Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Order of Merit (Chile), 1916, sells for £74,500 ($113,985) at auction

Centenary of the Sinking of the Endurance

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Endurance, which was crushed by ice and left the crew marooned on Elephant Island – a remote and uninhabited island off the coast of Antarctica. Shackleton’s Chilean Order of Merit, which recognises the rescue and survival of all of the Endurance’s crew, is arguably the most important of all medals awarded to him. Deemed by many collectors are the most important lot of this Christies sale, it was estimated at £4,000 to £6,000 but on the day of the sale, amidst a frenzy of bidding, it fetched £74,500 ($113,985), excluding the Buyer’s Premium and taxes.

The President of Chile awarded Shackleton the prestigious Order of Merit (pictured below) for his daring rescue of those he left behind on Elephant Island. Shackleton’s small rescue party had successfully navigated over 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 miles) in what is still recognised today as the most dangerous ocean in the world, with hurricane force winds and waves—the notorious Cape Horn Rollers—measuring from trough to crest as much as 60 feet (18 m).

This epic journey became known as the Voyage of the James Caird – a perilous voyage lasting 16 days in one of the lifeboats of the Endurance. After landing on desolate south shore of South Georgia, Shackleton and two companions then crossed the island’s mountainous interior to reach a whaling station on the northern side. From there, he was able to organize the relief of the Elephant Island party, and to return his men home without loss of life.

Shackleton - Order of Merit (Chile) 1916

Shackleton’s Order of Merit (Chile) 1916

Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica Expedition 1914-17

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), also known as the Endurance Expedition, is considered the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

  • Conceived, promoted and led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent.
    • After the conquest of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen in 1911, Shackleton wrote: “The discovery of the South Pole will not be the end of Antarctic exploration”. The next work, he said, would be “a transcontinental journey from sea to sea, crossing the pole”.
      • This crossing from sea to sea remained, in Shackleton’s words, the “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings”.
      • The expedition failed to accomplish this objective but, instead, became recognised as an epic feat of endurance, determination, bravery and … most of all, pinpoint navigation in almost impossible conditions across the Southern Ocean to a remote island whaling station, thence on to South Georgia where Shackleton mounted a rescue operation.

Key stages of the heroic Endurance Expedition can best be summarised by the timeline below

The Expedition Commences

On 5 December 1914, Shackleton’s expedition ship Endurance left South Georgia for the Weddell Sea, on the first stage of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. It was making for Vahsel Bay, the southernmost explored point of the Weddell Sea at 77° 49′ S, where a shore party was to land and prepare for a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica.

The dangers of such an expedition were known to Shackleton and his hardy band of volunteers at the onset of the expedition but volunteering for such perilous trips was a way to earn to rapid promotion in the Royal Navy and British Army at that time

The dangers of polar exploration were known to Shackleton and his hardy band of adventurers at the onset of the expedition but volunteering for such perilous trips was a way to earn to rapid promotion in the Royal Navy and British Army at that time

Trapped by Ice

Before it could reach its destination the ship was trapped in pack ice, and by 14 February 1915 was held fast, despite prolonged efforts to free her. During the following eight months she drifted northward until, on 27 October, she was crushed by the pack’s pressure, finally sinking on 21 November.

Antarctica: British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16, picture postcard of Husky team leaving the ship for the sledge trial, the enduring image showing the trapped Endurance and Shackleton on deck

Antarctica: British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16, picture postcard of Husky team leaving the ship for the sledge trial, the enduring image showing the trapped Endurance and Shackleton on deck

  • As his 27-man crew set up camp on the slowly moving ice, Shackleton’s focus shifted to how best to save his party.
  • His first plan was to march across the ice to the nearest land, and try to reach a point that ships were known to visit.
  • The march began, but progress was hampered by the nature of the ice’s surface, later described by Shackleton as “soft, much broken up, open leads intersecting the floes at all angles”.
  • After struggling to make headway over several days, the march was abandoned; the party established “Patience Camp” on a flat ice floe, and waited as the drift carried them further north, towards open water.
  • They had managed to salvage three lifeboats, which Shackleton had named after the principal backers of the expedition: Stancomb Wills, Dudley Docker and James Caird.
  • The party waited until 8 April 1916, when they finally took to the boats as the ice started to break up.
  • Over a perilous period of seven days they sailed and rowed through stormy seas and dangerous loose ice, to reach the temporary haven of Elephant Island on 15 April 1916.

