1301 Goosebumps & unbroken ice

Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time
by Michael Palin

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Vintage Canada), 2019
$23.00 / 9780735274297

Reviewed by Walter Volovsek


Editor’s note. A vigilant reader of The Ormsby Review might be startled to see Michael Palin’s Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time reviewed here, and I might appear to be on thin ice. Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) is not a BC author, Erebus is not a BC ship, and the Franklin Expedition had nothing to do with British Columbia.

Lady Jane Franklin

Or had it? What possible connection exists between British Columbia and Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition of 1845-48? As someone who practically camped out in the BC Archives in the 1980s, I can answer that question. Men from Franklin’s previous expeditions and voyages, and personnel from later expeditions sent in search of him, visited the Royal Navy’s new Pacific station at Esquimalt after it opened in 1848. This topic — the Franklin Expedition’s BC connections — has not yet been written up, but I will urge an assiduous researcher to start by combing through Captain John Walbran’s coastal history classic, British Columbia Coast Names (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1909, and reprinted many times since). At least two of these Royal Navy men went on to settle in British Columbia.

Just as importantly, Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane Franklin, visited BC in 1861 and again in 1870. Still hoping her husband was alive, she visited anyone with the slightest connection to the Royal Navy and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s northern operations, collecting shreds of evidence.[1] Her BC visit is commemorated in Lady Franklin Rock in the Fraser River just above Yale.

Lady Franklin Rock near Yale

Another reason to review Michael Palin’s book is that two earlier reviews by Walter Volovsek on the Franklin Expedition have attracted thousands of readers to The Ormsby Review: Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, by Victoria-born archaeologist Owen Beattie (Greystone Books, 2017), and Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Vancouver writer Paul Watson (Penguin Random House [McClelland & Stewart], 2017). These reviews continue to draw considerable traffic to the Ormsby website.

In short, the Franklin Expedition is a staple of Canadian history, a top-of-the-world drama with repercussions in colonial BC.  Long live the memory of these remarkable, courageous, and doomed men. – Richard Mackie


Over its twenty years of active service HMS Erebus worked in both polar regions as well as in the balmy Mediterranean. Sir John Franklin first visited the ship in 1840 when he was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He was doomed to die on her seven years later, as the vessel was entombed in ice, northwest of King William Island.

After being strengthened and fitted out for polar service in 1839, the bomb ship HMS Erebus and her sister ship HMS Terror set out for their first thrust at the Antarctic Circle, leaving London on September 30. They were captained by James C. Ross and Francis Crozier, and reached Van Diemen’s Land on August 16 of the following year. On November 12, 1840 they left Hobart on their first Antarctic expedition during which they discovered the Great Southern Barrier, an extensive sheet of ice that shrouded the southern continent and whose formidable face presented itself as cliffs up to 300 feet tall. They set a new record for furthest south achieved and returned to Hobart in April 1841.

Sir John Franklin

The vessels beat their own record again the following year, after struggling through tempests where layers of ice shrouded their ships and the seamen suffered incredible hardships. On one of these attempts James Angelly lost his grip high up in the ice-covered rigging and plunged into the freezing waters. Try as they might, the sailing vessels were not agile enough to rescue him. During a storm Terror’s rudder was shattered and had to be repaired and eventually replaced. Repeated collisions between the vessels, as well as with massive floes and bergs, partly embedded her anchor in the hull of the Erebus. The ensuing damage to the rigging made it very difficult to handle the sails. To avoid another collision, Ross had to back the Erebus out of an approaching trap by “an expedient that perhaps had never before been resorted to by seamen in such weather: but it had the desired effect; the ship gathered sternway, plunging her stern into the sea, washing away the gig and stern boats.”

Such seamanship later won the praise of Robin Falcon Scott, doomed to face his own Antarctic challenges:

Few things could have looked more hopeless than an attack upon the great ice-bound region which lay within the Antarctic Circle; yet out of this desolate prospect Ross wrested an open sea, a vast mountain range, a smoking volcano and a hundred problems of great interest to the geographer.

The smoking volcano was christened Mt. Erebus after their vessel; it would claim 250 lives in another age when Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into it in November 1979.

