15/04/1916 (PERCE BLACKBOROW)
The above satellite photograph shows Elephant Island ( Centre) with Clarence Island to the East. Aspland Island , O’Brien Island and Gibbs Island lie to the South. The white dots are large icebergs which begin to slowly melt as they drift away into the South Atlantic.
Bottom right shows the outer edges of the Weddell Sea and one can clearly see the flow beginning to break up and drift north-easterly out to sea. Bottom centre shows the tip of the Palmer Peninsula and to the west two gigantic banks of cloud flank the South Shetland Islands, which include Deception Island.
The Elephant Island group of Islands form part of the South Shetland Islands and consists of Elephant Island, (originally named Sea Elephant Island) Clarence Island, Gibbs Island, Aspland Island, Cornwallis Island and a number of other smaller Islands. Elephant Island is the largest measuring approx 23 miles long and 13 miles at its widest point.
The island got its name from the large number of Elephant seals first sighted there by whalers. It is a grim, awesome place with sheer high cliffs rising from the sea, topped by glaciers and snow covered peaks, in places over 3100m high. To the eye, when approached from the sea, it has a truly majestic beauty. However, nature never intended it to be a place fit for man to inhabit.
The “Endurance” was abandoned on 27th October 1915 and eventually sank on 21st November 1915. Shackleton and his party of 27 men were forced to camp out on the ever-shifting Weddell Sea ice flow. He had originally hoped that they could reach Robertson Island, but soon realised that their slow progress in hauling the boats and the drift of the ice would make this an impossible goal.
Instead, Shackleton decided to make camp on the flow and wait until they had drifted to the very edges of the flow where he hoped to be able to launch their three boats and steer westward for Deception Island. The island is part of the South Shetland Islands that lie to the West of the Palmer Peninsula. Shackleton knew supplies and shelter could be found there, and that the island was visited occasionally by whaling ships.
The point at which the boats eventually left the flow made any attempt at reaching Deception Island too great a risk. Instead, on 9th April 1916 the boats were launched and they steered a course for Elephant Island which Shackleton considered to be more attainable. The boats were named after the three main sponsors of the I.T.A.E.
Shackleton allocated crews to the three boats:
The James Caird:
Shackleton. Clark. Green. Hurley. Hussey. James. McCarthy. McNish. Vincent. Wild. Wordie.
Hudson. Bakewell. Blackborow. Crean. How. McIllroy. Rickinson. Stephenson.
Dudley Docker :
Worsley. Cheetham. Holness. Greenstreet. Kerr. Macklin. Marston. McLeod. Orde-Lees.
On 15th April 1916, after seven days at sea in some of the worst conditions imaginable the three boats landed on the North side of Elephant Island at Cape Valentine. For many of the men, that boat journey was to be the worst part of the whole expedition. Perce Blackborow, the stowaway, suffering from severe frostbite to his feet, was given the honour of being the first man ashore.
At last, they had reached terra firma for the first time in 497 days since leaving South Georgia. Shackleton soon observed that the small shingle beach on which they had landed would be submerged at high tides. So on 17th April 1916, after Wild had scouted ahead in the “Stancomb Wills”, they moved camp further along the North coast to a small narrow spit of rocky beach, which they named Point Wild.
A week later, on 24th April 1916, Shackleton and a party consisting of Worsley, Crean, McCarthy, McNish and Vincent, sailed in the James Caird and steered for South Georgia Island some 800 miles away. Their journey was to prove to be the greatest open boat journey ever made in those southern seas.
For those who remained behind, Elephant Island proved a far more exposed place than the Weddell Sea Ice. In order to provide shelter from the constant snowstorms, the freezing rain and fierce winds, which at times reached hurricane proportions, an attempt at excavating an ice cave in the nearby glacier was made. This was soon abandoned due to the ice melting from body heat.
