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Story of a tent

Nicola, Wednesday 16 December 2009

This week we began treating one of the largest objects that we have in the Reserve Collection – a canvas expedition tent used on sledging trips across the ice.

The dome tent opens up like a concertina and is supported by 4 arched iron poles sewn into the canvas. The round entrance is protected by a fabric tunnel which would have been tied up on the inside to keep out wind and snow.

The tent partially open © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The tent partially open © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The tent is associated with the Ross Sea Party which supported Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 – 17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton, who had led an earlier expedition to Antarctica in 1907, planned to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. The expedition would begin in the Weddell Sea and end in the Ross Sea.

However, the expedition was abandoned when Shackleton’s ship ‘Endurance’ was crushed in ice in the Weddell Sea. Unaware of this, 10 men, who were located in the Ross Sea area, continued to lay supply depots for Shackleton along the last leg of the proposed route.

The Ross Sea Party had their own challenges - they had been stranded with few rations when their ship Aurora was blown out to sea during a storm, leaving them stranded for nearly 2 years at Cape Evans (the home of Captain Scott’s expedition base for his attempt on the South Pole). With barely any provisions, the Ross Sea Party were forced to shelter in Scott’s hut where they used the stores, clothing and equipment left behind by Scott and his men.

A pair of improvised boots made by the Ross Sea Party, which would have been made from whatever they could scavenge from Captain Scott's base at Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

A pair of improvised boots made by the Ross Sea Party, which would have been made from whatever they could scavenge from Captain Scott’s base at Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The tent was used on their long sledging expeditions, covering almost 2,000 miles. The inside is black with soot from the primus stove, and small holes in the canvas have been patched and hand-stitched to prevent snow leaking into the tent during the blizzards that kept them confined for days at a time.

Several of the iron poles have been repaired with lengths of bamboo and twine and this reminded me of the shocking conditions, illness, starvation and exhaustion that the men endured. Not only did they suffer from painful frost bite and snow blindness but also acute scurvy caused by lack of vitamin C in their diet.

Ernest Joyce is quoted as saying ‘Scurvy has got us, our legs are black and swollen, and if we bend them at night there is a chance they will not straighten out. So, to counteract that, we lash pieces of bamboo to the back of our knees to keep them straight.’ They also tried to alleviate the pain by massaging the affected areas with methylated spirits.

Ultimately, Reverend Spencer-Smith died of scurvy and was buried in the ice, and later Mackintosh and Hayward were also lost whilst trying to cross thin sea ice in poor weather.

The Aurora returned with Shackleton aboard in January 1917 and rescued the 7 survivors of the original shore party.

Captain Scott's base at Cape Evans where the Ross Sea Party based themselves © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Captain Scott’s base at Cape Evans where the Ross Sea Party based themselves © Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want to read more about the Ross Sea Party, Kelly Tyler-Lewis has written a great account in her book The Lost Men (Antarctic Heritage Trust staff pick!).

One Response to “Story of a tent”

  1. Graham Robinson says:

    Leonard Bickell’s book “Shackleton’s Forgotten Men” is a great account of the Ross Sea Party.

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