Shackleton's 'bad lads' in new light
A decade-long quest to get closer to the truth of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-17 legendary Endurance expedition to Antarctica has lowered Andrew Leachman's opinion of the explorer, but heightened his respect for the four crew members who missed out on the Polar Medal.
Captain Leachman, a seasoned Antarctic skipper, calls what happened to the four "a travesty of justice" and next week will give a talk on "Shackleton's Bad Lads" at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology to explain how he formed that view.
Having made 14 trips to Antarctic waters since his first in 1999, the Nelson seafarer has a special feeling for the area and the early adventurers. He has amassed 60 books on the expedition and is part of an international "Shackleton nut club", a dozen or so members who exchange information.
Macnish, bosun John Vincent and stokers Ernie Holness and William Stephenson didn't get the Polar Medal. The other 23 expedition members did.
Most grating for Captain Leachman is what happened to Macnish, who has been given much of the credit for the crew's survival.
Called "the old man" by the rest, though only 40, the same age as Shackleton, when the Endurance set off, he did much of the work that ensured his shipmates did not perish after the ship was stuck in the ice and slowly crushed.
He worked hard to strengthen the trapped Endurance, and modified the small boat James Caird to allow Shackleton, himself and four others to sail hundreds of kilometres to fetch help for the rest.
At one point after they made landfall he extracted screws from the boat's timbers to make crampons for their boots so they could negotiate the frozen terrain.
But he also questioned Shackleton's judgment. That, and the personality clash between the dour, God-fearing Scottish carpenter who hated swearing, and his profane, dramatic but charismatic Anglo-Irish boss was his undoing.
Macnish emigrated to New Zealand, worked on the Wellington wharves and died destitute in the Ohiro Benevolent Home in 1930, aged 56.
Shackleton, knighted for his polar exploration, led three expeditions in all and was feted as a hero around the Commonwealth, with the Endurance story capturing the public imagination for generations.
But Captain Leachman - who went to sea from the North Lincolnshire port of Grimsby as a 15-year-old galley boy on a trawler - has found that his early admiration for Shackleton has diminished.
"Although a wonderful leader, he made promises he couldn't keep, and he shafted a lot of people with his shonky money deals.
"Why pick on these guys, the four? They were all working class, uneducated, he thought riff-raff."
Everyone who set off on the Endurance went through the same hunger and privation and all deserved the Polar Medal, Captain Leachman said.
Shackleton said the four weren't loyal. "But it's a two-way street. If you want loyalty, you have to give loyalty."
Captain Leachman, 67, was master of the Niwa research ship Tangaroa for 19 years, and took it to Antarctica numerous times before his retirement in 2010.
Shackleton's Bad Lads, 7.30pm Wednesday November 6, Room A211, NMIT. Access off the Alton St car park. Cost $3. A Nelson Institute event.
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