Boozy Explorers Published Books in Freezing Hut

Shack­le­ton, sec­ond from left, aboard the Nim­rod

Turn-of-the-century polar explor­ers rarely make head­lines these days, but a Feb­ru­ary 2007 dis­cov­ery of three cases of 100-year-old whisky entombed in Antarc­tic ice res­ur­rected the endur­ing racon­teur Sir Ernest Shackleton’s place in the lime­light. That the unlikely explorer had a secret stash of hid­den hooch fed the ini­tial media fire, while attempts to mar­ket repli­cated ver­sions of the whisky have pro­vided fod­der ever since. While the “Rare old High­land malt whisky,” which was found beneath a hut where Shack­le­ton and his team waited out a frozen win­ter before attempt­ing to reach the geo­graphic South Pole, is cur­rently the most rec­og­niz­able of the trea­sures asso­ci­ated with the site, it is by no means the most noteworthy.

Dur­ing the dark win­ter months of 1908, the explor­ers did more to pass their time in the hut than get schnock­ered and hide crates of whisky from one another. With the goal of com­bat­ing “the spec­tre known as ‘polar ennui’” through lit­er­ary pur­suit, Shack­le­ton demanded that his men try their hard­ened hands at cre­ative writing.

The crew was made up of gritty salts who had responded to an ad read­ing, “Men wanted for haz­ardous jour­ney. Small wages. Bit­ter cold. Long months of com­plete dark­ness. Con­stant dan­ger. Safe return doubt­ful. Hon­our and recog­ni­tion in case of suc­cess.” But they duti­fully wrote and sub­mit­ted their work.

Exchang­ing his com­pass for the prover­bial red pen, the intre­pid edi­tor then pol­ished the best pieces and, using a print­ing press he’d dragged halfway around the world for the pur­pose, actu­ally pub­lished a 10-piece, 120-page col­lec­tion that includes short stories—both fic­tion and non—poetry, and a work of sci­ence fic­tion. He titled the final prod­uct Aurora Aus­tralis. Shack­le­ton never made it to the geo­graphic South Pole. But he holds the title of being the first to pub­lish a full-length book in Antarctica.

The ink would con­geal, and could only be made to flow by hold­ing a can­dle under the ink­ing plate.

The idea to cre­ate Aurora Aus­tralis wasn’t born of Antarc­tic bore­dom. Accord­ing to “Light in the South,” Allen Mawer’s highly infor­ma­tive report on the sub­ject, Shack­le­ton had gone to such great lengths to ensure his team would make a book while win­ter­ing at Cape Royds that he equipped his ship with print­ing and etch­ing presses and had two of his men train for three weeks each in how to use the equip­ment. But no amount of train­ing could have pre­pared them for the frus­tra­tion of print­ing pages in the 6-by-7-foot room (aka “Rogues Retreat”) in the hut where Shack­le­ton ordered the presses to be set up for the win­ter. Accord­ing to Mawer:

The type would freeze to their fin­gers. The ink would con­geal, and could only be made to flow by hold­ing a can­dle under the ink­ing plate. Stove dust would set­tle on the paper as it was being printed. Any page that fell on to the floor, as filthy as that of a whal­ing sta­tion, was lost. A jos­tle of the compositor’s elbow could tip a tray of type into the mire. There were many fail­ures and a con­sis­tent stan­dard was dif­fi­cult to maintain. 

Shack­le­ton and his men printed an esti­mated 80 copies of Aurora Aus­tralis in the hut. They made the cov­ers from ply­wood boards torn out of pack­ing cases. Today, col­lec­tors iden­tify dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the book by the still-visible sten­cils that show what the pack­ing cases orig­i­nally con­tained. What is believed to be the first copy of the book resides in the National Library of Aus­tralia and goes by the moniker “But­ter 267.” Its pages are held together by silk cord, its spine bound in seal­skin. Impressed on the spine is the print­ers’ mark—an image of two penguins.

In 1914, Shack­le­ton set out to cross Antarc­tica by foot. He didn’t make it. En route to the con­ti­nent, his ship, Endurance, became trapped and crushed by ice, strand­ing the men for 20 months. Their story of heroic sur­vival, which involves what is con­sid­ered by many to be the great­est nau­ti­cal jour­ney in his­tory, has spawned innu­mer­able books, movies, tele­vi­sion spe­cials and moti­va­tional speeches and is prob­a­bly why you’ve heard of Shack­le­ton. It was on the explorer’s pre­vi­ous jour­ney, a 1907–1909 failed run at the South Pole known as the Nim­rod Expe­di­tion, that he and his men cre­ated Aurora Aus­tralis and buried the booze.

Like the now-famous whisky, which an expert lucky enough to taste it described in a June 2011 New York Times Mag­a­zine arti­cle as being fruity, with hints of cin­na­mon, tof­fee and caramel—“like a beau­ti­ful woman,” Aurora Aus­tralis pro­vides a glimpse at the lighter side of these leg­endary, jock­ish mis­sions. For all the mis­ery they so famously endured, Shack­le­ton and his men spent time drink­ing the whisky equiv­a­lent of Zima and com­pos­ing poetry. 


The loca­tion of rare and expen­sive arti­facts can be dif­fi­cult to deter­mine. Accord­ing to Mawer, around one third of the esti­mated 80 copies of Aurora Aus­tralis now reside in libraries and muse­ums. Some 32 are pri­vately owned and occa­sion­ally come up for sale, with price tags reach­ing upward of $70,000. The where­abouts of the remain­ing copies are unknown, but it’s not unrea­son­able to expect they’ll soon be located. In the past 10 years, two copies turned up in England—one was found in a fil­ing cab­i­net, the other in a sta­ble. As the remain­ing books are dis­cov­ered, Shack­le­ton will undoubt­edly make news again and again, the head­lines rein­forc­ing the explorer’s abil­ity to endure through time as well as tribulation.

You can read the “But­ter 267″  ver­sion of Aurora Aus­tralis in its entirety at the State Library of NSW here.