Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Book Review: Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Mystery of All Time

By Michael Palin

Sir Michael Edward Palin is an English actor, comedian, writer, television presenter and public speaker. You may know him from the BBC comedy series Monty Python. In that series, which he co-authored, he starred in in comedy classics like “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m Okay,” which he both wrote, acted in, and sang. For a laugh, here's a link to a YouTube performance. You can find several variations there. This one involves a BC lumberjack.

    The book I am reviewing today was first published (2018) in the UK as Erebus: The Story of a Ship. However, it was then released across the pond as Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. Vintage Canada distributed my paperback.

    In this fascinating volume, Palin brings to life the world and voyages of HMS Erebus, from its oaken construction in the naval dockyards off the Thames River in Pembroke, England, to the part it played in Captain James Clark Ross’s Antarctic expedition of 1839–43, to its abandonment during Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition, and to its final rediscovery, seven years ago, on the seabed in Canada’s Queen Maud Gulf, in the Arctic Islands.

    He begins the story at the end, as it were. “Wilmot and Crampton Bay, Nunavut, Canada, 2 September 2014,” he writes in the prologue. “Near the coast of a bleak, flat, featureless island, one of thousands in the Canadian Arctic, where grey skies, sea and land merge seamlessly together, a small, aluminium-hulled boat called the Investigator is moving slowly, carefully, rhythmically across the surface of an ice-blue sea. Towed behind her, just below the water-line, is a slim silver cylinder called a towfish, not much more that 3 feet long. Inside the towfish is an acoustic device that sends out and receives sound waves. The sound waves bounce off the seabed, are returned to the towfish, transmitted up the tow-cable and translated into images of the seabed below.

    In the following few paragraphs, he describes Canada’s discovery of the sunken remains of Erebus, the extraordinary pioneer vessel that explored both the world’s polar regions in the 19th century. So doing, it reveals much about both exploration and the Royal Navy in the 19th century. He explores the intertwined careers of the men who shared its journeys. The Antarctic expedition highlights the organisational genius of James Clark Ross. The leader of this mission, he captained that vessel and her sister ship, Terror, to map much of the Antarctic coastline and conduct early scientific experiments there – notably, efforts to establish the location of magnetic south. Thus, had Marine archaeologists discovered HMS Erebus, her snapped stern covered with algae, on the Arctic seabed. 

    Palin starts there and works back. Labourers at the Pembroke dockyard built the broad-hulled warship and sent it into the waters off Milford Haven in June 1826. She was named after the son of the mythological Chaos; not a big ship, at 104 feet, she was less than half the length of a standard man-o’-war. Vividly, Palin says, “at 372 tons she was a minnow compared to Nelson’s 2,141-ton Victory.”

    By contrast, Sir John Franklin – at the age of 60 and after a chequered career – commanded the ship on its final journey, toward the North pole. Palin’s telling describes what life on board was like for the dozens of men who stepped ashore in the Canadian Arctic after the ship had been trapped in the ice, and crushed. There, one by one, they froze and starved to death in the Arctic wastes, as rescue missions desperately and unsuccessfully tried to track them down. 

    This work is based on deep research through the files of London’s Royal Geographical Society. To help tell the story, Palin travelled to various locations across the world – Tasmania, the Falkland Islands and Canada’s Arctic, among others – to search for local information, and to experience at first hand the terrain and the conditions that would have confronted the Erebus expeditions. A delightful feature of this book is how he uses these personal expeditions to bring the reader out of deep history into vivid descriptions of his travels into places the crews encountered on their expeditions. 

    The book’s layout fits the high quality of its prose. It uses maps, paintings, and engravings from the era to take you back to those times and places. The section on the Arctic trip includes a daguerreotype of each crewman. This technology had not been invented when the two ships began their adventures in the Antarctic.

    Palin is strong on historical context. After Waterloo, the navy was at loose ends. Erebus (the name is Greek, for the primeval god of darkness) spent two years patrolling the Mediterranean “to annoy the Turks.” Then its life as a warship ended. 

    In September 1839, accompanied by HMS Terror, she dropped her pilot off in Kent and spent four years on an Antarctic adventure, the dashing James Clark Ross captained her to the Barrier, as it was then known. Today, it is known as Antarctica’s Ross ice shelf. It is hard to imagine what the Erebus crew thought and felt as they sailed along the tall ice cliffs of this shelf, which was the size of France. Erebus and Terror were the first sailing ships to break through the pack ice and the first to definitively confirm that an Antarctic continent existed. 

    On its way south, the three-masted Erebus had stopped off at Tasmania (at the time, Van Diemen’s Land) where they met up with Lt. Governor John Franklin. It was Franklin who later captained Erebus (again accompanied by Terror) on her final mission. By then fitted out with a steam-driven, screw-style propeller, they were to undertake an assault on the Northwest Passage – the fabled trade route from Europe to the riches of Cathay. That story begins two-thirds of the way through Palin’s book. It is a well-known tale, replete with human bones in kettles, plucky Inuit telling stories about encountering starving white men who staggered around after their ships sank. have sunk and the efforts of Lady Jane Franklin to dispatch rescue ships. 

