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Good Reads  Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel

Erebus The Story of a Ship

By: Michael Palin(Author)
350 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Arrow Books
Channelling the glory days of the British empire, Erebus tells of the perils and wonders of early Polar exploration.
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  • Erebus ISBN: 9781784758578 Paperback May 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Erebus ISBN: 9781847948120 Hardback Sep 2018 Out of Print #244503
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

HMS Erebus was one of the great exploring ships, a veteran of groundbreaking expeditions to the ends of the Earth. In 1848, it disappeared in the Arctic, its fate a mystery. In 2014, it was found. This is its story.

Michael Palin – Monty Python star and television globetrotter – brings the remarkable Erebus back to life, following it from its launch in 1826 to the epic voyages of discovery that led to glory in the Antarctic and to ultimate catastrophe in the Arctic.

The ship was filled with fascinating people: the dashing and popular James Clark Ross, who charted much of the 'Great Southern Barrier'; the troubled John Franklin, whose chequered career culminated in the Erebus's final, disastrous expedition; and the eager Joseph Dalton Hooker, a brilliant naturalist – when he wasn't shooting the local wildlife dead.

Vividly recounting the experiences of the men who first set foot on Antarctica's Victoria Land, and those who, just a few years later, froze to death one by one in the Arctic ice, beyond the reach of desperate rescue missions, Erebus is a wonderfully evocative account of a truly extraordinary adventure, brought to life by a master explorer and storyteller.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • The perils and wonders of early Polar exploration
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 5 Nov 2018 Written for Hardback

    They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case, it was the very attractive cover that drew me to read Erebus: The Story of a Ship. Michael Palin, known equally for his early work as part of the Monty Python troupe as for his travel documentaries, here tells a riveting story from the golden age of polar exploration. A tale of high-spirited British imperialism, marine camaraderie, a warship that wasn’t, and the enduring mystery of a vanished Arctic expedition.

    The 1800s and early 1900s were a golden age of polar exploration, and small libraries of history books have been written analysing or celebrating expeditions by famous explorers such as Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton or Robert Falcon Scott – their brave, perhaps foolhardy journeys often ending in tragedy. One remarkable episode in this period was the Arctic expedition led by English Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin. It stands out both for the sheer loss of life (129 men) and the mysterious fate of the expedition.

    The book starts with the completion of the HMS Erebus in a Welsh boatyard in 1826. It was to be one of the two ships on Franklin’s fateful expedition (the other went by the equally cheerful name of HMS Terror). Used as a warship patrolling the Mediterranean during years of relative peace, Erebus was quickly mothballed and lay anchored for almost a decade.

    As mentioned in my review of The Spinning Magnet, this era of exploration was also when precise navigation became vital, spurring a race to study the Earth’s magnetic field (see also Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail and The Illustrated Longitude). While Erebus lay idle in a dockyard, James Clark Ross led an expedition that successfully located the magnetic North Pole in 1831. Attention subsequently shifted to locating the magnetic South Pole and the decision was taken to convert Erebus from a warship into a reinforced ice-ship.

    Focusing his book on the ships allows Palin to tell two connected stories. Before venturing North, Erebus and Terror first embarked on a four-year expedition led by the same James Clark Ross, approaching Antarctica three times and retreating to Tasmania and the Falkland Islands in between. Though Ross played no further role in future expeditions, he beat Franklin to this assignment. Both men had experience exploring the Arctic, but Franklin had accepted a position as governor of the new British penal colony in Hobart, Tasmania, so was not available to lead this expedition. When Ross visited him in Tasmania, it must have been hard on Franklin.

    The story of the Antarctic expedition takes up a large part of Palin’s book, and he has mined archives, logbooks, and personal correspondence to sketch a lively picture of the daily grind on board, the camaraderie between sailors holed up for years on small boats, their antics during shore leave, the unforgiving Antarctic conditions, the amazing landscapes, and the thrill of exploration. Though he has numerous letters written in the lyrical style of Victorian-era England to quote from, Palin’s own writing is equally majestic at times.

    The book never descends into patriotic or romantic hero-worship, however, and Palin occasionally reminds the reader that this was simultaneously a period of tyrannical expansionism and colonialism by Britain. A period in which nature, from woods to whales, was seen purely as a resource to be exploited and turned into colonial assets to further the glory of the empire. A period in which men could wax lyrically about the beauty of wild animals and then shoot them.

    Though Ross never reached the magnetic South Pole, his expedition was remarkably successful and saw no loss of life, despite harrowing conditions. How different would Erebus and Terror’s next expedition turn out...

