In 1929, Ernest Edward Mills Joyce published The South Polar Trail, a chronicle of the Ross Sea party's experiences in Antarctica from 1914 to 1917, taken directly from his log. Firsthand evidence, I rejoiced, a brilliant foundation of fact for the narrative I was beginning to construct from a handful of diaries and papers. An authoritative account offering the bones of the story, a solid source to corroborate the others. Except, as I soon discovered from the letters of his mates, Joyce was a fabulist of the first order. Among other tall tales, he claimed that the Ross Sea party had seen the tent sheltering the bodies of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his party, who died on their retreat from the South Pole in 1912, which "Joycey's" companions utterly contradicted. Names, dates, and statistics were wrong. Even the name on the title page was a fiction — I later discovered from his birth certificate that he was simply Ernest Edward Joyce, and had appropriated his mother's maiden name, Mills, and the title of captain in later life. What had seemed bedrock eroded into shifting sands.
If you're writing about history, firsthand sources are essential. Relying solely on secondary accounts means removing yourself from the events and repeating the errors and analysis of another author. But as valuable as they are, primary sources have to be handled with care. Eyewitnesses filter events through a kaleidoscope of their own perceptions, motives, and expectations. Diaries are invariably revised before publication. Memoirs are plagued by hindsight and wishful thinking. Interviewed decades after the events, participants innocently conflate their own memories with similar stories they've internalized from a lifetime of reading. It's the historian's job to trace the errors and bias and understand the diarist's motives and point of view.
The records of the other Ross Sea party members were not without problems. Richard Richards published his own 44-page account in 1962, but he relied heavily upon Joyce's book to jog his memory and reproduced many of its errors. The other diaries contained mysterious conflicts as well. How could four men say that the ship left port on one day, a pretty notable event, while three others noted it as the next? The answer came later, when I ran across an entry from one diarist stating that a handful of neglectful record-keepers borrowed the mechanic's diary to copy a month of entries and get caught up. Battling for survival against the elements doesn't leave much time for the niceties of routine. And sometimes the participants themselves aren't the best judges of what's happening. At one point, the members of the party were convinced that two men were failing rapidly due to scurvy. But the symptoms noted in the diaries didn't add up, and after interviews with scientists, I realized that they showed classic signs of severe hypothermia — which wasn't yet recognized as a medical problem in 1914.
My bellwether in the morass was Barbara Tuchman, the brilliant historian and author of The Guns of August and The Proud Tower, truly inspired models of storytelling and scholarship. As she wrote in a penetrating collection of essays about her craft, Practicing History, "We can never be certain that we have recaptured it as it really was. But the least we can do is to stay within the evidence." Part of that task is thinking deeply and critically about the evidence.
And the more evidence, the better. I dug deeper for more material and located the manuscript for Joyce's book and his handwritten log in a New Zealand archive, both of which varied somewhat from the book itself. I later found yet another copy of the original log, which Joyce had sent to the British Admiralty in a bid for official recognition of his efforts, again with variations. Yet another log surfaced in private hands in New Zealand. I settled in with the mass of documents, comparing and tracing the revisions and corroborating his account with a growing stack of his comrades' diaries. I distilled what I felt was an accurate narrative "within the evidence."
The manuscript for The Lost Men was completed in 2004 and after a few hectic weeks in various British archives for final fact-checking, I returned to the U.S. Soon after, a former college professor called to invite me to dinner. Another of her guests was a distinguished oceanographer. We talked later in the evening, and I told him about my book. "You know, I was lecturing on an Arctic ship once, and I met an American couple who own the original Ernest Joyce diary," he remarked. Another one. Still, I had long since learned that every lead is worth pursuing, even if the outcome turned out to be tea and scones in Gloucestershire and not much in the way of information.
So I met with the well-traveled collectors, who pulled an archive box from a tote bag. Inside was a worn, hand-bound book. I immediately recognized the cover of the log: it was the same salvaged green tent canvas that the Ross Sea party had used to make pants when their ship disappeared with their clothing and gear. It was sewn with a sailmaker's stitch, which would have come naturally to Joyce, a seaman in the Royal Navy from the age of fifteen. The pages were soiled; I recognized the smell of the oily seal blubber the men had used for fuel. I knew his handwriting on sight. It was the genuine article.
And it differed in significant respects from the other versions, all later copies. Joyce had done his share of primping for posterity; these notes were real and raw. In this book, written each night in a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf, he explained his motivations and worries and vented his frustrations. I had some rewriting to do. But in the end, the essence of Joyce's claims was borne out: he had been a prime mover in the expedition, and he had put his own life on the line to save his companions. Sadly, he never realized that his accomplishments needed no embellishment.
Books mentioned in this post
Kelly Tyler Lewis is the author of The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party