Michael Palin, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time
Penguin Random House Canada
Written By: Laura Grande
If there’s one thing people love more than a heroic adventure, it’s a tragedy where the valiant actions of a select few ultimately falls short of success – there’s just something about a grand failure that tugs at the heartstrings. Such is the case with the enduring popularity of the woes that befell the 372-ton HMS Erebus and her sister ship, HMS Terror.
The story of British explorer Sir John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage has – over time – become a significant part of Canadian history. After all, the Erebus and Terror both sank in Canada’s Arctic waters and their barnacled ruins (discovered by a Canadian underwater archaeology team in 2014 and 2016, respectively) have since been “gifted” to Canada and the Inuit by the British government. There have been countless books released on the subject, and now former Monty Python star Michael Palin has tossed his hat in the ring with Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time.
By all accounts, Franklin’s expedition of 1845 should have been a successful one. They had the latest in technology, both in the ships’ capabilities and with the relatively recent invention of tinned foods meant to sustain the crew over a period of three years. However, the the vessel’s name – taken from a Greek primordial deity that represents darkness and shadow – proved an apt one when we consider the tragic demise of all 129 souls onboard. Instead of success and naval honours, Franklin found death and despair, dying early on during a voyage that was supposed to be his last hurrah before enjoying a noble retirement.
This book truly is the history of a ship. Palin meticulously details the Erebus’ inception, from its 1826 construction by the Royal Navy in a Pembroke dockyard in Wales, to its role in the James Clark Ross expedition (1839-1843) in the Antarctic before its fateful selection for the Franklin trip. But it’s these “polar pioneers,” as Palin calls them, that are the ultimate focus of his book. Although we’ve heard this story time and again, the difference with this go-around is that Palin infuses the tale of the doomed expedition with an astonishing amount of sympathy and his signature wit. There’s also plenty of new material for Palin to sift through, considering the relatively recent discoveries of the two ships that had once been lost for roughly 170 years. The book also contains a multitude of fascinating maps, sketches and photographs, including plenty of rarely seen daguerreotypes of the major players in the story, including Franklin, Terror captain Francis Crozier and Erebus commander James Fitzjames.
It’s a subject close to Palin’s heart. The author has spent a considerable amount of time in the Artic and even appeared in the 1992 documentary, Pole to Pole. He spends the first two-thirds of the book painstakingly chronicling the celebrated history of the Erebus, bringing to vivid life the day-to-day hardships the men aboard endured in the unrelenting barren landscape of the Canadian Arctic. It’s passionate writing like Palin’s that bring history back to life and transports the reader through time.