EREBUS: ONE SHIP, TWO EPIC VOYAGES, AND THE GREATEST NAVAL MYSTERY OF ALL TIME
By Michael Palin
Greystone Books, $28, 376 pages
In 1841, the British explorer Sir John Franklin set a course for the Arctic with two ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. The expedition was considered lost until 2014, when the Erebus (which Franklin had sailed in) was discovered in Queen Maud Gulf in Nunavut, Canada.
The incredible tale of this sunken ship and the mystery surrounding its disappearance have now been written by — wait for it — a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Ah, but Michael Palin is more than just a great British comedian. He’s an author, documentary filmmaker and former Royal Geographical Society president. His new book, “Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time,” is a well-written and captivating examination of the Erebus’ adventures and long-term watery grave.
Mr. Palin admits in his introduction, “I’m not a naval historian, but I have a sense of history” and “I’m not a seafarer, but I’m drawn to the sea.” These two characteristics had no effect on his intellectual curiosity about the two ships that “vanished off the face of the earth whilst trying to find a way through the Northwest Passage,” which he notes was “the greatest single loss of life in the history of British polar exploration.” He travels the Erebus’ route on its different journeys, and describes them in such stunning detail that you may actually believe you’re there, too.
The Erebus was the “last but one” of a type of late-17th century warship called a bomb vessel. These ships carried mortars “that could fling shells high over coastal defences, doing maximum damage without an armed landing having to be risked.” While the author acknowledges the ship’s name “wasn’t cheerful she wasn’t meant to cheer; she was built to intimidate.”
Indeed, that was the type of intimidating vessel needed to travel the Antarctic and Arctic.
James Clark Ross, who discovered the North Magnetic Pole, was named Erebus’ captain in 1839 for his excursion to Antartica. Although it was never viewed as a “graceful ship” or very quick, his great-grandson, Rear Adm. M.J. Ross, would say with pride she was “an excellent seaboat.” After a few test runs, he set sail from Tasmania a year later with, as fate would have it, the “more relaxed and less cerebral” Terror.
As Mr. Palin writes, “Erebus and Terror were now in waters that only a handful of people had ever crossed before.” Ross’ two warships dealt with rough waters, weather changes and the odd iceberg en route to the South Magnetic Pole. The voyage went further than other great explorations, including that of Capt. James Cook. There would be zoological discoveries, including the first sighting of the Ross seal. The grateful captain would even name Antartica’s second-largest volcano Mount Erebus.
After an incredible journey, one that “never again in the annals of the sea would a ship, under sail alone, come close to matching,” the two ships were in high demand. Franklin would be chosen to lead the next expedition to the Northwest Passage, with James Fitzjames named his second-in-command, and it would be aboard Erebus.
Franklin not only loved the sea but “was especially concerned with the educational and recreational well-being of his crews.” He set up evening schools with arithmetic books, pens and paper — and increased the ship libraries to 1,200 volumes apiece to include Charles Dickens novels and copies of the satirical magazine Punch.
As the two ships spend time in Greenland’s Whalefish Islands in 1845, they reached a point where correspondence would move at a snail’s pace. Franklin’s letter to his wife, Jane, was incredibly poignant and “although she might not have been on Erebus in person, her spirit was there in almost everything he did.” And it likely was on that fateful day the two ships disappeared on Baffin Bay.
In 1854, the Inuit would tell a terrible tale of the ships being “crushed in the ice,” the survivors had “abandoned them to walk south to find food,” and left the impression that cannibalism had occurred. The two ships’ whereabouts would remain a mystery until a September, 2014 expedition, including the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, named after a Liberal prime minister, found the Erebus — which was confirmed by a Tory prime minister, Stephen Harper.
Mr. Palin’s book is the perfect complement to the Erebus’ majestic voyages. When Monty Python met a sunken ship, there was no frivolity — but rather brilliance in the author’s words, thoughts and observations of the mighty sea.
• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.