The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (ITAE), organised and led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, embarked in 1914, aiming to achieve the first crossing of the Antarctic continent. The party, led by Shackleton and including the men who would make the overland trek, were to start from the Weddell Sea coast and sailed on Endurance. The other half of the expedition were on the SY Aurora, captained by Aeneas Macintosh. Their role was to travel to the Ross Sea end of the proposed route to lay food and fuel depots for the Weddell Sea party to use in the latter stages of their journey, as well as undertaking scientific work (Harrowfield Reference Harrowfield2015).
Severe weather conditions, however, affected both ships. The sinking of Endurance before Shackleton's team had begun the crossing, and their subsequent astonishing survival has been lauded, filmed and recreated. In the Ross Sea, Aurora broke from its moorings in McMurdo Sound during a gale while depot laying teams were onshore and, with only a small crew aboard, drifted trapped in pack ice for months. The fate of the men left on the ice has received particular attention in recent years. Once freed from the ice pack, the construction of a temporary jury rudder for Aurora – worked by ropes from each side – was necessary to enable her to reach Port Chalmers, Dunedin where that rudder could be replaced and more extensive repairs undertaken. It was assumed she would immediately be refitted for a return rescue voyage.
Contact with the Otago Museum was established by the crew of Aurora soon after arrival in Dunedin. In the first instance Lieutenant Joseph Stenhouse, acting commander, sought assistance with the preservation of various faunal specimens frozen in her hold. Some of those specimens and a few items of equipment were later donated to the museum's collection. The jury rudder was also offered, but was declined.
A century after the arrival of Aurora in Dunedin, this paper reflects on contact and communication between the expedition and the museum, in particular with reference to ITAE-related material held – and not held – in the museum's collection.
Aurora had been Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition ship. Purchased by Shackleton, she was prepared in Australia for the ITAE. She carried ‘materials for a hut, full equipment for landing and sledging parties, stores and clothing of all kinds required, and an ample supply of sledges’ (Shackleton Reference Shackleton1991: 168). Aurora reached McMurdo Sound in early 1915 and was moored to the shore in Cape Evans with six wire cables attached to two anchors (Church Reference Church1997: 34). Captain Mackintosh and a number of the men were ashore, having left the first officer Lieutenant Joseph Russell Stenhouse aboard in command of a small crew, when Aurora broke loose in a gale. She floated miles out to sea and drifted trapped in pack ice for months. Then, in Stenhouse's words:
After escaping serious injury for over ten weeks, misfortune overtook the Aurora on July 21st. We were then about ninety miles south of Coulman Island. The Aurora became heavy nipped by enormous ice-pressure and lost her rudder, and her hull was badly strained. It was not until March 14th of this year that the Aurora got free of the ice. This was . . . after a drift south and eastward of 1200 miles (Stenhouse Reference Stenhouse1916a).
Freed, but with her rudder damaged beyond repair, the ship's crew assembled a jury rudder from the ‘spanker boom, gaff, foretopgallant yard, two boat skids and two iron plates. . ., cement being used to give it weight’ (Church Reference Church1997: 34) in order to reach Port Chalmers in New Zealand. In a talk to the New Zealand Club in Wellington soon after arrival, Stenhouse noted the trouble they had experienced making the concrete ‘owing to the rapidity with which the water would freeze after being brought from the galley to be mixed with the cement’ (Dominion 1916d).
Stenhouse had envisaged repairing Aurora in Port Chalmers (the port for the city of Dunedin) and departing at the first opportunity for the relief of the men left on the ice, who he initially thought would include Shackleton and the rest of the Weddell Sea party (The Colonist 1916) since he had not then heard of the fate of Endurance.
The New Zealand public had followed the planning and progress of the ITAE with interest and mixed opinions. Dr Charles Chilton's January 1915 Presidential Address to the New Zealand Institute noted that:
Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition has gone to the Far South in its adventurous effort to cross the Antarctic continent. . .and later on we shall be anxiously looking for news of the welfare of the leader and those who are with him (Chilton Reference Chilton1914: 626).