On Elephant Island

Elephant Island, on the eastern limits of the South Shetland Islands, was remote from anywhere that the expedition had planned to go, and far beyond normal shipping routes. No relief ship would search for them there, and the likelihood of rescue from any other outside agency was equally negligible. The island was bleak and inhospitable and its terrain devoid of any vegetation.Although it had fresh water and a relative abundance of seals and penguins to provide food and fuel for immediate survival, the Antarctic winter was fast approaching and the hardships of the previous months were beginning to tell on the men, many of whom were in a run-down state both mentally and physically.

  • In these conditions, Shackleton decided to try to reach help, using one of the boats.
  • The nearest point for launching a rescue bid was Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, 540 nautical miles (1,000 km; 620 miles) away, but made unreachable by the prevailing westerly winds.
    • A better option was to head for Deception Island, at the western end of the South Sandwich chain. Although it was uninhabited, Admiralty records indicated that this island held stores for shipwrecked mariners, and was also visited from time to time by whalers. However, reaching it would also involve a journey against the prevailing winds—though in less open seas—with ultimately no certainty when or if rescue would arrive.
    • After discussions with the expedition’s second-in-command, Frank Wild, and ship’s captain Frank Worsley, Shackleton decided to attempt to reach the whaling stations of South Georgia, to the north-east. This would mean a much longer boat journey, of 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 miles) across the Southern Ocean, in conditions of rapidly approaching winter, but with the help of following winds it appeared feasible.
  • Shackleton thought that “a boat party might make the voyage and be back with relief within a month, provided that the sea was clear of ice, and the boat survive the great seas”.

Preparation for the James Caird Voyage

Shackleton selected the heaviest and strongest of the three boats, the 22½ foot (6.9 m) long James Caird. It had been built as a whaleboat in London to Worsley’s orders, designed on the “double-ended” principle pioneered by Norwegian shipbuilder Colin Archer. Shackleton asked the expedition’s carpenter, Harry McNish, if he could make the vessel more seaworthy. 
  • Using improvised tools and materials, McNish raised the boat’s sides and built a makeshift deck of wood and canvas, sealing his work with oil paints, lamp wick, and seal blood. The craft was strengthened by having the mast of the Dudley Docker lashed inside, along the length of her keel.
    • She was then fitted as a ketch, with a mainmast and a mizzenmast, rigged to carry lugsails and a jib.
    • The weight of the boat was increased by the addition of approximately 1 long ton (1,016 kg) of ballast, to lessen the risk of capsizing in the high seas that Shackleton knew they would encounter.
Shackleton preparing the James Caird

Shackleton preparing the James Caird

  • The boat was loaded with provisions to last six men one month; as Shackleton later wrote, “if we did not make South Georgia in that time we were sure to go under”. They took ration packs that had been intended for the trans-continental crossing, biscuits, Bovril, sugar and dried milk. They also took two 18-gallon casks of water, two Primus stoves, paraffin, oil, candles, sleeping bags and odd items of spare clothing.
  • Shackleton’s first choices for the boat’s crew were Worsley and Tom Crean—the latter, he said, “begged to go.”
    • Crean was a shipmate from the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and had also been with Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition in 1910–13, where he had distinguished himself on the fatal polar march. Shackleton was confident that Crean would persevere to the bitter end
    • He also had great faith in Worsley’s skills as a navigator, especially his ability to work out positions in difficult circumstances.
      • Worsley later wrote: “We knew it would be the hardest thing we had ever undertaken, for the Antarctic winter had set in, and we were about to cross one of the worst seas in the world”.
  • For the remaining places Shackleton requested volunteers, and of the many who came forward he chose two strong sailors in John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy. He offered the final place to the carpenter, McNish. “He was over fifty years of age”, wrote Shackleton of McNish (he was in fact 41), “but he had a good knowledge of sailing boats and was very quick”.
    • Vincent and McNish had each proved their worth during the difficult boat journey from the ice to Elephant Island.
    • They were both somewhat awkward characters, and their selection may have reflected Shackleton’s wish to keep potential troublemakers under his personal charge rather than leaving them on the island where personal animosities could fester.
Shackleton's Boat, The James Caird, on a commemorative stamp of South Georgia.jpg

Shackleton’s Boat, The James Caird, on a commemorative stamp of South Georgia

Voyage of the James Caird

Before leaving, Shackleton instructed Frank Wild that he was to assume full command as soon as the James Caird departed, and that should the journey fail, he was to attempt to take the party to Deception Island the following spring. The James Caird was launched from Elephant Island on 24 April 1916. The wind was a moderate south-westerly, which aided a swift getaway, and the boat was quickly out of sight of the land.

