H.M.S. Erebus was a ship that explored the farthest reaches of the globe both in the north and the south along with H.M.S. Terror, a slightly smaller ship. In an expedition led by Captain James Clark Ross, the ships explored the coastline of Antarctica during a four-year-long expedition of research on the earth’s magnetism as well as collecting flora and fauna. They then went north, led by Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage. They disappeared and the mystery of the Franklin Expedition led to multiple rescue and discovery missions that brought more questions than answers at times until just a few years ago when the ships were found.

Michael Palin who has forged a career as a world explorer and travel documentarian since his years with Monty Python turned his attention to the Erebus, doing deep research into its history and retracing the path, visiting many of the places the Erebus traveled, even getting near to its final resting place. The result is Erebusa fascinating history of the ship and the men who sailed her.

Erebus begins at the beginning, the construction of the ship and follows it on its easy first assignments in the Mediterranean before moving on to the heady and often harrowing exploration of Antarctica and the mystery of its disappearance. Palin is a generalist, a sort of Everyman, which makes this such a pleasing history. He has that fascination with personalities and oddities that academics often ignore. He wonders what happened to Franklin’s monkey. A naval historian or other academic might wonder about that kind of trivia as well, but would never admit it. But I wonder what happened, too. Of course, I also read Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition. 

I have been fascinated by the explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic ever since I read Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur back in 1995. That made Erebus an irresistible book for me. I am happy it lived up to my high expectations. The research is scrupulous and careful. Palin offers many explanations of what may have gone wrong, but is fair-minded in explaining why even the best explanations cannot be certain. I appreciate how he keeps himself to the background most of the time, only sharing his impressions when he goes in person to walk in their footsteps, seeing what they saw. I love that he does not deliver definitive answers to the mysteries and keeps asking questions, including the monkey question. Those are the questions that his active and curious intellect chases and it makes for a rich, rewarding history.

I received a copy of Erebus for review from the publisher.