Although they lie far to the south of New Zealand, remote and rugged, the Auckland Islands have provided the bleak setting for many epic human dramas. Like the basaltic cliffs which buttress the islands against the southern currents, accounts of endurance and despair, courage and futility rise out of the ocean to defy the cynical blast of the Furious Fifties.
It was during the period of expansion into the Pacific by the whale fishery at the turn of the 19th century that they were discovered. Returning from Australia, one of the vessels of the renowned London merchant house, Samuel Enderby and Sons, the Ocean, captained by Abraham Bristow, sighted land on August 18, 1806. Bristow’s log records that “The island, or islands, as being the first discovered, I shall call Lord Auckland’s (my friend through my father)” and that “this place, I should suppose, abounds with seals, and sorry I am that the time, and the lumbered state of my ship, do not allow me to examine.”
Bristow returned the following year and claimed them for the British Crown.
Immediately the news of the discovery became known, sealers descended on the islands like vultures on fresh carrion. Operating in shore gangs, they clubbed their timid quarry, prepared the skins for sale and rendered down the carcasses to extract the oil. Being a lucrative trade, and the sealers secretive, few accounts of their “tough and bloody business” survive.
Such was the exploitation of the fur seal rookeries that by 1830 Captain Benjamin Morrell, aboard the Antarctic, exploring the Pacific for opportunities for American trade, commented, “Although the Auckland Islands once abounded with numerous herds of fur and hair seals [sea lions], the American and English seamen engaged in this business have made such clean work of it as scarcely to leave a breed.”
It was to be Morrell’s otherwise glowing report, together with those of a series of scientific expeditions to the group during the early 1840s, that contributed to the most forlorn episode of human endeavour on the islands: the ill-fated Hardwicke Settlement.
Charles Enderby, concerned at the moribund state of the English whaling industry in the middle of last century, was looking for a way to revive it. His plan, the broad outline of which he published in a pamphlet, was to colonise the Auckland Islands and set up a whaling station there.
He could not have chosen a more unfortunate location. Not only was the islands’ soil completely unsuitable for cultivation, but the climate was uncongenial to the point of misery, the surrounding seas treacherous and the winds incessant, ferocious and cold.
So why did Enderby choose such an unlikely spot? Fergus McLaren, an historian of the subantarctic region, suggests that his choice “was no doubt influenced by the fact that the group had been discovered by an Enderby vessel”. However, it is equally likely that he was swayed by favourable published accounts of the islands which drastically overrated its natural endowments.
Sir James Clark Ross, aware of Enderby’s proposals, wrote, “In the whole range of the vast Southern Ocean, no spot could be found combining so completely the essential requisites for a fixed whaling station.” Morrell enthused similarly: “The quality of the soil in this island is sufficiently indicated by the uniform luxuriance of all its productions. Were the forests cleared away, very few spots would be found that could not be converted to excellent pasturage or tillage land”. In addition, he described the climate as “mild, temperate and salubrious”.
D’Urville authoritatively described Port Ross as one of the best harbours of refuge in the world, while one of his officers, Dubouzet, recorded that “If ever the fine harbours of these islands should attract colonists thither, Laurie’s harbour would be the most suitable point for the town.”
Thus supported by many advocates, which Enderby substantially quoted in a second pamphlet focusing on the island’s natural suitability for settlement, the British Southern Whale Fishery Company became incorporated and obtained the leases of the Auckland Islands. The company’s commissioner-in-residence was to be Charles Enderby himself, who was also commissioned as Lieutenant-Governor of the islands.
So it was that three vessels, the Samuel Enderby, the Fancy and the Brisk, departed from Plymouth in August,1849, carrying with them all the hopes and visions of a group of colonists, as well as the future profitability of the English Southern Fishery. Their objective: to colonise and establish a prosperous settlement, to act as a whaling base, refit and replenish trading and whaling vessels and trade with the separate colonies of Australia and New Zealand.
Young married couples and their children, regarded as ideal settlers, were predominant amongst those on board. Bringing carpentry, engineering, masonry, mechanical, agricultural, medical and clerical skills in addition to those traditionally associated with whaling, these brave colonists seemed well prepared to fulfil the company’s objectives.
They were in for a shock.
