached the Antarctic.

They realised by now, too, that there was more glory than salary to be gained from this expedition.

The 11th man, Brocklehurst, had the means to travel to New Zealand in style and comfort and booked his own passage aboard the liner Omrah, sailing from Marseilles.

Shackleton was the last to leave England, at the end of October. He sailed to Australia with a fast liner, India, via the Suez Canal.

In Australia he hoped to recruit two geologists and raise funds to pay for them. Finance was tight.

Nimrod, meanwhile, had called at Cape Town and was slogging her way across the South Indian Ocean in November.

In any kind of sea she moved about a lot, rolling and pitching, especially if she had reduced sail aloft.

James Murray reckoned Nimrod would roll even if she were in the British Museum. Mackay chipped in with his own humour in a shipboard magazine called Antarctic Petrel.

It referred to drinking. ‘Work is the ruin of the drinking classes. If whisky-drinking interferes with your work, give up your work.’

The two Scotsmen occupied a dungeon-like cabin aft called the Scientists’ Quarters (known later as ‘Oyster Alley’).

Despite the refit and spring-clean it still reeked of Nimrod’s sealing days. The pair coped with the boredom of weeks at sea by collecting marine life, including giant basking sharks, fish of weird and wonderful shape and colour, and an absorbing array of micro-organisms.

Murray and Mackay were also expected to contribute to deckhand chores such as painting — ‘we justified our existence,’ Murray wrote — and they learnt the sailors’ sea shanties, which Murray described as ‘doggerel put to music, a way for sailors to overcome boredom and pay back the officers’.

With curly hair and a goatee beard that hinted at an adventurous spirit, he merged well the sailors.

At sea on Saturday and Sunday nights, there was an issue of brandy and port to the ship’s company — enough for a round of toasts.

There was the sailors’ toast ‘To Sweethearts and Wives’, another to ‘The Old Folks at Home’, and for good measure there was the universal ‘Slainte Mhath’ — ‘Good Health’ in Gaelic.

For the rest of the week the liquor was kept under lock and key in the ship’s bond store and, as Murray wrote ruefully, ‘presided over by the mate [chief officer] like an ogre’.

Murray preferred the brandy on board to the whisky, and helped himself to a bottle of it one day when he came across the key in the door of the store.

After riding the roaring forties all the way from Cape Town, past The Snares and up the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand, Nimrod reached Lyttelton on 23 November, three and a half months after setting out from Torquay.

Expedition manager Alfred Reid was already in Christchurch, drumming up publicity in advance of Shackleton’s arrival from Australia in the second week of December, ordering fresh produce for Nimrod’s voyage to the Ice, and checking out the newly arrived Manchurian ponies on an island in Lyttelton Harbour.

According to their New Zealand trainer, they were ‘very wild’ on arrival. The Lyttelton Times preview coverage of the expedition was spread across nine columns.

Disembarking at Melbourne, Shackleton wasted no time winning public support, and the government’s as well.

He presented public lectures in Melbourne and Sydney that were prearranged by an eminent geology professor, T. W. Edgeworth David, of the University of Sydney, who had a special interest in the processes of glaciation but little opportunity to observe them in Australia.

Melbourne responded enthusiastically, but Sydney was even more caught up in the spirit of Antarctic discovery.

Over 4000 people turned up to Shackleton’s Sydney lecture, described by David in a telegram to Mrs Shackleton as ‘brilliant’.

The Australian government thought likewise, announcing a £5,000 contribution towards the expedition.

Instead of banking the public donations arising from the two lectures, Shackleton passed them on to local charities, a gesture that further endeared him to the Australian people and institutions.

Professor David, a slightly built but agile Welshman in his late forties who had worked in earth sciences in Australia for 25 years, had a stake in talking up the importance of Antarctic research to the nation, having been invited by Shackleton earlier in the year to join the expedition as far as King Edward VII Land.

The Australian government’s grant encouraged Shackleton to expand his team. On David’s advice, he engaged Douglas Mawson, an ambitious and energetic lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at Adelaide University, aged 25.

David was his teacher and mentor. Mawson’s title with the expedition was ‘Physicist’, although his field was geology.

Mad keen on a polar adventure, he was not in the mood to argue the toss over his designation and, anyway, Shackleton probably had magnetism, a branch of physics, in mind when he labelled Mawson’s role.

A third Australian earth scientist, Leo Cotton, was also invited to sail with Nimrod to Antarctica and back.

From Shackleton’s Australian visit there was one more addition to the shore party: Australian-born Bertram Armytage. In fact, he was the only member of the party not born in the British Isles and Ireland.

Shackleton needed someone familiar with horses to look after the Manchurian ponies with Mackay and be available for general duties. At 38, Armytage had had various jobs, including service in the South African War.

On 13 December, Shackleton landed in New Zealand, caught up with his manager and was thrown immediately into a hectic schedule of public lectures at Wellington and Christchurch; social lunches, parties and media interviews; a number of meetings with Christchurch businessman Joseph Kinsey, an English- born shipping company principal who had been appointed the expedition’s New Zealand agent;15 and calls on the prime minister and other dignitaries.

The New Zealand government, noting the grant by the Australian government, pondered what it should contribute to the expedition coff ers and decided £1,000 was an appropriate amount.

The Shackleton lectures, as inspirational as those in Australia, garnered donations amounting to several hundred pounds at each venue.

These funds were straight away handed over to New Zealand charitable causes, a gesture that left the New Zealand public thinking Shackleton was a saint and the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907 was okay financially.

On the eve of Nimrod’s departure for the Ice, Shackleton wrote a long letter to his wife.

It contained phrase after effusive phrase of loving, caring thoughts for her and their two children, and some words about the challenge ahead: ‘ . . . we will do our best to win . . . ours is a big work and if we carry through it will be worth it . . .’

Next week's extract is from Chapter 12: 'Convivial in their Isolation', which describes the living conditions the men found themselves in once they got to their base at McMurdo Sound.

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