Book Review: Erebus, by Michael Palin

erebus-terror
Picture credit: oikofuge.com; showing Erebus & Terror

If you’ve never before read any of Michael Palin’s serious writing, I think this will be a very good place to start, despite it being one of his most recent books (Hutchinson, London, 2018; ISBN 9781847948120 [hardback]); if you have, however, I am very confident that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Michael is known for his Ripping Yarns series, albeit at some remove now, but this book is a true life ripping yarn, although with a bitter-sweet ending, and although the review is rather longer than others I have posted, I feel that this book deserves it, in view of the impressive detail contained therein, and the research that clearly must have been done in preparation for its writing.

It tells the story of the 1846 Franklin Expedition to discover the North-West Passage, but what first excited Michael’s interest in this expedition was the discovery in September 2014 of a sailing vessel at the bottom of the sea, although a relatively shallow depth, in the Canadian Arctic. This ship was HMS Erebus, hence the book’s name. Michael had encountered Erebus, figuratively speaking, in the course of his research into Joseph Hooker, about whose life he was going to deliver a talk to the Athenaeum Club in London, in 2013. Hooker had run the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for much of the nineteenth century, and his policy of ‘botanical imperialism’ had become known to Michael whilst he was filming in Brasil, and which policy had effectively killed the Brasilian rubber industry. Before that though, in 1839, at the under age of twenty-two, he had been engaged as assistant surgeon & botanist on a four-year Royal Naval expedition to the Antarctic, and the ship that had survived eighteen months at the bottom of the world and returned safely was HMS Erebus.

In 2014, after a highly successful ten-night Monty Python reunion at the O2 Arena in London, he “saw [on the evening news] an item that stopped me in my tracks.”: a submerged vessel, believed to be HMS Erebus, had been found on a shallow part of the seabed (so close to the surface, in fact, that the tips of her masts would once have been visible above the waves) by a Canadian underwater archaeology team, and her hull was virtually intact, the contents preserved by the ice. So Michael set out to research this doomed ship, and he started at an institution of which he had for three years been President, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), and which still had a pair of Hooker’s stockings, which Michael came to regard “as a kind of spiritual talisman”.

Erebus was launched on the 7th of June 1826, at Pembroke Dockyard, and she is known as a bomb ship because she was the penultimate vessel of a class that was designed to be strong enough to fling mortar shells high over coastal defences; however, history had by then overtaken this purpose, and the Royal Navy’s strength had already been considerably scaled back by the time of the launch of the 372 ton vessel. She was named Erebus to warn her adversaries that “here was a bringer of havoc, a fearsome conveyor of hell-fire”, because in classical mythology, Erebus, the son of Chaos, was generally referred to the “dark heart of the Underworld, a place associated with dislocation and destruction.” After being fitted out at Plymouth, she was transformed into a warship, but then she lay idle at Devonport for eighteen months waiting for a purpose. This was found when she set sail on 21 February 1828, under the command of Commander George Haye, RN, for a two-year patrol of the Mediterranean, which was relatively uneventful, although discipline on board was something of a problem. This changed in the second year when Commander Philip Broke took over: he instituted a regime of artillery exercises, but even those didn’t bring about a military career for Erebus, and at the end of June 1830, she was home again.

Her first real chance for glory came nine years later when, under the command of James Clark Ross, who already had something of an illustrious career as an explorer behind him, she set sail for the Southern Ocean to further our understanding of the earth’s magnetic field as, according to Palin, around that time “terrestrial magnetism was high on the agenda” of the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science. She was to be accompanied by HMS Terror, a similar type of ship to Erebus, but specifically one of the Vesuvius Class, built in 1813, with plenty of active service behind her. The voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, as it would continue to be known until 1855, when it acquired the modern name of Tasmania, took just under a year and, whilst Erebus was there, Ross’s “most urgent priority was to get an observatory up and running.” Their stay was relatively short though, and on Thursday November 12th 1840, Erebus left Hobart. The furthest south they got, at the end of January the following year, past 76°, was the Great Southern Barrier, a “great ice-wall”; an unbroken sheet of ice 300 feet thick and the same size as France; that ran east from the newly named Mount Erebus volcano “as far as the eye could discern”, and this effectively ruled out further progress towards the South Magnetic Pole, so the two ships headed back to Hobart, which they reached on 7th April 1841, as Ross put it: “unattended by casualty, calamity, or sickness of any kind”.