First, on arrival in December 1849 they were greeted by a group of Maori. Enderby was greatly perturbed, as he had assured the settlers that the island was “free from aborigines”. The Maori, and their Moriori slaves, under the leadership of chief Matioro of the Ngati Mutunga, having become restless at the lack of martial conflict at home, conscious that their right to have slaves was being threatened by the progress of Christianity and fearing further retaliation for their part in the Jean Bart massacre at the Chatham Islands in 1839, established themselves at Crozier Point at the entrance to Port Ross during 1842.
Second, they encountered an “inhospitable mixture of rock bluff, peat swamp and tangled scrub”. In place of the pasture and woods of England was vegetable mould, boggy ground and impenetrable forests.
Third, the formidable weather, as if annoyed at these intruders, showed its worst traits: “gales of wind and perpetual rain” in a southern summer must have seemed an ominous introduction to their new home.
Despite the unpleasant welcome, the enterprise of creating the settlement ashore was tackled with enthusiasm. The town site was surveyed, land was cleared for both building sites and cultivation. Being partially pre-built, the buildings to house the married couples, the single men’s quarters, the zinc-covered storehouse, a workshop, chapel and the large governor’s residence soon became visible.
To the Maori population, who in the preceding six years had endured deprivation, hardship and internal frictions (a second settlement being established on Enderby Island), the prospect of a whaling station must have suggested opportunities to prosper. A number of men quickly got themselves onto the company payroll as boatmen, labourers and gardeners.
At the outset Enderby appointed the two Maori chiefs, Matioro and Ngatere, special constables, a role which they fulfilled enthusiastically. The two groups coexisted in relative harmony, the only real problems relating to the association of Maori women with seamen, and drunkenness — the universal vice in most fledgling Australasian settlements.
Special celebrations were held on New Year’s Day, 1850, when the settlement at Erebus Cove was formally named Hardwicke, after the Earl of Hardwicke, Governor of the Southern Whale Fishing Company.
With the whaling season pending — the whales came into the eastern bays to calve during the months of April and May — the settlers assembled a cutter, while at the same time proceeding with building dwellings, establishing gardens and exploring their new homeland.
Although early in March six vessels were at anchor in the harbour, few foreign ships visited the settlement for refit and replenishment during the first year of settlement. Furthermore, in spite of some sightings, no whales were caught by the shore station, and the larger vessels returned from longer voyages with very little oil. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, five married couples and their families and three single men departed for Sydney at the end of May.
Nevertheless, work in the colony continued satisfactorily: a road was surveyed, and labourers began its construction using gravel from the beach, and a four-gun battery was installed.
The winter of 1850 was milder than the bitter weather of summer had forecast, and Enderby visited New Zealand and Australia to arrange for an adequate supply of goods. Livestock, including sheep, cattle and horses from Sydney, maintained a good condition with little attention. The four acres of land cleared for cultivation was fenced with stakes to afford protection against the westerly winds, with further internal protection to give the vegetables every care possible. Even so, gardening was a largely futile exercise: nothing could improve the fertility of the soil, and the settlement’s vegetables were pitiable potatoes the size of marbles, turnips like “miserable radishes”. Only their Maori neighbours seemed to have any success with the soil, and augmented the imported stores with locally grown produce.
On Enderby’s return to Hardwicke in September, whales began to appear in the waters around the islands, but the shore whaling continued to be a complete failure. Morale plummeted and tempers rose. Enderby’s dual role as both company and government representative, coupled with his idealistic fervour, fueled an undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst the colonists. His imposition of “pettifogging restrictions” on the whalers’ and settlers’ wilder spirits lent him to be dubbed as both “law maker and law breaker”. It took the more practical assistant commissioner, William Mackworth, to mediate between Enderby and the colonists.
To help keep the peace, a jail was built on Shoe Island, in the harbour, and saw constant use. After the retrieval of the chief surgeon, Mr J.S. Rodd, from the waters near the jetty in a state of violent intoxication, and his subsequent confinement there, the jail was named Rodd’s Castle. Mackworth’s private diary testifies to the necessity for the jail. On sentencing seven men to be confined there, he writes that “the difficulty of supporting discipline in this Port is extreme.” The two most common convictions were intoxication and refusal of duty.
