Long Read: The heroic story of Harry McNish and Shackleton's Imperial Transantarctic Expedition

Retired civil servant Margaret Cuthbert writes a special tribute to Harry McNish, a carpenter on the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition who had to resist his incompetent boss and maintain a broken ship almost single-handedly in freezing conditions to save the crew. Is there lessons from this story for modern day British politics?

HARRY MCNISH was the Scottish carpenter who served on the Endurance, the ship that carried Shackleton and his crew in his attempt to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea by way of the South Pole from 1914-1917. Having been a major player in saving the lives of all of the crew on the Endurance, McNish returned to obscurity. While Shackleton put forward the names of all of the crew bar four to receive a Polar Medal, he deliberately left out Harry McNish. McNish then worked on several boats for the Merchant Navy but ended up homeless and relying on the charity of those working at the docks in Wellington. On his death in a care home in Wellington, the dockers rallied and Harry was given a truly magnificent funeral. In more recent times his grave has been well looked after and interest in him is still encouraged by the New Zealand Geographical Society.

Over the years, interest in Shackleton and his Imperial Transantarctic Expedition has grown to the extent that he is now held up as an icon and role model, and has even been used in management courses as a paragon of leadership virtues.  A recent Exhibition of Frank Hurley’s photographs that is touring around the UK, brought back to my mind the injustice done by Shackleton to Harry McNish – an injustice which demonstrated Shackleton’s character: one that was temperamental and could hold resentment against those who had the gall to question his decision making. Shackleton certainly had good attributes: he had the ability to cheer the crew when matters were very bleak; he had genuine concerns for the welfare of those who were suffering badly from frostbite; and he showed great determination to get help for those stranded at Elephant Island. But such good attributes should not blind us to another side of Shackleton. 

McNish had learned by his trade the importance of planning, testing, buying the correct quality and quantity of materials, and finishing a job properly. He believed from his upbringing that responsibility lay with oneself for the decisions that you made, and that you were accountable if things went wrong and damaged other people. If you sensed or knew that other people in a position of authority were making wrong decisions based on a lack of knowledge, then you spoke up.  

When trapped on the ice, and seeing the folly of Shackleton’s decisions, Harry McNish did speak up - straight to the point. This was totally unacceptable to such as Shackleton. How dare a tradesman speak in such terms to the Boss. 

READ MORE: Long read: Remembering the 1914 First World War Christmas truce

But, of course, there was another edge to it. McNish was a trade unionist and socialist. Within no time of his putting down the harness by which the men pulled sledges across uneven ice, Harry had persuaded the other men by his rhetoric to down their harnesses and refuse to go further. No doubt, he was being seen as a Marxist terrorist and needed dealt with. However, within two days, Shackleton obviously realised that McNish was right and stopped the march.

It is also worthwhile trying to get to grips as to why some of the very learned scientists and other professionals on the expedition did not speak out forcefully enough regarding Shackleton’s plans that were leading them to almost certain death. In two cases there was no lack in their speaking out, but they did it in their gentlemanly fashions such that Shackleton could ignore their views and not worry that they might press their views further. Harry McNish, as is shown here, was quite a different story.

While this article is a tribute to Harry McNish, the worth of the man can only be seen by contrasting his with Shackleton’s behaviour.

Quoting from some of those on the expedition, who later gained worldwide respect for their contributions to science, (which would suggest men with a good understanding of what they might have expected from an expedition leader in unknown territory such as Antarctica), we have: 

James Wordie

James Wordie, at that time a young, wealthy Scottish scientist specialising in Geology, who, in later life, would become chair of the Scott Polar Research Institute and President of the Royal Geographical Society. He kept a diary which gives evidence of Shackleton’s behaviour not matching his promises: 

20th October 1914: “I had an important talk with Shackleton after breakfast, and made an offer to advance him some money, as more has been done in port than he bargained for. He accepted my offer on the understanding that I can get the money drafted over. It does not amount to much but it will get him out of a hole without raising trouble in London”. 

