Michael Palin: Erebus

Cover of Erebus by Michael PalinThey might have had monogrammed dinner plates and personalised silver cutlery, but the didn’t have very good maps.

Michael Palin needs no introduction from me. He rose to fame with Monty Python in the 1970s, and then in 1989 began a career as a presenter of more-or-less gruelling travel documentaries, starting with Around The World In 80 Days. He has written fiction, published a number of volumes of autobiography and numerous books to accompany his travel documentaries, but I think this is his first venture into writing popular history. I’m hoping it won’t be his last. Erebus tells the story of the expedition ship that took James Ross to the Antarctic and John Franklin to the Arctic. Franklin’s expedition, to Arctic Canada in search of the Northwest Passage, famously failed. All hands were lost, along with the Erebus and its sister ship Terror, under still-mysterious circumstances. The wreck of the Erebus was discovered in relatively shallow water in 2014, off the Adelaide Peninsula (known as Iluilik by the Inuit)—and that’s what prompted Palin to write this book. The Terror turned up in a bay on King William Island (Qikiqtaq in Inuktitut) in 2016*.

Location of Erebus and Terror
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Location of the Erebus and Terror wrecks (prepared from a public domain map)

The UK edition of this book is succinctly subtitled The Story of a Ship. By contrast, the subtitle of the US edition drizzles on a bit, going with One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. I suppose that lets you know what you’re getting into, but where do you stop? One Ship, Several Other Ships, Two Epic Voyages, A Whole Bunch Of People Who Were Involved To A Greater Or Lesser Extent, Some Interesting Historical Context, Some Personal Reminiscences, And The Greatest Naval Mystery Of All Times. That about covers it.

I confess I judged this book by its cover a couple of times before eventually buying it. The cover illustration of a ship recklessly proceeding under full sail into a jagged icefield doesn’t inspire confidence. And the depiction of a ship sporting a spritsail and square mizzen topsail (both of which the Erebus lacked) made me heave a sigh and put the book back on the shelf more than once. Even the horror-fantasy television series The Terror managed to produce a better depiction of the barque-rigged vessels used on the Franklin expedition.

Still from The Terror (2018)
Click to enlarge

But I’m glad I cracked and bought the book in the end—Palin’s punctilious research belies the careless cover.

He starts with the launch of Erebus, commissioned as a bomb vessel, in 1826, and charts its early and forgotten activities in the Mediterranean, before it was repurposed as an ice-strengthened exploration vessel for Ross’s Antarctic expedition in 1839. In a parallel narrative strand, the story of the contemporary search for the Northwest Passage is introduced, along with a cast of naval characters that we’ll encounter again as the story progresses.

These tales have been well-told in the past. I can recommend M.J. Ross’s Ross In The Antarctic (1982), and Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys (1998) if you want to delve more deeply into either story. What distinguishes Palin’s narrative is his interest in bringing the people alive—by quoting their own words, or by taking descriptions from contemporary sources, or even just by describing the sort of accommodation and entertainment they would have had aboard ship. After a while you begin to feel you know the jaunty naturalist Robert McCormick, the self-doubting Captain Francis Crozier, the wickedly humorous Captain James Fitzjames, and the intensely loyal but (one suspects) distinctly annoying Lady Jane Franklin. He has a real eye for the telling phrase in someone else’s writing. We find out a great deal about poor Francis Crozier’s hope for love with Sophia Cracroft when she privately describes him as:

a horrid radical and an indifferent speller

We learn a lot about the quick-thinking Second Master of the Terror (and accomplished artist), John Davis, when he records that, when all hands are called on deck as Erebus and Terror are about to collide during a storm:

I opened my door to prevent it being jammed, and hurriedly put on two or three articles of dress and jumped up the hatchway […]

We can also appreciate the evocative writing of Captain Fitzjames:

The sea is of the most perfect transparency—a beautiful, delicate, cold-looking green, or ultramarine. Long rollers, as if carved out of the essence of glass bottles, came rolling towards us; now and then topped with a beautiful pot-of-porter-looking head.

And with our foreknowledge of what will happen to Erebus and Terror in the Arctic, who could not be moved by the letter of carpenter Alexander Wilson, sent from Stromness to his wife, as the ships are about to depart for the Northwest Passage:

If it is God’s will that we should not meet again I hoop we will meet in heaven their to enjoy life everlasting. Dear Wife every night I lay down in my hammock I offer up a silent prayer for you and my Dear children.

The story is well-told. Palin conveys the excitement and danger of Ross’s three years in Antarctic waters, and also the slow descent into weariness and a yearning for home. And then when the crew assignments are made for Franklin’s Arctic venture, we feel a sense of foreboding as the dramatis personae are assembled. By the time Erebus and Terror sail off into oblivion from Disko Bay in Greenland, there’s a real feeling of loss. And Palin handles the subsequent piecemeal discovery of the puzzling remains of the expedition very well. A row of graves, a message left in a cairn, scattered skeletons, a garbled notebook, abandoned sleeping gear and cooking equipment—and a boat that seems to have been hauled overland in the wrong direction, containing a strange selection of objects including silver cutlery and a copy of The Vicar Of Wakefield. And threading through all that the local Inuit testimony, which was at first dismissed, but which has been proven accurate repeatedly.

And there are maps! Good maps, properly labelled, conveniently placed relative the text. That’s a real joy in this sort of narrative.

All in all, it’s an excellent introduction to the early days of polar exploration. And even if (like me) you’ve been reading about this stuff for years, I suspect you’ll still find something new and fresh in Palin’s approach. I’ll leave you with a quote from Robert McCormick, which demonstrates how a naturalist went about his business in the nineteenth century:

This evening I tried the effects of hydrocyanic acid on three penguins, to ascertain the speediest and most humane method of ending their existence. One dram of the diluted acid destroyed a bird in one minute and fifty seconds.

* By a remarkable coincidence, the bay in which the Terror lies was named Terror Bay in 1910. The Inuit name is Amitruq.

2 thoughts on “Michael Palin: Erebus”

  1. If I didn’t read your review I would have thought that this was just some light weight accompaniment to a TV programme when it is obviously mush more than that. These sort of ‘heroic’ forlorn events of of the Victorian age can still fascinate after 180 years.

    Your reaction the plethora of good maps made me chuckle – you have showcased an abiding interest of yours.

    PS: This piece also answered a puzzle for me as to why a WW1 Monitor was named for a lost exploration ship. I know see the connection between the monitor Erebus and the ex-gunship Erebus.

  2. Yes, naval gunfire support (bombarding the shore with disproportionately large guns) seems to be the philosophical connection between the old bomb vessels and the monitors.

    With reference to maps, one of my earliest memories is of being awestriken by the apparently supernatural abilities of prediction that map-reading gave my father. So I guess that must indeed be about the most abiding interest I have.

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