In April 1842 they sailed to the Falkland Islands, where they resided until making their third attempt to reach the southern continent in December 1842; this had to be abandoned due to heavy unbroken ice. In 1843 the ships returned to England.

HMS Erebus, by François-Étienne Musin, 1846. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Graham Gore, Commander of HMS Erebus. 1845 daguerreotype by Richard Beard. National Maritime Museum Greenwich

By 1845 the time was considered ripe for a new polar thrust: this time at the northern region, with the objective being the discovery of an ice-free northwest passage, which would be a great boon to shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Sir John Franklin was considered a prime candidate to lead it, having traversed the barren grounds to the south during his nearly fatal overland expedition of 1819-1822. Some questioned the wisdom of appointing him to the post of leader on account of his age. Dr. Richard King actually predicted Franklin would turn into “the nucleus of an iceberg.” He wasn’t too far off the mark.

Erebus and Terror were refitted for the new polar venture. Fifty horsepower railway steam locomotives were also installed in their modified hulls to drive a retractable propeller, and a supply of enriched coal was taken on board for their use.

The ill-fated expedition set out on May 19, 1845, and was last seen in Baffin Bay in July. Three mysterious deaths in early 1846 during their over-wintering off Beechey Island should have been a warning of a much greater disaster ahead. Their ships were beset on September 12, 1846 northwest of King William Island, and the crews remained with the ships until abandonment on April 28, 1848, after 24 more men had died, including Franklin. There is good evidence that some of that departing party returned to the ice-bound ships, where they in turn perished as they could not adapt to native ways of survival. Their story was convincingly worked out by the person they should have emulated, Dr. John Rae. The great snowshoer was perfectly comfortable in the frozen barrens and had adopted the Inuit ways.

John Rae — holding a spoon from the Franklin Expedition — with Inuit at Repulse Bay. By Charles Comfort, 1932. Courtesy HBC Collection
Lieutenant John Irvine. Photo courtesy City of Edinburgh Council

I was especially intrigued by the story of Lieutenant John Irvine, whose actions are acknowledged in the record that he left in the cairn at Victory Point. When they were all still together he had been tasked with the mission of retrieving the earlier record, which had been deposited four miles north in the Victory Point cairn on May 24, 1847 by the reconnaissance party led by Graham Gore and Charles Des Voeux. After James Fitzjames updated it and added their latest plans as they were abandoning the ships on April 28, 1848, Irving trekked back to the cairn to replace it. His skeletal remains were found much later and eventually repatriated in his homeland. He had separated from the main group, which had set out on their futile trek southward, and returned to the ships, probably leading others. This accounts for the fact that his skeletal remains showed signs of an organized burial.

Michael Palin’s account of the HMS Erebus is very comprehensive and engaging. It includes the Antarctic service of the paired vessels. The admirable book is also flavoured by his wit and sense of humour. Palin is an engaging writer with an eye for dredging up humorous passages and writing amusing stories that left me chuckling many times. With its numerous maps, many illustrations, and a handy Timeline the well-organized book is a treasure for the history buff.

Some Franklin Expedition daguerreotypes. Courtesy Canadian Museum of Nature blog
Captain James Fitzjames. 1845 daguerreotype by Richard Beard. National Maritime Museum Greenwich

I was particularly fascinated by the 14 daguerreotypes that are included with the illustrations. These were a sampling of the officer photographs ordered by Lady Franklin prior to departure. With the exception of the portrait of Crozier, all were of officers from the Erebus.

Unfortunately there are left-hand/right-hand mix-ups in Palin’s text describing three of these daguerreotypes. My corrected entries are shown in brackets. Fitzjames is described as holding his telescope in the crook of his left [right] arm (p. 199). Des Voeux is said to have his right [left] hand tucked into his coat (p. 200). Dr. Goodsir, looking very pensive, is said to be leaning on his right [left] hand (p. 200).

Now, it could be argued that the daguerreotype process produces a left-right reversal of the image. This is so because the final image is viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. I do not think, however, that the author would apply that consideration in his descriptions without some elaboration, as it would be confusing to the reader. If that image reversal were factored in, we would still have a problem with the ones that now appear to be correct. These, however, are only very minor discrepancies in a very engaging literary work. I have pointed them out because others may notice them.