The inability to understand basic finance and the problems that ensue if you are a gambler beset Shackleton. He had already been involved in some dubious financial arrangements and he liked to gamble. What the 25 year old Wordie did not know was Shackleton’s history in taking chances. To hell with the rest of the world, I want, therefore….

On the same day, Wordie wrote: “There has been an important change mooted today with regard to the part which the ship will play in the expedition. It now looks as though it would be better to winter the ship in the south… Does mean that there will be no communication for fourteen months. ‘no room on board for a wireless transmitting plant’”. 

The Argentinian Government had provided a transmitter that connected with Greenwich Mean Time once a month. Shackleton took this offer rather than buy a more powerful transmitter. As it turned out, this was folly. When they arrived at the Weddell Sea, the transmitter did not work. The group were left out of communication at a time when communication could have alerted the Royal Navy and Whaling ships of their plight.

10th November: in South Georgia, “When we got up we found that Shackleton had gone round to Husvik on the little “Carl”. I was annoyed not to have learned of this before, as I wanted to go round there and stay for some days”. 

Wordie had let Shackleton know that he was keen to explore a particular area of the island to collect specimens. Several days later he found that Shackleton had set off for a “jolly” on the only trip that there would be to that part of the island without even letting Wordie know that he was going there. Scientific exploration, although forming an important part of Shackleton’s Prospectus for the expedition, was neglected by him, as the scientists quickly found out. It was merely in the prospectus to gather the support of scientific bodies and thus encourage financial support from businesses and the public.  Wordie was not amused but kept his feelings to his diary. 

20th November: “The Chief’s plans I now hear are to go back to Grytvken tomorrow and finally to sail for the South on Wednesday the 25th. The prospective trip down to the pack in the Endurance resolved itself finally into a prospective trip South in a whaler, and finally has not come off at all.”

This again shows a characteristic of Shackleton: that he appeared to be listening to good well-founded advice but disregarded it. The Whaler captains at South Georgia had told him that the ice was worse that year in the Weddell Sea than they had seen it for long enough. Where he had stated that the sea conditions and capability of the Endurance would be checked out in trial runs, it never was.

Once having entered the Weddell Sea and being surrounded by heavy pack ice and glaciers, Wordie suggested that they might find a harbour and wait out the winter. Shackleton paid no attention to him.

Reginald Ford

Reginald Ford, who was a member with Shackleton of the earlier Scott expedition, noted: “I do not seem to have had the same regard for him as for Scott, Wilson, or the others. This I think was due to a certain lack of consistency in his character – you did not know where you were with him as certainly as with others … His early charm appears in part a pose and showmanship”.

Apparently, he could switch moods and show his favour or disfavour at the drop of a hat. 

William James

William James, physicist on the Endurance said of Shackleton: “a mixture of personal magnetism, bluff, and blarney that could be irresistible”.

There is good reason to believe that better management and better preparation might have avoided much of the suffering of the crew. Examination of the diaries kept by some of the crew show a Shackleton that was a chancer of the highest order. There were many areas in which his work was haphazard. These included: lack of preparation; failure to secure enough of the necessary finance; failure to take on board the information given by the whalers at South Georgia on the unusually ice bound state of the Weddell Sea; failure to involve members of the crew, particularly the captain, Worsley, in his plans and changes of plans. In public, he appeared always an optimist, but he could spend days in his quarters in a mood where it was advisable not to bother him.

Before going on to Harry McNish, it is useful to look at the treatment Shackleton handed out to Captain Worsley. Worsley was a New Zealander and was a respected navigator of the southern seas. He was appointed Captain of the Endurance very much at the last minute, and sailed the ship from England to Buenos Aires with a crew which he himself had not selected, and a good number of whom were themselves appointed by Shackleton at the last minute. In other words, for a man who was a navigator, he had been handed a task which required a hard task master to control a motley group of sailors who were unruly and favoured drink. Shackleton, still caught up in financial problems, had to remain in Britain and follow on afterwards. 

When Shackleton arrived in Buenos Aires, he sacked a number of the crew who should never have been on the ship in the first place, and he demoted Worsley, saying that from then on, he, Shackleton, was the Leader. He was quickly known to the crew as “the Boss”. Certainly, the professionals on the ship saw this move as beneficial. The able bodied seamen needed strong, strict, good management. 

