By Michael Palin
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.