Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Written by Michael Palin (author)
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

In 1826, HMS Erebus, a ‘bomb’ vessel strong enough to carry heavy mortars, was built of oak and reinforced with iron. In 1839, having demonstrated her toughness on patrol work, she and her sister ship Terror were refitted for scientific South Polar expeditions. Erebus and Terror set sail from Tasmania to Antarctica in 1839-41 and 1842-43, where conditions were horrendous. Both ships were badly damaged in ferocious storms, got stuck in pack ice and narrowly escaped being crushed by icebergs. But they survived and proved that they were capable of taking a lot of punishment. In 1845, they were re-equipped for a possible three-year Arctic expedition to find the Canadian North West Passage which would enable British ships to avoid Cape Horn. The fifty-nine-year-old Polar veteran, Sir John Franklin, was in command. They set sail from London in May 1845 and were never seen again. Gradually, over the next twenty years, scraps of information about the awful end of the crew reached the outside world. In this gripping re-telling of Erebus’ story, Michael Palin explores what happened, and why the expedition failed, ending with the 2014 world-wide headlines announcing the discovery of HMS Erebus on the sea bed.