Shackleton–Rowett Expedition

A ship with a black hull and white upper parts, three sails raised, in dock alongside a high multi-windowed warehouse building
Expedition ship Quest, moored in St Katharine Docks, London

The Shackleton–Rowett Expedition (1921–22) was Sir Ernest Shackleton's last Antarctic project, and the final episode in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.The venture, financed by John Quiller Rowett, is sometimes referred to as the Quest Expedition after its ship Quest, a converted Norwegian sealer. Shackleton had originally intended to go to the Arctic and explore the Beaufort Sea, but this plan was abandoned when the Canadian government withheld financial support; Shackleton thereupon switched his attention to the Antarctic. Quest, smaller than any recent Antarctic exploration vessel, soon proved inadequate for its task, and progress south was delayed by its poor sailing performance and by frequent engine problems. Before the expedition's work could properly begin, Shackleton died on board the ship, just after its arrival at the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.The major part of the subsequent attenuated expedition was a three-month cruise to the eastern Antarctic, under the leadership of the party's second-in-command, Frank Wild. The shortcomings of Quest were soon in evidence: slow speed, heavy fuel consumption, a tendency to roll in heavy seas, and a steady leak. The ship was unable to proceed further than longitude 20°E, well short of its easterly target, and its engine's low power coupled with its unsuitable bows was insufficient for it to penetrate southward through the pack ice. Following several fruitless attempts, Wild returned the ship to South Georgia, on the way visiting Elephant Island where he and 21 others had been stranded after the sinking of the ship Endurance, during Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition six years earlier.Wild had thoughts of a second, more productive season in the ice, and took the ship to Cape Town for a refit. Here, in June 1922, he received a message from Rowett ordering the ship home to England, so the expedition ended quietly. The Quest voyage is not greatly regarded in the histories of polar exploration, due to the event that defines it in public memory, overshadowing its other activities: Shackleton's untimely death.


Shackleton after the Endurance

Shackleton returned to Britain from the Endurance expedition in late May 1917, while World War I was under way. Many of his men enlisted promptly upon their return. Too old to enlist, Shackleton nevertheless sought an active role in the war effort,[1] and eventually departed for Murmansk with the temporary army rank of major, as part of a military mission to North Russia. Shackleton expressed his dissatisfaction with this role in letters home: "I feel I am no use to anyone unless I am outfacing the storm in wild lands."[2] He returned to England in February 1919 and began plans to set up a company that would, with the cooperation of the North Russian Government, develop the natural resources of the region.[3] This scheme came to nothing, as the Red Army took control of that part of Russia during the Russian Civil War; to provide himself with an income, Shackleton had to rely on the lecture circuit. During the winter of 1919–20 he lectured twice a day, six days a week, for five months.[4]

Canadian proposal

Panoramic view of a field of ridged ice stretching towards the horizon
Dense pack ice in the Beaufort Sea

Despite the large debts still outstanding from the Endurance expedition, Shackleton's mind turned towards another exploration venture.[4] He decided to turn away from the Antarctic, go northwards and, as he put it, "fill in this great blank now called the Beaufort Sea".[5] This area of the Arctic Ocean, to the north of Alaska and west of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, was largely unexplored; Shackleton believed, on the basis of tidal records, that it contained large undiscovered land masses that "would be of the greatest scientific interest to the world, apart from the possible economic value".[5] He also hoped to reach the northern "pole of inaccessibility", the most remote point in the Arctic regions.[6] In March 1920, his plans received the general approval of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and were supported by the Canadian government. On this basis Shackleton set about acquiring the necessary funding, which he estimated at £50,000.[5][7] Later that year, Shackleton met by chance an old school-friend, John Quiller Rowett, who agreed to put up a nucleus of cash to get Shackleton started. With this money, in January 1921 Shackleton purchased the wooden Norwegian whaler Foca I together with other equipment, and began the process of hiring of a crew.[5]

In May 1921 the policy of the Canadian government towards Arctic expeditions changed with the advent of a new Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, who withdrew support from Shackleton's proposal.[8] Shackleton was required to rethink his plans, and decided to sail for the Antarctic instead. A varied programme of exploration, coastal mapping, mineral prospecting and oceanographic research in southern waters would replace the abandond Beaufort Sea venture.[5]

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