After a period of rest & recuperation (and no little socialising), the ships set off again in July 1841, via Sydney, northern New Zealand and Chatham Island, for the Antarctic. By February 23rd, after spells becalmed in pack ice, they reached the Great Southern Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), and recorded their furthest position south, 78°9’30”, six miles further than their previous record, but it was obvious that there was to be no way through it, so regretfully, they headed for the Falkland Islands to refit & resupply. On the way, both ships were nearly lost because, in avoiding a giant iceberg, their course resulted in them colliding, and after Terror had found a narrow gap between ’bergs, it was only the rapid & unorthodox action of Captain Ross that avoided Erebus being reduced to matchwood, with the loss of all hands. Their safe arrival at the Falklands was overshadowed by the loss of four men during the recent expedition. They stayed there until September, when they set off “for a short expedition to undertake a survey of magnetic activity around Cape Horn, a round trip of about 2,000 kilometers, and they took 800 young beech trees “back to the treeless Falklands.” By the 17th of December 1842, they were ready to set off again, but this time there was nowhere near as much enthusiasm for the trip, one notable exception being Captain Ross. This time, they went nowhere near the Barrier, and by early March, when the winter ice was closing around them Ross accepted defeat and gave the order for both ships to set sail for the Cape of Good Hope.

They reached those safe waters the following April. According to Palin, “Officially … the Antarctic expedition was a success. Unofficially it extracted a traumatic toll.” Ross resolved never to go to the Antarctic again, and Hooker revealed in a letter to his father that none of the men would follow Ross there either. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to go straight home: they had to go via Ascension Island and Rio de Janeiro, “for magnetic purposes”. By the beginning of September 1843, however, they were in sight of “the shores of Old England”. Back on dry land, Ross resolved never to go to sea again: “The long voyage had exhausted him.” He probably wouldn’t have been in the least perturbed that “For the next sixty years the antarctic remained virtually forgotten.” However, paradoxically, according to Palin,  Erebus and Terror’s success had renewed interest in the Arctic, specifically: conquest of the Northwest Passage, if for no other reason than to prevent the Russians from getting there first. The biggest advantage that could be pressed to achieve this was “that two ice-tested ships were ready and waiting in the Thames estuary.” The go-ahead was given, and preparations for the voyage, including some strengthening of hull & decks, and, controversially, the fitting of 2 second-hand 25-horsepower locomotive engines (much smaller than the marine steam engines of the time, were completed in very short order; to make the best use of the northern summer of course; so that the ships left England on the 19 May 1845, under the command of the surprisingly old (59) Sir John Franklin, who had latterly been somewhat in the doldrums as Governor General of Tasmania: he had, in fact, been summarily dismissed.

Before Greenland was reached, a crow’s nest, invented by William Scoresby less than half a century previously, was installed on Erebus, to keep a lookout for ice; Terror, which followed Erebus, was not so equipped. It seems odd that this wasn’t considered for the Antarctic expeditions. By late July, both ships were seen, surrounded by ice in upper Baffin Bay, by two whaling ships, Prince of Wales and Enterprise; the sighting by Captain Dannett of the former, on the 27th of July, is generally assumed to be the last-recorded sighting of the expedition, other than by Inuit; although there was an unconfirmed sighting of the tips of their masts on the horizon, by Captain Martin of Enterprise, as late as the 29 or 31 of July. When 1847 arrived with no word from the expedition, at least two proposals for fact-finding or possible rescue missions to the Arctic were rejected by the Admiralty and the Royal Society: it was both too soon and potentially too dangerous. In less than a year, this attitude was reversed, but the first voyage, to the Bering strait, found nothing; the second rescue attempt, down the Mackenzie River to the coast & islands, also found no trace of Franklin & his men; finally, James Ross, having acceded to the relentless demands from Franklin’s wife, Jane, set off in the summer of 1848 in Enterprise (although whether this is the same one mentioned earlier is not specified), accompanied by Investigator. They made very little progress, because the ice was so thick and the weather so cold, and they had to winter at Somerset Island, where Ross had surveyed in 1932. After an aborted man-hauled sledge search, covering 500 miles in 39 days, Ross decided to return home. Needless to say, Jane Franklin was surprised & disappointed.

