2 March, 1913: Shackleton left Antarctica aboard ‘Morning’

March 2, 2020


SY Morning under Captain William Colbeck, a relief vessel of R. F. Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition, left McMurdo Sound at about 2pm on 2 March, 1903. Aboard, very reluctantly, was Ernest Shackleton. Amongst the others who were to leave Antarctica were those ordered by Scott to go and those who did not wish to hang around in the south for another winter.

Following the return of the southern party (R. F. Scott, E. A. Wilson and E. H. Shackleton), the men were exhausted.

Southern party returned (SPRI)

Much was made, in particular, of Shackleton’s ill health. Scott formally ordered Dr Reginald Koettlitz to examine Shackleton and it seemed that Scott’s expectation of the doctor was that he would return a verdict of Shackleton being too unwell to last a second winter in Antarctica. Koettlitz was less than pleased by the awkward situation in which he had been placed. Shackleton also appealed to others such as expedition second-in-command Albert Armitage but in the end the captain’s orders were final. Shackleton was to leave Antarctica aboard Morning due to health. Scott presented a certificate to Shackleton which read:

‘It is with great reluctance that I order his return and trust that it will be made evident that I do so solely on account of his health and that his future prospects may not suffer.’

Although others commented that Shackleton wasn’t quite recovered from the southern journey, it was also true that others at McMurdo Sound were in a worse condition than he. Other reason behind Scott’s have been suggested. It is possible that Scott was ridding the team of officers from the Merchant Navy. In the expedition’s official account, Voyage of the Discovery, Scott wrote:

‘Of course, all the officers wish to remain; but here, with much reluctance, I have had to pick out the name of one who, in my opinion, is not fitted to do so.’

Armitage, another Merchant Navy man, having successfully fought against Scott’s desire to have him sent home too, supported Shackleton and thought that this preference for a Royal Navy outfit was the reasoning behind the specific cull. Armitage later wrote:

‘Shackleton, much against his will, was to be invalided home, for, although he had very quickly recovered, Captain Scott did not care to incur the responsibility of keeping him in that climate after his serious illness.’

It has also been suggested that Scott was concerned about Shackleton as a potential rival following the southern journey. Shackleton’s character and popularity could have been viewed as threatening for the remainder of the expedition, regardless of Shackleton’s own loyalty or intentions.

Shackleton was slowly recovering but there was something not quite right about the state of his health. He had managed to dodge the check-up before the departure of the expedition and the question of his physical wellbeing was always to be an issue. In any case, whatever the reason(s), he had to go. Robert H. Mill wrote that it was ‘the bitterest disappointment of his life.’

In Voyage of the Discovery, Scott acknowledged Shackleton’s reluctance to go and laid down that it was his health that was the determining factor:

‘It has been a great blow to poor Shackleton, but I have had to tell him that I think he must go; he ought not to risk further hardships in his present state of health. But we cannot afford to lose officers, and Colbeck has already kindly consented to replace Shackleton by his Naval sub-lieutenant, [George Francis Arthur] Mulock, and the latter is most anxious to join us.’

The relief ship Morning, a Norwegian whaler, was purchased by Robert Markham, President of the Royal Gegraphical Society, for £3,800 and its name was changed from Morgenen to Morning. O the day before she left McMurdo Sound, 1 March, most of the men of Discovery went aboard her and there was a farewell dinner (presumably just the officers) and they had a singsong.

Morning (SPRI)

The next afternoon, Morning received a fond farewell with a mixture of hope and sadness. As Armitage later wrote:

‘Slowly the Morning gathered sternway, and then, led by Colbeck on the bridge, our visitors sent cheer upon cheer quivering in the air as a final adieu to us. As we had been so rejoiced at their advent, so we now watched their retreat with sorrow. We answered them cheer for cheer, until, like some faint echo, we heard a last word of ‘Good-luck’ sent to us by our comrades who had shared our fortunes, good and bad, during the past year in the Discovery.

‘And then we turned away towards our good old ship again, wondering if she, too, would soon be bound for the North, and each of us in his heart wishing, also, ‘God-speed’ to the Morning, for she carried with her to many a one at home a year’s pent-up expressions of love and hope and goodwill.’

Colbeck (Dundee Heritage Trust)

Aboard Morning Shackleton openly wept at his departure from the ice. He was to be denied a part in the great sledging journeys of the next season. However, this experience was to change in him. An aspiration, as Mill wrote, ‘soon to harden into a determination, that he would yet prove to the Fleet and to the world that he was a fit man, perhaps even the fittest man, for polar exploration.’

James Wordie, a man of Endurance of Shackleton’s later venture, also saw Shackleton’s Discovery experience and early departure as a springboard for his ambitions. Wordie wrote in his Shackleton obituary that ‘Shackleton had now found his vocation and he was soon planning an expedition of his own, which aimed at reaching the South Pole itself.’

At the point of the departure of Morning, it seems that neither Shackleton or Scott had any particular grievance with the other or felt any malice. Both men’s diaries are free from negative remarks or anything of the sort. Scott required Shackleton to be the expedition’s spokesman and, as Scott wrote to the Royal Society, to explain ‘our current position and our requirements for the future’. Scott would hardly have put Shackleton in this position if he sensed Shackleton had bad feelings about him. Shackleton was involved in planning the return celebrations for Discovery and her relief ships in 1904 and the letters between himself and Scott were cordial, respectful and friendly.

Captain Scott (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The historiography of Antarctic exploration made much of the supposed rivalry between Scott and Shackleton across the twentieth century, viewing them as polar (apologies!) opposites in many ways. Another dichotomy to appear was that of Scott versus Amundsen. These head-to-head, contrived battles can, however, distract researchers from more important and much more interesting themes and ways of viewing the expeditions to Antarctica in the early-twentieth century.



Armitage, A. B. Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition. London, 1905.

Huntford, R. Shackleton. London, 2000.

Mill, R. H. The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton. London, 1923.

Scott, R. F. Voyage of the Discovery. Vol. II. London, 1905.

Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.

James. M. Wordie, ‘Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton CVO, OBE’, Geographical Journal, Vol. 59, No. 3, found in The James Caird Society Journal No. 3 (2007).


For more on G. F. A. Mulock, the officer who replaced Shackleton in the Antarctic, see ‘Mulock, George Francis Arthur’, at Shackleton Online, Scott Polar Research Institute:


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