Erebus: The Story of a Ship
Built in 1826, HMS Erebus was not much to look at. A squat bomb vessel constructed at a time when Britain’s navy found itself at a loose end after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Erebus was nevertheless destined to undertake two great voyages at opposite ends of the earth. The ship achieved a ‘furthest south’ record during its 1839-1843 journey before embarking upon its fateful search for the fabled Northwest passage. Michael Palin takes us through the ship’s life before trying to piece together exactly what led to the deaths of everyone on board as, desperate, starving and icebound, the crew set out on foot south on a journey from which none of them would ever return.
I really wanted to like this. Michael Palin is as engaging a narrator as ever, whilst the subject matter is rich in mystery and suspense. Nevertheless, this felt like history-by-rote. There was little new here, no fresh lens or incisive research piece which appears to have catalysed the writing of the book. There are some fresh insights into Erebus’ voyage south, but during the search for the northwest passage we touch upon the same tired tropes which have been being discussed for the past twenty years – poorly soldered tin food cans and a new onboard heating system leaching poisonous lead into the sailors bodies, Captain Sir John Franklin being the admiralty’s fourth or fifth choice to lead the voyage, tantalising clues from Inuit that the men had been seen desperately heading south after becoming icebound, knife marks on bones which indicated at least some of the men had resorted to cannibalism to survive. There were no fresh slants on these issues and whilst they are still interesting, I was looking for more.
The book probably didn’t compare well with a couple of more serious tomes I have read in the last couple of months (Diarmaid MacCulloch’ book on Thomas Cromwell and Dan Jones’ ‘The Plantaganets’ are both history books of a more academic bent) and so I am perhaps being slightly unfair, but I still felt that Palin didn’t quite find his angle here. ‘Erebus’ is very readable and Palin still has an ear for anecdote, but this felt a little bit history-lite.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0.