This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Due to Antarctica’s extreme winter, which includes four months of total darkness, polar explorers endured intense confinement in close quarters for long periods of time.
American pioneer Richard Byrd explained, “little things … have the power to drive even the most disciplined … to the edge of insanity. The ones who survive with a measure of happiness are those who can live profoundly off their intellectual resources, as hibernating animals live off their fat.”
How did the Antarctic explorers of the early 1900s survive tedium in the time long before the internet?
Music was vital to the sanity and welfare of the explorers. “It is necessary to be cut off from civilization … to realize fully the power music has to recall the past…to soothe the present and give hope for the future,” said one of the youngest members of the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913).
The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-04) included an official bagpiper. Admiral Byrd brought a phonograph to the Advance Base in 1934, calling music his “only real luxury.” When abandoning the slowly sinking ship Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s men were allowed to carry only two pounds of personal effects. But Shackleton insisted that meteorologist Leonard Hussey take his six-pound banjo along, saying, “It’s vital mental medicine, and we shall need it.”
Books played an huge role in the lives of polar explorers. The library aboard Endurance included plays, poetry, books on exploration, the Encyclopedia Britannica and novels like The Brothers Karamazov. When the ship went down, Shackleton rescued a Rudyard Kipling poem. He tore the first page out of a Bible given to him by Queen Alexandra, abandoning the rest of the heavy text, though a crew member secretly saved it.
Poetry, one explorer explained, “was useful, because it gave one something to learn by heart and repeat during the blank hour … when the idle mind is all too apt to think … of purely imaginary grievances.”
Some men even attempted to learn a language. Roald Amundsen, the leader of the Norwegian Fram Expedition (1910-1914), studied Russian grammar. While others quickly finished their lighter stories, Amundsen’s reading “had the advantage of being incomparably stiffer. Russian verbs are uncommonly difficult of digestion, and not to be swallowed in a hurry.”