Shackleton’s final expedition: Reuniting Quest’s collection 100 years later
By James Ashworth
First published 5 January 2022
A century ago, the era of ‘heroic’ Antarctic endeavours came to an end as the Quest expedition made its way home.
While it is sometimes overlooked, the mission’s centenary has inspired a drive to reunite its scientific artefacts, and tell the stories of this last voyage of discovery.
One hundred years ago today, the explorer Ernest Shackleton died onboard his ship the Quest, while it was docked at the remote Antarctic island of South Georgia.
Shackleton’s death cut short this final voyage of discovery, known as the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition. On the ship’s return, the vast natural history specimens collected during this expedition were dispersed across the Museum’s collections, while additional documents disappeared into other archives.
Now there are hopes that these specimens can be reunited and the story of Quest’s discovery told.
Mary Spencer Jones, Senior Curator of bryozoans at the Museum, says, ‘We have a reasonable amount of Quest material in the collections, but it’s all spread out.
‘Specimens from expeditions such as this tend to go into different collections at different times, which separates them. This is because they would have been sent to different scientific authorities at the time, and after they had been worked on they were then returned to the Museum.
‘As a result the specimens have come in and out of the collections at different periods making them harder to track, and no one ever seems to have seriously written them up. One hundred years later, now is the right time to start putting together a full list of what came out of the expedition.’
Archive news footage of the Quest departing London
The history of the expedition
The Quest expedition has its origins in early 1920 when Ernest Shackleton began putting together a voyage to the Arctic. With the backing of the Canadian government, he planned to explore the seas north of Alaska, with some of the finance provided by businessmen such as John Quiller Rowett.
But when the Canadians backed out and the seasonal window closed for an Arctic mission, it was decided to head to Antarctica instead, with Rowett providing all of the funding.
On 17 September 1921, Ernest Shackleton’s Quest expedition finally left London for Cape Town, South Africa where the crew intended to pick up a seaplane, polar equipment and the scientist Professor Ernest Goddard.
However, engine trouble instead forced the Quest to sail to Rio de Janeiro for vital repairs. By this point, signs of Shackleton’s ill-health also began to show but the ship continued on to South Georgia regardless.
In the early hours of 5 January 1922, Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack. At his wife’s request, his body was subsequently buried on South Georgia following attempts to return it to the UK.
Although attempts by the remaining crew were still made to reach Antarctica, heavy packs of ice made it impossible. Instead the Quest turned back and sailed to Cape Town as part of a plan to refit and resupply the ship for a second attempt the following year – one that never happened.
Sir Ernest Shackleton died partway through the Quest expedition, and the voyage is often remembered for being his last, rather than its scientific achievements.
Telling Quest’s story:
After the expedition ended the hundreds of specimens that were collected, ranging from birds to rocks, were sent off to scientists for analysis. As they were gradually returned to the Museum, the specimens were dispersed across the collections and studied independently of one another.
However, as the centenary began to approach, thoughts turned to the Quest expedition once again. As the grandson of John Quiller Rowett, Jan Chojecki was well aware of his family’s association with Shackleton and began researching his grandfather’s role in Antarctic history.
‘I’ve always been curious about my grandfather’s career and his life,’ says Jan, ‘but when I bumped into a group of Scouts heading to the Antarctic, I got co-opted into their project and started to dig a bit deeper into the story. I read the diaries of Quest’s naturalist, George Hubert Wilkins, and found his descriptions of how he studied wildlife in incredibly difficult conditions absolutely fascinating.
‘That’s when I thought it would be interesting to put the stories to the specimens.’
Jan got in touch with the Museum and visited the collections of birds at Tring. Using the descriptions contained in the diaries and reports of the Quest’s crew, he began to connect specific references with individual specimens in the collection.
These accounts explained some of the more unusual finds in the collection. For instance, the diaries reveal that an unassuming box of snowy sheathbill heads and feet are a result of Wilkins falling into the ocean after collecting the birds and spoiling the skins. The hardier body parts survived and ended up at Tring.
‘It’s outstanding that we can go into the drawers and put a story to them,’ Jan says. ‘There aren’t that many polar expeditions with such a depth of story behind them.
‘While it may not add any more science to the specimens than what is already on their labels, it’s a powerful message for educating and inspiring new generations.’
Some of these stories are increasingly relevant today. When visiting Gough Island, Wilkins remarked on the ‘terrible evidence of man’s destructiveness’ such as a penguin drowned in a water butt and numerous invasive mice which tried to eat the bird specimens.
The mice remain a problem on Gough Island, which is now a critical sea bird sanctuary. A recent attempt to remove all mice from the island earlier this year was found to have failed.
What did Quest discover?
While Jan has been revealing the stories of the Quest, Mary has been looking into its scientific mission as part of her work to begin cataloguing the findings.
‘They were very focused on collecting what they were interested in the expedition and were less interested in general collecting,’ she says. ‘There’s a fair amount of bird material at Tring and they are perhaps one of the most interesting groups.’
While researching the specimens from the expedition, she came across an unusual find – a noddy nest lined with a bryozoan. Noddy’s are a wide-ranging group of sea birds found from Hawaii to Australia, across to the Red Sea and Caribbean, while bryozoans are a group of colonial creatures, also known as moss animals.
‘I’ve got bryozoans in the collection from the expedition, but I wouldn’t necessarily say they were wonderfully interesting,’ Mary says. ‘However, this is a stunning nest and it’s very rare. Noddy terns grab material like feathers and seaweed to line their nests and it seems in this case it happened to grab a bryozoan off the beach.’
‘I have taken some tissue samples and hope to find out which bryozoan is in the nest during my research.’
Among Wilkins’s other finds were specimens of Gough Island and Nightingale Island’s finches, which were taken on the journey to South Africa. These were used to describe two new species, Wilkins’s finch and the Nightingale Island finch, while a third was reclassified.
Dr Joanne Cooper, Senior Curator of birds at the Museum, says, ‘Although the Gough finch had already been described, the Quest specimens allowed new investigations by Percy Lowe, who established a new genus, Rowettia, for this endemic species. It is now recognised as Critically Endangered due to the impact of mice in its native habitat.
‘Lowe also realised that Nesospiza jessiae was not a separate species after all, but the young of the Gough finch.’
In addition to these species, the specimens collected provided new occurrence data for existing species. Historic information such as this can help with the study of climate change by showing how the ranges of wildlife have altered over time.
These modern applications of century-old finds would have been unknown to Rowett, who passed away two years after the expedition’s return.
‘I don’t think my grandfather had a way to judge if the expedition was a success,’ Jan says. ‘He wasn’t a scientist and it would have taken years to look at all the specimens. I think it probably felt like a big anti-climax and I’m not sure that he should have been right to feel that.
‘If he would have known that people are still looking at his specimens 100 years later, he would have been absolutely over the moon.’
While the death of Shackleton, and the end of the Quest’s voyage, completed an era of Antarctic exploration, research continues on the continent. Today, an international agreement exists to ensure Antarctica is a place occupied purely for the pursuit of research. The scientific legacy of Quest and the expeditions before it continues.