Alphonse de Neuville

A tale of two shipwrecks

Life in the subantarctic is difficult enough for those who arrive prepared. In 1864, castaways from two storm-wrecked ships, the Grafton and the Invercauld, landed on opposite ends of Auckland Island. Survival became a daily challenge. Each group tackled it differently: one fell to violence and cannibalism, while the other became a close-knit brotherhood. Were the wildly different fates of men of the Grafton and the Invercauld down to luck—or leadership?

Written by       Illustrated by Alphonse de Neuville

The first impact came at midnight.

Ninety minutes after the schooner Grafton’s anchor broke free, the ship struck the rocks off Auckland Island’s southern coast. Again and again, the storm pushed the boat towards shore, and its hull crashed against the rocks hidden in the inky, foaming sea. But the Grafton was a sturdy vessel, and despite the fearsome noise, held strong. The tide was rising, and with every minute, more water poured beneath the keel, lifting it above the rocks below. The ship’s crew felt a gleam of hope. If the winds subsided, and if the tide was high enough, the Grafton could escape.

The five men of the Grafton had their share of bad luck—they’d gone in search of a subantarctic tin mine that didn’t exist, then crashed into the rocks off Auckland Island on the way home. Fortunately, the Grafton didn’t sink, allowing all five men to reach shore via a rope and pulley system they rigged.

But the storm increased in ferocity. The wind tore at the sails, whipping across the deck and saturating the crew with icy froth. And then, with a screeching crunch, the keel was torn from the ship. Seawater poured into the hull, fixing the Grafton in place.

It was January 3, 1864. Huddled beneath the sodden sails, François Raynal was freezing. He hadn’t yet recovered from an illness which had left him bedridden aboard the Grafton for more than a month. The fever, he reasoned, was a relapse. He’d spent the past 11 years chasing gold in Australia, where he’d contracted cholera, and experienced temporary blindness when his face swelled shut with an infection. Following a miraculous escape from a collapsed mineshaft, he had travelled to Sydney to recover, where a friend spun tales of a fortune of argentiferous tin on Campbell Island, 600 kilometres south of Rakiura/Stewart Island. Raynal decided he’d seek it out, amass the wealth he had failed to find in Australia, then return to his destitute family in France.

To this end he had arranged a crew. Thomas Musgrave was an Englishman and sailor who would serve as captain until such time as Raynal established an expedition on the island. Twenty-year-old George Harris was to share Musgrave’s watch—splitting the time each man would stay awake during the night. Alexander “Alick” Maclaren was an illiterate Norwegian, laconic and taciturn, but a competent sailor; he would share Raynal’s watch. Their cook was Henry Forgès, a diminutive and squat Portuguese who had lost his nose and half of his face to leprosy. Forgès had spent time as a guest, and then captive, of the indigenous people of the Navigator Islands (now Samoa and American Samoa), and had been injured by a javelin during his escape.

Sheltering beneath their crude hut, the men discovered they could set fire to the ground—it was peat, decayed vegetable matter that burns well when dry.

The Grafton and its crew of five departed Sydney on November 12, 1863, and after a 20-day passage, reached Campbell Island on December 2. They spent a month anchored at Abraham’s Bosom, combing the island for the fabled tin mine and the rumoured stocks of seals and sea-lions they expected to live on. By the end of the month, neither had materialised. The crew set sail for Auckland Island, intent on subsidising their voyage with a loot of skins and oil harvested from the animals they hoped to find there.

Peering through his telescope, Raynal thought Auckland Island looked like the Garden of Eden in comparison to the barren and inhospitable Campbell Island. The shores thronged with wildlife, and in the bay, sea-lions hunted in great numbers. Raynal resolved to put ashore, harvest the animals, and return to Sydney to refit the ship in preparation for a sealing trip to this rich ground. The crew retired below decks, with Alick keeping watch in the forecastle. Then the barometer dropped.