But it did have its downside. Shackleton saw fit to ignore Worsley’s advice on a possible bay for sheltering for the winter, given the worsening weather conditions. This type of arrogance, from a man who did not have the experience of Worsley in Antarctic waters, contributed greatly to the plight that the men later found themselves in. In a few days they were trapped in ice. The behaviour was very unlike that of another Scot, William Speirs Bruce, who put together the Scotia expedition and had also journeyed up the Weddell Sea. While at sea, he believed the Captain was the one best able to make decisions and deferred to the Captain’s view when he said that they should proceed no further due to the condition of the ice.

Bruce, as he himself wrote in his book, was driven by furthering scientific knowledge and for the glory of Scotland. He raised sufficient finance himself, mainly from the Coats threadmakers of Paisley, and from the Prince of Monaco.  Shackleton was driven by a wish to be a “first” in polar exploration. The prizes of being first at the North Pole, the South Pole, and in navigating the North West Passage had already been taken: he saw the transantarctic crossing as being the only remaining challenge that interested him. Money was a problem. He had substantial backing from James Caird, a jute manufacturer in Dundee,  but he had needed more and a major English newspaper was willing to back him provided he included Frank Hurley, the esteemed photographer, in his group with the photographs taken by Hurley going immediately to the newspaper. That did mean that Shackleton was under financial pressure to complete the expedition, no matter the physical cost to himself and the crew.

Harry McNish

And so we come to Harry McNish, the carpenter on the Endurance

McNish had strong socialist views, hardly likely to share those of Shackleton who had stood as a Unionist in the Dundee Parliamentary elections. He also had strong religious views and was a member of the United Free Church of Scotland. He carried his bible with him on the voyage and it was a well thumbed book. He would be likely to reject earthly higher powers, particularly if they were giving orders where the pursuit of them was clearly dangerous, if not mad. 

In 1914 Harry McNish responded to an advert for a carpenter on the Endurance, a ship which was to take a crew from England to Buenos Aires, on to South Georgia and then to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Like the crew of the Endurance, he expected to remain on the ship when the explorers and professionals landed in Antarctica.

In the early 20th Century, ship’s carpenters were much needed important members of the crew. Harry surpassed what was required, as he was also a qualified shipwright. He got the job, and so, joined the hotchpotch of the professionals on the crew. He had a rasping Clydeside voice; he did not tolerate fools gladly, and he was quick to show people their mistakes, but he gave his time to help others when needed. As the voyage progressed, the others realised his talents and his qualities. 

Through his hard work, his ingenuity, and his skills in carpentry and metal work, he made life just that little bit more comfortable both on the ship and on the ice floes. When the ship was trapped in the ice, he re-engineered the inside of the boat to provide sleeping cabins for the crew. Some of the crew asked if he might make them shelving or chests of drawers and he obliged. But his pièce de résistance was contributing enormously to the saving of all the men that had sailed on the Endurance. In its final throes, with water pouring in, and the pumps unable to work hard enough keep the water down, McNish built a coffer dam, working without break through the night, standing in ice cold water up to his knees and already suffering from frostbite.  McNish knew himself that the coffer dam would not be able to save the ship: the pressure of the ice on all sides was too great. But it would give time to get supplies out from the ship and ready to shift on to the nearest ice floe.

The ship carried three smaller whaling boats and after the Endurance sank, Shackleton ordered the men to put the boats on sledges and load them with equipment and provisions. His plan was to march across the ice to land and so continue his transantarctic crossing. With the ice being in rough hummocks, in no way flat, full of crevasses and at times slush, the journey was extremely slow and pulling the sledges was exhausting. Ah, but did they not have dogs to pull the sledges? Well, yes, they did have dogs, over 50 of them, but the men did not have sufficient experience in dog handling. 

After seven days of this hell on earth, they had gone only eight miles and the boats they were hauling were getting badly damaged. There was only one man, Harry McNish, who stopped pulling and refused to follow what he saw as madness. The boats - their only way of escaping from Antarctica and getting back to civilisation - would soon be unfit for purpose if the march continued. It was this episode, seen as rebellion, that led to the Ship’s Articles being read out by Shackleton and the latter’s undying bad feeling for McNish. 

