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
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)