LIFE OF EREBUS
Michael Palin on the irresistible pull of the legendary polar ship, the subject of his forthcoming book
The irresistible pull of the legendary polar ship
ITRACE MY FONDNESS for Canada back to the dark days of winter 1970, when CBC, having been international trailblazers for a fledgling series called Monty Python’s Flying Circus, decided it was a madness too far and dropped the show. To my joy and delight, Canadians protested, marching in sub-zero temperatures, carrying banners asking for their cherished Monty Python back. I already knew a lot about Canada, as it was a country beloved by British geography masters, being friendly and coloured pink, and because all maps were on Mercator’s projection, it looked absolutely colossal. I can only assume the manager who planned Monty Python’s first overseas tour in 1973 had not been taught geography, otherwise we would not have not been leapfrogging across Canada playing one-night stands at towns that were often thousands of kilometres apart. The show in Saskatoon was cancelled for lack of interest, and some of the racier sketches didn’t exactly play well in places like Regina. (When asked by the Regina tourist board for a comment on the city, my cast mate Graham Chapman pointed off into the prairie and said “Why didn’t they put it over there?”) Now, 45 years on, I find myself drawn back to Canada. Not just to Canada, but to its Far North, about which none of my geography masters had much to say because they knew so little about it. This time it was tragedy rather than comedy that called to me. While researching material on the 19th century botanist Joseph Hooker, who rose to become one of the greatest directors of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, I discovered that in 1839 he served aboard a ship called HMS Erebus. At the tender age of 22, he’d joined an expedition to the Antarctic, during which Erebus set a record of farthest south that was to stand for almost 60 years. Clearly it was a tough little ship, dodging icebergs and narrowly avoiding being turned over by the vicious storms of the Southern Ocean.
After the dazzling success of the Antarctic voyage, an unmitigated disaster followed. Erebus was chosen as the flagship of the much-vaunted, highly prestigious Sir John Franklin expedition to find a sea route through the Northwest Passage. She and her sister ship HMS Terror set out from London in May 1845 with the hopes of the nation resting on them. They were last seen a little more than two months later, fast to the ice as they waited to cross Baffin Bay. Apart from a small number of Inuit, no one ever saw the 129 men alive again. That the flagship on both these ambitious voyages had never had her story fully told, sparked my curiosity and I began scrambling around the internet for anything to do with Erebus. There was precious little to be found. That is, until Sept. 9, 2014, when, literally overnight, she became world famous. On that day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper broke the news that the Victoria Strait Expedition had discovered one of the two ships lost in 1846. “One of Canada’s greatest mysteries” had been solved, he declared. From that moment on, the story of Erebus became irresistible. Birth, life, death and resurrection. Was there ever more rich material? And I knew I had to tell the story. I was already deep into the subject and had brought it up in so many conversations that eventually a publisher took pity on me and offered me an advance if I’d just shut up and get on with it. The time was ripe. Monty Python had a grand farewell at 10 live shows in London’s O2 Arena, I had three grandsons to distract me from world travels and the idea of steeping myself in archival research appealed to my bookish side. My idea was to write a biography of HMS Erebus, starting with where she was made (in Pembroke in Wales), her original purpose (she was a bomb ship, designed to lob missiles at shore) and how it was she ended up sailing in some of the most hostile and least-known waters on the planet (being a bomb ship she had a hull strong enough to deal with the recoil from on-board mortars). I wanted to tell the story through the voices of the time, and fortunately the Royal Navy encouraged employees to keep journals and full details of what they saw and experienced. The only restriction was that these records were seen as the property of the Admiralty and had to be handed over to them at the end of each journey. Personal letters were excepted, and it’s some of these, particularly from sailors and officers to their womenfolk, that have the sharpest and least-cautious glimpses of what life was really like on these great adventures. I became particularly preoccupied with how these men approached the Great Unknown. Nowadays, in the GPS age, we know every inch of our Google Earth. We can follow every journey and anticipate conditions for months ahead. We can talk to anybody from anywhere. In the 1840s, large stretches of the world
had never been seen by people. There were no maps to guide them. On New Year’s Eve in 1841, the officers and crew of Erebus celebrated with a grand party on the Antarctic ice. A pub was set up and there was dancing and games. They were farther south than any men had ever been, the only people for thousands of kilometres and yet here they were, dressing up and snowballing the captains. This was how they dealt with the Unknown. To make it as close to home as possible. It wasn’t just where they went, but how they went. During their long months in the Antarctic, it was only the wind in the sails that kept Erebus and Terror moving. They had no motors to push them through the ice or enable them to turn away from danger at any moment, and some of their escapes from storm-driven icebergs were little short of miraculous. By the time they took on the Canadian Arctic, both ships had auxiliary engines, Admiralty charts and years of provisions, but all were of no avail. Within a year of setting out from London, Erebus and Terror, which had weathered four years in and around Antarctica, were trapped by the ice and not released until all their men were lost. It was the greatest death toll in the history of Arctic exploration. In trying to make sense of Erebus’s extraordinary reversal of fortune, I became very grateful for the tenacity of Canadian explorers and, in recent years, the determination of the Canadian government to solve one of the greatest naval mysteries of all time. My only regret is that I have not yet seen the 192-year-old body of Erebus for myself. But I am reassured that, once brought back to life, these two ships are going to be given all the attention they deserve. The story of Erebus is far from over. She’ll be there, resting in the mud and sand of Wilmot and Crampton Bay for a long while yet. In my research, I’ve been impressed by the role of the Inuit in keeping the story alive. Their valuable testimony over the years has produced many vital, often overlooked, clues. Many of these were recorded by Louie Kamookak, their greatest historian, who died earlier this year, and who I had so much wanted to meet. So, thank you Canada. Not the least of the pleasures of writing the life of Erebus has been to renew my connection with a country that has been such a consistent part of my own life.
A Parks Canada underwater archeologist collects a marine biological sample from the hull of Erebus, the ship that is the topic of a new book by Michael Palin ( opposite).
Michael Palin, a former cast member of Monty Python, is an actor and author. His new book, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, goes on sale Oct. 16.
Clockwise from above: Palin’s new book; Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris (left) and Jonathan Moore (middle) examine Erebus’s bell with archeologist Douglas Stenton; a sonar image of Erebus; François-étienne Musin’s 19th-century painting of Erebus; a diver removes kelp from Erebus.