What happened next is wonderfully described by Reginald James in his addendum to his expedition diary:
“Finally Wild hit on the idea of utilising the two boats remaining after the “James Caird” had started on her voyage to S. Georgia. Near the northern end of the flat part of the spit are a couple of low rocks about four yards apart. This was chosen as the site of the new house. Two walls of boulders were built at a distance apart a little less than the length of the boat and about three feet high. On these walls the two boats were inverted side by side, thus forming a roof. A man could just stand upright inside in the highest part of the boat. The floor space inside was about 18 ft. 10 in. by 10 feet. There remained the sidewalls and the gaps in the roof to fill in. The sidewalls were made of the tents canvas tacked along the gunwale of the boats and brought down to an oar laid along the ground, and finally made fast by gravel piled along it on the ground. One tent entrance was left half way along the northern side, to serve as a door. The roof was formed of the floor canvas of two of the tents tacked across between the keels of the boats, and supported by a low ridge pole and several cross-battens, and kept firm at the ends with rocks. The first night the tent was slept in a heavy storm came on, and the snow found out all the crevices and holes and covered all the sleepers with snow. Guided by this they were able next day to fill in most of the holes. A second blizzard the next night found out the remaining holes and since then we have been practically snow tight. The floor was made by bringing up boxes of gravel and shingle from the beach and filling in level to a depth of nearly a foot.This flooring made fairly efficient drainage, but towards the end of the winter, when snow had risen outside to a depth of a foot, the thaw water running out gradually froze and formed a dam of solid ice, which prevented drainage, and we were surprised one day to see water up to the level of the top stone. We immediately dug a hole inside in the stones and baled, taking out seventy gallons of foul smelling water. After another week we had to bale again and toward the end of July when a good deal of thawing took place we had to bale almost daily, and on one occasion had to get up twice during the night or else be swamped as we lay in our bags.
Eleven men sleep on the ground floor of the hut with such protection against wet in the way of wood, canvas and blankets as each can manage to get hold of. Ten sleep up in the boats board and rope hammocks being placed across the thwarts and forming a second storey. Marston sleeps suspended between boats and ground in a rope hammock just above the doorway where he gets bumps from the backs of all who enter or leave.
Near the after end of the boats the stove is placed. The chimney goes out through a hole in the roof, protected by a tin plate.This stove is a remarkable thing in its way. It was first manufactured by Hurley at Ocean Camp as a portable blubber stove for the boat journey. The body of it is formed of a Castrol drum. Later on after we had been here a month an extension was added in the shape of part of another Castrol drum. Two things can now be cooked at once on it which materially economises fuel. One man each day takes his turn as fireman. The job requires care and attention, but with a little practice an extremely hot fire can be obtained with penguin skins. The skins are cut into strips about 3 inches broad and laid across the two fire-bars. Once the fire is started, the oil drips down from the skin on to the hot ashes below and forms a blaze which melts more oil, and so on. A typical days cooking would be, large penguin steaks for 22 for breakfast. Then, after breakfast, probably rending down blubber for lamp oil. The crisp blubber residue is eaten with one biscuit at lunch. Sometimes the biscuit also is fried. After lunch there will be frying of steaks or of legs, or a broil or stew and a long drink of a pint of hot milk or rations, dilute indeed but very hot, for each man. This amount of cookery would consume ten to twelve penguin skins.
The inhabitants of the stove end of the house on the ground floor are McIlroy, Wild, Hurley and myself. Hurley and I close to the stove are frequently very nearly roasted by the intense heat. I am attacked by little trickles of thaw water from the side of the tent which do their best to wet our bags. Nevertheless by constant watchfulness and care I am able to circumvent the water and keep fairly dry. Alongside McIlroy there is a window in the side of the tent. This window is about 8 inches square and was formerly the glass lid of a chronometer box. During the morning and early afternoon the window throws quite a respectable beam of light across to my quarters on the far side of the hut enabling us to read in fair comfort. At other times light is provided by blubber lamps made from sardine tins with cotton wool wicks. These lamps shed a fitful light for a yard or so round them, and we can faintly see the forms of those at the far end of the house illuminated by their own small lamp.
It is easy to imagine, when one considers the blubber fire, which often smokes, and the smoky lamps, what our faces and hands are like. Few of us would be recognised if we were suddenly transported to our family circles. Certainly every one would recoil from us in horror. No doubt our odour is not too sweet though as we all probably smell alike we don’t smell one another.
The principal sources of contamination are blubber oil, soot and little bits of reindeer hair from finneskoe and sleeping bags. These materials form a kind of patchy layer of dirt on the face and not a uniform layer of grime. On some people it seems to stick much more than on others. By means of a damp sock once in a while one can keep the worst of it off.