Towards the end of 1850, Sir George Grey paid a friendly visit to the colony and stayed a week. Grey was pessimistic about the settlement’s future, despite Enderby’s energy and the colonists’ general wellbeing creating a favourable impression.
A public holiday was declared on December 4 to commemorate the settlement’s first anniversary. A regatta was held — in driving rain — but the year must have ended in bleak resignation.
The new year saw the arrival of three more company whaling ships, bringing the total to eight. Despite correspondence from the London directors of the company expressing anxiety about the venture, Enderby remained optimistic. He continued to spend the company’s capital on improving the buildings and increasing the livestock population.
Much of the grazing for farm animals was found on Enderby Island. Enjoying a sunnier climate than that of the main Auckland Island, grass growth was more rapid there. In addition, the sheltered beach at Sandy Bay on the island was used by the Enderby settlers for recreation and picnics. Such was the harshness of conditions confronting the settlers that Mackworth organised a roster for families to spend a “week at a time there” in order that they benefit from the change of air.
In the middle of 1851, with no improvement in whaling fortunes, the company’s directors decided to send two special commissioners to investigate matters. By this time £30,000 of shareholders’ funds had been spent on developing the settlement and procuring and outfitting whaling vessels, for the paltry return of just £3000 in the first year.
So it was that on December 18, 1851, George Dundas M.P. and Thomas Preston, the company’s secretary, arrived at Port Ross aboard the Chieftain.
Differences between Enderby and the special commissioners soon emerged. Undoubtedly, Enderby had misled the directors (in one despatch he claimed “the cabbages and potatoes to be of excellent quality, and the Swedish turnips better than that of England”). When they found prospects for the community to be even bleaker than they expected, they recommended the immediate abandonment of the settlement. Enderby, sensing his own demise, began to pursue protracted litigation involving the company and the Colonial Office, even sailing for New Zealand to vindicate his own actions and have those of Dundas and Preston condemned.
In his absence, Mackworth supervised the dismantling of Hardwicke
The assistant surgeon, R.E. Malone, of the HMS Fantome, a vessel sent to prevent trouble breaking out at the settlement’s disbandment, gives an account of its appearance:
“The settlement consisted of a large house for the governor, a zinc-covered store, a building for unmarried servants of the company, and about 25 other houses on a point of land at the entrance to Laurie Harbour.”
After writing scornfully of the gardens, Malone comments: “We got a few eggs occasionally from the settlers at 2s a dozen; and the company charged us 7d a pound for beef, and 9d for fed pork; the former was bad, and the latter seldom to be had…
“While we were at the Aucklands in July 1852, there were on the islands 123 crew of the “Fantome”, 4 merchant seamen, prisoners onboard her, 40 crew of merchant vessels in port, 36 men, 22 women, 34 children, 20 Maori men, 17 Maori women, 10 Maori children. In total 306.” (Malone does not distinguish between Maori and Moriori).
Ironically, during this time the only whale to be caught by the Hardwicke shore station was harpooned, captured and 40 barrels of oil extracted.
On August 5, 1852, “having seen the buildings broken up, and shipped the men, women and children on board the company’s vessels fairly at sea” the Fantome weighed anchor. From the Earl of Hardwicke, already at sea, Mackworth wrote in his journal, “The satisfaction I feel at this moment is beyond description. My miserable life at Port Ross will never be forgotten.”
The reasons for Hardwicke’s failure are many, but unquestionably the scarcity of whales and the unpreparedness of the English whalers for extended voyages in subantarctic waters were key factors. When to these are added a dismal climate, Enderby’s obdurate personality and an infertile soil, then it is understandable that many settlers preferred to try their luck on the Victorian goldfields rather than endure prolonged deprivation on the Auckland Islands.
By the time the colonists who did not choose to settle in Australia reached England, the company was in liquidation. Enderby never regained his former stature and died unnoticed in 1876.
In his formal role on the islands he had recorded the births of 16 infants, officiated at five marriages and conducted four funeral services: two of these deaths were of very young babies. Today it is the graveyard which bears sole witness to the existence of this futile attempt at settling. Thirty-two months of misplaced enthusiasm amount to a memorial to death in these islands of despair.
