They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case, it was the very attractive cover that drew me to read Erebus: The Story of a Ship. Michael Palin, known equally for his early work as part of the Monty Python troupe as for his travel documentaries, here tells a riveting story from the golden age of polar exploration. A tale of high-spirited British imperialism, marine camaraderie, a warship that wasn’t, and the enduring mystery of a vanished Arctic expedition.
The 1800s and early 1900s were a golden age of polar exploration, and small libraries of history books have been written analysing or celebrating expeditions by famous explorers such as Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton or Robert Falcon Scott – their brave, perhaps foolhardy journeys often ending in tragedy. One remarkable episode in this period was the Arctic expedition led by English Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin. It stands out both for the sheer loss of life (129 men) and the mysterious fate of the expedition.
The book starts with the completion of the HMS Erebus in a Welsh boatyard in 1826. It was to be one of the two ships on Franklin’s fateful expedition (the other went by the equally cheerful name of HMS Terror). Used as a warship patrolling the Mediterranean during years of relative peace, Erebus was quickly mothballed and lay anchored for almost a decade.
As mentioned in my review of The Spinning Magnet: The Force That Created the Modern World – and Could Destroy It, this era of exploration was also when precise navigation became vital, spurring a race to study the Earth’s magnetic field (see also Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail and The Illustrated Longitude: The True Story of the Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time). While Erebus lay idle in a dockyard, James Clark Ross led an expedition that successfully located the magnetic North Pole in 1831. Attention subsequently shifted to locating the magnetic South Pole and the decision was taken to convert Erebus from a warship into a reinforced ice-ship.
“The book starts with the completion of the HMS Erebus in a Welsh boatyard in 1826. It was to be one of the two ships on Franklin’s fateful expedition (the other went by the equally cheerful name of HMS Terror).”
Focusing his book on the ships allows Palin to tell two connected stories. Before venturing North, Erebus and Terror first embarked on a four-year expedition led by the same James Clark Ross, approaching Antarctica three times and retreating to Tasmania and the Falkland Islands in between. Though Ross played no further role in future expeditions, he beat Franklin to this assignment. Both men had experience exploring the Arctic, but Franklin had accepted a position as governor of the new British penal colony in Hobart, Tasmania, so was not available to lead this expedition. When Ross visited him in Tasmania, it must have been hard on Franklin.
The story of the Antarctic expedition takes up a large part of Palin’s book, and he has mined archives, logbooks, and personal correspondence to sketch a lively picture of the daily grind on board, the camaraderie between sailors holed up for years on small boats, their antics during shore leave, the unforgiving Antarctic conditions, the amazing landscapes, and the thrill of exploration. Though he has numerous letters written in the lyrical style of Victorian-era England to quote from, Palin’s own writing is equally majestic at times.
The book never descends into patriotic or romantic hero-worship, however, and Palin occasionally reminds the reader that this was simultaneously a period of tyrannical expansionism and colonialism by Britain. A period in which nature, from woods to whales, was seen purely as a resource to be exploited and turned into colonial assets to further the glory of the empire. A period in which men could wax lyrically about the beauty of wild animals and then shoot them.
Though Ross never reached the magnetic South Pole, his expedition was remarkably successful and saw no loss of life, despite harrowing conditions. How different would Erebus and Terror’s next expedition turn out…
“Palin’s own writing is […] majestic at times [though] the book never descends into patriotic or romantic hero-worship […]”
The British Admiralty decided to mount a new expedition, back to the Arctic, to complete the discovery of the Northwest Passage. If sailors could find a way to navigate the Arctic ocean westwards, through the archipelago of northern Canada to reach the Bering Strait and then China, it would be a boon to commerce. With the Suez Channel not yet in existence, ships had to sail all the way south around Africa and back up north to reach Asia. Only now, with sea-ice in decline in a warming Arctic, is this route opening up and countries are scrambling to exploit this “opportunity” (see my review of Cold Rush: The Astonishing True Story of the New Quest for the Polar North – how little our attitudes have changed).
The second part of Palin’s story takes up significantly fewer pages, and with good reason. With Franklin at the helm of this expedition, Erebus and Terror sailed off into the Arctic in 1845, never to be seen again. No fewer than 36 (!) rescue expeditions were mounted over the next decade, and though tantalising clues such as personal effects and a few graves were found, both ships and the vast majority of the crew had vanished in the Arctic wilderness.
The mystery came to a resolution when the wrecks of Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively, some 170 years after their disappearance. Palin here chooses to only briefly narrate the highlights of this period, and I cannot blame him. From historical overviews of the hunt for the remains of the expedition (recently for example Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search and Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition), to details such as the ignored role of Inuit eyewitness testimony (see the Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony), the exhumation and autopsy of some of the bodies that we did find (see Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition), or the finding of remains of perished rescue missions (see Lost Beneath the Ice: HMS Investigator and the Search for Franklin) – there is a vast literature on this topic.
Despite this, Palin manages to give his story a novel twist by instead focusing on the ships. The book has some helpful maps and two colour plate sections with some photos. If you crave more pictures I recommend Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found. Palin’s book instead excels in its writing. Infused with humour and heartfelt admiration, it brings to life the unbelievable challenges early explorers exposed themselves to. Sure to please history buffs, this book is hard to put down once you start it. Oh, and cover design, it matters.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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