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Auckland Island sits 400 kilometres south of Rakiura, squarely in the middle of the roaring 40s and furious 50s—latitudes where winds howl across the Southern Ocean with very little land to slow them. Artefacts indicate Auckland Island was visited by Polynesian navigators, but no meaningful attempt at settlement was undertaken until Matioro, a Ngāti Mutanga ariki, led an expedition there from the Chatham Islands. Matioro preferred to relocate to the subantarctic rather than give up his slaves following the purchase of the Chathams by the New Zealand Company. Seven years later, Matioro was followed by the doomed settlers of Hardwicke, the brainchild of a fraudulent utopist who promised an idyllic refuge in the Southern Ocean, where crops of all types would flourish in bounty, and whaling crews could find a temperate home away from home. The dream lasted two and a half years. The acidic peat proved wholly unsuitable for cultivation. Hardwicke’s sole surgeon fell into the sea and was so drunk upon being fished out that he was imprisoned, but a few days later, the jail was burned down. Matioro’s wife, Kuini, attempted suicide. Two infants born on the island passed away, having spent their entire lives on the most remote settlement ever established in the name of the British Empire.

In 1852, much of Hardwicke was dismantled and shipped to Sydney for auction, a decision that would cost the lives of many castaways. Matioro left for Rakiura, and soon after, the remaining Māori returned to the Chathams. The desolate landscape was left to the rātā and to the albatross.

[Chapter Break]

As daylight broke, Raynal and the crew emerged from beneath the sail to confront the storm. The wind threw spray across the deck, and water churned around the hull. But the bulk of the Grafton provided a barrier to the sea, creating a small, calm channel between it and the land.

The crew loaded the ship’s canoe with salt, Musgrave’s chest, his navigational instruments, a chest of cooking utensils, and Raynal’s chest, with his double-barrelled rifle. These provisions, and Raynal himself, were dragged ashore by a pulley system that Alick, diving in and swimming ashore, had secured to a tree. The crew also loaded the canoe with provisions, including 100 pounds of biscuit, 50 pounds of flour, and tea, coffee, pork and tobacco—all of which were shared out impartially despite belonging to Raynal and Musgrave. This communal attitude was to prove crucial to their survival.

Despite the continuing storm, the wrecked Grafton remained afloat offshore, with its cargo of ropes, sails, planks of wood and tools. Leaving Raynal to tend to a fire, the crew returned to the ship and retrieved materials to construct a small shack, in which the men piled together for a fitful sleep. No sooner had they passed into unconsciousness, however, than a thunderous crashing roused Raynal.

On the beach, two bull sea-lions were fighting—eight feet long and six feet wide at the shoulders. In the morning, the crew went looking for sea-lion pups, and had their first taste of what was to become the staple of a starvation diet—one they would endure for the next 18 months.

“The black, coarse, oleaginous flesh, which was as little agreeable to the smell as to the taste, did not appear to us a very satisfactory repast,” wrote Raynal. “But we felt we must accustom ourselves to it.”

“If this, the flesh of a young animal, was so repugnant, what would be the case when we were compelled to make use of that of the old? For it was probable that we should not always be at liberty to choose our game.”

By late February, the crew of the Grafton had become accustomed to—if not in favour of—the taste of sea-lion flesh. But the act of killing them remained a struggle. One Saturday afternoon, while exploring a nearby bay, the crew came across three sea-lion pups beneath a tree. Armed with cudgels, they beat the pups to death.

“It was not without repugnance—I may say not without remorse—that we went through the task of massacring the innocents,” wrote Raynal.

By March 5, a hut had been constructed from the remnants of the Grafton, supplemented by planks of wood harvested from the surrounding forest. It was no mean shack. Makeshift lamps lit the interior, a hearth warmed it, and a chimney vented smoke. The men could retire to their own cots. A loft stored sails and cordage harvested from the wreck, and a sea chest served as a desk for Raynal and Musgrave. Their food stores consisted only of a few pounds of flour and some mustard, but they had the necessities of survival. The crew of the Grafton now made a decision that may have saved their lives.

“Assuredly we had lived together since our shipwreck in peace and harmony—I may even say in true and honest brotherhood; yet it had sometimes happened that one or the other had yielded to a fit of temper, and let drop an unkind word, which naturally provoked a not less disagreeable repartee,” wrote Raynal. “But if habits of bitterness and animosity were once established amongst us, the consequences could not but be most disastrous: we stood so much in need of one another!”

Next, the men learned that precision was more important than power in hunting sea-lions. Cudgelling the animals around the head was a critical, if repugnant, method of “massacring the innocents”.

A system of governance was devised, and its rules were inscribed on a page of Musgrave’s Bible. These were read unfailingly every Sunday, following prayers. Musgrave was elected as chief, and Raynal took the first shift as cook, freeing Forgès to hunt and labour with the other men. A school of sorts was established and, over a meal of mussels and cod, the hut was christened Epigwaitt.

