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.