Michael Palin may have come to prominence as a comedian. He has certainly had a good go at being a reasonably serious actor. It is however as a traveller and explorer that perhaps we have come to know him best in more recent times. He has travelled the world for us, bringing to our screens places we are only dimly aware of. As befits a Fellow and former President of the Royal Geographical Society he is constantly looking for new things to see and discover. In many ways Michael Palin’s presence is often enough to draw our attention to whatever he is showing us but in telling the story of HMS Erebus he has found riveting and moving material.
In May 1845 HMS Erebus was sent by the Admiralty in London, in company with another ship, to discover a route through the high Arctic – what we would now call the North West Passage. She was an old ship from a much-diminished Royal Navy. Her mission was in part to show that Britain and its Navy could still do some exploring and still do some discovery. Instead, after doing some exploring and some discovery, she foundered and sank. It would be 170 years before she was discovered. By then, of course, Global Warming had started to open up the fabled North-West Passage.
This is the story of this ill-fated ship and her crew, and Michael Palin brings a mixture of lightness of touch in his narrative allied to a commanding control of the facts. It is a documentary in book form with the pace of a thriller. He not relieve the main players from a rigorous interrogation of their strengths and weaknesses, from Sir John Franklin the ship’s commander to all the other characters involved.
Palin spends a fair amount of the time telling us the history of HMS Erebus prior to her last expedition. She was built as a ‘Bomb Ship’ – a kind of floating platform from which to attack the coastal defences of North American rebels. After these duties she was dispatched for scientific and exploring work in the South Atlantic. Using letters and diaries Palin tells these stories and illuminates the personalities involved in a vivid and compelling way. It is heart breaking to read of scientists shooting the wildlife they come across so they can add specimens to their collection. It is not helpful to judge our forebears by our standards but the casual massacring of animals and wildlife is revolting.
The second half of the book describes Erebus’ last journey, her exploration and work, her destruction and the long and ultimately fruitless search for her remains – a poignant end.