This is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, a reference specialist in the Main Reading Room.
When the well-preserved wreck of the Endurance recently was discovered deep in the Antarctic’s icy waters more than a century after it sank, international headlines followed.
The Endurance was last seen in 1915, when it became trapped and slowly crushed by pack ice during an expedition headed by renowned polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. The three-mast, 144-foot ship sank beneath the ice and waves of the Weddell Sea, falling some 10,000 feet to its watery grave. Shackleton and his crew of 27 survived, but only by a series of death-defying ocean voyages in a lifeboat. It’s widely celebrated as one of the great survival stories of modern times; the Library’s online catalog lists 75 titles about the expedition.
But an earlier Shackleton voyage to Antarctica also produced a remarkable book, if one not nearly so dramatic. “Aurora Australis,” put together during Shackleton’s 1907-1909 polar voyage, is the first book “written, printed, illustrated and bound in the Antarctic,” as Shackleton put it. Fitting for its harsh native environment, about 25 copies were bound with packing crate boards repurposed from the ship’s pantry. The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division has one of these, marked with “turtle soup” and “honey” for their original contents. About 60 or 70 more were printed, but were never bound. Scholars think about 75 total copies, bound or unbound, still exist.
“Aurora,” edited by Shackleton and illustrated by George Marston, is an illustrated anthology with three poems, seven articles of fiction and nonfiction, all written by crew members and scientists while they were huddled at the expedition’s cramped winter quarters. The lovely title is taken from the sky lights seen in the Southern Hemisphere, similar to the more familiar aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere.
It doesn’t have a daring plot of survival but it does have those wooden covers!
They’re marked for mouth-watering items such as butter, sugar, stew, petit pois, beans, chicken and oatmeal. The Library’s copy, with “turtle soup” and “honey,” make for an unlikely combination gastronomically, but these boards cover our book in fine fashion.
This Shackleton expedition was the first to ascend 12,448-foot Mount Erebus, the volcanic peak that is the second highest point on the continent, so much of the book covers that work. There’s an illustration, “Under the Shadow of Mt. Erebus,” by Marston; a nonfiction account of the climb, “The Ascent of Mt. Erebus,” by T.W. Edgeworth David, director of the scientific staff; and a ballad in rhymed couplets, “Erebus,” by Nemo, presumably a pseudonym for one of the crew.
One would think that “Life Under Difficulties” describes the harsh conditions experienced by the crew. Instead, James Murray, a biologist, provides a detailed examination of rotifers, “beautiful little cone-shaped animals of crystal transparency, with a ruby-red eye in the middle of the large head.” (At least this is what these sea creatures might look like if you could examine them under a microscope.)
While some of the articles describe daily life, others are more fanciful. “An Interview with an Emperor” features an Emperor Penguin speaking in something like a Scots accent – and accusing the crew’s geologist (the article’s author) of stealing rocks. “An Ancient Manuscript” is written in Biblical prose for comic effect:
“Go thou therefore, dwell in this land, travel over the face of the same, tear out its secrets, and should it also be that thy hand shall uproot the great pole which the wise men do call the South Pole; then do I say unto thee that it shall not be forgotten of thee in the years which are to come.”
The discovery of the Endurance will undoubtedly trigger new fascination in that expedition’s story and admiration for the polar explorers of the era. Reading “Aurora Australis,” though, provides a glimpse into the creative and often humorous side of these adventurous men and their determination to gain an understanding about unknown parts of our world.
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