By Philip Van Dueren
With the 100-year anniversary of the departure of the Quest upon us soon, I have just completed Wilkins’ diary transcriptions for the whole expedition (his part being from 17 September 1921 until arrival in Plymouth on 15 September 1922). He wrote almost daily notes over that year, in total some 76,000 words, including a record of daily position, current, temperature and run.
Almost exactly 100 years ago we can see Wilkins looking dapper in a cream jacket, sporting a cane. He is on deck with Shackleton on his left. This wonderful shot of the thirty-two-year-old Wilkins is about 25 seconds into the first video on the ‘ReQuest’ website. If you scroll down you will see other videos of the Quest, many of them shot by Wilkins.
The size of the Quest can be seen in its comparison to the Aquitania — most likely filmed by Wilkins (at 2m 20 secs. into this video).
Wilkins was initially employed as the ‘Naturalist’ on board but early in the voyage was asked by Shackleton to also ‘do the photography as well as natural history’, but he would not be excused from trimming coal, being ‘peggy’ or from standing 4-hour watches (8 to midnight, midnight to 4am or 4am to 8am) and other work with the crew. The employed cinematographer, Bee Mason, was dreadfully seasick and had to leave the voyage at Madeira. While understanding Shackleton’s predicament, Wilkins wrote in his diary:
‘It was impossible to do justice to all three or even two [jobs], but if he could not get anyone else to do it, I should do what I could.’
The diaries also include some great drawings; of maps, birds and people (probably whalers).
The wild sketch of one of the Captains of the Whaling ships display’s an unique flair for quirky portraiture, while the drawing of maps and of whales are interesting additions to the record of the Quest which have as yet has not been seen by anyone other than the readers of this newsletter.
It is well-known that Shackleton’s heart was not really into this expedition and he was probably past his best. Shackleton was spending a lot of time reminiscing with the men he had sailed with on previous expeditions, it was a reunion rather than an expedition and plans for this ‘scientific’ expedition were rather fluid – ‘circumnavigate Antarctica, looking for sub-polar islands’. Wilkins felt there was little interest in science and he and Douglas (geologist) had little opportunity to do their work….. The Boss came along + said that he had considered giving me full time for my work but would not do it for each of the others would want it too. He went on with a lot of rot about doing scientific work. He didn’t care a damn about all the scientific work that ever was done or could be + doesn’t mind if we do any or not but every effort must be made to get a popular lecture for the Pathe. He is interested solely in the adventure + geographical discoveries, all else can go to hell for all he cares. This shows now more his incompetence + inability than many other happenings on the trip to start out on geographical exploration with a boat of this speed + repair.
Added to this the ship was quite unsuitable for performing any scientific work on board – far too unstable and with unreliable engines, which had work done in Lisbon and Madeira but again required a lot of work in Rio de Janeiro.
“The saloon is the dirtiest place I have ever eaten in + that is saying something. ……….. There is no place to put dirty dishes + the sea slops in whenever there is the least roll. The table + stools are not fastened down + the floor is hardly ever washed + with people sleeping + casting off their dirty clothes down there it is in a proper mess.”
The stop in Rio to fix the engine proved to be a boon, for he and Douglas were sent ahead to South Georgia from where Wilkins made some fantastic records of birds with many photographs. His ornithological work was so admired by the British Museum, that they chose him to lead an expedition to Australia in 1923.
“I have taken movies + stills of albatross mating, alighting + flying + some more of mollymawks. It is surprising that I have not seen any blackbrowed mollymawks since being here.
Photo via The Ohio State University Polar Archives Selection
While Wilkins admired Shackleton’s previous career, — especially his heroic leadership on the ill-fated Endurance, with his epic rescue of those left on Elephant Island, Wilkins’s diaries clearly reveal how frustrated he was with the Shackleton of the Quest — who in 1921 was slowing down due to the heart disease which led to his death on the 5th January 1922.
It is my intention to follow ‘The Voyage of the Quest: One-hundred–years On’ via this Wilkins Diaries page with snippets of these posted on the Wilkins Foundation Instagram (and its linked social media platforms) — so I won’t say too much more about it now.