The Polynesians who welcomed and farewelled their European counterparts left in two stages. Matioro, together with his followers and slaves, left for Stewart Island during 1854, while it was not until 1856 that relatives on the Chathams of those still stranded chartered a vessel to bring them back. They took their dead with them, leaving behind a few flax bushes as their only legacy.
Over the next half century, in contrast to the previous inhabitants, the islands received a steady influx of involuntary exiles.
The first of these was the crew of the Grafton, a schooner which had been chartered from Sydney to look for tin deposits on Campbell Island, 2601(m south-east of the Auckland Islands. Not finding any tin, the captain, Thomas Musgrave, proceeded to the Auckland Islands to obtain what seal skins he could in order to offset their expenses. With him was a French adventurer, F.E. Raynal, who had had responsibility for the prospecting, and three others.
While anchored in the southern Carnley Harbour the ship was caught in a violent hurricane, snapped one anchor chain, dragged the other, and ran aground on the rocky coast. All five hands made the shore, taking with them provisions, personal effects and the ship’s skiff.
The account of their 20-month sojourn is every bit as exciting as Robinson Crusoe, and is told in two fascinating books, one by Musgrave and the other by Raynal. Both were forced to write their journals in sea lion blood after their ink ran out.
From the outset, the survivors showed breathtaking ingenuity. Presented with the problem of building a fireplace and chimney for their proposed hut, Raynal manufactured a crude mortar made from burnt shells and gravel. Liberally applying § the mortar between stones collected from the shore, he was 13 able to build a chimney 15 feet 3 high, topped with a chimney pot fashioned from copper sheathing stripped from the Grafton’s hull.
The rest of the house, which measured 24 by 16 feet and had a pitched roof, was constructed from rata trunks, canvas and tussock thatch. It had a planked floor and door, a table, benches, beds — even two glass windows salvaged from the captain’s cabin. Dubbed “Epigwaitt”, North American Indian for “near the great waters”, the but served them well, and its remains are still visible today.
Throughout their exile the men lived on sea lion, shag, certain plant roots, and mussels and fish when they could get them. Musgrave records their normal bill of fare: “Breakfast — Seal stewed down to soup, fried roots, boiled seal or roast seal, with water. Dinner—Ditto ditto. Supper — Ditto ditto. This repeated 21 times per week… The men have stood it bravely thus far, but it grieves me unspeakably to hear them wishing for things which they cannot get. I heard one just now wishing he had but a bucket of potato-peelings!”
Raynal’s inventiveness knew no bounds. After succeeding with mortar, he proceeded to manufacture soap: by dripping water through the burnt ashes of seaweed and pounded shells, he collected a strong alkali, which, when boiled with sea lion oil, produced “an excellent soap, which was of inestimable value to us, both as regarded health and cleanliness”.
He then succeeded in making a beer distillery (but abandoned the idea for fear of the damage alcohol might do to their fragile community) and designing a process for tanning sea lion skins. This involved steeping the skins in a solution of lime made from burnt mussel shells, so that all oily residues were destroyed. The skins were then washed, stretched and cleaned before being plunged into a solution containing the tannin derived from rata bark.
Having provided his companions with clothing, blankets and footwear, Raynal produced amusements in the form of solitaire, chess and cards, and he and Musgrave conducted nightly school lessons, teaching the others to read and write. A pet parakeet, which they taught to talk, added to their domesticity.
Despite their apparent comfort, as the weeks became months, hope of rescue declined. By year’s end the group resolved to rebuild the Graf ton’s boat in order that it voyage to the mainland. With only an axe, an adze, a hammer and a gimlet, and what he could salvage from the bones of the Grafton, Raynal set about his masterwork: the construction of a double-action sealskin forge bellows. Once he had completed this indispensable piece of equipment, he began to manufacture tools and nails from bolts and old iron. Raynal describes the scene:
“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… Before the end of the month I had made three pairs of pincers of different sizes, three punches, a mould for nails, a pair of tongs, a cold chisel for cutting iron, a large hammer for beating it, two smaller ones for forging it, and a number of little articles of which I foresaw I should stand in need.”
