Harry McNish -An insight into Shackleton's Carpenter
By Andrew Leachman
Harry McNish was the carpenter aboard Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance during the 1914-1916 abortive Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Highly respected for his craftsmanship and maritime skills, Harry McNish was chosen by Shackleton to be one of six members of the crew who sailed the whaleboat James Caird on the epic journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia during April 1916.
Harry McNish died in Wellington in 1930 at the age of 56. The Alexander Turnbull Library holds his journal, which covers the period 9 December 1914 to 13 May 1916, and it is this document that forms the basis of this article.
Had Harry McNish possessed the diplomatic and verbal skills to match his craftsmanship, he would have received silver Polar Medal Unfortunately his blunt manner and often-expressed opinions (many of which proved correct) offended Shackleton, to such an extent that Harry McNish was deliberately excluded from that much-deserved award.
The Endurance expedition is viewed as the final chapter in the heroic age of polar exploration. Shackleton's plan, borrowed from Doctor William Spiers Bruce (leader of the Scotia expedition), was to proceed to Vahsel Bay, deep in the Weddell Sea, and from there a party of six men with sixty dogs were to make the first crossing of the Antarctic continent to the Ross Sea via the South Pole.
The Endurance was crushed; she sank before reaching Vahsel Bay. Despite this, the Endurance story is one of the greatest epics of survival in the annals of exploration. The graphic pictures captured by Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, have ensured perpetual interest in Shackleton, his men and the events that they endured.
The saga of the Endurance commenced with the vessel leaving England in August 1914 as the clouds of war rolled over Europe. Collecting the dogs and Shackleton (the expedition leader) at Buenos Aires in October, the vessel arrived at the sub-Antarctic Island of South Georgia in early November. 1914 was a bad ice year; Shackleton waited a month for conditions to improve then headed southeast into the eastern side of the Weddell Sea.
In January 1915 at 76~ South, the Endurance was beset. Ten months later, on 27 October 1915, Endurance was crushed. She sank beneath the ice on 21 November.
For six months the party of 28 men camped on the ice. The pack ice drifted north and west, and then it started to disintegrate.
The party took to the three boats and made a desperate escape to the bleak shores of Elephant Island (South Shetlands). On 16 April 1916, the party felt solid land beneath their feet for the first time in 497 days.
Eight days later six men set out in the 6.2m whale boat James Caird for South Georgia some 670 miles to the north east and across the eastern Drake Passage, the most ferocious section of ocean in the world, to seek assistance for their comrades.
The voyage of the James Caird ranks with Captain William Bligh's open boat journey following the mutiny on HMS Bounty, with the sailing exploits of Jens Monk and his escape from Hudson Bay and return to Norway with his two companions, and with those unfortunates from the American whale ship Essex who resorted to cannibalism for their open boat survival.
The James Caird miraculously made the passage, but the landing, made in extremis, was on the south western side of the island. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean then made a 36 hour traverse over unsurveyed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to the north coast and the whaling station of Stromness where arrangements could be commenced for the relief of the 22 castaways left on Elephant Island.
After three unsuccessful attempts Shackleton eventually rescued the castaways with the help of the Chilean Navy tug Yelcho. Despite a grim wait of 128 days, no lives were lost.
"We certainly could not have lived through the voyage without it"; a quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton's book South (1919).
He was referring to the modifications made to the James Caird by Harry McNish. During the voyage of the Endurance and following her sinking, Harry McNish was fully employed at his trade.
His journal lists scores of skilled jobs, for as a time-served shipwright, he possessed the ability to work timber and iron.
McNish fashioned and fitted iron knees into the pram dinghy Nancy Endurance.
He made a small chest of drawers for Shackleton's cabin, instrument cases for meteorologist Leonard Hussey, specimen shelves for biologist Bob Clarke as well as erecting windscreens to protect the helmsman.
McNish modified the hold into cubicles to accommodate expedition members during the winter period when Endurance was beset.
It was McNish who constructed cofferdams to reduce the ingress of water into the engine room when Endurance was being slowly crushed.
McNish fixed doors, repaired locks, manufactured ice tongs and ice saws. Once Endurance was abandoned, McNish modified the motorised sledge enable the boats to be towed by manpower.
McNish spent time and energy attending to the boats, ensuring that their only means of escape remained in good condition.
He raised the sheer strakes on all three boats, fitted sailing beams into James Caird and used the ingenious mixture of flour and seal blood to caulk the seams of the clinker-built craft, the usual white lead and tallow being unavailable.
Prior to the traverse across South Georgia, it was McNish, the son of a Glasgow boot maker, who extracted brass screws from the James Caird and re-deployed them into the boots of Shackleton, Worsley and Crean for makeshift crampons. McNish was an inventive, imaginative and totally committed craftsman.
The McNish journal reveals a man with a positive attitude to most situations.
The journal contains forthright observations and opinions, but it also contains comments that show a surprising degree of compassion for his companions.
McNish also recorded the natural world surrounding him, and lists what was killed and eaten. He makes several comments about the then current situation of the workingmen and women of Britain.
He held strong socialist views. McNish was a member of the United Free Church of Scotland and as such despised the use of bad language. He labelled the shore party "blackguards" for their inappropriate language. The shore party being all those not directly involved with working the ship.
The closest companion McNish had during the voyage was Thomas McLeod, a Shetland Islander who had had previous Antarctic experience with Robert Falcon Scott on the Terra Nova and with Shackleton on the Nimrod.
