Michael Palin

El­lie Cawthorne talks to Michael Palin about his new book on HMS Ere­bus, a ship that caused a na­tional sen­sa­tion af­ter its mys­te­ri­ous Arc­tic dis­ap­pear­ance in 1845

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The mid-19th cen­tury was a great time for po­lar ex­plo­ration. These weren’t mil­i­tary or com­mer­cial ex­pe­di­tions, they were sim­ply in­tended to gather as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about parts of the world as yet un­known.

Michael dis­cusses his new book on the sen­sa­tional voy­ages of HMS Ere­bus

Launched in 1826, the Royal Navy ship HMS Ere­bus was made fa­mous by two ma­jor po­lar ex­pe­di­tions. From 1839-43 it un­der­took an Antarc­tic voy­age cap­tained by James Clark Ross. In 1845, with HMS Ter­ror, the ship em­barked on the Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion to find the North-West Pas­sage. What ex­actly tran­spired on the Arc­tic voy­age re­mains a mys­tery, but both ships were aban­doned and all 129 crewmem­bers died. In 2014, the sunken wreck of Ere­bus was finally re­dis­cov­ered. What first sparked your imag­i­na­tion about HMS Ere­bus? It all started when I was re­search­ing the botanist Joseph Hooker. I thought he was a be­spec­ta­cled and bearded sci­en­tist be­hind a desk. But then I dis­cov­ered that at the age of 22 Hooker had joined a sci­en­tific voy­age to the Antarc­tic on a ship called HMS Ere­bus. I didn’t ex­pect that! So I looked into it, and even­tu­ally Ere­buss be­came more in­ter­est­ing to me than Hooker him­self, es­pe­cially when I found out that it was the very same ship that had car­ried Sir John Franklin to the North-West Pas­sage on what be­came the great­est dis­as­ter in Bri­tish po­lar history. What were the chal­lenges of po­lar ex­plo­ration at this time? Dan­ger was in­her­ent in any voy­age in the ice. No­body knew quite what they were go­ing to find, and there were a lot of in­stances of boats hav­ing to be aban­doned, or be­ing crushed in the ice.

Dur­ing my own Arc­tic and Antarc­tic jour­neys, I was struck by just how vast po­lar land­scapes are and how colos­sal the scenery is. These enor­mous empty land­scapes must have been quite ter­ri­fy­ing for the crew at times. On Ross’s Antarc­tic voy­age, Ere­bus came up against a 200 feet-high ice wall (later termed the Ross Ice Shelf). I’ve seen ice­bergs on that scale, but it’s al­ways been from the com­par­a­tive com­fort of a ship that has an en­gine and can move out of the way. Ere­bus only had a very small aux­il­iary en­gine, so the crew had to rely solely on their sail­ing skills. If they got stuck in ice, it was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to get out.

A fur­ther chal­lenge was liv­ing and op­er­at­ing at freez­ing tem­per­a­tures – be­ing able to furl and un­furl sails in -10 de­grees and gale force winds is no mean feat. Health on board was an­other is­sue: the crews were away for a long time in places where it was im­pos­si­ble to live off the land, and had to live in claus­tro­pho­bi­cally close quar­ters. I once trav­elled round Cape Horn on a Chilean navy ves­sel with 30 men on board, and we were ter­ri­bly cramped. I re­alise now that that ship was big­ger than Ere­bus, which had 67 crewmem­bers. It’s hard to imag­ine what it must have been like be­ing packed so closely to­gether for such a long pe­riod of time.

De­spite all this, the men on board Ere­bus didn’t ac­tu­ally talk about the dan­gers and dif­fi­cul­ties that much – they sim­ply saw them as chal­lenges that would be over­come. They be­lieved that they had the knowl­edge, the ships, and the almighty in heaven on their side. Fail­ure was not an op­tion. Nowhere in the doc­u­ments and let­ters did I find ev­i­dence of great fear. There was ap­pre­hen­sion and con­cern, but the crews dealt with it by lark­ing about.

Un­cen­sored per­sonal let­ters from Ross’s Antarc­tic voy­age were gold dust to me, as they re­veal the in­for­mal mo­ments on board. A let­ter from John Davis, se­cond mas­ter of Ter­ror, re­ports that while stuck in the ice on New Year’s Day, the crew made a makeshift pub out on the ice and carved an ice sculp­ture of the Venus de Milo. Al­though life on board was tough, they would have a party at any ex­cuse. When­ever pos­si­ble there were jokes – hu­mour must have kept them go­ing while they were sail­ing into the un­known. Tell us about the two cap­tains who helmed Ere­bus on its po­lar voy­ages. First up was James Clark Ross, who hailed from a fam­ily of Scot­tish mariners and cap­tained Ere­bus on a four-year trip to the Antarc­tic. From what we can gather, Ross was quite a vain man. He had this fan­tas­tic thatch of hair, and was called the hand­somest man in the navy. But his jour­nal is fairly stiff – there’s not a lot of emo­tion or imag­i­na­tion there. He pos­si­bly took him­self a lit­tle se­ri­ously, but was clearly an ex­cel­lent nav­i­ga­tor and cap­tain.

John Franklin, on the other hand, was a very af­fa­ble, club­bable char­ac­ter who was liked by ev­ery­one. Peo­ple were anxious to de­scribe their feel­ings for Franklin; they en­joyed be­ing on his ship and thought he was a good man. What do you think went wrong on the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion? There re­ally is hardly any ev­i­dence of what hap­pened, apart from a note left on Vic­tory Point [on King Wil­liam Is­land] which, if any­thing, ramps up the mys­tery. It was a sin­gle sheet of pa­per say­ing that ev­ery­thing was fine. But then a year later some­one had re­turned to Vic­tory Point and scrib­bled around the note’s mar­gin say­ing that Franklin and 24 oth­ers were dead, they’d had to aban­don the ships, and were head­ing off south. It’s a tan­ta­lis­ing glimpse of what might have hap­pened, but noth­ing more than that.

