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Remembering Shackleton

Physicist Reginald James generously shared his reminiscences of Shackleton with biographer, Hugh Robert Mill.

22 Albion Road



May 12, 1922

Dear Dr. Mill,

I am glad you are going to write a biography of Shackleton & shall look forward to its publication. I shall be very pleased if any of my recollections are of any value to you but I fear they are not likely to add greatly to your knowledge. You must feel as I do that Shackleton was such a complex character that to sit down & put ones idea of him on paper is a very elusive task.

I was very must attracted by him from the first & came later to have a great admiration for him but any one who knew him well would soon realize he had his failings.

My first impression of him was impulsiveness. I don’t think our first interview lasted five minutes. He asked very few questions & hardly anything about my fitness for the work I was to do. I was at once set to work to collect gear. Here I came up against one of the difficulties that scientific people found in their dealings with Shackleton. Although the Endurance was to sail in about three weeks no apparatus had been collected & no definite programme made out. He had really very little sympathy with the scientific point of view & had no ideas about scientific methods or the time taken to produce results in research work. He thought that the only thing necessary to procure apparatus was money & didn’t realize that lots of things cannot be bought at once in shops. As it happened we were able to borrow a good deal of the more difficult things to get.

From the scientific point of view he was certainly hard to get on with. He had little patience with the academic type of mind & would openly ridicule it, forgetting sometimes that it was as necessary to take counsel of learned bodies & to lay plans for the scientific work if the latter was to be a success as it was to make provision well ahead for the more material part of the Expedition. He wanted the scientific work to be good, yet one always felt that it was only because it would add to the prestige to the expedition & not because he had any real interest in it.

But his energy & vitality in those days of preparation were wonderful and a thing to remember. You always felt that however busy you were he was busier.

He had a remarkable adaptability & a habit of suddenly changing plans to meet a changed situation. Well settled plans would suddenly be changed with little warning & a new set made. This was apt to be a little bewildering but it generally turned out to be for the good. This adaptability was one of his strong points. With him it was never a wavering between two ideas. It was a conviction that the second line was a better one & action accordingly.

He had an excellent memory, and had read a lot & had a wide general knowledge. But one soon found that it was not as good as he thought & also that it was wiser not to attempt corrections. He was given to “accurate inaccuracies”, if you know what I mean, giving great detail & thus creating the impression of very accurate knowledge, but often making considerable errors of larger fact. This I think was unconscious. His lack of recognition of his own fallibility was probably one of his strengths for it gave him confidence, but I think it tended to make him underrate the value of the experiences of others.

Shackleton afloat was I think a more likeable character than Shackleton ashore. Once as the head of the party his natural leadership became apparent. I remember the chaos that reigned on board the ship in the harbour at Buenos Aires & the immediate shaping of things to a definite order as soon as he arrived (He joined the ship in B. A. coming out by liner). Port authorities were pacified, help was obtained from the Navy of the Argentine & all facilities granted all as a result of personal interview. Shackleton was a great believer in the efficacy of personal interview & indeed I think he could persuade anyone to do almost anything if he could once talk to him. There was a mixture of personal magnetism, bluff & blarney that could be irresistible.

Personally it took a little while to find my bearing in relation to Shackleton. I was of course very green being quite fresh from Cambridge & had mixed mainly with the academic type, & found Shackleton a pretty different sort of proposition. He loved “leg pulling” & practical joking & I was pretty easy game. One would be led on to give ones opinion on some subject quite seriously only to have it all turned into ridicule. Consequently at first I never quite knew where I was, whether he was in earnest or not. This of course was mainly in the early stages, and one gradually worked into ones place as a part of the expedition, but this kind of thing can be overdone, and I think Shackleton sometimes overdid it & created something of an antagonism between the scientific & shore going part of the expedition & the seafaring part which did tend to hinder the effective cooperation of the two.