Reindeer hairs, penguin feathers and little bits of grit find their way into food, but unless the deposit is unusually thick we don’t care. Blubber oil from the little lamps over the stove sprinkles our bags; the cook is a regular artist at spreading grease around, being one of Nature’s clumsy children. When one of his accidents occurs he merely grins, in childish joy.”
Elephant Island and the weather at that time showed no kindness at all. Macklin wrote in his diary:
“I think I spent this morning the most unhappy hour of my life. All attempts seemed so hopeless, and fate seemed absolutely determined to thwart us.”
The shelter that the men had built, whilst overcrowded and uncomfortable, had undoubtedly saved them all from freezing to death and was christened “The Snuggery”. Bad weather often prevented them from venturing out from their snug abode for days on end. Time was passed by writing up diaries, mending clothing, singing songs, telling sailors yarns and reading from the small library they had saved from the ”Endurance”.
James wrote :
“Owing to the badness of the weather and our limited wardrobe we are obliged to spend a good deal of time indoors. Fortunately we have a certain amount of reading material. There are the remains of 7 vols. of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a number of us brought books with us included in the weight allowed us.
There are in the library, Carlyle’s French Revolution and the ‘Iliad’ (Lang’s Translation), Bacon’s Essays, Selections of Keats, the ‘Ancient Mariner’, Scott’s poems and Lockhart’s ‘Life of Scott’, Young’s ‘Travels in France’, ‘The Open Road’ (Lucas), ‘Nordenskjöld’, ‘Antarctic’ a book of peculiar interest under our present circumstances and Kanes ‘Grinnel Expedition’.
It is fortunate that these are all fairly solid for they last well and bear reading twice.”
The 22 men were to spend 137 days stranded on Elephant Island before being rescued by Shackleton on 30th August. 1916. His fourth attempt. The Chilean tugboat The Yelcho somehow managed to perform a minor miracle and find a safe passage through the ice to Elephant Island and evacuated all 22 and arrived back at Punta Arenas. Chile.on 3rd September 1916.
Leonard Hussey wrote:
“The Yelcho arrived at the right moment. Two days earlier she could not have reached the island; and a few hours later the way might well have been closed once more.”
Since that time, only a handful of serious expeditions have made landings at the hut site at Point Wild, Elephant Island. These in the main have consisted of British, American and Chilean scientific expeditions. There has in more recent times been an upsurge of tourist ships visiting the island. Thankfully, more often than not the weather prevents actual landings at Point Wild.
In 1922 some of the Endurance crew returned to the island when they landed from the “Quest”, first at Minstrel Point and then at Cape Lookout. Point Wild was unreachable due to heavy ice. One can well imagine what an emotional experience it must have been for those men.
“What memories! They rush on one like a flood. Once more in my mind’s eye I see the little hut, Frankie Wild’s hut, dark and low and dirty, a shelter from the foul winds of Elephant Island. Once more I see old faces and hear the old voices of friends scattered everywhere.”
Apart from a small monument erected by the Chilean government to celebrate the rescue by The Yelcho and its Captain Louis Pardo, there are no visible signs or evidence that man has ever visited Elephant Island, let alone survived there in such primitive conditions for 138 days.
In 1976 a British expedition lead by Chris Furse, visited the two Shackleton landing sites and searched but found no evidence of their occupation. Only the seals, penguins and birds remain. Long may it be so.
MAP MADE BY REGINALD JAMES OF CAPE WILD AND THE CAMP.ELEPHANT ISLAND. MAY.1916.
A remarkable photograph taken from the air by ship’s photographer from H.M.S.Endurance in December 2007 of the much eroded hut site at Point Wild, the small rocky spit of beach where 22 of Shackleton’s men survived sheltered only by their two upturned boats.
Cape Wild showing the Pardo Monument, the base of Mount Houlder ( to the left) and the ever menacing Furness Glacier in the background.
John James, eldest son of Reginald James makes an emotional visit to Cape Wild E.I. December 2007.
With thanks to John James. Eldest son of Reginald James.for the use of his father’s addendum to his expedition diary (written