Others thought that the ITAE's resources could and should have been put to better – or more military – use; that, as pithily summarised in one newspaper:
Better one more dead Hun than a hundred volumes of new Arctic and Antarctic records (The Marlborough Express 1916a).
The writer of that article suggested that ‘the time has arrived when an end should be put to these expeditions to Antarctica’ and that the ‘actual value of such scientific and other knowledge to be gained therefrom is still a matter of doubt’. Some, however, made the argument that the expedition's contribution to the interests of science and appeal to the popular imagination were helpful counterweights to the news and impact of WWI (Hawera and Normanby Star 1916).
Information about the fate of the two ships and their crews took some time to arrive. Absence of anticipated radio contact from Aurora lead to some uneasiness but was initially explained in terms of the distances involved and/or the height of the hills in the Ross Sea area (Otago Daily Times 1916a). When contact was established on her way to Dunedin, and her condition apprehended there was much comment and concern, although Shackleton's fate, when it was unknown, was even more eagerly discussed. Indeed, one commentary noted that as Aurora had returned without information about Shackleton or his party, their report was ‘shorn of points of most vital interest’ (The Marlborough Express 1916b).
As Aurora neared Dunedin, the tug Dunedin set out and came alongside in the early morning of 2 April 1916 (Dominion 1916a). At the Otago Heads she was met by the Harbour Board tug Plucky, in the charge of Captain Spence. When she arrived at Port Chalmers, members of the public were standing on boats and the wharf, and the crew were formally welcomed by the mayors of Port Chalmers and Dunedin, and the chairman and members of the Harbour Board (Dominion 1916b). The Prime Minister, William Massey, sent a telegram of congratulation to Lieutenant Stenhouse (Nelson Evening Mail 1916). Three men needed medical attention. Food was a popular topic in the early newspaper accounts. Among the gifts sent on Dunedin for transfer before Aurora arrived in port had been ‘a good English breakfast’ consisting of ‘a hamper, containing meal for porridge for about a dozen men, 7 lb. of bacon, three dozen eggs, 5 lb. of butter, three long loaves, tea, coffee, condensed milk, marmalade, jam, and pepper and salt’ (Dominion 1916a).
“I would willingly have given a pound for a feed of fruit the other day”. This was what a sailor said this morning when a case of pears was passed on board the Aurora. “What, ho!” said his mates, and they forthwith requisitioned the cook's poker and prized off the lid. “What delicious pears,” agreed the men who had just come off their seal meat diet, flavoured by penguin liver (Press 1916).
Aurora and all aboard her were made welcome by the city and the province. The Otago Harbour Board offered free use of the dock for her overhaul. Stenhouse was invited to attend the Scott Memorial celebrations in Oamaru (ca. 110 km north of Dunedin) within the week. There, The Oamaru Mail described him as ‘redolent of brine and iceberg’. They claimed he ‘found delight in every moment of his visit’ and summoned a pastoralised niveous Antarctic landscape when they said he ‘feasted his eyes greedily on the beauties of a country in which . . . everything is not painted white’ (The Oamaru Mail 1916b).
Under the titillating headlines, ‘A COOL HOME-COMING; Trouble Aboard Aurora; Were the Mariners a Merry Mob’, NZ Truth offered an alternative to the otherwise positive coverage, opining:
. . . There was considerable fuss when the Polar exploration vessel Aurora sailed forth to the Antarctic regions, and there has been more fuss on her return to New Zealand, but scarcely the quantity agreeably expected by Lieutenant Stenhouse and company. The Aurora created no sensations in Port Chalmers and few curio-mongers in Dunedin trooped down to inspect the vessel and have a talk with the hardy “Polar bears” that returned. . . . . .Captain Stenhouse's narrative. . . constituted from start to finish the usual monotonous strain of blizzards, icepacks, comets, and several thrilling little accidents—one of which, as recorded, was that Stoker Grady FELL INTO THE ENGINE ROOM. . . (NZ Truth 1916)
The ship was towed from Port Chalmers to the city's Rattray Street wharf for an open weekend which attracted ‘throngs of visitors . . . fascinated by the glamour of romance which clings around the vessel’ (Dominion 1916c). £106 was raised for the Red Cross through admission charges to a labelled display of expedition equipment and natural science specimens in a nearby cargo shed. A similar display was held at the Otago Winter Show a little more than a month later, with proceeds promised to the ‘Red Cross branch of patriotic work’ (Otago Daily Times 1916b).