Over the next decade, 36 separate expeditions were mounted to the area. In August 1850, the first tangible evidence was found: “fragments of naval stores, portions of ragged clothing, preserved meat tins”, and an empty cairn; soon after, the graves of two seamen from Erebus and one from Terror were found. Other evidence started turning up in diverse locations, and further expeditions only succeeded in proving where Franklin had not gone, rather than the opposite. The first claimed land crossing of the Passage was in 1853, but still no sign of Franklin. In January 1854, notwithstanding the opposition of Lady Franklin, the Admiralty decided to draw a line under the situation, and consider the men of the two ships lost. Within a few months, however, a Hudson’s Bay employee, John Rae, had bought from Arctic Inuits various items that were soon identified as belonging to members of the Franklin expedition, but worse was to come: “‘From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles [cooking vessels].’ Rae reported the Inuit telling him, ‘it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.’” This grisly but pragmatic solution was totally unacceptable to polite Victorian society, and was dismissed out of hand by no less a champion of Jane Franklin than Charles Dickens. He helped to raise funds, speaking at the RGS, and £3,000 was enough to organise a 177-ton 3-masted, steam-driven yacht, Fox, to engage in a search, leaving in July 1857.

After initially getting caught in ice in Baffin Bay and having to overwinter there, the ship was able to move to a base at the eastern end of Bellot Strait and a sledge-bound reconnaissance expedition was mounted. On the way, Inuits they met told of 2 ships that had come to grief, one sinking, which spurred the searchers on. Confirmation of Franklin’s death was found in a written record in a cairn, and the second-in-command of the rescue mission, Lieutenant William Hobson, wrote it all up in a report dated 1 August 1859, but it was never published (finally appearing in Arctic magazine in April 2014), so the news didn’t come out until 23 September, when Fox arrived back in England. It emerged that “Crozier had led his doomed men to the last link in the chain of marine connections that made up the Northwest Passage.” Statues were erected, and this appeared on the citation that accompanied the award of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society to Jane Franklin, the first woman to be so honoured by the Society; although curiously, not her husband. With regard to the predominant cause of the death of the Franklin Expedition members, there doesn’t appear to be consensus; exhaustion and hypothermia are obvious, and lead poisoning from badly sealed food tins is a strong contender, but also is tuberculosis, which was the probable cause of death in at least three cases.

This is an absolutely fascinating account and meticulously researched; I have deliberately (of necessity!) skimmed for this review, but Palin mixes the comprehensive historical detail with his own experience of travelling to many of the locations mentioned. It is a mixture of pathos and enthusiasm, as much for the enterprise of the British as much as anything else, but this is also tempered with Palin’s own observations on how this enterprise can be contaminated by greed and the arrogance of  imperialism; I will leave the last word to Palin:

“So far as nature was concerned, Ross was like McCormick and so many other of his contemporaries, inquisitive but unsentimental. At that time the world’s population was less than one billion and resources were abundant. Today, with the population heading towards eight billion, the destruction of our habitat is seen as a threat rather than an obligation. For Ross, the rich seas and forests of Tasmania were not there to be conserved, they were there to be exploited. To make the world a better place, one had to make it more productive. If there were fish, then they should be caught; if there were forests, they should be cut down. He couldn’t see the wood for the price of timber. Woodland should become farmland, and quiet coves with good harbours should become productive ports.

Of the original inhabitants of the island, neither Ross nor anybody else had much to say. Almost all had now been killed or removed to Flinders Island. Hooker has a particularly poignant entry in his journal. ‘Of the numbers that once inhabited this island, only three remain, all males, and they consist of an old, a middle aged man, and a child. They are very savage, but seldom seen.’

Ross was a successful, strong-willed and strong-minded individual who saw the world as being at the service of man. And from there it was a small step to seeing the British as those best suited to be the world’s caretaker.”

Free book for Christmas!

LTbiogcover100wFor a limited time, the PDF version of Wilfred Risdon’s biography of Robert Lawson Tait, the Edinburgh born surgeon, can be downloaded free! This could be the ideal Christmas present for somebody who enjoys non-fiction in general, and biographies in particular.

Robert Lawson Tait was born in 1845, and was clever enough to be accepted by Edinburgh University at the surprisingly precocious age of 15. LawsonTait

After graduating, he became a surgeon, and took a special interest in women’s medical problems, especially those associated with childbirth; but he was also a committed advocate for the admission to the medical profession of women, on the same terms as men. What initially brought him to Wilfred Risdon’s attention was that he was fervently opposed to the use of animals in medical research, which made him many enemies in the medical profession. The latter concern is still very relevant today; thanks to the work of Tait, and others who shared his aspirations, women now rightfully work as equals to men in medicine.

Please leave your email address in a comment, if you would like to download this book for free, and I will send you a link. I look forward to hearing from you!

A German Life: are we all Pomseline?

