Book review: Erebus - The Story of a Ship, by Michael Palin

The 19th century public was far more excited by polar exploration than we have been by space travel and discoveries, no matter how the consequences of these have utterly transformed our way of life. But space lacks the human drama and all too frequently the tragedy of voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic.

The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest passage. Original Publication: Illustrated London News, 24th May 1845 PIC: Illustrated London News/Getty Images

Four years ago, the wreck of a sailing ship was discovered deep underwater in the frozen wastes of the Canadian Arctic. This proved to be HMS Erebus, one of the two ships which, under the command of the veteran explorer and naval officer, Sir John Franklin, had set sail in the early summer of 1845, charged by the Admiralty to discover the long-sought North-West Passage which would link the North Atlantic to the Pacific. In its 20 years of life, Erebus would make voyages to the Antarctic as well as the Arctic. It would be associated with James Clark Ross, described frequently as the handsomest officer in the Navy, as well as with Franklin. Ross’s own interests were primarily scientific, mapping the world and searching for the magnetic poles. His voyages and work were both remarkable, but the public was then more interested in Arctic than Antarctic exploration. The search for the North-West Passage, which might offer a shorter route to India, had obsessed explorers since John and Sebastian Cabot had discovered Newfoundland in the reign of Henry VII.

Nevertheless, in 1841 Erebus under Ross’s command, and its companion vessel Terror, were “the first ships to come face to face with irrefutable proof that the Antarctic continent existed.” Ross, however, was irritated rather than excited: the coastline blocked his way to the South Magnetic Pole.

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For the Admiralty and for the public Franklin’s Arctic expedition was, Palin writes, “a glorious advertisement for a climactic coming together of Britain’s naval, scientific and technological advances. It would confirm that Britain could be as great in peace as in war.”

Some were doubtful. One veteran of Arctic voyages warned the Admiralty that they were sending Franklin there “to form the nucleus of an iceberg.”

Palin deals thoroughly and fascinatingly with preparations for the voyage, which was expected to last three years, and for the provisioning of the ship and its crew of 68 men. The figures are astonishing. The supplies on board included 8,000 tins of preserved meats (the lead sealing them may have been poisonous), three tonnes of tobacco, 200 gallons of wine and 4,500 gallons of strong West Indian rum.

Palin regularly introduces his own experience of the places visited by Erebus. Sometimes it is irritating and distracting when an author does this, but not on this occasion. Palin’s experiences, including a voyage on a Russian ship to the channel where the wreck of Erebus was discovered, give a sense of immediacy and proportion to his narrative. The comparative ease of his travelling stands in sharp contrast to the grim realities of Arctic exploration in the days of sail, when those on Erebus and ships like it were cut off from any communication with home for years. This contrast serves to heighten the heroism of these men. One wonders at their fortitude and endurance.

Franklin’s fate became of national concern. His past achievements and his tragic end made him a national hero, worthy of his statue erected in London’s Waterloo Place in 1866. A little more than half a century later, he was to be eclipsed in the popular imagination by Captain Robert Scott in his quest for the South Pole, one reason being that we have Scott’s diary while Franklin’s thoughts when realisation of doom must have pressed upon him can only be imagined. Michael Palin has done full justice to him and all these remarkable men. This truly is a marvellous book. - Allan Massie

Erebus: The Story of a Ship, by Michael Palin, Hutchinson, 334pp, £20