National recognition took the form of a civic reception in the capital, Wellington, and Stenhouse was also invited to a luncheon at the New Zealand Club there before returning south in May (Dominion 1916e).
Shackleton had frequently represented the expedition in terms of Empire and patriotism. Prior to departure The Times had reported him as saying:
[T]he object of the expedition is primarily to restore British pride by pre-eminence in Polar research . . . it will be fitting if the expedition is made to represent, not only the Mother Country, but also the Dominions (New Zealand Herald 1914a).
In a February 1914 speech to the Royal Geographical Society he said:
[I]n undertaking this expedition the members of it are the agents of the Empire. . . There is not one person who is under the Union Jack in any part of the Empire who does not wish the British flag to be the first national flag ever carried across this frozen waste (New Zealand Herald 1914b).
This may have reflected his world view, been good publicity or subtly acknowledged funding issues. In any case, those who shared this view contended that equipping Aurora for the 1916 rescue effort was ‘an opportunity for New Zealand to take up another little share of the burden of the Empire’ (The Oamaru Mail 1916a) and that offers of assistance to Aurora were ‘an honorable and proper tribute to be paid by a British community to British sailors and explorers’ (The Marlborough Express 1916a).
In Shackleton's absence, rescue plans to refit and supply Aurora for the relief of the Ross Sea men had been discussed by the British Government, the Federal Government of Australia and the New Zealand Government (Evening Post 1916). Joseph Kinsey headed the New Zealand Committee.Footnote 1 Shackleton's arrival in New Zealand in November 1916, buoyed by the survival of all members of his Weddell Sea party and intent on leading Aurora’s rescue mission, occasioned some discussion about the relative standing of the interested parties. Eventually it was agreed the liability of £20,000 for the repairs and refit would be written off on her return (New Zealand Herald 1916) but she was to be captained on the relief voyage by John King Davis. Shackleton sailed as a supernumerary officer, to take command of shore operations once they arrived. Aurora reached Cape Evans in January 1917. Their safe arrival and the successful relief of the seven surviving members of the Ross Sea party (Captain Mackintosh, the Reverend Arnold Spencer-Smith and Victor Hayward had perished) was quickly reported.
On her second and happier return to New Zealand the Aurora berthed in Wellington on the evening of 9 February 1917. As he had the year before, Shackleton agreed to undertake a number of obviously popular public events. He was described as being lionised:
He is the fashion—and a mighty fine fashion, too, if one may be permitted to say so (Free Lance 1917).
There was a party to benefit the Navy League Benefits Club. Several thousand people paid a shilling (or sixpence for children) for admission to the Aurora during an open day. ‘COME AND SEE THE DOGS which Saved the Lives of the BRAVE EXPLORERS. OSCAR, GUNNER, TOWSER, FUNNYFACE, BLACKIE, TEDDY-BEAR, WHITEE, VITCHIE, and the PUPS,’ read the advertisement in the local newspaper placed by the Commercial Travellers Association (Dominion 1917a). The proceeds were donated to a fund for Captain Mackintosh's widow and children. One reporter wrote:
That Aurora is the queerest little thing you ever saw—sort of blunt at the back, and so small that you imagine there would be room for no one else after the dogs were got on board (Free Lance 1917).
The unglamorous tasks of finalising accounts, paying off debts and meeting commitments continued. At a May 1917 auction of equipment and material from the expedition, an unanticipated link to WWI was made when the skin waistcoats were purchased by an unnamed bidder who donated them to ‘the soldiers in the trenches’ (Grey River Argus 1917). Other items included the mailbag that took the first mail to the Ross Sea, a couple of ‘Shackleton patent tents’ that were given to the Boy Scouts, and varied from ‘a sewing-machine to an ice-axe, or a pair of skis, . . . from a pair of wool mittens to a fur sleeping-bag, from a pair of sea boots to a bar of soap . . .’ (Grey River Argus 1917). Shackleton, Ernest Joyce and Frank Wild also featured in a series of advertisements endorsing Hean's Essence – ‘the great money-saving essence for coughs, colds, croup, catarrh, and other chest and throat troubles’ (Press 1917). Shackleton then travelled south to Dunedin again, attending civic receptions along the way.
