By Philip Van Dueren in collaboration with Dr Jan Chojecki, grandson of John Quiller Rowett and author of the Quest Chronicle http://www.questchronicle.org.uk which provides a day by day account of the Shackleton-Rowett (Quest) Expedition 1921-1922. Images kindly provided from The Rowett-Chojecki Family Collection.
In late November 1921, Sir Hubert Wilkins (still George or ‘Wilkie’ then) finds himself bound for South Georgia. He has been sent on ahead of the Quest and the rest of the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition by ‘The Boss’, Sir Ernest Shackleton. As the expedition’s naturalist, it has been decided that he and the geologist, George Vibert Douglas, should start their scientific work on the southern Atlantic Island while the ship undergoes repairs in Rio de Janeiro.
The Quest had sailed from St Katharine Docks in London on 17 September turning upstream under Tower Bridge before heading back down the Thames to anchor overnight off Gravesend. At 4am that night the anchor drags and they ‘ram… a collection of tugs’, requiring replacement of the jibboom, while Wilkins works in the darkroom in his quarters in Quest’s cramped forecastle.
While the Quest sails down the Channel, Wilkins travels back to London for some last-minute items such as books and records and checks on some arrangements before continuing by train to Plymouth where he is to reboard for departure from England. There he meets Robert Selbie Clark, the naturalist from the Endurance expedition, and no doubt picks up some good advice on collection and preparation of biological specimens under expedition conditions. On the afternoon of 24 September, 1921, they are waved off by large crowds, including John Quiller Rowett, the main sponsor of the expedition and friend of the Boss, and head out to sea.
Problems with the Quest begin soon after leaving Plymouth as they encounter rough seas in the Bay of Biscay. The engines are knocking, with the crankshaft out of alignment, and the vessel is labouring slowly. There are also problems with the top-heavy rigging. Wilkins expresses his misgivings about the engine problems several times in his diaries, which give a day-to-day account of the expedition.
As well as their principal expedition duties, all on board take their turn in a 4-hour watch rota and also in ‘trimming’ coal, a very dirty job! Wilkins starts noting the first birds of the voyage and also begins taking photographs although he is not the expedition’s photographer. That role belongs to J C ‘Bee’ Mason, but he is already laid up with sea-sickness.
Being ‘Peggy’ (deck boy or general hand) is another role performed by all crew on a roster basis and upon Wilkins’s turn on 30 September, he notes – ‘My Peggy this morning, everything in a filthy condition not a clean plate in the whole bunch but served it up to them in what there was. The saloon is the dirtiest place I have ever eaten in + that is saying something.’
Calling in to Lisbon, on 4 October for respite and repairs, they have a few days ashore, even attending a bull fight. Wilkins has some of his photographs printed and gets ‘kinema’ film he has taken ready for the Boss. The latter is shown to some of the visitors they receive while in Lisbon, including some British and American government officials. Leaving Lisbon on 11 October, the Quest heads south into further stormy weather. The engine problems persist and it becomes increasingly clear the ship, although virtually unsinkable, is quite unsuitable for big seas.
Photographer Bee Mason and scout Norman Mooney, both suffering badly from seasickness, are sent home from Madeira. Shackleton allocates to Wilkins Bee Mason’s role of photographer – both for still images and the all-important moving picture ‘kinematography’ – in addition to his role as naturalist.
Almost four days are spent on Madeira, where Wilkins is busy collecting entomological specimens. He takes photographs of the Quest in the bay off Funchal, dwarfed by a French battleship, the Gueydon. Wilkins’s frustrations with the ship and the expedition’s leadership are evident as he writes:
The Boss came along + said that he had considered giving me full time [pay] 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 public. 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.
The next stop is St Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands. Wilkins explores the hinterland first with Douglas and the next day with fellow aviator Roddy Carr, the pilot of the seaplane that is to be collected in Cape Town. The two fliers discuss the possibility of landing aircraft on the local golf links. About this time, already weeks behind schedule and with the engine and rigging problems, it is decided to head to Rio de Janeiro for substantive repairs, rather than struggling on to Cape Town as planned. A consequence of this is that the seaplane is never collected. It would have been the first powered flight on an Antarctic expedition.
Three days after leaving St Vincent, 31 October, is Wilkins’s birthday. Characteristically immersed in his work, he writes in his diary – ‘My birthday but I did not think of it until dinner time’.
On 8 November, Quest reaches St Paul’s Rocks, a small group of islets and rocks almost straddling the equator around 600 miles off the coast of Brazil. Wilkins is in his element here as the rocks are home to blue-tailed boobies and a variety of noddies. He takes 34 specimens, a dozen still pictures and about 400 feet of cinefilm. He spends the next couple of days on Quest skinning, pickling and labelling the items for preservation and later study.
Quest reaches Rio at dawn on Tuesday 22 November, 1922. Wilkins and Douglas transfer directly to the mail steamer Orcoma heading to Montevideo. The specimens he has collected so far on the voyage are shipped back to England from Rio, to the care of the British Museum (Natural History). On 28 November, Wilkins and Douglas depart Montevideo on SS Woodville bound for South Georgia.