LIFE OF EREBUS

Michael Palin on the ir­re­sistible pull of the le­gendary po­lar ship, the sub­ject of his forth­com­ing book

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Michael Palin

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.

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