Sir Ernest Shackleton’s RGS Silver Medal for Discovery, 1904 sells for £86,500 at auction

Sir Ernest Shackleton was the most decorated of the Polar explorers of the early 20th C – despite being invalided home on his trip to the Antarctic when he was with Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition (Discovery) in 1903.

He had been a member of the Furthest South Party with Scott and Wilson, reaching 82.17°S. on the Ross Ice Shelf on 30 December 1902, but incipient scurvy on the journey led to him being sent home on the relief ship Morning after just one winter south.

Bitterly disappointed, Scott’s decision to invalid him out left him with ‘an aspiration, 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.’

  • He was awarded the Polar Medal and the Royal Geographical Society’s Silver Medal (below) for Discovery in 1904
  • Pre-Sale Estimate: £20,000 – £40,000 ($30,480 – $60,960)
  • Hammer Price: £86,500  ($132,345)
Royal Geographical Society Silver Medal, 1904, incused on the rim 'LIEUT. ERNEST SHACKLETON, R.N.R.'  Estimate: £20,000 - £40,000 ($30,480 - $60,960)

Royal Geographical Society Silver Medal, 1904, incused on the rim ‘LIEUT. ERNEST SHACKLETON, R.N.R.’

Shackleton’s participation in the Discovery Expedition

The National Antarctic Expedition, known as the Discovery Expedition after the ship Discovery, was the brainchild of Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, and had been many years in preparation. It was led by Robert Falcon Scott, a Royal Navy torpedo lieutenant lately promoted Commander, and had objectives that included scientific and geographical discovery.

Although Discovery was not a Royal Navy unit, Scott required the crew, officers and scientific staff to accept voluntarily the conditions of the Naval Discipline Act, and the ship and expedition were run on Royal Navy lines. Shackleton accepted this, even though his own background and instincts favoured a different, more informal style of leadership. Shackleton’s particular duties were listed as: “In charge of seawater analysis. Ward-room caterer. In charge of holds, stores and provisions […] He also arranges the entertainments.”

  • Discovery departed London on 31 July 1901, arriving at the Antarctic coast, via Cape Town and New Zealand, on 8 January 1902.
  • After landing, Shackleton took part in an experimental balloon flight on 4 February.
  • He also participated, with the scientists Edward Wilson and Hartley Ferrar, in the first sledging trip from the expedition’s winter quarters in McMurdo Sound, a journey which established a safe route on to the Great Ice Barrier. 
  • During the Antarctic winter of 1902, in the confines of the iced-in Discovery, Shackleton edited the expedition’s magazine The South Polar Times.

According to steward Clarence Hare, he was “the most popular of the officers among the crew, being a good mixer”, though claims that this represented an unofficial rival leadership to Scott’s are unsupported. Scott chose Shackleton to accompany Wilson and himself on the expedition’s southern journey, a march southwards to achieve the highest possible latitude in the direction of the South Pole. This march was not a serious attempt on the Pole, although the attainment of a high latitude was of great importance to Scott, and the inclusion of Shackleton indicated a high degree of personal trust.

  • The party set out on 2 November 1902. The march was, Scott wrote later, “a combination of success and failure”.
  • A record Farthest South latitude of 82° 17′ was reached, beating the previous record established in 1900 by Carsten Borchgrevink.
  • The journey was marred by the poor performance of the dogs, whose food had become tainted, and who rapidly fell sick.
    • All 22 dogs died during the march.
    • The three men all suffered at times from snow blindness, frostbite and, ultimately, scurvy.
    • On the return journey, Shackleton had by his own admission “broken down” and could no longer carry out his share of the work.

He would later deny Scott’s claim in The Voyage of the Discovery, that he had been carried on the sledge. However, he was in a seriously weakened condition; Wilson’s diary entry for 14 January reads:

“Shackleton has been anything but up to the mark, and today he is decidedly worse, very short winded and coughing constantly, with more serious symptoms that need not be detailed here but which are of no small consequence one hundred and sixty miles from the ship”.

On 4 February 1903, the party finally reached the ship. After a medical examination (which proved inconclusive), Scott decided to send Shackleton home on the relief ship Morning, which had arrived in McMurdo Sound in January 1903.

  • Scott wrote: “He ought not to risk further hardship in his present state of health.”
  • There is conjecture that Scott’s motives for removing him was resentment of Shackleton’s popularity, and that ill-health was used as an excuse to get rid of him.

Years after the deaths of Scott, Wilson and Shackleton, Albert Armitage, the expedition’s second-in-command, claimed that there had been a falling-out on the southern journey, and that Scott had told the ship’s doctor that “if he does not go back sick he will go back in disgrace.”

  • There is no corroboration of Armitage’s story.

Shackleton and Scott stayed on friendly terms, at least until the publication of Scott’s account of the southern journey in The Voyage of the Discovery. 

Although in public they remained mutually respectful and cordial, according to biographer Roland Huntford, Shackleton’s attitude to Scott turned to “smouldering scorn and dislike”; salvage of wounded pride required “a return to the Antarctic and an attempt to out-do Scott”.

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