Six months after building began, the Rescue was ready. Provisioned with seal meat and fresh water stored in bladders, Musgrave, Raynal and one other lashed themselves to the deck in sail-cloth cases and set sail on their great voyage to salvation.
For five days they battled a southwest storm, capsizing at least once, drinking a little water but unable to eat as their roasted seal meat had “turned rank”, until on July 24, 1865, they made landfall at Port Adventure, Stewart Island. There, while recuperating, Musgrave became aware that he and his crew were not the only castaways to have been living on the island.
During the night of May 10, 1864, in a severe gale, the Invercauld, in ballast from Melbourne to Callao, struck the north-west corner of the islands. All but six of the crew of 25 made it ashore, many being injured in the process.
At daybreak, after a night huddled together to keep warm, those who were able went to the scene of the wreck to see what could be salvaged. A miserable few pounds of salted pork and some sodden biscuits were divided equally amongst the crew, and some timbers salvaged from which a shelter was erected. After four days, having depleted the adjacent shellfish beds, they scaled the near perpendicular cliffs in search of a more providential haven. Several days and deaths later, and with only water and roots for sustenance, 15 survivors reached the bay, “where we found some limpets on the rocks, of which we ate heartily. We also caught two seals and found them good food.”
Possessing neither the resources nor the leadership that sustained the Grafton crew, the Invercauld’s men, thinking their chances of survival would be better, divided into small groups. Captain Dalgarno wrote that “After living three months upon limpets, they got done, and all we had again were the roots and water, seeing no more seals. By the end of August the only survivors were myself, the mate, and Robert Holding, seaman… all very much reduced.”
In order to obtain a more consistent supply of food, a primitive canoe of rata branches and sealskins was constructed to transport them to Enderby Island. “Gradually we collected a sufficient number of sealskins to construct a little hut, like the cabins of Eskimos; but it protected us very imperfectly against the continual rains and the severity of that frightful climate,” They lived off rabbits and seal flesh. The three survivors were rescued after twelve months and 10 days when they saw the Portuguese ship Julian entering Port Ross, with the misguided hope that her serious leaks could be repaired at Hardwicke.
In New Zealand, Musgrave appealed to official sources to rescue his two crew still at Carnley Harbour. He was turned down, but succeeded in winning the support of the people of Invercargill. Their sponsorship enabled him to charter a local vessel, the Flying Scud, and collect his men. On their way home, they called in at Port Ross, and there discovered the decomposing remains of a man in an abandoned shack belonging to the Hardwicke settlement. By the body were some shells, a bottle of fresh water and a slate covered in hieroglyphics, from which only the word “James” could be deciphered. Presumably, this was the corpse of James Rigth, one of the Invercauld crew who had earlier separated from Dalgarno.
It was at Musgrave’s urging that the state governments of Victoria and New South Wales, as well as the Southland Provincial Government, recognised that the problem of shipwrecks in the subantarctic was an official responsibility. Late in 1865, both the Victoria and Southland searched the island groups for castaways. These two vessels had scarcely returned from the Auckland Islands before the most celebrated wreck to occur there happened.
Travelling from Melbourne with 83 passengers and crew, and carrying some 2500 ounces of gold for the Bank of New South Wales, the General Grant, a 1200-tonne three-masted barque, sighted land on the night of May 13, 1866. The captain tried to steer between Disappointment Island and the main island, but at the crucial moment the wind fell, leaving the vessel to the mercy of the strong currents that flow around that precipitous coast.
Heavy swells carried the helpless ship inexorably closer towards the cliffs towering more than 400m above them. One survivor recorded that “the scene on deck and in the cabins struck terror to the stoutest hearts. Miners were seen tying up their gold in blankets, women were wailing and children shrieking”.
Just after midnight the ship entered a vast ocean cavern. Her masts struck the roof of the cave, wedging the ship in the cave and causing the deck to be pelted with debris, rock and pieces of broken spar. All night long, with wind and swell increasing to gale force, the ship rose and fell, her shattered masts pounding the cave roof and being driven through the bottom of the hull.
At daybreak the boats were launched. The first, with a crew of three, failed to return. A second boat was launched, in which it was intended to place the women and children, but only a stewardess, Mrs Mary Ann Jewell, could be induced to take the plunge. Meanwhile, the ship was sinking and the longboat became “crammed with all who could gain a foothold.