    “Never again, in the annals of the sea, would a ship, under sail alone, come close to matching what [Erebus] and Terror had achieved,” Palin wrote.

    I loved this book, and recommend it highly. That said, I’d like to end with a comment on two other exceptional books, both by the late Australian author Lennard Bickel. The first is Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written (1977). The second is a follow-up titled Shackleton’s Forgotten Men: The Untold Tragedy of the Endurance Epic (2000). Both books tell riveting stories about the early exploration of Antarctica.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Book Review:


The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves 

by Matt Ridley


According to Wikipedia, Matthew White Ridley is the fifth Viscount Ridley. Born in 1958, he studied at Eton and earned a Doctorate in history at Oxford. A British journalist and businessman, he is best known for his writings on science, the environment, and economics. Apart from the book I am reviewing today, his science books include The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1994), Genome (1999), and The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (2015).

I must have found my hardbound copy of The Rational Optimist in a used bookstore. Although only a decade old, it is in rough shape, and sat unread on my bookshelves until the club put the topic of economics onto our program. That’s when I scanned through the book, read the prologue (titled “When ideas have sex,”) and started to read. Once I began, I had a lot of trouble putting this book down – partly because it involves such a splendid combination of economics and history, which are both among my keen interests.

A good place to start in this review would be to cite part of a paragraph from that prologue. To “say that life is the same as it was 32,000 years ago would be absurd.  In that time my species has multiplied by 100,000 percent, from perhaps three million to nearly seven billion people.  It has given itself comforts and luxuries to a level that no other species can even imagine.  It has colonised every habitable corner of the planet and explored almost every uninhabitable one. it has altered the appearance, the genetics and the chemistry of the world and pinched perhaps 23% of the productivity of all land plants for its own purposes. It has surrounded itself with peculiar, non-random arrangements of atoms called technologies, which it invents, reinvents, and discards almost continuously. This is not true for other creatures, not even brainy ones like chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, parrots and octopi. They may occasionally use tools, they may occasionally shift their ecological niche, but they do not raise their standard of living, or experience economic growth. They do not encounter poverty either. They do not progress from one mode of living to another and ash nor do they dip Lord doing so. They do not experience agricultural, urban, commercial, industrial and information revolutions, let alone Renaissance is, Reformations, Depressions, Demographic Transitions, Civil Wars, Cold Wars, Culture Wars and Credit Crunches….”

Our ancestors, Homo erectus ape-men, were avid tool users. We know this because archaeologists and others have found their stone axes in digs throughout Africa and Eurasia. But they were not innovators. Once they started making axes, they stuck to the same design for more than a million years. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. It never seemed to occur to these folks that you could make a better hand axe.  In Ridley’s words, “their descendants would continue to make it for hundreds of thousands more years.  That’s the same technology for more than a thousand millennia, ten thousand centuries, three thousand generations – an almost unimaginable length of time.”

Then we modern humans (homo sapiens) arrived.  During the last 100,000 years we have not only devised fishhooks and farming, but steam engines, cellophane and one-click buying. What made us so different? Why did we come so far so quickly when our hominid predecessors were stuck in a rut for thousands of generations? Ridley’s answer is trade. As he sees it, we owe the forward march of humankind to the benefits of barter. Homo erectus had a large brain and probably a rudimentary language, but never saw the point of making things they could swap. Once we cottoned on to this trick, there was no stopping us. If a person good at making fishhooks knows people who are good at fishing, he should make the fishhooks while the others do the fishing. Each party to such a transaction suddenly has free time for further innovation.  And the beat goes on.  

Ridley makes a strong case for this thesis. He takes us from the hunter-gatherers who first ventured out of Africa to the moguls of Silicon Valley, and shows how humanity has built innovation on innovation in its never-ending search for new gizmos that people will want to buy. From this perspective, specialisation is the essence of humanity, and self-sufficiency a misguided objective. If you really had to make everything yourself, you would be back in the stone age, scrabbling around with hand axes. As Ridley details ad nauseum, it’s far better to work at one thing and let the market supply the rest. 

As the book winds down, Ridley takes aim at the gloom-mongers who have always been with us, and have always been wrong. I, for one, have read many books focused on the notion that our civilization was on its way to hell in a handbasket. I’ve read numerous books predicting increasing poverty, pollution, and pestilence. Yet here we are with worldwide life expectancy up by more than a third in the past 50 years, cleaner air and rivers than we have enjoyed for centuries, and birth rates falling dramatically everywhere. In the 1950s, Ridley says, an amazed post-war world proclaimed that “we have never had it so good.” Today, those standards of living would count below the poverty line.  And so it goes throughout this charming, optimistic romp through economic history.