The author introduces us to some less-well-known characters in his extended Erebus saga, which sometimes leap out at the reader like misplaced actors in a Charles Dickens novel. Robert McCormick is one of these; Palin refers to him as “the bird dispatcher.” He professes great admiration for birds and yet cannot restrain himself from repeatedly shooting them all with his shotgun:

For notwithstanding that my duties as ornithologist compel me to take the lives of these most beautiful and interesting creatures … I never do so without a sharp sting of pain and qualm of conscience, so fond am I of all the feathered race.

Edwin Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864), inspired by the Franklin Expedition. Courtesy Royal Holloway, University of London
Michael Palin. Photo by John Swannell

Speaking of Dickens, Palin introduces a passage the great novelist had written to the papers in the defence of the English sailors who perished from starvation and exposure in the frozen barren ground, and — being Englishmen — could not possibly have resorted to cannibalism. Although I do not agree with Dickens on that point, and the evidence contradicts him, I admire his eloquence:

Therefore we care about this. Because they served their country well, and can ask no more on this earth for her justice and her loving kindness…. Because no Franklin can come back, to write the honest story of their woes and resignation…. Because they lie scattered on those wastes of snow, and are as defenceless against the remembrance of the coming generations, as against the elements into which they are resolving, and the winter winds that alone can waft them home … therefore cherish them greatly, even in the breasts of children.

That passage gave me goose bumps. The winter winds wafting them home speaks of decomposition and the recycling of atoms to be blended into new life forms, a concept that gives me great comfort in life.

The first image of the Erebus, sea floor scan, 2014. Photo courtesy Parks Canada


Walter Volovsek. Photo by Ken Cazakoff

After managing the biology labs at Selkirk College for 24 years, Walter O. Volovsek retired to a second (voluntary) career: developing walking and ski touring trails for the Castlegar community. Most of these were developed to present to the user a pathway into the past by means of interpretive signage in the field, and related essays on his website. This endeavour led to connections with descendants of important Castlegar pioneers, such as Albert McCleary and Edward Mahon. In 2012 Walter self-published his biography of Castlegar founder Edward Mahon, The Green Necklace: The Vision Quest of Edward Mahon (Otmar Publishing, 2012). In addition to his plans for Castlegar, Mahon was also known for his legacy of parks and greenways in North Vancouver. Walter has also written a book on his trail-building efforts, Trails in Time: Reflections (Otmar, 2012), and has been commissioned to develop signs on local history in key locations, including Castlegar Millennium Park, Castlegar Spirit Square, and Brilliant Bridge Regional Park. Editor’s note: Walter Volovsek has also reviewed books by Nancy Anderson, Michael HaynesDerek HayesPaul WatsonOwen Beattie & John Geiger and Ralph Beaumont for The Ormsby Review.



[1] Dorothy Blakey Smith, editor, Lady Franklin Visits the Pacific Northwest: Being Extracts from the Letters of Miss Sophia Cracroft, Sir John Franklin’s Niece, February to April, 1861 and April to July, 1870 (Victoria: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1974).


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

A Parks Canada archaeologist surveys the hull of HMS Erebus, 2014. Photo by Thierry Boyer, Parks Canada

3 comments on “1301 Goosebumps & unbroken ice

  1. An additional BC connection to this expedition is that Alexander Caulfield Anderson was James Anderson’s younger brother. In 1855, Chief Trader James Anderson, then in charge of the Mackenzie’s River District, was sent north by the Great Fish or Back River, to find any remains (if they existed) of the ships or of Franklin’s men. One of Anderson’s men did see the Erebus out to sea off Starvation Cove, but did not tell Anderson himself. Very interesting story here, which is not often referenced in research done on this Expedition.

    1. Thanks, Nancy, I was aware that Alexander Caulfield Anderson had an equally distinguished brother in the HBC’s Northern Department, but I knew little about him. This is more proof that there’s a book waiting to be written on the Franklin Expedition and BC. And of course John Rae’s brother — William Glen Rae — was stationed in the Columbia Department. All grist to the mill! Best, Richard

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