On This Day – November 21st 1908.
The first of Shackleton’s ponies, is killed.
On November 3rd 1908, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall, Jameson Adams and Frank Wild, left Hut Point. Their destination, as Shackleton had put it, was “the last spot in the world that counts as worth striving for” – the South Pole.
It was not Shackleton’s first attempt at reaching the pole, as he had joined Robert Falcon Scott and Edward Wilson, on the Discovery Expedition’s southern journey in 1902. The aim of that endeavour was “to get as far south in a straight line on the Barrier ice as we can, reach the Pole if possible, or find some new land.” Hardly a battle cry of inspiration, or intention. In truth the venture was a pioneering journey, deeper into the unexplored realms of Antarctica, than anyone had ever dared before.
Scott and the two men were supported by teams of sled dogs, which over the course of their travels struggled with the extreme conditions, and did not perform as expected, or indeed hoped.
Ultimately the three men ended up man-hauling their supplies in relays, which effectively terminated any faint chance they had of reaching the pole. They did continue to forge ahead, and reached a new Furthest South at 82°17′S, on December 30th 1902. At this point the trio turned back and headed for Hut Point. Shackleton in particular suffered greatly on the return journey, as scurvy began to ravage him. The march became a battle for survival, and Scott and Wilson worked tirelessly to ensure all three would make it back to base. They arrived there on February 3rd 1903. Shortly afterwards Shackleton was invalided home on the Discovery.
The under performance of the dogs, on the southern journey, would lead to a deep mistrust in the animal’s capabilities, on the Antarctic ice. As a result both Shackleton and Scott opted to use ponies on their subsequent expeditions. The facts that the men had lacked the required knowledge for using the dogs, and that inadequate amounts of food had resulted in the animals weakening, were never properly considered.
And so it was that Shackleton’s privately funded British Antarctic Expedition (Nimrod), relied on ponies to do the bulk of the provisions hauling. Each of the four men lead a pony and sledge of supplies, as they departed Hut Point. Shackleton had felt somewhat embarrassed at his collapse on Scott’s return march, and was eager to not just surpass the 1902 farthest south record, but to actually reach the south pole.
The ponies of course were on a one-way ticket. None were destined to return, as their meat would be used to sustain the efforts of the group, and hopefully prove beneficial in warding off the dreaded threat of scurvy.
Soft snow, countless crevasses and blizzards made the going extremely tough on both man and beast. The men did everything they could to coax and cajole the animals along, and even built snow walls at camp, to protect them from the elements.
They performed quite well considering the conditions, they had endured. On November 21st 1908, however it was decided that the pony named Chinaman, would be shot. The poor animal, who was the oldest of the ponies, had been weakening, and was now struggling to keep apace.
Again the men built a wall of snow, this time to prevent the other ponies from witnessing the grim fate of Chinaman. None of the men’s diaries record who fired the shot, though Marshall described it as ‘a merciful release.’
Marshall then had the unenviable task of cutting the animals throat, to bleed him, and he and Wild harvested meat from the carcass. Sixty pounds of the meat was cached, and as much and more was added to the sledge for more immediate consumption.
Two days later Grisi had to be shot. Gradually the surface conditions on the Barrier worsened and the two remaining ponies, struggled and floundered in soft snow. On December 1st, Quan, who had worked tirelessly, broke down, utterly exhausted. At camp that night, Wild dispatched of the animal. The men found the task difficult, and this was not helped by the mourning of the one remaining pony – Socks. Wild recorded ” Last night, poor little Socks kept us all awake for a long time neighing and whinnying for his lost companions.”
Socks would become the first pony to stand on the Beardmore Glacier, the four men leading him becoming the first humans to do so. After it’s discovery, Shackleton named the glacier after his sponsor Sir William Beardmore. Socks however did not last long and plummeted to his death, on December 6th, down a deep crevasse, almost pulling Wild with him.
The shot that killed Chinaman on November 21st 1908, still resounded in Antarctica, three years and a day afterwards. Shackleton, Wild, Marshall and Adams did not reach the South Pole, and turned back at latitude 88° 23′ S”, which was 97.5 miles short.
On November 22nd, 1911 Robert Falcon Scott and his southern party were making a fresh assault on the pole, on the Terra Nova Expedition. As they crossed the Barrier, Scott was writing in his journal about the performance of his ponies, that far, and had noted, “Two days more and they will be well past the spot at which Shackleton killed his first animal.”*
* – From “Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics)”