‘She bounces, bobs and shakes herself like a newborn waterfowl. Her name is Erebus.’ It’s 7 June 1826 and the newest addition to the Royal Navy’s fleet has just slid down the slipway at Pembroke Dockyard in southern Wales and into the waters of Milford Haven. At 104 feet, she’s less than half the length of a standard man-of-war and at 372 tons, less than a fifth the weight of Nelson’s Victory. But, as Michael Palin’s latest book makes clear, she will go on to play an outsized role in the history of polar exploration.
Built during the peace that followed the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars, Erebus was built as the last but one of the so-called bomb ships, designed to carry mortars for coastal bombardment. Having found itself without an enemy at this time, the Navy was turning to more intellectual pursuits, using its resources to support expeditions aimed at increasing geographical and scientific knowledge in the hope of resisting cuts to naval forces and budgets.
At first, it focused on the Arctic, sending ships north in search of the fabled Northwest Passage and the North Pole. One of these expeditions, led by James Clark Ross, became the first to reach the North Magnetic Pole. This discovery increased interest in the study of geomagnetism, whose proponents argued that a proper understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field would revolutionise navigation. Such an understanding required measurements from the poorly explored south, and so, in March 1839, permission was granted for an Antarctic expedition.
Once the much-feted Ross had been appointed leader of the expedition, the lords of the admiralty began the search for suitable vessels, eventually alighting on two bomb ships: Erebus and the smaller Terror. This Antarctic expedition takes up most of the first two-thirds of Palin’s book. Drawing on the officers’ and crew’s diaries, reports and letters home, he constructs a delightfully granular description of ship-board life, all told in a brisk, breezy style. The expedition is certainly not without incident, at one point the two ships get tangled up with each other and some towering icebergs.
Upon its return four years later, the expedition was hailed a great success. Under sail alone, the two ships made their way through hundreds of kilometres of Antarctic pack ice. Although the expedition didn’t reach its ultimate goal, the South Magnetic Pole, it established a farthest south of 78° 09’ 30’, a record that would stand for 58 years. It was the first to determine irrefutably that an Antarctic continent existed, formally named and annexed enormous tracts of land for the crown, and amassed a valuable collection of biological specimens.
But of course, Erebus and Terror are best known for the expedition that was to send them both to the bottom of the ocean – Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage, which was to end with the greatest single loss of life in the history of British polar exploration. Palin is understandably hamstrung here, lacking the detailed records that made the earlier part of the book so interesting. In place of a day-to-day description of the expedition, he provides a thorough overview of the various theories about its fate and the causes of its failure, including the controversial proposition that the participants suffered from lead poisoning. He also tells the story of the rediscovery of both ships, first Erebus in September 2014 and then Terror in 2016.
This isn’t a typical Palin travelogue. It’s heavy on history but the reader is still periodically wrenched into the present. Palin weaves in first-person action from his own experiences, as though he felt obliged to bring himself into the story because he (or his publisher) knows what his readers want. These asides sit a little awkwardly beside the historical text. It’s only right at the end, in a short epilogue in which Palin joins a group of ‘95 excited Franklin buffs’ on a tour of the sacred sites, his cabin ‘only a touch smaller than Lieutenant Fitzjames’s on Erebus’, that we get classic first-person Palin.
It’s a tiny niggle that doesn’t seriously detract from what is a very readable and fascinating tale from the early years of polar exploration.
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