There can be little doubt that it was Harry McNish’s intervention, albeit like a fiery Trade Unionist, that made Shackleton think again about the foolhardiness of his plan. Two days later Shackleton stopped the march and the crew made camp. The boats, the only means of escaping from Antarctica, had indeed been damaged by being pulled over very rough ice. His anger that a Carpenter had the nerve to stand up to him and outline the folly of his plan rankled. While Shackleton can only be described as “nursing his wrath to keep it warm” (Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter), McNish repaired the boats that had been damaged on the march. All he had as implements were a saw, a hammer, a chisel, and an adze. The boats needed re-caulking but there were no ready materials to make the joins in the planks watertight. Harry made his own material for the caulking. When the ice broke up in the Weddell Sea, his repairs and restructuring of the boats allowed the men to make their way to Elephant Island.

Elephant Island is a barren wind swept rock and was not on any of the regular sea routes. The men had to be rescued and the only way available was by a group setting out on one of the boats and making their way to an inhabited land. South Georgia, 800 miles away, was chosen. McNish raised the sides of the James Caird in order to keep out the worst of the waves: he made an entire deck by assembling a wooden frame and secured a canvas cover over it. He caulked the boat using his own mixture of flour, oil paint and seal blood. All of these repairs and alterations were carried out, not only in appalling weather and climate conditions, but with McNish’s fingers badly frostbitten. Although the boat was far from comfortable, and was difficult to row as the sides had been raised, he had done enough. The boat got them to South Georgia. 

The only other man on the boat really contributing to their successful sea journey was the captain, Worsley. Worsley was an excellent navigator and with only a sextant and a chronometer he was able to steer the boat to South Georgia. And, of course, if the six men had not made it to South Georgia, no one would have been alerted to the fate of the men who were living in shocking conditions on rocks at Elephant Island. 

While Harry McNish continued working in the Merchant Navy for some years, the frostbite he had endured gradually took its toll and he ended up destitute, begging in the docks in Wellington, New Zealand. He was, by all accounts, a great story teller and was looked after to some extent by dock workers interested in his exploits. It is believed that at this stage, and needing money and food, he embellished some of his stories. It is possible that here he came out with the cat story. (The ship’s cat was liked by all and was called Chippy, possibly after McNish). When Shackleton had reached the conclusion that there was not enough food to feed both men and dogs, he ordered the killing of most of the dogs; the cat had to go, as it would have been eaten by the remaining dogs. Somehow the story became that Harry vociferously objected to the cat being killed and Shackleton then denied him a polar medal. This does not seem likely. Harry’s anger at the boats being damaged, his outburst which showed Shackleton’s decision making in a bad light, his ill health through frostbite and piles, and being forced to haul a sledge while roped to a team of men, are far more likely to be the reason.

Conclusion

Shackleton is worthy of a damning indictment for getting the men into such a perilous position as he did, as is the current UK Conservative Government for getting us into a Brexit mess that is already costing Scotland not only in income earning but in loss of businesses and loss of experienced workers.  

We need change. Like the sailors on the Endurance, Scotland has had no proper representation in the main power groups of the EU. We are no more than a small part of the UK. We rely on our masters to make decisions on our behalf. When those masters are clearly incompetent, largely because they are more interested in the fate of the political party to which they belong rather than to the conditions of the people that they are meant to represent, then we are in serious trouble. There was a time when we had Secretaries of State for Scotland who fought a good battle on our behalf and were taken seriously by the UK Government. To be sure, not all of them, but compared with the incredible weakness of the present incumbent, they were able to fight for Scotland. We need a Harry McNish to stand up and show the uselessness of the current ruling class, and the need for change in the constitution of the UK. Entangled with the rest of the UK, we cannot dissociate ourselves from the current tragedy and are already becoming the laughing stock of Europe. 

It is time for change. It is time for a second independence referendum.

Picture of a model of HMS Endurance at the Scott Polar Museum of Cambridge, by SBA73

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