A tale of adventure, courage and bitter failure in the polar seas

Review: Vivien Horler

Erebus – the story of a ship, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson)

ErebusThree years ago a 68 870 ton cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, sailed through the icy waters of the almost mythical Northwest Passage.

For well over a century Europeans had hoped to discover a route through Canada’s Arctic archipelago which would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and provide a shortcut to access trade with the Far East.

Scores of sailors and explorers, many of them British, died in the efforts to find what was the inpenetrable ice-choked passage.

Now, thanks to global warming, the passage is open to cruise liners carrying more than a thousand passengers. And after they have been out in Zodiacs to see the islands’ wildlife of bears, seals, seabirds and whales, after they have eyed glaciers and fjords, they retreat to the ship’s restaurants for luxury meals.

It is a far cry from the experience of the doomed crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror who starved and froze to death in their bid to find the Northwest Passage in 1846.

As the explorer, traveller, TV presenter and former Monty Python star Michael Palin notes, the death of the 129 seamen was the greatest single loss of life in the history of British polar exploration.

In 2013 Palin was due to give a talk at London’s Athenaeum Club, and chose as his subject a former member, Joseph Hooker, who ran the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for much of the 19th century.

During his research, Palin discovered that in 1839 a 22-year-old Hooker had signed up as an assistant surgeon and botanist on a four-year Royal Naval expedition to the Antarctic aboard the HMS Erebus. The ship spent 18th months at the extremities of the explored world, survived icebergs and storms, called in at Cape Town as well as Sydney and Hobart, and then sailed back to England.

Less than 10 years later, Erebus and Terror set off to find the Northwest Passage – without Hooker this time – and in Palin’s words, “vanished off the face of the earth”.

Some of the bodies were found by the rescue parties eventually sent to look for them, but the fate of the Erebus itself was unknown until five years ago. In 2014 a Canadian underwater archaeology team found the ship on the Arctic seabed in relatively shallow water.

Palin was intrigued, and the result is this marvellous book, which tells a story of astonishing bravery, suffering, triumph and disaster.

He describes the discovery by James Clarke Ross of magnetic north, and the desire in Britain to find magnetic south, which meant compasses and chronometers could be set precisely, leading to “a 19th century equivalent of GPS”. In 1839 the British Admiralty gave permission for an Antarctic expedition, and Ross was selected to lead it. His name is remembered today in the Ross Ice Shelf.

The second major expedition, to seek the Northwest Passage, was led by the explorer, ex-soldier and sailor Sir John Franklin. Palin notes there is a pub by the River Thames at Greenhithe called the Sir John Franklin, “where you can have a pint of beer … and stand at the spot where Franklin’s family saw him for the last time”, as HMS Erebus left London in July 1845 on her final voyage.

When nothing was heard from the expedition after more than three years, the British Admiralty offered a reward of £10 000 to any ship or whaler who could provide information about what had happened to the expedition.

In 1848 Ross took part in a rescue expedition, but sea passages were blocked with ice, and land searches revealed nothing. With several of the crew suffering from scurvy, Ross turned back.

Another voyage – without Ross – in 1850, found the first traces of the Franklin expedition at Cape Riley: fragments of naval stores and ragged clothing. Later three graves were found on a bleak beach, bearing crosses with messages indicating the men had died in early 1846.

By this time it was clear that the expedition had been doomed. In January 1854 the Admiralty announced that if no news arrived before March, the crews of the two ships would be removed from the Navy List and be said to have died in Queen Victoria’s service.

The chilling truth of the expedition’s last days has been pieced together, and Palin tells a truly gripping yarn of cold and hunger and despair.

In a book full of anecdote and detail, Palin points out an ironic fact. We all know that when the British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole in 1912, he found to his bitter disappointment he had been beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

And it was the very same Amundsen who, between 1903 and 1906, was the first person to sail  through the Northwest Passage.

  • A version of this review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on February 3, 2019.


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