York Museums Trust boss REYAHN KING introduces a well-travelled cocoa tin

Object of the week: The Rowntree’s cocoa tin that went to the Antarctic and back...

This rusty Rowntree’s cocoa tin, missing part of its original label, is extraordinarily well travelled. Now in York Castle Museum’s collection, it went out with other supplies to the Antarctic as part of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition of 1907 to 1909.

Shackleton took particular care sorting out his supplies in 1907, having suffered scurvy on the previous Discovery expedition with Robert Falcon Scott.

Shackleton had been sent home early because of his illness and this in part motivated his determination to return to the Antarctic and succeed. He brought enough for the Nimrod expedition to last two years for 15 men. Included were tinned meats, fish, jams, dehydrated vegetables, soups and bottled and dried fruits. He also brought 1000lbs (454 kg) of cocoa. Shackleton was always concerned about the welfare of his men and was well aware of the importance of a hot drink!

The Nimrod expedition encountered problems from the beginning. A build up of ice forced Shackleton to break his promise to Scott that they would not land near where the Discovery expedition had landed. Shackleton waited in McMurdo Sound for ice to shift but eventually decided to build his base hut at Cape Royds, about 24 miles north of Scott’s Hut Point base. His stores were landed with great difficulty as the ice was breaking up and the stores were frozen on the ice.

Despite blizzards and bad weather, the members of the Nimrod expedition achieved much. They climbed the volcano Mount Erebus, found the approximate site of the Magnetic South Pole, discovered and named the Beardmore glacier and became the first people to travel on the plateau of ice around the Pole. Shackleton’s expedition also included scientists who recorded snowfall, temperature, glacial changes and wildlife behaviour.

But what Shackleton most wanted was to reach the South Pole. He, Wild, Marshall and Adams formed an expeditionary party from their base with the intention of being the first to do so. Shackleton had brought ponies rather than dogs for the polar march but by the time they set out few had survived the winter season. As they travelled, the remaining ponies succumbed. By Christmas they had achieved the furthest South record but only had a month’s supply of food.

Shackleton made the decision to return when they were only 97 miles from the Pole. He was tempted to go on but knew they would run out of food. He said afterwards to his wife that 'a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?'. Most of the arduous return journey was completed on tight rations and to a tight timescale in order to reach the Nimrod before it sailed away in March, as previously instructed.

On the final leg of their route they found Bluff Depot resupplied. Shackleton wrote of 'Carlsbad plums, eggs, cakes, plum pudding, gingerbread and crystallised fruit'. I like to think hot cocoa was enjoyed too. All four men eventually reached the Nimrod safely.

Shackleton arrived back in England with all his men safe and had become the closest man ever to the South Pole. He was greeted by crowds, knighted Sir Ernest Shackleton by King Edward VII, and honoured by the Royal Geographic Society with a gold medal.

Shackleton’s record did not last long as Roald Amundsen reached the Pole in 1911. Shackleton led three more Antarctic expeditions and died, of a heart attack, in South Georgia where he is buried.

As well as providing physical nourishment, Rowntree’s cocoa represented the popularity of and support for explorers Shackleton and Scott. Rowntree’s workers were amongst the biggest supporters of both and production line staff apparently clubbed together to help pay for vital expedition equipment.

A label around this tin was written by one of Shackleton’s eight sisters: "This tin of cocoa is one of the unused stores brought back by Sir Ernest Shackleton from the Antarctic”. The hut at Cape Royds is now part of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. There are still stores there – including tins of Rowntree's Cocoa.