Pomsel

A documentary film was made in 2013, and shown recently on British television; it might have been shown here on a previous occasion, but this was the first time I saw it. It was made by film-makers Christian Krönes, Olaf S. Müller, Roland Schrotthofer, and Florian Weigensamer; it had the title Ein Deutsches Leben (A German Life), and it enabled the then 103 year old Brunhilde Pomsel (affectionately known by her friends & family as Pomseline) to tell her life story, as best as she could remember it, which was surprisingly well (without wishing to be in any way patronising). A book, entitled The Work I Did, and the reason for this post, was written by Thore D. Hansen, and published in an English version, with a translation by Shaun Whiteside, in 2018 (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2018).

What makes this book and, of course, its source material, the subject of the first section, so interesting, is that it is the chronology of a woman whose most notable employment, in the context of 20th century history, was as a typist in the office of Joseph Goebbels who, for those who might not already know, was effectively second only to Hitler himself in the hierarchy of the Nazi machinery until the very end of the second world war. In itself, that would make for a fascinating read, for those of us with a thirst for knowledge of recent history, but she was by no means an ardent Nazi: not quite the reverse, but it is her apparent indifference at the time to events that were unfolding all around her, with the probable inevitable inference to be drawn that she was driven almost entirely by self-interest (and was also possibly not being entirely candid) that galvanised Thore Hansen into presenting a written record of the interviews, followed by an analysis of her recollections, and what relevance they have for the recent re-emergence (interpreted by many as a danger) of right-wing nationalist parties on a global scale, but more specifically in a European context.

But of course I’m guilty in the sense of being stupid. But it wasn’t what everybody wanted. They promised themselves a new revival after the loss of the First World War, and at first that actually happened. A re-blossoming of a humiliated people who had lost the war and not gained some of the rights that could have grown out of the Treaty.

Hansen points out how easily she could have informed herself about contemporary events, using information that was easily available to her, but “[t]he desire for personal recognition and her blind sense of duty towards her superior took precedence in the young secretary.” When the aforementioned documentary film was premiered, the current detachment from, and lack of interest in politics & the democratic process, on the part of large sections of people around the world, giving rise to ignorance, passivity and apathy, enabling those already radicalised to recruit those who are credulous & gullible enough to follow them, was emphasised; Paul Garbulski of the German Vice magazine was quoted as saying: “I have always tried to protect myself from others, and it is the ordinary person in me, filled with sufficient weary absurdity, who paves the way for betrayal and the violence of entire armies. Let us pay attention to the little bit of Pomsel within each of us.” (Gib acht vor der Nazi-Sekretärin in dir {Watch out for the Nazi secretary in you}; VICE Magazin, 17 august 2016, at: http://www.vice.com/de/read/sind-wir-nicht-alle-ein-bisschen-pomsel, visited 28 December 2016)

According to Hansen, “… currently many people are turning away from the democratic system because they do not question the mechanisms that lead to the breakdown of social and human solidarity — or perhaps because they don’t want to question them? In Pomsel’s life, or at least so it seems, little mattered apart from her own advancement.”

And now that was my fate. Who is in control of his fate in such agitated times? Very few people can say: I did this and this for that and that reason. It just happens to us!

What is happening in Europe & the United States is what is engaging Hansen on our behalf, and the parallels between the 1930s and the present day: “Are parts of the population, most of whom have not yet been radicalised by the new demagogues, in the end just as passive, ignorant or indifferent towards current developments as Pomsel described herself and those around her when she was aged twenty-two to thirty-four? Is youth today just as apolitical, and is the political disenchantment of the middle class the actual threat to democracy? Have the democratic elites failed by ignoring the long-term consequences and causes of an increasing political disenchantment? Are we returning, open-eyed, through our passive attitude and apathy, to the 1930s? And can we really draw conclusions for the present day from Pomsel’s biography — conclusions that will stir us into action? Anyone who does not wish to see totalitarian states emerging should take the experiences of the 1930s and Brunhilde Pomsel’s life story seriously.”

He goes on to give a specific example of this fear, as embodied in Turkey: “In our own times we are seeing a dictatorship emerging in Turkey. In the end it is people like Brunhilde Pomsel who have, at the behest of of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, brought the opposition, parliament and the media under the sole control of the president to ensure Erdogan’s power. We don’t know how much opportunism these police officers, functionaries and other henchmen displayed or had to display just to live (or survive) in Erdogan’s new system, but they are calling democracy into question. … The death penalty is due to be reintroduced. The Turkish parliament has been stripped of its power, and the powers of the president have been strengthened. These are all signs clearly reminiscent of the Nazi dictatorship, under which Brunhilde Pomsel began her career in the Reich Broadcasting Corporation after it was cleansed of Jews. What we are observing in Turkey is also happening elsewhere in the world, but we are talking about a country aspiring to membership of a community of democratic values — the European Union. … Democracy is the constant attempt to safeguard and protect the rights of the individual. The new right-wing populists, should they come to power, will deny individuals these rights again, and the old anti-fascist warning ‘Resist the beginnings’ is being uttered far too late.” I have only been able to scratch the surface here of this fascinating book, and there is plenty in it to stimulate thought about the current state of the world without, I hope, giving rise to pessimism: positive action, even in a small way, is possible, and can achieve tangible results.