Aurora was sold too, and the £10,000 income meant Shackleton was able to repay those who had lent him money. Contact with her was lost during a voyage from Australia to South America at the end of that year. A life buoy was found off the Australian coast (Dominion 1917b) and she was posted as missing in January 1918, assumed foundered or sunk in the Pacific Ocean.
Aurora and the Otago Museum
In 1916, the zoologist William Blaxland Benham was Curator of the Otago Museum, a position to which he was appointed in 1898 (and held until 1936). In Dunedin, Benham continued areas of research he had begun in England, together with his university teaching and museum duties (Benson Reference Benson1951). During his tenure at the museum he published reports on the Oligochaeta and Polychaeta collected on Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition (Benham Reference Benham1921; Benham Reference Benham1922) and on the Polychaeta collected by the members of Robert Scott's British Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913 (Benham Reference Benham1927). When Aurora arrived at Port Chalmers, the Otago Museum already had a small collection of ‘specimens belonging to various groups of animals collected in the Antarctic seas’ (Benham Reference Benham1904: 5) donated by Sir George Newnes from the British Antarctic Expedition 1898–1900, a pair of skis and a Weddell seal skull (VT093) associated with Robert Scott's National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition 1901–1904 (Otago Museum 1915: 4), mineral and rock samples from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909 (Fig. 1; Otago Daily Times 1909), and an emperor penguin from Shackleton (Otago Daily Times 1910). Benham hoped to expand on this beginning. Previous correspondence seemed promising:
I will do all I can to allow you to have as representative a collection as possible. It is only pressure of work that prevents me from writing more fully now; but I wish you to understand that I am in full sympathy with you in your wish to increase your collection in the Otago Museum (Shackleton Reference Shackleton1907).
Joseph Stenhouse approached the museum for assistance with preservation of the faunal specimens frozen in the hold of Aurora when it docked at Port Chalmers in 1916. Benham agreed to the museum's taxidermist, E.H. Gibson, undertaking some weeks of work to this end. In return, the museum was gifted a number of examples of Antarctic fauna. Stenhouse wrote to Benham from Port Chalmers in June saying:
I shall be pleased if you will accept for permanent exhibition in your museum, the following Antarctic Specimens:
6 Adélie Penguins
2 Emperor Penguins
I Giant Emperor (skin doubtful)
2 Giant Petrels
I Snow Petrel
I Skua Gull
3 Adult Seals
2 Baby Seals
4 Seal Skeletons (Stenhouse Reference Stenhouse1916).
In the annual report for the year, Benham described these specimens as a return for Gibson's time and work (Benham Reference Benham1917: 3). The following year he said the installation of the case ‘in illustration of the Antarctic regions’ (for which Gibson also painted the background) constituted one of the two principal pieces of work accomplished in 1917. He described it in some detail:
[T]he scene represents at the back mountains and a glacier, and the rest of the case is occupied by the rocky shore, covered by ice, sloping down to the frozen sea in the foreground. . . A Crab-eating Seal. . . is rising through a hole in the ice. . . At the back are three of the large Emperor Penguins. . . and scattered about on the rocks are several of the little Adélie Penguins in a variety of attitudes. . . Standing on one of the rocks is a Skua Gull. . . The case is very effective, and provides visitors with much interest. . . (Benham Reference Benham1917: 1–2).
