Book Review: Erebus: The Story of a Ship, Michael Palin

I enjoy reading Michael Palin’s (he of Monty Python fame) travel books. Palin is a good travel writer, combining keen observations of humanity, nature and location with a good sense of history and a sprinkling of oftentimes self-depreciative humour. “Erebus: The Story of a Ship” differs from his other travel writings in that it mostly isn’t his travels that are narrated, but those of the Erebus and its sister ship, Terror. These two former bomb ships spent the mid 19th century exploring the antarctic and then the arctic, with great success and to great acclaim. And then they disappeared for 160 years.

Palin starts the story with the crew, and the crew are at the heart of his tale. He could have focused on the tenacious people trying to piece together the story of the ship over the decades. He could have focused on Erebus’s last voyage and the long and oftentimes disastrous search attempts after it. But he chose to bring the ship to life through its crew, the era it was built in, and the state of the world around it. He masterfully weaves charming anecdotes of the ship’s daily life together with serious discussions of corporal punishment, racism, colonialism and the ecological damage mindlessly wrought by the Victorians. You get to hear about astoundingly brave and talented men doing the impossible, and about how ego and rigid thinking could be the downfall of their peers.

Palin traces the story of the Erebus from before it was built, through the story of its would be captain and crew and their Arctic exploits. He then goes through its creation, to its early days as a bomb ship with nothing to bomb, to its early retirement, and then its resurrection as an Antarctic explorer. He is sympathetic to its crew even as he pokes fun at some of them, and he always does his best to bring the daily life on the ship alive to the reader. There are a few well selected photos, prints and some excellent maps in this book, and they go well with Palin’s narration.

He also traces part of the Erebus’s journey himself, either by recalling past visits to certain key locations, or by actually travelling to remote places around the globe in the wake of this ship. He doesn’t sugarcoat its demise, the hardship its crew suffered, or the mistakes that they and their peers made.

“Erebus” was found in 2014 and “Terror” in 2016. They appear larger than life in many bits of literature, music and art, and it is worth learning their story. What Palin does in this book is not merely tell it as it was, but bring it vividly to life, and tie it inexorably to our lives right now.

P.S. I bought this book at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which is very apt, as a branch of the museum appears in this book, and the museum helped Palin with the research for it. If you haven’t visited this wonderful museum, I highly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Erebus: The Story of a Ship, Michael Palin

  1. Daphna Kedmi

    Thanks for this great review! Sounds very interesting and, of course, I have added it to my ever growing TBR list.
    I have recently read Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash, another fictionalized true story of a shipwreck that focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of its crew and on the culture of the period (17th century). That was also a very interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

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