“One wretch saw his wife and two children driven by him… without making an effort to save them, while the last man who got aboard nearly lost his life trying to persuade the mother to be saved without her children.”
Realising that the ship and so many of their fellows had been claimed by the sea, and having seen the longboat swamped in the breakers at the entrance to the cave, the 15 survivors in two boats turned away to row to the shelter of Disappointment Island some six miles distant. Their only provisions were a few tins of preserved meat and some salted pork, and no fresh water.
For two days and nights they suffered from cold, hunger— “we found it impossible to retain the contents on our stomachs” — and thirst, until the weather moderated sufficiently for them to reach Sarah’s Bosom in Port Ross.
As with the Grafton survivors, fire was the first requirement. It was with dismay that the first five matches of the six possessed by the group were squandered. “This was the most critical moment of our lives. If the last match failed, starvation and perhaps cannibalism were to be our lot.” Teer dried the match against his body and, according to Caughey, his offsider, “I saw his hands tremble as he looked for a dry stone on which to strike the remaining match. He struck it with trembling fingers and the flame caught the dry grass. We all uttered ‘thanks be to God’: it was the most fervent prayer I ever said.” The fire, once lit, was never allowed to expire.
Another survivor, Joseph Jewell, supplies more details: “We got two albatrosses and made some warm soup and drank it and it done us all a great deal of good… We pulled down some branches off the trees to lay on the wet ground for a bed and thus we passed another miserable night, rain and sleet falling all the night.”
Like their predecessors, they found seals to be a source of clothing, blanket and shelter material as well as food. Having two boats, they were able to visit Enderby Island and Musgrave’s Epigwaitt. Relics were collected from there and from the Hardwicke settlement. “Teer was our leader in all plans for improving our condition. No scrap of iron ever escaped his eye, and he could always find a use for the most trifling article.” He filed a shovel into six knife-blades, and “heating one end of each, he drove a nail through, making a hole for the handle rivet; then tempered the whole by plunging into oil while red-hot. These knives were sharpened on a grindstone left behind by Captain Musgrave, and became as sharp as razors”.
They were able to extract salt from seawater, manufacture a soap by boiling wood ashes in water, make needles from albatross bones and thread from flax, as well as fashion a set of playing cards from a sheet of zinc which once sheathed the Hardwicke storehouse. “Our dishes were of wood, and our forks of albatross bones.”
Rescue was always pre-eminent in their minds. After a boat was sighted which failed to respond to their signal fires , a lookout was constantly manned. Teer fashioned rescue canoes out of spar wood, fastened to them an iron keel for ballast, and a sail. On the deck he carved the plea “WANT RELIEF” with location and date details. Sanguilly recounts that “We tied messages to the necks of
Cape hens [albatrosses] and let them loose. We inflated seal bladders enclosing manuscripts, tied to small floats which would fly before the wind faster than a boat could row.” These were eaten by sea birds.
Being aware of Musgrave’s epic voyage, they eventually decided to equip one of the boats for a rescue mission. Bart Brown, Andrew Morrison, William Scott and Peter McNevin set sail for New Zealand on January 22,1867. Although they were well equipped with provisions, they had no chart, no compass and no idea in which direction the mainland lay. They were never to be seen again.
Before their departure, Caughey, who had resorted to the solace of prayer, had a dream which elevated everyone’s spirits. In the dream his mother appeared saying, “My son, you shall get off this island in January and the vessel shall be sighted during your cooking week.”
However, afterwards, as January passed, and those left behind continued
the daily routines of searching for food , tending the fires and manning
the lookouts, Caughey’s dream faded into the bleak prospect of winter. These became the longest days. Weakness and despondency took hold. “The anxious waiting which ensued told more heavily on us than all the privation. The feverishexcitement of hope caused a cessation of labour one day, and blank despair rendered us helpless the next.”
Although their diet included seal meat, roots, blubber, shellfish, birds, some goat and pig meat, and the occasional eggs, their despondency became overlaid with the effects of the “cobbler”: scurvy. As it was Teer who had provided the ingenuity which had aided their survival to date, it was he who organised a regime of exercise for those afflicted.