During the winter of the drift Shackleton must have suffered great anxiety, but although he took every precaution & set --- watches at night he was outwardly confident. One realized how much he was on the look out during night watches. One of the watchman’s duties was to keep the Boss’s fire going. One seldom found him asleep, and if he was awake he would invariably ask some question about the wind or the state of the ice.

During this period he was very particular about the meals of the party. He believed in good food & plenty of variety as a specific against discontent, & insisted on everything being as clean & well served as possible. He believed in the maximum amount of civilization possible under the circumstances & was a stickler for punctuality at meals.

My own realization of his best qualities came after the crushing of the ship when the party took to the ice. I had the good luck to be one of his tent-mates during the 5 ½ month drift in Ocean & Patience Camps and I think that time would have made me his admirer if nothing else had done so. He admitted to us a day or two after we abandoned the ship that he felt an actual relief when the worst came, because he then knew exactly what had to be faced. The whole of his mind then turned to that one problem, of landing the party without a casualty. Not only the main problem but is details absorbed him. Food, how to get it, how to eke out our slender stock of preserved food to give the greatest variety to the eternal seal. How to keep everyone employed & cheerful, to keep sleeping bags dry to nip any sign of pessimism in the bud, the best way of keeping the stores ready for an instant shift, all these things & many more occupied his thoughts by day & most of the night. To a man of his temperament the enforce inactivity of those months must have been irksome in the extreme. Yet he had the strength to stop two attempts at marching when it seemed that nothing could be gained by going on & possibly much lost, & to form a fine camp the second time contrary to the opinion of many of the party. Yet who can say events did not justify the decision.

He was an excellent tent-mate & once inside the tent dropped to a very large extent the commander. We had great discussions about all manner of things. One of his great arguments was in favour of “practical” scientific research as against pure. He had, or said he had, little use for pure science & thought our efforts should be directed to practical lines. I used to take the other view & we would argue at length but never get anywhere.

Sometimes he would be reminiscent & these times were most enjoyable, for he had met many people from kings down & told a tale well, & had a sense of the humour of the situation. He would discuss new expeditions, not only polar, hidden treasures, schemes of all kinds for getting rich quickly, & one would realize what a gambler he was. Or he would read or recite poetry & then one see a different side of him. One of his favourite amusements was the game known as “animal, mineral or vegetable”, in which one of the players has to guess some object agreed upon by the rest, by asking questions to which the only answer allowed is “yes” or “no”. Shackleton had quite an uncanny skill at this game. By a few judicious questions he would narrow down the field of inquiry & rapidly arrive at the answer however remote the thing might be.

You ask me specially what we thought of him on Elephant Island. It is quite certain I think that the party as a whole never had a higher opinion of him than during that time. We did not discuss him much so far as I remember, but undoubtedly he was our one great hope. For one thing he had actually got the party to land after a very trying drift & a rather bad boat journey & that was no small achievement. Then we realized that he was doing an extremely daring thing in attempting that boat journey. We all had a boat journey & could imagine what a fortnight or three weeks of it would be like. If our memories needed jogging we only had to look out to sea. The South Atlantic in April & May is not a hospitable looking place.

In fact we knew quite definitely that Shackleton was risking his life on the chance of getting the party rescued before winter, believing when he left that we should not get penguins during the winter & that certainly not all the party could survive unless help was obtained. The other possible point of view that it might be considered he was deserting us never entered our heads.

Although we fully appreciated the risk he was running, yet I think we all believed he would get through. We certainly had an extraordinary belief in his “luck” if I may use a bad word for want of a better. Yet it was almost that; it was apparently a desperate, almost a gambler’s chance, but we thought it would succeed. When help did not come so quickly as we had hoped we were not despondent because we knew the ice conditions & could see why attempts at rescue might fail. We had practically decided that the Aurora would come & fetch us & therefore could not hope for relief much before September. At the same time doubts would rise & the possibility of failure to reach South Georgia kept intruding itself on our thoughts, and then when the ship did come our delight at seeing Shackleton safe was as great as our joy at being relieved.

I hope all this is of some use to you. It I can be of any further help please ask me.

Yours sincerely,

R. W. James

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