This subject is of particular interest to me, given my own involvement, as a research subject, with British fascism in the 1930s, having discovered many years ago that my grand-uncle was a major player in the movement, before he detached himself, for reasons explained in his biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, to concentrate (very successfully, in my humble estimation) on animal welfare in general, and anti-vivisection specifically. It was always stressed, from the top, in the person of Oswald Mosley himself, down to the rank & file (with some notable exceptions, such as William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, it has to be said) that fascism in Britain, such as it was in its limited and, with the onset of war, failed manifestation, owed nothing to National Socialism in Germany; rather it was modelled on (but not cloned from) Mussolini’s Blackshirt movement in Italy, with its system of corporate government, rather than polarised party politicians who could be (and still can be, in many countries) easily bought. It is futile to speculate from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century whether Mosley could have been the mythical ‘benign dictator’, had he succeeded in his ambitions; my own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that such a thing is impossible, now, especially within the all-pervasive capitalist system, which surely only the most ardent (and blinkered) free-market proponents could resist admitting has failed miserably, but until the world sees sense and transfers all resources to common ownership, we will have to prop up democracy as best we can, to avoid global catastrophe. However, this does mean that we must all engage with politics, even if only to the minimum extent of voting, ideally for issues of importance, rather than being constrained by party straitjackets or, worse, submitting to apathy, expecting other people to decide their fate for them.

There is a fascinating, and rather poignant, postscript to the Brunhilde Pomsel story, which for reasons not elucidated in the book, concerns part of her life that wasn’t revealed during the filming: before the 1936 Olympic Games she met a half-Jewish printmaker & illustrator in Berlin. It is evident that Pomsel must have had more information at her command with regard to the plans of the German administration for the Jews in Germany than she had admitted to during the film, because as a result of their conversations, Gottfried Kirchbach (son of the painter Frank Kirchbach) moved to Amsterdam after the Games to escape persecution. Pomsel was pregnant, but Kirchbach felt he wasn’t ready or prepared to set up a family home in a foreign country and, sadly, Pomsel had to terminate the pregnancy because of the danger to her health from the lung disease she had been subject to for many years. Pomsel was able to visit Kirchbach a few times in Amsterdam, but this became too dangerous for her, and after the war started, she never saw her lover again. Kirchbach died in Amsterdam (no details given) in 1942; Brunhilde Pomsel never had any children after this, lived alone and died in Munich in the night of 27 January 2017, aged 106, and it is mentioned in the book that this is the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Photo credit: still from A German Life, via The Times of Israel: https://www.timesofisrael.com/shot-in-black-and-white-a-german-life-paints-wwii-in-chilling-shades-of-gray/

Hilda Kean

Hilda Kean

Wilfred Books is very pleased to be able to offer a short profile of an author, Hilda Kean (right), who was very helpful with sources and background information that was most useful in the writing of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, in the second of an occasional series, in which established authors explain how they undertook the process of writing & publishing their work.

I haven’t quite thought previously about what I have written, since it covers an odd subject including a medieval Carmelite friar, early education in the initial C20th – including assertive suffrage activists in schools, women’s political history, ways of approaching public history, and histories of animals.

The last two topics came about when working at Ruskin College, Oxford, for over twenty years. I was encouraged by the late Raphael Samuel, with whom I worked, to develop the first MA in Public History in the country, including running many open conferences. Raphael also helped me write my first historical essay on anti-vivisection, published in his History Workshop Journal, and I then went on to the Animal Rights book [see below], and many articles including Greyfriars Bobby, squirrels, animal cemeteries, Trim the cat, animal war memorials and unusual animal statues.

My latest book The Great Cat and Dog Massacre. The Real Story of World War II’s Unknown Tragedy came out last year, and there is a new paperback in the next few weeks. I try to write material on a range of topics on my website, where you can pick up various writing, and welcome comments from readers: http://hildakean.com.

9781861890610

Hilda Kean’s book, Animal Rights, was published by Reaktion Books.