McLeod signed on the Endurance as Fireman, having been an A.B. on his previous two expeditions south.
There are several references in the McNish journal to these two sons of Scotland taking their evening constitution together on the ice at the end of the working day.
McLeod often worked as McNish's assistant following the abandonment of the Endurance.
It is possible that Shackleton did not like or trust McNish, for in a letter to Edward Perris (future Editor of the Daily Chronicle) from South Georgia, dated 30 November 1914, Shackleton mentions McNish as being "the only man I am not dead certain of". He is - "a very good workman and shipwright, but does nothing I can get hold of."
This begs the question, with hundreds volunteering for the expedition, why did Shackleton choose McNish?
Sir Ernest Shackleton was a national hero, an inspirational leader and was driven to secure a place for himself in the upper echelons of English society by dent of his polar exploits.
McNish had no such aspirations. He was justly proud and comfortable with his craftsmanship; he was much respected as a professional seaman. The desire to join the ranks of the rich and famous would have been anathema to his socialist values.
The event that is commonly perceived as being pivotal to why McNish was excluded from the Polar Medal award occurred on 27 December 1915.
For his refusal to obey the lawful command of the Master (Worsley), Harry McNish was "logged".
This log entry was later cancelled by Shackleton following McNish's meritorious performance during the escape off the ice and to the relative safety of Elephant Island.
Neither McNish, Worsley nor Shackleton makes reference to this incident in their written work.
It is however probable that McNish was concerned over the degree of damage being sustained to the boats as they were dragged over such rough terrain.
As it transpired, two days after the "logging" of McNish Shackleton was forced to retreat back toward Ocean Camp as the ice conditions were proving to be unsafe. It is almost as if Shackleton blamed McNish for verbalising the dilemma the party found itself in.
At that juncture, the wind and tides were driving the pack ice at a greater rate than the men were capable of marching, an invidious situation over which Shackleton had no control.
The men had struggled to pull the boats north and west and the wind had driven the pack ice back south and east.
The decision to retreat vindicated McNish's assessment of the situation, but in no way did it endear him to Shackleton or Worsley. Shackleton wrote at the time, "Everyone working well except the carpenter. I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress".
It is possible that Shackleton s strong personality prevented others from expressing their opinions.
The indefatigable McNish with his dour independent way of speaking could well have been expressing the simmering discontent of others.
Following the disbandment of the Endurance party at Buenos Aires on 8 1916, Shackleton and Worstey travelled north together to San Francisco and thence to New Zealand to deal with the relief of the Ross Sea party. It was during this period that Shackleton and Worsley became close travelling companions, rather than Owner and Master of Endurance.
It is conceivable that Worstey, who felt a degree of antagonism toward McNish, communicated this dislike to Shackle Lon. Shackleton was as usual less than enthusiastic about engaging in the laborious task of writing his book South as he lacked the dogmatic industriousness needed for a hook.
Edward Saunders was again em ployed to extract "the story" from Shackleton's diary and from notes provided by Worsley. The young impressionable Hussey, the 21 year old expedition meteorologist, gave editorial help. When specific incidents are compared from other sources, it appears that McNish became the victim of a protracted character assassination in South.
Shackleton left McNish in charge of the party at Piggotty Camp. Established on a beach within King Haakon sound, with James Caird turned over to provide shelter, it afforded a suitable access route for the traverse over the mountains of South Georgia.
After manufacturing the makeshift crampons by removing the sheer strake from the James Caird prior to the trip up King Haakon Sound, McNish accompanied the three climbers at the start of their epic traverse.
One wonders why then, in South, McNish is portrayed as old and infirm at this juncture?
If McCarthy, the young high spirited and popular Irish AB. was left to tend the invalids, why did he not accompany the party when they set out?
Why was not McCarthy left in charge?
Shackleton would have known from the articles of agreement that McNish was the same age as himself, both men were born in 1874, (McNish was actually the younger by seven months) yet he is perpetually referred to as "the old carpenter".
In South McNish was not believed when he observed a rat near Piggotty Camp. In Worsley's book Endurance (1931) it is recorded that Crean first saw the rat, and Worsley asked what Crean had been drinking.
Later McNish also saw a rat, yet the impression given in South is that McNish was mistaken, or at worse, a liar.
By withholding the Polar Medal Shackleton achieved the final shaming of McNish, and also displayed a vindictiveness that fell far below his own mercurial standards of loyalty.
There is a letter (ADM1/8495/178) in the British National Archives at Kew. Written on Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition note paper and boldly signed by Shackleton, it has
"The Turf Club, Piccadilly, W." as an appropriate return address, typed on the top right hand side.
Set out below is the legend, " NOT recommended for the Polar Medal: -Weddell Sea Side", and here Shackleton has written "Endurance party", by hand. Sadly the name H.McNish is typed below in addition to three other names.
In 1919 Dr. Alexander Macklin (Senior surgeon on Endurance) wrote, "I was disheartened to learn that McNish, Vincent, Holness and Stephenson had been denied the Polar Medal". He continued "of all the men in the party no-one more deserved recognition than the old carpenter.. .1 think too that withholding the medal from the three trawler men was a bit hard.
They were perhaps not very endearing characters, but they never let the expedition down".
Andrew Leachman is Master of the New Zealand research ship Tangaroa. He has made several trips to Antarctica and has a keen interest in Antarctic boating history.