At precisely 10:30 am and 4:00 pm, every weekday, a bell rings in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, announcing tea. It is the ship's bell of the Discovery, the vessel that carried the first British national expedition to Antarctica in 1902. The ritual is sacrosanct for the scientists and historians who come to the institute. The frantic intrusions of modern life are held firmly at bay in this center of polar studies. Time seems to eddy around the quiet routine inside. Cell phones are strictly forbidden, and it is not a Wi-Fi hotspot. In the archives, only pencils are permitted. It was here that I spent days that turned into months transcribing hundreds of fragile documents, turning the pages wearing white cotton gloves.
That sounds like an embarrassment of riches, but in fact, the available archival record for the Ross Sea party was sparse when I began working on The Lost Men. Less than a handful of diaries were known to exist, the official expedition papers were presumed lost, and the photographer's work had apparently been destroyed in a German U-boat attack in 1917. A complete and accurate list of the twenty-eight men on the ship didn't exist. This scarcity of sources is one reason why you've probably never heard of them. Unlike Shackleton, the national hero, they were ordinary men, and their mission was manual labor to support his grand endeavor, not exploration. So the records weren't always regarded as valuable artifacts. The tragic outcome of the expedition — untold suffering and the loss of three men — is another reason. "This story had better not be told for some time to come," wrote Shackleton's biographer, H. R. Mill, in 1923. Although Shackleton himself never dissociated himself from the Ross Sea party — he devoted a third of his book to their story — later chroniclers seemed to decide that their misadventures didn't fit well with the Endurance parable. So I searched for papers in Britain and tried to assemble the puzzle from the periphery first.
Then, on an Indian summer day in September 2002, an archivist at Scott Polar brought a box out of the vault. A strangely sweet, musky smell permeated the papers within, which were oil-stained and smudged with soot. Some of the faintly penciled script was rubbed to a sheen and obliterated. "28th October 1915???Trusting this will be plain to you & that you will ever bear in mind that the lives of Sir Ernest Shackleton & his party are to a great extent in our hands," read one letter. The documents were the notes, orders, supply lists, maps, and reports of the Ross Sea party, carted back from Antarctica in 1917 when the survivors were rescued after two years in Antarctica. Every receipt and chit, every jotted list, had been saved and carefully preserved by the Shackleton family, who had recently decided to place them in the care of the archive. The Rosetta Stone was an incredibly detailed chart, mapping out the captain's plan for carrying out their mission in Antarctica. A five-month journey that would cover 1,300 miles was scheduled to the day. The supplies, 4,529 pounds in all, were weighed and rationed down to the thousandth of an ounce. The plan, which I had been attempting to deduce from scraps of references elsewhere, was rather like the proverbial blind man trying to work out the nature of an elephant by touch. And there were the notes, communications scribbled hastily in subzero blizzards and left in tins tied to bamboo poles whipsailing in the wind until they were found, charting the rising urgency as the men struggled to complete their Herculean task: "November 25, 1915???We now must push on, time is getting desperately short, and we have a long way to go."
It was an astonishing treasure trove, but there were more. Fanning out to museums in Australia and New Zealand, where the Ross Sea party's ship had visited and members later settled, I located thousands of pages of diaries, logs, letters, ship's articles, photographs, and official papers documenting government assistance to the expedition. Then there were the newspapers, from the Times of London to the Wanganui Chronicle. They all provided shards of truth, some bit of revelation that brought me closer to what actually happened, and to telling the story in the men's own words.
Having said that, I have to qualify it immediately: Truth is a tricky thing. Even the more mundane variant, facts, are slippery, which I was shortly to learn from one Ernest Edward Mills Joyce. But that is another story, for tomorrow.
Books mentioned in this post
Kelly Tyler Lewis is the author of The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party