Feb 2020

Discovering Shackleton’s Whisky and an Ancient Fruit Cake

It was on this exact day 110 years ago that Captain Scott and his team stood at the South Pole, in the shadow of the Norwegian flag, contemplating their long, bleak and fateful journey home. It was therefore a fitting opportunity for the APPG Polar Regions to learn more about the enduring legacy of human endeavour on the Antarctic continent.

The UK, along with New Zealand, Australia and Norway, takes a keen interest in preserving heritage sites in Antarctica. This ranges from the famous expedition bases of Scott, Shackleton and Edmund Hillary, to a bust of Lenin at the Pole of Inaccessibility and a Soviet kharkovchanka (huge, tracked, Antarctic overland vehicle) that was abandoned on a ridge.

A bust of Lenin sits on top of the (now buried) Russian temporary base at the Pole of Inaccessibility. Photo: Stein Tronstad, Norwegian Polar Institute

The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust is responsible for preserving the British scientific huts in Antarctica, some of which date back to 1944 when Operation Tabarin first established a British presence on the continent. Their wartime base, now known as Port Lockroy, laid the foundations for what was to become the British Antarctic Survey, and attracts around 18,000 visitors each year to its museum, shop and Royal Mail post office.

Antarctica remains the only continent on Earth where the first human dwellings still stand. These Heroic Era of Exploration huts have been looked after by New Zealand since the 1950s and over 19 seasons (and nine winters) experts have conserved over 20,000 artefacts, including the iconic fruit cake (pictured below) that was left behind by Capt Scott and considered “almost edible” 100 years later.

An exquisite watercolour of a bird by Dr Edward Wilson, who perished with Scott and the other members of the Terra Nova expedition, was found perfectly preserved, as well as a pile of unprocessed negatives by Herbert Ponting. Perhaps the most famous find was Shackleton’s forgotten stash of whisky, buried in the ice beneath his hut, and since analysed and replicated with great commercial success around the world.

100 year old fruit cake discovered at Cape Adare, left by Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910 – 1913). Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust

As with all of the early, hand-built Antarctic buildings, keeping them standing in such a harsh environment is a continuous challenge. Conservators try to visit the sites each year and repair damage caused by sandblasted timber, salt and algae erosion, freeze-thaw, leaks from melting ice and, one of the biggest challenges, humidity inside the buildings damaging the artefacts inside. The conservators rely on the Royal Navy and IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) to report any damage at the sites that they’re unable to reach each season.

Inside Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust

The British Overseas Territory of South Georgia also plays a key role in the history of British polar exploration. The remote, mountainous, 165km long sub-Antarctic island can only be reached by sea, a stomach-churning five-day voyage from the Falkland Islands.

It is the final resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who died onboard Quest on 5th January 1922, anchored off the whaler’s base of Grytviken. Shackleton’s wish was to be buried on South Georgia and his grave is distinctive in the whaler’s churchyard because it faces south (rather than the usual east) as a nod to his endeavours to reach the South Pole. The crew of Quest also built a cairn at Hope Cross so that passing ships could pay their respects to the great man.

Shackleton’s memorial cairn at Hope Cross, South Georgia. Photo: State Library of New South Wales

The cairn’s original oak cross has recently been replaced, with the original now safely preserved in the Grytviken museum. The museum also contains artefacts from the island’s former life as a whaling station in the early 1900s, and the South Georgian sites are visited by approximately 12,000 tourists each year.

The APPG Polar Regions would like to thank all of our speakers for their fascinating insights into the human history and heritage of Antarctica.

This report was prepared by Sophie Montagne (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat), and endorsed by James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions).

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to info@appgpolarregions.uk.

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.