Shackleton’s great dérive

Over the past couple of months I’ve been doing lots of research for my next novel, and as part of this I’ve been reading about the British explorers of the Antarctic during the so-called ‘heroic’ age of polar exploration (in the early 20th century). I’ve just finished reading Shackleton’s account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, which left Britain in 1914 and aimed to cross the entire polar continent.

But not long after it first reached the Antarctic, the expedition’s ship Endurance got stuck in ice in the Weddell Sea until eventually the crew had to abandon it before it was completely crushed. They lived on various ice floes for several months before managing to launch three lifeboats and reach solid ground, Elephant Island just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. From here, five men including Shackleton, set off to raise help. This epic voyage in a small open boat took two weeks to travel across 800 miles of the South Atlantic and when the men finally arrived at the island of South Georgia they had to climb over a previously uncharted mountain range to reach the port of Stromness. Altogether, Shackleton and his men spent nearly one and a half years drifting in the ice floes of the Antarctic.

Because I’m an inveterate book-hopper, at the same time that I was reading about this absolutely extraordinary journey, I was also reading the ‘Introduction to Psychogeography’ by Merlin Coverley and learning about the dérive, initially configured as a sort of experiment to try and identify the interaction between the human and the city. The dérive can be a way of consciously experiencing (and perhaps resisting) the overriding nature of cities to guide and dominate people’s movements.

Just after the Endurance was finally crushed by ice, Shackleton and his men had to make a decision about whether to stay put on an ice floe and see where it took them, or alternatively to move north under their own volition. But when they tried to do this, they found the ice pack couldn’t bear their weight. They were forced to remain on the firmest ice floe they could find.

This enforced dérive is as geographically and psychologically removed from the streets of Paris or London as it’s possible to imagine. And yet it is a true drift. Shackleton and his men were subject to the currents of the ice and the sea, and could only work out their position on a map by using a sextant. They were connected to their surroundings, including the stars above them which were essential to their understanding of their geographical location. They didn’t want to be drifters. But drifting was imposed upon them.

And why is this important? Because, quite frankly Shackleton comes across as a bit of a dodgy customer. He was always on the lookout for a quick buck and getting involved in dubious business deals that invariably fell through. He wasn’t particularly interested in polar exploration for its own sake, but he saw in it a chance to make his name. (The same could also be said of Scott.)

But this terrible random journey through the Antarctic sea, adrift on an ice floe, was where he came into his own. His men all testified how he looked after them. He kept them alive, not just physically but also psychologically, he kept their hopes up and stopped them from despairing. None of the men under his direct command died. This dérive is what made Shackleton’s name as an Antarctic legend.



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