    The British Admiralty decided to mount a new expedition, back to the Arctic, to complete the discovery of the Northwest Passage. If sailors could find a way to navigate the Arctic ocean westwards, through the archipelago of northern Canada to reach the Bering Strait and then China, it would be a boon to commerce. With the Suez Channel not yet in existence, ships had to sail all the way south around Africa and back up north to reach Asia. Only now, with sea-ice in decline in a warming Arctic, is this route opening up and countries are scrambling to exploit this “opportunity” (see for example Cold Rush – how little our attitudes have changed).

    The second part of Palin’s story takes up significantly fewer pages, and with good reason. With Franklin at the helm of this expedition, Erebus and Terror sailed off into the Arctic in 1845, never to be seen again. No fewer than 36 (!) rescue expeditions were mounted over the next decade, and though tantalising clues such as personal effects and a few graves were found, both ships and the vast majority of the crew had vanished in the Arctic wilderness.

    The mystery came to a resolution when the wrecks of Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively, some 170 years after their disappearance. Palin here chooses to only briefly narrate the highlights of this period, and I cannot blame him. From historical overviews of the hunt for the remains of the expedition (recently for example Finding Franklin and Ice Ghosts), to details such as the ignored role of Inuit eyewitness testimony (see the Unravelling the Franklin Mystery), the exhumation and autopsy of some of the bodies that we did find (see Frozen in Time), or the finding of remains of perished rescue missions (see Lost Beneath the Ice) – there is a vast literature on this topic.

    Despite this, Palin manages to give his story a novel twist by instead focusing on the ships. The book has some helpful maps and two colour plate sections with some photos. If you more pictures I recommend Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition. Palin’s book instead excels in its writing. Infused with humour and heartfelt admiration, it brings to life the unbelievable challenges early explorers exposed themselves to. Sure to please history buffs, this book is hard to put down once you start it. Oh, and cover design, it matters.
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Michael Palin has written and starred in numerous TV programmes and films, from Monty Python and Ripping Yarns to The Missionary and American Friends. He has also made several much-acclaimed travel documentaries, his journeys taking him to the North and South Poles, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, Eastern Europe and Brazil. His books include accounts of his journeys, novels (Hemingway's Chair and The Truth) and several volumes of diaries. From 2009 to 2012 he was president of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 2013 he was made a BAFTA fellow. He lives in London.

By: Michael Palin(Author)
350 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Arrow Books
Channelling the glory days of the British empire, Erebus tells of the perils and wonders of early Polar exploration.
Media reviews

"Beyond terrific. I didn't want it to end."
– Bill Bryson

"Thoroughly absorbs the reader [...] Carefully researched and well-crafted, it brings the story of a ship vividly to life."
Sunday Times

"With this irresistible and often harrowing account, Michael Palin makes a convincing case that one heroic little ship embodied the golden ago of polar exploration better than any other: HMS Erebus."
– John Geiger, co-author of Frozen in Time

"Magisterial [...] A natural storyteller, [Palin] captures beautifully the sense of awe experienced by Ross and his men as they encountered the wonders and terrors of Antarctica [...] He brings energy, wit and humanity to a story that has never ceased to tantalise people since the 1840s."
The Times

"At this late date, and against all odds, Michael Palin has found an original way to enter and explore the Royal Navy narrative of polar exploration. Palin is a superb stylist, low-key and conversational, who skillfully incorporates personal experience. He turns up obscure facts, reanimates essential moments, and never shies away from taking controversial positions. This beautifully produced volume – colour plates, outstanding maps – is a landmark achievement."
– Ken McGoogan, author of Fatal Passage

"This is an incredible book. I couldn't put it down. The Erebus story is the Arctic epic we've all been waiting for."
– Nicholas Crane

"Expertly written and masterfully crafted, Palin's story of one ship's two bold explorations successfully weaves together two hundred years of history into page-turning entertainment."
– Adam Shoalts, author of A History of Canada in Ten Maps

"One robust little tub of a boat, two death-defying voyages to the ends of the earth. Palin has given us a fascinating account of the extraordinary courage of nineteenth century British sailors and officers [...] Enthralling."
– Charlotte Gray, author of The Promise of Canada

"Michael Palin is a cracking good companion on this journey of ambition, longing, triumph and tragedy [...] Palin's contagious spirit of exploration proves that the age of adventure lives on in us still."
– Alanna Mitchell, author of The Spinning Magnet

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