A whole range of the­o­ries have been pro­posed as to what hap­pened to Franklin’s men. Peo­ple claimed that the lo­cal Inuit must have killed them, or that the crew had been stricken by scurvy. Lead poi­son­ing [from food tins con­tam­i­nated by lead sol­der] was once thought to be the key rea­son why ev­ery­thing went wrong, but that the­ory has now been widely dis­missed.

It’s not a very glamorous the­ory, but ul­ti­mately, I be­lieve that Franklin’s men were sim­ply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think that the sin­gle most im­por­tant fact is that they chose to make their voy­age to the North-West Pas­sage dur­ing one of the cold­est pe­ri­ods in mod­ern history. From around 1845 to 1848, the ice in that re­gion didn’t melt even over sum­mer, mean­ing that they were un­able to free the ships. That was the pri­mary prob­lem, and it couldn’t have been fore­seen.

Hav­ing said that, there was a great deal of op­ti­mism on board which may have led to com­pla­cency, mean­ing that the crew weren’t very keen on tak­ing precautions. They failed to build any cairns along the way, left no de­tails of where they’d gone, and didn’t drop any food stores. That was a big mis­take. What was the re­ac­tion back home? When it be­came clear that some­thing had gone wrong with the ex­pe­di­tion, there were a huge num­ber of searches for the crew.

“Bri­tish naval of­fi­cers be­ing ac­cused of can­ni­bal­ism caused pub­lic out­rage”

Around nine years af­ter they had de­parted, an ex­plorer named Dr John Rae uncovered ev­i­dence from lo­cal Inuit that the crew had died of star­va­tion and some had eaten their com­rades in or­der to stay alive. The ini­tial re­ac­tion to this news back home was de­nial – the shock and hor­ror of Bri­tish naval of­fi­cers be­ing ac­cused of can­ni­bal­ism caused a press sen­sa­tion, and pub­lic out­rage.

As more ev­i­dence emerged, the next stage was na­tional mourn­ing. Peo­ple wanted to be­lieve that these men had sac­ri­ficed their lives for a wor­thy cause, some­thing that re­flected well on their coun­try. Franklin’s wife, Jane, was es­pe­cially keen to en­sure that her hus­band was re­mem­bered as a great leader. She claimed that the crew had in fact achieved their goal of dis­cov­er­ing the North-West Pas­sage and had died as heroes. I think that the Bri­tish have a rather pe­cu­liar at­ti­tude to noble fail­ures – such as Scott’s doomed mis­sion to the south pole, or all those who died in the trenches – where grief and glory are strangely tied to­gether.

Fun­nily enough, I don’t think any­one re­ally got to grips with the ques­tion of whether or not Franklin’s men should have gone in the first place. It be­came such a huge na­tional calamity that it would have been blas­phe­mous to sug­gest that they shouldn’t have at­tempted it. Why are peo­ple still so fas­ci­nated by the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion? Be­cause of the scale of the tragedy and the huge loss of life. Ross’s Antarc­tic voy­age was a huge suc­cess, but no one is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in that. The Franklin ex­pe­di­tion mean­while was the great­est dis­as­ter in po­lar ex­plo­ration, and peo­ple are com­pletely com­pelled by it. The mys­tery is very much part of the al­lure as well.

Now the ships have been dis­cov­ered, there’s quite con­sid­er­able hope that some ev­i­dence of what hap­pened might be found, so the story has been taken to an­other level. But, as yet, no one knows the ab­so­lute an­swer, so the ob­ses­sion can go on and on. You re­traced Franklin’s route in the North-West Pas­sage – how was that? I went in the sum­mer, and even dur­ing the most hos­pitable time of year it was for­mi­da­ble. A lot of the is­lands that fea­ture in the Franklin story weren’t cov­ered in snow when I vis­ited – they were just great hunk­ing slabs of brown ta­ble land. First of all, we landed on Beechy Is­land to visit the graves of the first three crewmem­bers who died, when Ere­bus was only a few months out of Lon­don. Af­ter all the re­search I’d done for the book, I’d come to feel like I knew those in­volved, so it was very mov­ing to be there at the place it all be­gan to un­ravel. Then we headed to­wards where the ships are wrecked, but couldn’t get any closer than the Vic­to­ria Strait, which is a very nar­row chan­nel that ice gets wedged solid in – it’s a bit like be­ing in a blocked plug­hole. Of course, it was dis­ap­point­ing not to make it to the wreck site, but since the ice that scup­pered us was the same heavy ice that trapped Franklin, we learnt some­thing by default.

My ul­ti­mate dream is to scuba-dive in Ere­bus’s wreck. But if I did get down there I think I’d be a bit over­whelmed. I’d prob­a­bly just be in tears the whole time, if it’s pos­si­ble to cry un­der­wa­ter.

Michael Palin, whose lat­est book chron­i­cles the 19th- cen­tury po­lar voy­ages of HMS Ere­bus. “My ul­ti­mate dream is to scuba- dive in Ere­bus’s wreck,” he says

A 19th-cen­tury de­pic­tion of HMS Ere­bus in the Ice by François Eti­enne Musin. What ex­actly hap­pened to the ship and its crew re­mains a mys­tery

Ere­bus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin (Hutchin­son, 352 pages, £20)

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