Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage/ To find the hand of Franklin /Reaching for the Beaufort Sea/Tracing one warm line /Through a land so wild and savage/ And make a Northwest Passage to the sea
— Stan Rogers, Northwest Passage
Many have sought to travel the Northwest Passage and for some it has been a deadly journey.
The ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin is the best known of those. For Michael Palin, the Monty Python alumnus and adventurer, the Franklin story travels in the hold of a boat called HMS Erebus.
Palin is in Ottawa on Friday night for a sold out lecture at the Royal Canadian Geographic Society headquarters on Sussex Drive.
Speaking over the phone from Toronto, his trademark wit was in evidence as he said “I am led by the nose to see the nation at work. They are all stoned out of their minds here. I’m sure it’s not the same in Ottawa.” I guess the news about legal marijuana has spread.
The spark for Palin’s interest in Erebus began with some research he was doing on the 19th century botanist Joseph Hooker who built and maintained the collection at Kew Gardens in London.
“I learned to my amazement that at age 22 Hooker had signed on as the assistant surgeon on a ship called the Erebus which was going to the Antarctic (in 1839).
“I had never heard about this voyage of the Erebus and it seemed most exciting. It was literally going into the unknown. No one then knew what was on the southern end of the earth and they brought back more information that anyone had done to that date. They went further south than anyone had gone before. I thought there was an exciting story there.”
Then when Palin realized that that Erebus was the flagship of the Franklin Expedition, “the most disastrous and catastrophic expedition in British naval history, well that just spiced up the whole tale.”
The topper was when former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper announced the discovery of Erebus on the ocean floor in Canada’s High Arctic.
“That was the final kick I needed to write the story.”
HMS Erebus was a bit of a tub of a boat. It was built as a so-called ‘bomb’ ship. These boats would carry large mortars and would bombard land with them. They needed to be sturdy and stable, and Erebus was all of that.
“(Roald) Amundsen,who was the man who eventually sailed through the Northwest Passage and who got to South Pole first, wrote about Erebus. He knew how extraordinary the (Antarctic) feat had been.
“They only had sails and depended on the wind. They had never been through such thick ice. Huge risks were taken and they all paid off. It was the complete reverse of the Franklin expedition in which everyone thought they could do everything and they failed.
“Erebus should have been called HMS Hubris'” Palin said.
This was an age of exploration, much of it for scientific purpose, advancing the spirit of the Enlightenment. HMS Beagle was ferrying Charles Darwin around the Galapagos Islands at the time. The German Alexander von Humboldt was publishing his massive work on the botany of North America.
The age was not just about empire and conquest, although there was a lot of that.
“That’s what I enjoyed about researching the first expedition (of the Erebus to the Antarctic). It didn’t seem to be overtly imperial in terms of extending Britain’s power.
“Britain did have a navy that was supreme. It had defeated Napoleon and the French. While the British navy ruled waves it also extended the spirit of scientific inquiry.”
That spirit disappeared after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 when, Palin said, he believes the British empire felt the need to protect itself.
The discovery of the remains of the Erebus created quite a stir in Canada and in Britain, Palin recalled.
“In Britain, people had kind of forgotten about the Franklin expedition. As the Canadians were coming to be more interested through the 20th century, the British weren’t,” he said. “It wasn’t as exciting as discovering the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship” which is now inside a museum in Portsmouth.
“For me, though, the discovery was the most extraordinary piece of news.”
Palin had just finished a major Monty Python reunion and was looking for a new challenge.
“I knew I didn’t want to go on touring with Monty Python. And then this pops up. It confirmed the idea I had about writing a book. I got an ending.”
Palin is a traveller, as his many TV series indicate. But he’s also a serious geographer, once serving as president of the Royal Geographical Society.
He believes an understanding of geography is vital as the planet copes with the inevitable results of climate change.
“To me geography now, is about bigger things. It’s trying to understand what the melting ice means. What is this going to do to communities physically in the future?
“Why this happens and who it will affect is not a theoretical thing. There will be people fairly soon who will be leaving their homes just to avoid being inundated. That’s geography.”
Climate change can also surprise us, he said, as it has those seeking to explore the Erebus wreck.
“In the past few years, the Arctic ice has been thick and there has been little time to dive to the ships during the summer … only about two days. The ice is melting but that means more ice floating about and it all congregates in one area. In a way we are getting a recreation of the conditions that Franklin encountered.”
Palin draws much from his work on the Erebus and from his life as a traveller.
“I identify with people who want to keep looking for something, with the restlessness of travel. That really appeals to me.
“By the end of the book I had gotten close to the people I had been studying. I really do feel I would love to have met those guys. I would like to tell them I’ve written a book about them and people are buying it.”
Palin the explorer likes “that road less travelled or turning up the path off the main street. That to me is important.”
He believes the spirit of discovery that drove a generation in the 19th century is still there.
“I can see it. I talk to schools and things like that where people get excited by the physical idea of travelling and showing that travel is not just going on a cruise it is something more than that.”
But he is concerned by what he calls faux travel.
“We now have virtual reality. We have all these things that can take us to places without actually going to them. We can talk to people in other countries without going there to meet them. This to me is dangerous. It makes us feel we know the world but really all you know is a series of stories told to you by other people. You don’t have that first-hand contact. You need to feel it and touch it for ourselves.”
Speaking of that, Palin has been to North Korea a place where few get to go.
“That is absolutely the kind of travel I’m interested in. I want to go to a place where it’s not easy. There is also an opinion that you shouldn’t go there, that it is dangerous and dark. That the people there are offensive and aggressive.
“Of course I didn’t find that. You find that actually people are quite benevolent. Not all of them. No one would show me prison camps and things like that but I saw enough to feel these people are very similar in many ways to people I know and have met all over the world. They are as fun and as friendly as they can be.”
Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time
Michael Palin (Random House Canada)