- 16 Aug 19
Frozen Stiff Upper Lip
When it was uncovered from its watery grave in 2014, the war ship turned exploratory vessel HMS Erebus had been missing for roughly one hundred and seventy years, abandoned when its Arctic expedition ended in ice-bound disaster. Some 130 men trekked away from both The Erebus and her sister ship, HMS Terror, only to die a cold death. Starvation and hypothermia, amongst other things, did them in, rather than the paws of a phantom polar bear, as detailed in the recent, and rather good, TV series The Terror, based on the Dan Simmons novel. At least that is, as far as we know.
Palin, no stranger to epic journeys either, is a gifted storyteller who gently allows the tale to unfold – we’re almost one hundred pages in before we see any of the cold stuff. He takes us south from the shipyards where the Erebus was refitted towards the Antarctic for the ship’s four year exploratory mission under James Clark Ross. They pull in first at Van Diemen’s Land, running into the Governor, John Franklin, before coming up short at the Ross Ice Shelf. This was recently reckoned to be about the size of France so little wonder the ships were forced to retreat to the Falkland Islands. They took another run at it a year later in 1843 and although the never made it as far as the south pole, their voyage was hailed as a great success. A voyage, as Palin writes, that “never again in the annals of the sea would a ship, under sail alone, come close to matching.”
It is Franklin who take charge of an again refitted Erebus – now sporting iron plating on her hull and a steam-driver propeller capable of delivering twenty-five horsepower which would allow speeds of up to four knots – for its attempt on the Northwest Passage, the sea route to the Pacific through the Arctic Ocean across the top of the Americas. The ships became trapped in the ice, forcing the crew to set out on foot and sledge. Rescue missions were sent, thanks in no small part to the tireless campaigning of Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, but nothing was known until the explorer John Rae heard tell from the local Inuit about what befell those poor souls. Palin doesn’t let it go there either, taking up the story in the eighties when frozen bodies were exhumed and examined, confirming traces of lead poisoning from badly packaged canned food and the grisly spectre of cannibalism.
Palin’s personality – that of a rather beloved Uncle who knows something about everything – can’t help shining through, but he never lets it over-shadow the weaving of this, the very definition of a ripping yarn.