ARCTIC SEA, CANADA - 1845 - Etching of the the ill-fated HMS Erebus (pictured) in the Arctic Sea of Canada on the doomed 1845 Royal Navy Arctic Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Led by Sir John Franklin, the two ships of the expedition became stuck in the ice and 129 members of the expedition died. New evidence uncovered by a team of academics from the University of Michigan led by dentistry professor Dr Russell Taichman reveals that many of the crew appear to have died of Addison's disease, ending a mystery that has been the subject of speculation for over a century and a half . Photo by Alamy
Etching of ‘HMS Erebus in the Ice’ by François Etienne Musin (1846) © Alamy

Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find a way through the Northwest Passage — the fabled route between the Atlantic and Pacific, cutting through the Arctic Ocean — was conceived as an act of imperial bravado. But there were doubters from the start. One experienced Arctic hand wrote that Franklin was doomed “to form the nucleus of an iceberg”. As the expedition set out, one of the men aboard wrote home: “Dear Wife I know this voyage will be a severe trial for all of us but there is everything here to make us comfortable.”

Indeed there was, as Michael Palin writes in his readable “biography” Erebus, the story of one of Franklin’s ships, which sank in the frozen sea sometime in 1848, having been abandoned by the starving, hopeless crew. All Franklin’s men were lost, and the story of Sir John and his wife Jane’s fruitless efforts to see him rescued is one of the great tales of the so-called heroic age of polar exploration. Erebus was equipped with copies of The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, stacks of the satirical magazine Punch as well as two hand-organs and a seemingly limitless supply of silver spoons and forks.

The precise sequence of events that led to disaster will probably never be known: but in the summer of 2014 the wreck of the Erebus was discovered off the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula in Canada. The news spurred Palin to write about the ship. At the time he was at the kind of loose end unlikely to afflict many writers, having spent 10 nights at the O2 arena “with a group of fellow geriatrics”, in a show called Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go. “Whatever I did next,” he writes, “it would have to be something completely different.”

Palin admits that he is neither a naval historian nor a seafarer, yet admirers will know his record as a traveller and teller of travellers’ tales; he is also a former president of the Royal Geographical Society. He does an admirable job of recounting the life of this doughty ship, from construction at Pembroke dockyard in 1826 to her last days stuck fast in the ice. Erebus was launched a “bomb vessel”, developed to carry heavy mortars and initially patrolled the Mediterranean. The ship’s first fame came with Sir James Clark Ross’s four-year Antarctic expedition of 1839. Erebus and the companion vessel, Terror — sunk along with her in the Arctic — were the first ships to catch sight of the Antarctic continent and prove that there was indeed a great land mass at the very bottom of the globe.

Palin builds a portrait of life on this first expedition, dredging officers’ diaries (written always in the understanding that they would have to be handed over to the Admiralty upon return) and letters — vivid, evocative stuff. But the true interest must lie in Erebus’s final journey north. Palin doesn’t lay claim to any new research, but he pulls together very effectively much of the work that’s been done to establish the truth about Franklin’s fate. When in 1854 the explorer John Rae found evidence — thanks to his contact with local Inuit — that the men of the Erebus and Terror had resorted to cannibalism, Charles Dickens thundered against such slander, calling such stories “the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilised people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber”.

Yet, it was such “chatter” that led to the discovery of Erebus’s final resting place. Palin mentions Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian and teacher whose analysis of the stories told by his people was of essential assistance to the Canadian expedition that found the Erebus in her final resting place.

Palin seeks to celebrate the spirit of exploration that set Erebus on her course: to champion men whose sense of purpose made new maps and opened up the globe to what was then the British empire. “But this sense of purpose also contained within it an implicit sense of superiority, which, when misused, fed the dark side of Britain’s increasing self-confidence.” It’s still worth noting how such overweening self-confidence left the wreck of a fine ship disintegrating on the bed of the freezing Arctic Ocean.

Erebus: The Story of a Ship, by Michael Palin, Random House Books, RRP£20, 352 pages

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