  • Shackleton ordered Worsley to set a course due north, instead of directly for South Georgia, to get clear of the menacing ice-fields that were beginning to form. By midnight they had left the immediate ice behind, but the sea swell was rising. At dawn the next day, they were 45 nautical miles (83 km; 52 miles) from Elephant Island, sailing in heavy seas and force 9 winds.
    • Shackleton established an on-board routine: two three-man watches, with one man at the helm, another at the sails, and the third on bailing duty.
    • The off-watch trio rested in the tiny covered space in the bows.
    • Their clothing, designed for Antarctic sledging rather than open-boat sailing, was far from waterproof; repeated contact with the icy seawater left their skins painfully raw.
  • Success depended on Worsley’s navigation, based on sightings attempted during the very brief appearances of the sun, as the boat pitched and rolled. The first observation was made after two days, and showed them to be 128 nautical miles (237 km; 147 miles) north of Elephant Island.
    • The course was now changed to head directly for South Georgia. They were clear of the dangers of floating ice but had reached the dangerous seas of the Drake Passage, where giant waves sweep round the globe, unimpeded by any land.
    • The movement of the ship made preparing hot food on the Primus nearly impossible, but Crean, who acted as cook, somehow kept the men fed.
  • The next observation, on 29 April, showed that they had travelled 238 nautical miles (441 km; 274 miles). Thereafter, navigation became, in Worsley’s words, “a merry jest of guesswork”, as they encountered the worst of the weather. The James Caird was taking on water in heavy seas and in danger of sinking, kept afloat by continuous bailing.
    • The temperature fell sharply, and a new danger presented itself in the accumulations of frozen spray, which threatened to capsize the boat. In turns, they had to crawl out on to the pitching deck with an axe and chip away the ice from deck and rigging.
    • For 48 hours they were stopped, held by a sea anchor, until the wind dropped sufficiently for them to raise sail and proceed.
    • Despite their travails, Worsley’s third observation, on 4 May, put them only 250 nautical miles (460 km; 290 miles) from South Georgia.
  • On 5 May the worst of the weather returned, and brought them close to disaster in the largest seas so far. Shackleton later wrote: “We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf”.
    • The crew bailed frantically to keep afloat. Nevertheless, they were still moving towards their goal, and a dead reckoning calculation by Worsley on the next day, 6 May, suggested that they were now 115 nautical miles (213 km; 132 miles) from the western point of South Georgia. 
    • The strains of the past two weeks were by now taking their toll on the men. Shackleton observed that Vincent had collapsed and ceased to be an active member of the crew, McCarthy was “weak, but happy”, McNish was weakening but still showing “grit and spirit”.
  • On 7 May Worsley advised Shackleton that he could not be sure of their position within ten miles.
    • To avoid the possibility of being swept past the island by the fierce south-westerly winds, Shackleton ordered a slight change of course so that the James Caird would reach land on the uninhabited south-west coast.
    • They would then try to work the boat round to the whaling stations on the northern side of the island. “Things were bad for us in those days”, wrote Shackleton. “The bright moments were those when we each received our one mug of hot milk during the long, bitter watches of the night”.
    • Late on the same day floating seaweed was spotted, and the next morning there were birds, including cormorants which were known never to venture far from land. Shortly after noon on 8 May came the first sighting of South Georgia.
  • As they approached the high cliffs of the coastline, heavy seas made immediate landing impossible.
    • For more than 24 hours they were forced to stand clear, as the wind shifted to the north-west and quickly developed into “one of the worst hurricanes any of us had ever experienced”. For much of this time they were in danger of being driven on to the rocky South Georgia shore, or of being wrecked on the equally menacing Annenkov Island, five miles from the coast.
    • On 10 May, when the storm had eased slightly, Shackleton was concerned that the weaker members of his crew would not last another day, and decided that whatever the hazard they must attempt a landing. They headed for Cave Cove near the entrance to King Haakon Bay, and finally, after several attempts, made their landing there.
      • Shackleton was later to describe the boat journey as “one of supreme strife”
      • Historian Carol Alexander comments: “They could hardly have known—or cared—that in the carefully weighted judgement of authorities yet to come, the voyage of the James Caird would be ranked as one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished”.