By May, it was clear that winter was coming. “The sun scarcely shows himself once or twice a week—just for a moment, between two clouds—and what a sun,” recalled Raynal. “So pale, so cold! And sometimes he does not make his appearance at all for 15 days consecutively!

“The seals are getting rarer and rarer, so that the future does not present itself to our eyes under the most radiant aspects; the spectre of Famine rises menacingly on the horizon, and every day draws nearer with gigantic strides.”

The autumnal storms began to rage with madness, lashing the island with rain, hail and biting winds for days at a time, whipping the ocean into a furious cauldron. No captain would voluntarily bring their ship to this abandoned place. The men of the Grafton set about the slow, monotonous task of surviving the winter.

[Chapter Break]

On the northern end of the island, in the same blistering cold, 23-year-old Robert Holding clung with frozen hands to the poop of the Invercauld, searching for the crewmates who moments before had been alongside him. Beneath him, the ship was being smashed, wave by wave, into pieces.

On May 11, 1864, eight days after leaving Melbourne for South America, the Invercauld had been blown against the cliffs on Auckland Island’s north coast—an area that would later be likened to the jaws of hell. By night, amidst snow and sleet, the keel had struck rocks and caved in, and the ballast had sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

The sea ripped and tore at the vessel. Holding lost his grip in the driving rain and was swept into the darkness. The sea washed him ashore, where he found a huddle of survivors.

At daybreak, a headcount revealed that 19 of the 25 crew had made it to the beach. The Invercauld’s captain, George Dalgarno, a Scotsman from Aberdeen, had survived, and so had his first mate, Andrew Smith, and second mate James Mahoney. The carpenter Alex Henderson was alive, as well as several of the ship’s boys, and Holding’s fellow seamen Fritz Hawser and William Harvey.

In the bay, the only reminder of the Invercauld was a part of the stern, the corpse of a crew member suspended from the inaccessible wreckage. Looming over the group were imposing cliffs, perhaps 100 metres high, with brackish water spilling down their faces.

Between them, the men of the Invercauld had managed to rescue only a few pounds of biscuit and salted pork from the ship. A fire was lit, but the cook burned his remaining matches in an attempt to dry them. Smith attempted to do the same with his matches, and would have lost them had Holding not snatched them away.

Dalgarno seemed too shocked to issue orders, even simple instructions such as organising a search for food or shelter. Holding, a low-ranking seaman, began acting on his own initiative. “It was beginning to become clear to him that if he was ever to survive this ordeal, it would be by his own resourcefulness,” writes maritime historian Joan Druett, author of Island of the Lost.

They spent five days and nights on the beach, huddled together in a lean-to about five by eight feet in size. Members of the crew began to die almost immediately. It wasn’t long before the topic of cannibalism was raised.

“It was the boatswain who first made the suggestion that they should draw lots for which of them should be the first to die, in order to save the rest,” writes Druett. “Revolted, Holding exclaimed that he would never kill and eat another man—but then realised that the alternative was outright murder, with himself the most likely victim.”

As day broke, Holding ran into the tussock alone, fearing for his life.

[Chapter Break]

At the end of May, the snow returned. The crew of the Invercauld were listless, starved and freezing, their numbers reduced to 10. Dalgarno, Smith and Mahoney remained fixated with rank, ordering the ship’s boys to serve them—fetching water, shucking limpets—as if the hierarchy that had dominated on board the Invercauld had substance in their subantarctic prison.

“They never hurt themselves with work,” remembered Holding. On one occasion, when Holding refused Mahoney’s demand that he fetch some edible roots, Mahoney drew his knife and threatened to run Holding through. Holding, unafraid of the second mate, picked up a rock and forced Mahoney to drop his weapon.

Holding saw salvation in mussels and fish, and endeavoured to prod and cajole the castaways into foraging. It was in doing so that the crew encountered berry bushes which showed signs of having been cultivated. From there they found a path, and from there a chimney—the doomed settlement of Hardwicke.

What the settlers of Hardwicke had left behind had not fared well over the previous 12 years. Only a single home and a sodden lean-to remained of the 18 cottages and outhouses, and these had rotted under the constant rain. Further scavenging turned up several tools and tins, which the men used for boiling limpets and seal flesh, while a decimated plantation turned up inedible potatoes and cabbages gone to seed.

“Instead of hunting the plantation for vegetables and taking down the thatch to improve their conditions,” writes Druett, “the men waited for the people who had lived here to come to their rescue, blindly refusing to recognise the self-evident fact that the settlement had been abandoned for a very long time.

