Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time
Michael Palin, Greystone Books, 352 pages, 2018. $28
Five years ago this week Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister of Canada, made the electrifying announcement. The wreck of the Erebus, the command ship of the lost Franklin Expedition that had left England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage and been swallowed by the icebound waters off Canada’s Arctic coast, had been found in Queen Maud Gulf just 36 feet below the surface. And it appeared to be in remarkably good shape.
Two years later its companion vessel, the Terror, was discovered in even better condition, having sunk, appropriately enough, in Terror Bay on the southwestern side of King William Island. These were the first major discoveries concerning what had befallen the expedition and its 129 members since a single note detailing the plans to abandon the ships and try to reach Hudson Bay had turned up over a century-and-a-half before. At long last the central question of a mystery that has bedeviled nations and individuals since the late 1840s had been resolved. And with it came a wave of new questions.
Author and renowned Franklin expert Russell Potter describes the obsession that grips certain people over this story as “Franklin Fever,” a condition whereupon, learning of the catastrophe, they dive down a rabbit hole from which there is no return — or perhaps, given the location of the calamity, “seal hole” is a more appropriate metaphor. Soon their bookshelves are weighted down with countless volumes on the topic and they’ve joined the online forums. It becomes impossible to let it go.
One of the more prominent victims of Franklin Fever is Michael Palin, and for this we should be grateful. The author, television host, Monty Python alum, and all-around polymath has turned his attention to the story of the lead ship, turning out one of the most enjoyably readable books about 19th century British maritime excursions and the Royal Navy’s most famous nonmilitary failure to be had. One that will appeal to everyday readers as much as fanatics. “Erebus" is the story of a ship, of the men who sailed it, of those who were lost along with it, and of its remarkable recovery.
The Erebus was commissioned not long after the close of the Napoleonic Wars, and launched from Pembroke, Wales, on June 7, 1826. Named for the Greek god of darkness and shadows, it was originally designed for bombing coastal settlements. But it took to the waters during a long period of peace and never saw battle. After puttering around the Mediterranean on routine patrols it returned to England just as the nation was reaching full imperial glory and turning its attention to exploring the last untouched places on the planet. Above all else, this meant the polar regions, which remained cloaked in mystery. The North pole was then believed to be the site of an open sea surrounded by ice, but not covered by it. To the south, it was speculated that an as-yet undiscovered continent lay.
We know now that the first belief was in error, but the second was correct. In 1839, the British Admiralty decided to find what the bottom of the planet looked like, and the Erebus, a small ship, but solidly built, was chosen to lead the journey. It was accompanied by the slightly less sizable Terror, which would subsequently follow it into the north and ultimate oblivion.
Leading the expedition was the already famous James Clark Ross, who had been the first to stand atop the magnetic north pole. This journey lasted four years. Many aboard kept extensive journals and wrote copious letters home, a trove of source materials Palin draws heavily from.
These writings provide many details about life on the two ships, and Palin weaves passages from them together so deftly as to make the reader feel like an onboard witness. The ships made three successive runs at the southern continent over three successive Antarctic summers. The first trip was the most triumphant, the third the most troublesome, but each expanded knowledge of the area.
The vessels spent their first two winters in Van Diemen’s Land (today’s Tasmania), where the one-time Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin was lieutenant governor. He came aboard often to visit with Ross and his officers, not knowing the fate that awaited him on the same boat a few years hence.
Once home in England, the sister ships were hurriedly refitted for what the British believed would be their greatest feat yet: discovery of the Northwest Passage, a route over the top of America from England to Asia. Franklin, now back as well and egged on by his ambitious wife Lady Jane, sought and received command of the expedition. Apart from a few naysayers, no one believed the endeavor could possibly fail.
Loaded with years of provisions, the ships left London in 1845, and Palin provides a moment-by-moment retelling. He next quotes letters and reports posted from Greenland, the last stop, providing accounts as detailed as those sent from the southern hemisphere. Then the men headed into the Arctic and were never heard from again. What is known is that they all died by decade’s end, on and around King William Island, where the ships became locked in the ice for two years. Cannibalism would be the last resort of the final survivors.
Palin goes over the decades of searches, then moves to the present, when discovery of the ships in unexpected locations — although precisely where Inuit told early searchers they would be found — indicated the ships might have broken loose and been re-boarded in a final attempted escape. But we still don’t know.
One thing we do know is that Palin has written an irresistible account of the story behind the story of the Franklin Expedition. The Erebus has long been associated with tragedy, but Palin reminds us that first it was the stage for triumph. The ship had a short life, but it was amazing while it lasted.