The allocation of other penguins among parties with financial, scientific or personal links to the expedition was a drawn-out business (White Reference White, Angosto-Ferrandez and Presterudstuen2016)
Acquisitions were not limited to natural science specimens. As well as the seals, penguins (Fig. 2), petrels and skua, the museum was given a sledge harness, a much-repaired pair of leather boots with the initials EW (presumably for Edward Wilson) pierced on their tongues (noted as being ‘made at Cape Evans by one of Scott's party’)(Stenhouse Reference Stenhouse1917) (Fig. 3), and two sledges (one taken south by the ITAE [Fig. 4] and one left ‘used by the Scott Expedition and afterwards by Aurora’s party who found it at Cape Evans’) (Stenhouse Reference Stenhouse1917).
Linked later donations include a steersman's glove from the taxidermist, E.H. Gibson in 1918, which he had apparently received as a personal gift from expedition members, and in the 1980s a well-used deck of playing cards (Fig. 5) and a pocket navigational compass that had been given to Alex Webster, chief steward on the Aurora rescue expedition.
No longer required for maritime purposes, Aurora’s jury rudder was also offered to the Otago Museum. The suggestion seems to have been made by Stenhouse at the same time as the boots and sledge from Scott's expedition were offered (Stenhouse Reference Stenhouse1917). It was, however, soon championed by Shackleton, who asserted his legal ownership while recognising Stenhouse's position. ‘Shackleton said that technically it belonged to him, but Stenhouse had made it and he had a right to be consulted’ (Tripp Reference Tripp1920).
One might have anticipated that this offer, at a time when Aurora and the ITAE were so strongly in the public's mind, would have been embraced but this was not Benham's view.
In 1920 the subject re-emerged. The Merchant Service Guild, Wellington, sent a telegram to the Mayor of Wellington expressing concern about the fate of the rudder, and in consequence the Town Clerk's Office contacted Benham. In the following months correspondence circulated between the Otago Museum, Shackleton's Wellington-based friend and attorney Leonard Tripp, Captain Gerald Doorly (then of the Union Steam Ship Company) and the Wellington City Council.
Doorly (Reference Doorly1920) described the rudder as a ‘unique example of the seaman's resourcefulness under hazardous conditions, as well as being a relic of the memorable expedition’ and said he considered it ‘has not been appreciated at its proper value’. Worried that it might be destroyed to free up working space at the port, he suggested the rudder could be shipped north and installed in Wellington's Newtown Park if a request was made on behalf of the people of that city. His concern is not surprising for a man of his nautical standing and experience, but it is the voice of a sailor, rather than that of a scientist.
Coincidentally, Doorly's book on the Morning’s role as a relief supply ship for Robert Falcon Scott's ice-bound Discovery, more than a decade earlier, was published in 1916 (Doorly Reference Doorly1916). It was reviewed in the literature section of the local press (Otago Daily Times 1916c).Footnote 2 There, ‘Constant Reader’ remarked in the opening paragraph that members of Shackleton's Weddell Sea party had been on Elephant Island for months, and suggested that current interest in their fate made the appearance of Doorly's book particularly opportune. It was noted that Doorly was then in charge of the WWI troopship Navua, which had recently arrived in Port Chalmers carrying a number of wounded soldiers (Otago Daily Times 1916c). In all likelihood he first saw Aurora’s jury rudder then.
By October 1920 Sir Joseph Kinsey had been included in the postal conversation about the rudder. He seems to be the author of a letter to the Wellington Town Clerk which might have undercut enthusiasm for its shift north:
I would advise you – in the event of your securing the rudder – to have a report from some competent person before deciding to have it removed to Wellington. On the “Aurora's” arrival from the Antarctic at Port Chalmers, the jury rudder being in position with all the working attachments (of which a photo was taken) was of great interest, standing alone in Newton Park, its meaning and much of the interest would disappear (Kinsey Reference Kinsey1920).
Ironically, as Leonard Tripp (Reference Tripp1920) wrote to Benham:
I might tell you privately the inner history of the Rudder which is interesting. The late Dr McNab . . . told me when he came back [from Dunedin] that when he got to Lyttleton he got a wire from Kinsey asking if he, Kinsey, might give the Rudder of the Aurora to the Museum. . . (Tripp Reference Tripp1920).
