Shackleton's book plan kept men from insanity

Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014
Alexander Turnbull New Zealand and Pacific publications curator Fiona Oliver with the first books ever published in Antarctica, covered in packing cases and bound with seal skin. They are being dusted off by Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library.

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On nights so long the Sun didn't rise, in temperatures well below freezing, cooped up in a tiny, smoky cabin, a group of explorers ticked off an unlikely first as they fended off madness.

In the Antarctic winter of 1908, Ernest Shackleton got his men to publish a series of books. Those books, published to ward off "polar ennui" during the sunless winter month, became the first books to be published in Antarctica.

From next week, Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library is offering a rare public viewing of a copy - bound in seal skin and covered in part of a packing case - of one of the books.

Turnbull New Zealand and Pacific publications curator Fiona Oliver said Shackleton believed the importance of the press was so great that he gave two men three weeks' training in using publishing gear before heading for Antarctica. His crew also carted down cast-iron printing and etching presses, probably at the expense of carrying home comforts for life on the ice.

The main reason was to sustain the crew's minds through the period of Antarctica's winter when the Sun never rose. It was also possibly to make some money from the books' sales on return.

Most copies were given away, but on one level it was a success: "No-one went mad," Oliver says. Between 75 and 100 copies were published. Of those, 30 were covered in pieces of packing cases and bound in treated seal skin, obtained from the seals the crew caught to eat and burn their blubber.

The Turnbull library has three bound copies. One still has the word "beans" from the packing case, another says "julienne soup" and the third, incomplete copy - bought last year for $37,000 - simply has the numeral "3".

The highly collectable books rarely came up for sale but, when one did in 2007, it sold for $84,000.

The printing press was set up at Cape Royds, at the foot of Mt Erebus. The conditions in those sunless winter weeks, when 15 men were confined to a 60 square metre hut, were grim. "The ink froze, salt in the water scratched the plates used for printing illustrations, smoke and dirt soiled the paper."

The books, each slightly different, include 10 written contributions, including stories, an article on the ascent of Mt Erebus, and verse. Shackleton has two published poems, under the nom de plume Nemo. Of the published volumes, some remain unaccounted for. One, which is referred to as "marmalade" for the packing case it was covered in, was found in a stable in northern England in 2006.

One of Turnbull's copies, "beans", will be on display at the Turnbull Gallery in Molesworth St from Monday. The exhibition, Extreme South: Antarctica Imagined, also looks at people's beliefs of the continent long before humans set foot on it. This includes writings and maps about a vast land mass with camels, elephants, and unicorns.

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Others believed in a "hollow earth" - a hole through the earth from the north to south pole where humans lived a utopian, tropical existence.

While long-since discredited by Shackleton's time, the hollow earth theory gets a mention in Aurora Australis as the basis for a story.

- The Dominion Post


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