When the limpets and sea lions were scarce, the men of the Grafton tried their hand at fishing, catching mostly cod. They built a home for themselves, called Epigwaitt, and kept parrots and a cat as pets.

“Captain Dalgarno had another opportunity to step into a leadership role and organise his men into work parties and hunting groups. However, the psychological paralysis that had afflicted him ever since he had lost the Invercauld still held him in its thrall.”

Following the deaths of the two overworked ship’s boys in July, Holding convinced the first mate and the two seamen to break camp and head for richer hunting grounds. Dalgarno was to stay with the injured Mahoney at Hardwicke, but he, too, followed several days later, leaving Mahoney in his shack to starve to death alone.

One night, Holding noticed Fritz Hawser standing delirious in the dark. Hawser offered him a drink of water, before returning to the brush shack he shared with the other seaman, Harvey. But when Hawser attempted to get inside the shack, Harvey shoved him away. Hawser fell out face-first, and did not get up again.

In the morning, the frozen earth proved impossible to excavate, and Hawser’s corpse was interred beneath a pile of boughs.

Several days later, Holding remembered, “The mate and myself found that Harvey had been eating some of Fritz.”

[Chapter Break]

For the men at Epigwaitt, the possibility of a hoped-for rescue mission had dwindled, vanishing with the mist that had shrouded the island over winter. No ship had gone in search of the Grafton or her crew. While the weather improved and the sea-lions returned with the summer, the men were despondent. For the first time, Musgrave felt true hopelessness, and resolved to quit the island, alone, by boat. Raynal was convinced such an attempt was nothing short
of suicide.

“Well,” said Musgrave, “what matters it, since we are destined to die here? Better to bring our misery to an end at once. What is the use of living? Of what profit is life in such circumstances as ours?”

It was clear that their salvation would have to be won by their own hands. On Christmas Day, the men lay about in throes of despair.

“My companions were lying on the ground, silent, their countenances dark with the dreariest melancholy,” Raynal recalled. “Evidently they had been the victims of regrets as bitter, and despair as great, as mine.

“For a few seconds I considered the spectacle: then, in less time than it takes me to relate it, I felt a complete revolution working within me. To depression succeeded a kind of exaltation; my heart, reinspired by a transport of pride, indignation, and almost wrath, beat violently.

“If men abandon us, let us save ourselves,” proclaimed Raynal. “Courage, then, and to work!”

Today all that remains of Epigwaitt is the chimney.

They would leave this desolate island the same way they arrived—by ship. One they would build themselves. Everything would need to be constructed from scratch, including a forge, tools, and hundreds of nails with which to hold the craft together. Initially dismissing the plan as an act of folly, Raynal was convinced that signs of progress would motivate his friends.

“Early in the morning of January 16, our forge was set to work for the first time. The charcoal glowed and crackled; and the bellows, manoeuvred by Musgrave, gave forth a sonorous roaring, which to our ears seemed the sweetest music in the world. I applied myself, in the first place, to manufacture a pair of smooth, flat pincers, shaped like chisels, to hold and turn over on the anvil the pieces of red-hot iron I should have to forge.

“Conquered by fatigue and emotion, I dropped my hammer, and leaned for support against one of the posts of the shed. I am not ashamed to confess that tears of joy flowed from my eyes.”

Raynal’s delight was short-lived. The work was slow and arduous, and it became clear that it would take the men at least 18 months to construct the ship they envisioned. They changed plans. Instead of building a new vessel, they would modify the ship’s canoe by raising its bulwarks, and set sail with a reduced crew of three.

“From this moment, in our desire to complete our task rapidly so that we might put to sea before the winter months, we redoubled our activity,” wrote Raynal. “Rising at six in the morning, we immediately set to work, and with the exception of the brief intervals necessary for taking our meals, we did not leave off until eleven at night.”

As the days grew shorter, the work at the forge increased, and a quota of 50 nails per night was agreed upon. While Raynal and Musgrave built the ship, Harris, Alick and Forgès spent their days hunting and attending to the domestic duties at Epigwaitt.

By June, the canoe was planked and decked. They had no tar, so the seams of the planks were caulked with a gum of lime and seal-oil. For a mast, they used a piece of Norwegian pine which had served as the mainyard of the Grafton. The ship’s damaged pump was renovated and fitted to the canoe behind the mast. Half a hogshead of fresh water was secured aboard, and the Grafton’s compass was placed on the deck.

