There are thousands of stories in the Adventure Journal archive. Occasionally we choose a favored piece, dust it off, and put it back on the homepage for new readers to enjoy. Like this inspiring, almost unbelievable tale of polar survival. -Ed.
It’s a classic story of survival. A ship sunk by crushing ice floes. Men united to stay alive through unimaginable conditions. Surviving on an uninhabited island through the darkness of the polar winter. Will, ingenuity, and tenacity lead to a heroic sea crossing in open boats that most people wouldn’t trust on a calm lake. Finally, a mid-sea rescue. Not a single human life was lost.
An Irish boy named Ernest Shackleton may have heard this unfathomable story of resilience and strength as he played outside the local pub. The year of the rescue was 1882, so the young Shackleton was only eight when the news broke. Thirty-four years down the line he, too, would have a remarkably similar experience, albeit on the opposite side of the globe. The biggest difference is that he would tell the world about it.
There’s a straightforward reason why few people have heard about that earlier tale of survival. The captain who kept his men focused on surviving the unimaginable ordeal simply wasn’t much of a talker.
Benjamin Leigh Smith (1828-1913) was just a quiet dude – preferring to focus on objective reporting rather than his subjective perception of the task of hand. Perhaps this restrained style was because his early life was shaped by outspoken, prominent people. His grandfather was a well-known and ardent abolitionist in England. His father was a progressive politician who not only campaigned to make education accessible to the poor, but also paid from his own pocket to make it so. Smith’s mother, father, and sister were all women’s rights activists. To top it off, Florence Nightingale was his cousin. When achievement of that caliber runs in your family, the gauge of your own success may be skewed.
It didn’t help bolster Smith’s social swagger that his mother and father never married. In the 1800s, this was a big deal, denoted by such stigmatic words as illegitimate and bastard. In practice, it appears his family was just ahead of the times, in a bohemian sort of way. While the outside world may have balked, Smith rose to familial expectations of high achievement. He trained as a barrister and planned to work on women’s rights issues. But his heart wasn’t in it.
Smith had gnawing drive to explore the Arctic. Much of the northernmost exploration until that time had been focused on the Canadian Arctic, as accessed from North America. Overall, the region was still largely unmapped and not well understood. For historical perspective, famous Arctic explorers like Roald Amundsen, Louis Boyd, and Matthew Henson were still children for the most part. They wouldn’t set out on their most important expeditions until the early 1900s.
Backed by the convenience of affluence, Smith was able to pursue his dream by commissioning a private ship in 1871. It was essentially a pleasure cruise, albeit a very cold one. The glaciers, walruses, and icy waters did not disappoint. The exotic land and seascape of the Arctic piqued Smith’s interest as an amateur scientist. On ensuing expeditions, he collected plant and animal specimens for natural history museums in England. For better or for worse, Smith’s team even picked up two polar bear cubs and delivered the beautiful beasts to live out their days at the London Zoo.
Over the course of five expeditions from 1871 to 1882, Smith’s observations and collections helped establish a notable leap forward in the geographic and oceanographic understanding of the Arctic. His area of focus the perimeter of the Barents Sea, including Svalbard to the northwest, and Franz Joseph Land, a Russian archipelago to the northeast. He and his crews charted many of the islands across the region.
Smith became fascinated with deep-sea currents, as influencers of ocean patterns, travel, and climate. He collected an impressive amount of early data on Arctic region ocean temperatures long before Svalbard became the international ground zero for climatology it is today. Though Smith’s recordings from the 1870s aren’t freely referenced in contemporary scientific reports, they would seem to still have important comparative value for oceanographers and climatologists assessing climate change and other long-term trends.
Though lacking formal training as either a scientist or a sailor, Smith was a smart man. His expeditions were distinguished by the quality and quantity of data collected and his developing expertise in Arctic travel. Very little is known about his personal views on his explorations. His reports and captain’s logs were methodically and unapologetically sparse. Just the facts. As quiet and level-headed as he presented himself outwardly, so he was internally, it would seem.
His calm temperament would serve him and his crew well when they faced the unthinkable in 1881. Smith had commissioned a ship to be built for the specific rigors of Arctic travel. He called it the Eira, which is both a Finnish and Welsh word for snow, and the name of an ancient Norse goddess. In August 1881, the Eira was crushed by sea ice off of Cape Flora (which Smith named after his cousin, Florence), on Northbrook Island in the Franz Joseph Land archipelago. In the two hours it took for the Eira to sink, the crew scrambled to salvage what they could.
Luckily, they were able to rescue most of the stored food, guns, ammunition, at least four lifeboats, ship parts viable for building shelter, and Bob, the ship dog. They also managed to save all the liquor, which was not in short supply. Amid the terror of their reality, the crew promptly organized to build a shelter. With rocks, driftwood, and boat parts that floated to the surface from the sunken ship, they were able to build a relatively comfortable lodge on land.
The men lived in their structure for just over nine months, six of which were through the dark of winter. With plentiful ammunition and the help of Bob the dog, they successfully hunted walrus and polar bears to keep their protein intake up. We know they rescued a music box from the ship to provide entertainment. Though, can you imagine how that single song would grate on your soul after hearing it on repeat for nine months? We also know a fair bit about the courage and repeated acts of heroism of Bob the dog.
But overall, we know next to nothing about the emotional toll on Smith and the men. We can’t say with certainty whether Smith was an intrepid leader, or simply one of 26 exceptional men working to survive. Emotions and processes just weren’t Smith’s way. Even throughout what is arguably one of the most terrifying realities, Smith didn’t indulge any navel-gazing in his logbooks. Consistent to the core: he reported just the facts.
After nine months and one week at Cape Flora, the crew stepped into four lifeboats outfitted with makeshift sails. They rowed into the tempestuous Barents Sea in search of salvation. After three weeks in those lifeboats – cold, starving, and exhausted – the crew of the Eira came upon three ships that had been sent as a search and rescue party. Everyone survived. The fate of Bob the dog is unknown.
Upon returning to England, Smith stayed quiet. He didn’t capitalize on his newfound celebrity. He didn’t write a book or hit the lecture circuit. When summoned by the Queen to share his story, he sent a proxy instead. Smith never seemed tempted by hyperbole, even when his reality was one that most of us cannot even fathom. True to himself to the end, he retired and lived out a quiet life.
Illustrations courtesy the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.