Landing on South Georgia

King Haakon Bay, where the James Caird landed, is the large indentation at the western (upper) end of the southerly side. As the party recuperated from their epic voyage, Shackleton realised that the boat was not capable of making a further voyage to reach the whaling stations, and that Vincent and McNish were unfit to travel further.
  • He decided to move the boat to a safer location within King Haakon Bay, from which point he, Worsley and Crean would cross the island on foot, aiming for the station at Stromness.
  • On 15 May the James Caird made a run of about 6 nautical miles (11 km; 6.9 miles) to a shingle beach near the head of the bay.
  • Here the boat was beached and up-turned to provide a shelter. The location was christened “Peggotty Camp” (after Peggoty’s boat-home in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield).
    • Early on 18 May Shackleton, Worsley and Crean began what would be the first confirmed land crossing of the South Georgia interior.
    • Since they had no map, they had to improvise a route across mountain ranges and glaciers.
    • They travelled continuously for 36 hours, before reaching Stromness.
    • Shackleton’s men were, in Worsley’s words, “a terrible trio of scarecrows”, dark with exposure, wind, frostbite and accumulated blubber soot.
    • Later that evening, 19 May, a motor-vessel was despatched to King Haakon Bay to pick up McCarthy, McNish and Vincent, and the James Caird.
      • Worsley wrote that the Norwegian seamen at Stromness all “claimed the honour of helping to haul her up to the wharf”, a gesture which he found “quite affecting”.

The Rescue of the Party on Elephant Island

The advent of the southern winter and adverse ice conditions meant that it was more than three months before Shackleton was able to achieve the relief of the men at Elephant Island. Discovery was available for a rescue mission organised by the admiralty, but Shackleton couldn’t wait.

  • When Shackleton got to South Georgia, he chartered a small steamer whaleboat, the Southern Sky and equipped it to sail to Elephant Island to rescue the remainder of his crew.
    • He tried several times to cross the pack ice but failed each time – the closest he got to them was 70 nautical miles.
    • Short of fuel, he had to return to South Georgia.
    • He could find no coal there to re-fuel the Southern Sky, so he then hired a cutter and sailed to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
  • On 16 June 1916 he left in a steam tug from Uruguay, the Instituto de Pesca, and got within 30km (20 miles) of Elephant Island before again being stopped by the pack ice.
  • Being involved in the Great War, Britain could offer no help, so Shackleton pleaded with the Chilean government to help him. His third attempt was on the chartered schooner Emma from Punta Arenas, but this was also unsuccessful – the Emma was badly damaged by icebergs and limped back to port in rough seas.
  • The fourth attempt on the Chilean tug Yelcho was successful, and the Elephant Island party of 22 men was rescued 128 days after Shackleton had left.
    • They were short of food, living on limpets collected on the sea shore.
    • They had lived in cramped accommodation under the upturned boats.

With the aid of the steam-tug Yelcho commanded by Luis Pardo, the entire party was brought to safety, reaching Punta Arenas in Chile on 3 September 1916.

  • Punta Arenas is situated at the very tip of Southern Chile and therefore has been stop-off point for Polar expeditions due to its geographic location – it is the world’s southernmost city situated at 53°10′S.
  • This city has laid pilgrimage to many of history’s Polar greats including Amundsen in 1897 aboard Belgica, Scott in 1904 and Shackleton in 1916
  • In the main city square there is a statue that pays homage to Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan who was one of the first European explorers to navigate the circumference of the world in the 16th Century. Legend goes that people taking their own expedition must kiss or rub the statue’s toe in the square to ensure safe passage.
Shackleton, Worsley and Crean in the British Club, Punta Arenas

Shackleton, Worsley and Crean in the British Club, Punta Arenas. Shackleton said at the time of the crew of Endurance, ‘Not a man lost and we have been through hell.’

  • Shackleton was received as a hero in South America.
  • He travelled to Santiago in Chile and to Buenos Aires

While in Chile, Shackleton received four other awards, namely

  • Life-saving Society of Valparaiso : Gold Medal, 1916.
  • Patriotic Military League, Santiago : Special Gold Medal for Discipline and Valour, 1916.
  • Scientific Society of Chile, Santiago : Honorary Membership, 1916.
  • Municipality of Punta Arenas : Gold Medal, 1916.

None of these other Chilean medals were offered in the sale.

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