Shackleton’s Death, 5 January, 1922

January 5, 2017

The death of Sir Ernest H. Shackleton

Sir Ernest H. Shackleton

Sir Ernest H. Shackleton

On 4 January, 1922, the ‘Quest’ reached South Georgia and cast anchor off the Grytviken whaling station. Sir Ernest Shackleton visited old friends at the whaling station and organised preparations for the expedition. He returned to the ‘Quest’ that evening in good cheer. He wrote the following words in his diary, that were to be his last:

At last, after sixteen days of turmoil and anxiety, on a peaceful sunshiny day, we came to anchor in Grytviken. How familiar the coast seemed as we passed down: we saw with full interest the places we struggled over after the boat journey. Now we must speed all we can, but the prospect is not too bright, for labour is scarce. The old familiar smell of dead whale permeates everything. It is a strange and curious place. Douglas and Wilkins are at different ends of the island. A wonderful evening.

In the darkening twilight I saw a lone star hover

Gem-like above the bay.

Dr Alexander Macklin was on the anchor watch from 2-4am that night. On hearing a whistle from Shackleton’s cabin, he went to investigate. Macklin himself reported that Shackleton greeting him thus:

Hullo, Mack, boy, is that you? I thought it was.’ He continued: ’I can’t sleep to-night, can you get me a sleeping draught?

Shackleton had complained of severe facial neuralgia. He had taken aspirin but said that it was ‘no good’ and asked Macklin: ‘will you get me something which will act?’ Macklin attended to Shackleton’s need for some further blankets. Despite telling Macklin not to bother, Shackleton didn’t put up too much of a fuss. Macklin wrote that the Boss ‘talked of many things quite rationally’ and so he took the ‘opportunity to emphasize the necessity of his taking things very much more quietly than he had been doing’. It is hard to imagine Shackleton’s response was in anything other than a light-hearted jest: ‘You are always wanting me to give up something. What do you want me to give up now?’

Shackleton then suffered an attack of angina pectoris. Macklin stayed with Shackleton for the worst of the attack and then went to wake Dr Ilroy and Leonard Hussey. Despite their presence, Shackleton died rather suddenly. As Macklin wrote: ‘Nothing could be done, however. I noted the time—it was about 2.50 a.m.’

Robert Hugh Mill wrote of Shackleton’s death:

A fine, a characteristic end, without warning, without regret. Life stopped in the course of a new onward movement. All his life had been a rattling rush of swift succeeding action, like a chain cable racing through the hawse-pipe into an unfathomed sea, causing the world to vibrate as it ran out its full length of forty-seven shackles when the last link slipped over, and there was silence.

The 'Quest' anchored in Grytviken Harbour

The ‘Quest’ anchored in Grytviken Harbour

The two doctors woke Frank Wild at about 3am. Being roused at such an hour, it took a moment for the significance of the news to occur to Wild. He wrote that it was a ‘It was a staggering blow’. He called for Frank Worsley and informed him of Shackleton’s death. At 8am that morning, Wild gathered all hands together to tell them the news. He later wrote: ‘Naturally it was a great shock to them all, especially to those who had served with him before and thus knew him more intimately.’

Frank Wild then engaged in the necessary tasks brought up by the death of the Boss. He was busy with arranging communications to Emily, Lady Shackleton, and John Quiller Rowett, the ‘Quest’ expedition’s financial backer.

John Quiller Rowett

John Quiller Rowett

Wild went ashore and visited Jacobsen, the manager of the whaling station at Grytviken. The manager, ‘an old friend of ours’ as Wild wrote, had been with Shackleton the previous afternoon and was shocked by the news. He assisted Wild in the jobs that needed to be done. The doctors of Grytviken embalmed the body and a coffin was made by Mr. Hansen of nearby Leith. When all the necessary arrangements had been made, the coffin was brought ashore. As Wild wrote:

All hands mustered quietly and stood bareheaded as we lifted the coffin, covered by our silk white ensign, to the side of the Quest, and passed it over into a motor launch. All the time the rain soaked heavily down. From the pier we carried him to the little hospital and placed him in the room in which we had lived together seven years before.

Frank Wild

Frank Wild


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

Wild. F. Shackleton’s Last Voyage. London, 1923.

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