“Our work being completed, it presented to the gaze—at all events, to that of its authors—a very imposing appearance,” wrote Raynal. “It was a decked boat, 17 feet long, six feet wide, and three feet deep.”

All that remained was to launch it.

[Chapter Break]

Just three men remained. Sixteen of the Invercauld’s crew were dead—frozen, starved, exposed to the elements. After 12 months of desolation, only Holding, Dalgarno and Smith clung to life, and Holding had finally taken charge of the group. His talent for harvesting food and natural affinity towards survival had thus far saved not only his own life, but that of the captain and his mate, too.

On May 22, 1865, the Julian sailed into Port Ross. A Portuguese brig en route to South America, it had sprung a leak and sought shelter. A plague had ravaged the indentured Chinese workers aboard, but the men of the Invercauld rushed to the ship nonetheless.

On January 16, 1865, the forge at Epigwaitt was set to work for the first time. Over the next seven months, the crew of the Grafton would man the station until late into the night, hammering out the hundreds of nails, bolts and bands required to repurpose the ship’s canoe into a vessel capable of sailing more than 400 kilometres to New Zealand.

Aboard, Dalgarno pulled rank, preventing Holding from revealing that he, in fact, had been in charge for several months. Dalgarno and Smith were clothed handsomely and lodged with the officers, while Holding was sent below, to his proper station.

The Julian set sail for Peru, oblivious to the plight of the Grafton to the south, her crew labouring into the night, forging piece by piece their ship.

Dalgarno reported to the British embassy in Callao on June 28, 1865, and sailed for England on the mail boat that same night, leaving his fellow castaways behind for good. Smith was hospitalised for several weeks. Holding, penniless, survived on the charity of the crew of the Julian, as well as a gift of money from the crew of a visiting British warship. Eventually, he secured a job on the Welsh vessel Mathewan, and, after rounding Cape Horn for the last time, arrived in Rotterdam in October 1865.

He would live to the age of 93.

[Chapter Break]

It was July 12, 1865, and the water was high. Slowly, excruciatingly, the Grafton’s modified canoe was lowered little by little into the sea.

“This operation is always a delicate one, and we did not undertake it without a lively sentiment of anxiety, for an accident might overthrow all our projects, and annihilate in a moment the fruit of seven months of exertion and incessant labour,” wrote Raynal.

Raynal climbed aboard, hurrying to load ballast from the Grafton in order to stabilise the bucking vessel. They christened her Rescue.

After five days at sea, the crew of the Rescue limped into port at Rakiura/Stewart Island.

On July 19, a south-west wind rose, signalling the hour of departure. “We were on the point of separating from two of our companions—from George and Henry—who for 19 months had shared, day after day, our struggles and our sufferings, with whom we had lived as brothers,” wrote Raynal.

Initially, the Rescue made good time. Travelling around six knots, the crew expected to reach New Zealand in 50 to 60 hours. By nightfall, however, a storm rose, and the ship was thrown across the ocean like a cork.

“The surface of the sea was covered with enormous billows; they raised us upon their huge backs to sink under us immediately, and plunge us into the depths of their shifting abysses.”

The storm would continue for four days and nights, draining what little strength—and hope—the men could muster.

On the morning of the fifth day, the Rescue spotted Rakiura. But the wind dropped, and her crew endured the nightmare of being swept back out of sight of land. They sat offshore for another day, every moment closer to death.

“It is true that we had our oars, but we had no longer the strength to make use of them; we saw ourselves on the point of drifting out to sea, and perishing in sight of port,” wrote Raynal.

A local man known only as Cross launched a rescue mission in his own brig, the Flying Scud, to retrieve the remaining castaways.

On July 24, 1865, the Rescue limped into Port Adventure, Rakiura, where the crew encountered an English sailor named Cross, who had taken up residence on the island with his Māori wife. Cross owned a cutter, the Flying Scud. Leaving Raynal to recover from yet another relapse of his illness, Cross and Musgrave set about rescuing the remaining castaways.

Back at Epigwaitt, acrimony had threatened to spell the doom of Harris and Forgès. Subsisting on the mice they could catch inside the shack, the pair had fallen out, and endeavoured to separate to opposite sides of the island. Upon their rescue, both men agreeably claimed responsibility for the split.

Seven weeks after setting sail, the Flying Scud returned to New Zealand, and the men of the Grafton embraced one another as brothers.

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