Meanwhile Benham (Reference Benham1920) had already written to Tripp, in almost Biblical train to say:
It is true that the rudder was generously given to this museum by Lieut. Stenhouse: but after examining it I saw that its huge bulk rendered it quite unsuitable for a museum exhibit. . . And so I wrote at the time to the people concerned. . . That is Thrice have I on behalf of this museum stated that we do not want the rudder. . .
Today, one might be tempted to characterise Benham's decision to decline the rudder as a failure to visualise the importance that narratives associated with the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration would gain in the following decades, but the story is probably more, or less, complex. Clearly Benham was aware of the scientific value of Antarctic research. The effort expended on the display case described in the museum's annual report argues that he believed the citizens of Dunedin would find information about Antarctica interesting. But would the rudder have fitted the story of Antarctic life over which he and Gibson toiled? Further, having so recently formulated and completed that case, was Benham likely to embrace consideration of a large and awkward late addition? If there had been room to display it, what ideas or qualities would it have symbolised? What impact would it have had on how visitors to the museum thought of Antarctica?
Benham had a curatorial interest in the acquisition of Antarctic faunal specimens for the collections of the Otago Museum, and a plan to offer the public an opportunity to learn more about the continent in which he had a long-standing research interest. As a Professor of Biology, he seems to have been more easily able to imagine communicating details of Antarctic science than of Antarctic exploration. As a museum professional he argued about physical measurements not metaphysical dimensions when he said that the rudder's size constituted an overwhelming obstacle to exhibiting it at the museum, where space was a constant and pressing concern.
Did he make the right decision, if there was one? Was Aurora’s extraordinary voyage less to do with the Antarctic exploration than with maritime endeavour, as Captain Doorly thought? Was it relevant that Aurora was in large part Stenhouse's story, not Shackleton's? In 1916, the story of the ITAE was related as an adventure in which Shackleton represented, as Mr J.P. Luke put it:
[T]he outstanding features of Britishers . . . their courage and tenacity, and their desire to ‘play the game’ (Evening Post 1917).
Was it even that, despite the call to collective abstract ownership of the expedition by the Empire, the jury rudder was really not a New Zealand story either?
Despite ambivalence in some quarters about the advisability of the ITAE embarking in 1914, it had broad public appeal. In New Zealand, as in England, once underway, public sentiment was strongly attached to Shackleton's fate, that of the expedition members, and of Aurora. More particularly, the arrival of Aurora and the presence of her crew members in Dunedin for a part of 1916 was important to the city. Events associated with the expedition were popular with the public as well as the scientific community.
Contemporary reportage of Shackleton's ITAE emphasised the courage and determination displayed by all concerned. Resourcefulness and resilience were recurrent subtexts in the commentaries. Aurora’s jury rudder can easily be seen to symbolise these qualities. It was part of a story of peril, privation and hardship faced and overcome, and that story had a wide appeal. Decades later, despite honours which included the DSO, OBE and the Croix de Guerre, one writer considered ‘the greatest exploit of all for which Commander Stenhouse should be remembered was his performance with the crazy old barquentine in 1916’ (Auckland Star 1942).
Though an important part of the story of the expedition, the jury rudder was neither Antarctic science nor entirely Antarctic exploration. Benham's refusal to accept it might seem curious in our present age of memorialising, commemorating and re-enactments. Equally, however, it is hard to imagine what factors could have led to Benham making a different decision. Would a more obviously statuary form or a bigger museum have made a difference?
We have re-evaluated both Shackleton's ITAE and New Zealand's relationship to Antarctica in the past 100 years. The rudder's potential as a symbol of remarkable resourcefulness and toughness is as easy for us to imagine now as it was to Captain Doorly a century ago. In many ways it represented the lateral thinking, problem solving, ingenuity and self-sufficiency often claimed as characteristic of a New Zealand story, rather than a British one.
Did the New Zealand version have to wait until Sir Edmund Hillary's infamous ‘dash to the Pole’ (Dodds Reference Dodds2005) on a modified Fergusson farm tractor, nearly half a century later as part of the Commonwealth, rather than Imperial, Trans-Antarctic Expedition?
All historic New Zealand newspaper articles quoted were accessed through the Papers Past website, which is copyright the National Library of New Zealand.