On This Day – September 24th 1921

The Shackleton – Rowett Expedition departs England.

September 24th 1921.

Shackleton's Ship Quest 1921

Shackleton’s ship “Quest” passing though the Tower Bridge, London.

The Shackleton – Rowett Expedition left England, aboard the ship Quest on September 24th 1921. Sir Ernest Shackleton had originally intended a trip north to explore the Arctic regions – the unexplored Beaufort Sea area in particular, and had received initial interest from Canadian authorities. However with a change of government in 1921, and its differing policy towards the funding of expeditions, it soon became clear that there would be no financial backing from Canada.
Shackleton turned his attentions yet again to Antarctica. He had secured some funds from a former school friend, John Quiller Rowett, with which he had obtained a 125 ton Norwegian sealer, the Foca 1, which he newly named Quest. With a change of destination, Shackleton outlined the ambition of his voyage south as being an “oceanographic and sub-antarctic expedition.”
While the expedition appeared to lack a clear and obvious goal, it did not fall short of intention. The itinerary included circumnavigating the Antarctic continent, mapping uncharted coastline, searching for lost or wrongly charted islands, subsequent searches for mineral resources and an extensive scientific research program.

To some it appeared the protracted objectives could not be achieved by Shackleton and his crew, in the proposed two year time frame, and this, coupled with the dearth of an explicit goal, saw very little enthusiasm generated. It has also been suggested that the Quest Expedition was merely a ploy for Shackleton to escape the everyday life that seemed to rankle him. He was still heavily in debt from The Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition, and had grown weary of touring the lecture circuit.
It is probably more acceptable though, to suggest that Shackleton simply yearned to return to the ice and adventure that had shaped his life and hewn his immense character.
Rowett it would appear had little concern and generously agreed to fund the entire project. Frank Wild who accompanied Shackleton as second in command, later said of him –

“His generous attitude is the more remarkable in that he knew there was no prospect of financial return, and what he did was in the interest of scientific research and from friendship with Shackleton.”


Sir Ernest Shackleton

While it is not known exactly how much money Rowett did contribute, it was definitely a substantial sum, and the Quest set sail with no shortage of new and innovative equipment, on September 24th 1921. The ships crew numbered twenty, and of this compliment eight of them had served with Shackleton on the Endurance. ‘The Boss’ was certain that this figure would be nine, and had even penciled in Tom Crean’s duty as being in charge of the ships boats.
But Crean had retired from the Navy and had settled and married in his homelands of Annascaul, Co. Kerry. He informed Shackleton of his decision not to travel with the added quip “I have a long haired pal now.”
Alas for Shackleton it would prove to be the final chapter in the pioneering explorers life story, and the last act in the dramatic period of Antarctic exploration, known as ‘The Heroic Age’.
While the Quest was anchored in Grytviken, South Georgia, Ernest Shackleton died of a suspected heart attack in the early hours of January 5th 1922. At his wifes request he was buried in Grytviken.

“It is a strange and curious place….A wonderful evening. In the darkening twilight I saw a lone star hover, gem like above the bay.”
Entry in Shackleton’s diary just hours before his death.
Source – “Diary of the Quest Expedition 1921–22”. Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute.

Frank Wild assumed command of the expedition and decided to proceed much as Shackleton had planned. They left South Georgia on January 18th, but their journey southwards was thwarted by their old adversary – sea ice. Despite numerous efforts to break through the ice fields, it proved impossible. With coal running low a decision was made to journey to Elephant Island to supplement the dwindling fuel supply with seal blubber.

Quest Diagram

Cutaway diagram of Shackleton’s ship “Quest”

Bad weather conditions, prevented Wild from a nostalgic visit to the tiny sand spit at Cape Wild, that had been refuge for him and 21 crew members of the Endurance in 1916. They sailed by, observing through binoculars,  unable to risk making landfall, but they ultimately acquired enough seal blubber on the island’s western side to allow them to return to South Georgia. They arrived there on 6th of April.
After a months hiatus the Quest sailed for South Africa, where the hope was to prepare for a second season exploring in the south. They were greeted by large enthusiastic crowds when they arrived at Cape Town on June 18th, and were given an official reception by the Prime Minister, Jan Smuts.
More damningly though for the ambitions of the expedition, they were also met by an agent representing Rowett, who conveyed the message to Wild, that the Quest was to return to England.
The Shackleton – Rowett Expedition left Cape Town on July 19th 1922, and arrived at Plymouth Harbour on 16th of September.
The expedition had lasted less than a year, and has seldom been remembered for anything other than the death of one of the greatest Antarctic explorers of all time – Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Leave a Reply