During this time they moved to Enderby Island, building there more substantial shelters as well as brushwood huts thatched with grass, which proved adequate, except for their ready combustibility. Routines were maintained and huge piles of wood for bonfires assembled in case a boat should be sighted.
Mrs Jewell, the sole woman survivor, earned the respect of her male counterparts by shouldering her share of rostered duties. Her husband, returning after chasing in the boat a sail on the horizon, writes that “I found her careworn and depressed, and the few clothes she had on were torn to pieces, while she was gathering bushes and grass to keep the fires alight”.
“On November 21,” some eighteen months after their initial night of terror, “while Ashworth was on lookout and each party at its hut, owing to a heavy hailstorm, Caughey went out for some wood. It was his cooking week. While plying his axe he espied a brig sailing close in to the coast. In a moment the glad tidings spread, we rushed to the shore, manned the boat, and pulled with might and main for the brig.”
Captain Gilroy of the Amherst, initially suspecting the unruly group to be mutineers, was reluctant to let them on board. Once their garbled story had been unravelled, though, the captain afforded them great hospitality, and “No Persian monarch ever enjoyed such a treat as we when tobacco and tea were set before us.”
After helping the crew with their sealing activities, the 14 survivors reached Invercargill in January 1868. Here they became the centre of much speculation and public attention. A public subscription funded a search of the offshore islands for the mate’s boat, which had set off on its voyage of rescue over a year before. This cruise established depots for castaways, the stores on Enderby Island having the following sobering message attached to them: “The curse of the widow and fatherless light upon the man who breaks open this box, whilst he has a ship at his back.”
Numerous attempts to salvage the General Grant’s gold over the intervening years have all proved unsuccessful. Some, like that of Cornelius Drew’s, a General Grant survivor, ended tragically. The lure of sunken treasure has attracted a number of syndicates of underwater adventurers. Some wreckage has been found, but so far there has been no positive identification of the Grant — and no gold.
Perhaps it is best that the strong currents that erode the western coast bury the broken ship, together with its cargo and ghosts, leaving the imagination of dreamers to discover her treasure.
The Reputation of the Auckland Islands as a graveyard for ships was well established when, in the middle of a hazy night, the barque Derry Castle, under full sail and fully laden with a cargo of wheat, hit a reef on the northern tip of Enderby Island. Seven of the crew and one passenger, James McGhie, were washed ashore, while the surf beat 15 others to death. Dawn disclosed the horrors of the night’s harvest. The pitiable group of survivors, in order to protect themselves against the cold, stripped the dead that the waves had washed ashore, and buried them in shallow graves dug with a knife.
During the first 10 days, without fire and with only shellfish and a few herrings for sustenance (the castaway depot yielding only a “pint bottle of salt”) the men suffered great privations. They could see the Port Ross depot across the strait, but had no boat, nor implements with which to construct one. Miraculously, they, too, succeeded in starting a fire (See box: “The spark of life”). The grain which floated ashore was dried and made edible by parching it like roasted coffee, grinding it and mixing it with hot water.
After three months on Enderby an old axe head was discovered. “Here was the tool for making a boat… and the work was immediately entered upon with hopeful zest by everyone.” Using bundles of wreckage carried from the northern side of the island to the sheltered sandy bay from which a boat could be launched, the men laboured to construct “nothing more than an oblong box” caulked with rope yarn.
With a crew of two, the punt was launched and eventually passed out of sight of those left ashore. Cruelly, a ship appeared in the harbour, failed to respond to their smoky beacon, and weighed anchor, leaving the stricken men in despair. Three days after they launched their rescue craft, smoke from Port Ross signalled a crossing had been effected, and subsequently the two men returned to ferry all to the depot there. The provisions and clothing afforded by the depot ensured an existence of relative luxury along with the knowledge that they were located on the route of the government steamship Stella which replenished the depots.
During the night of July 19 the Awarua dropped anchor at Port Ross, and another castaway saga came to a happy end.
It was not until the early years of this century that the curtain was to fall on the tragic era of shipwrecks. In 1907 the Dundonald, with a cargo of wheat, encountered thick weather a fortnight out from Sydney. Unable to see the sun, and with the ship’s compass showing irregularities, the captain could only plot his course by dead reckoning. In the early hours of March 7 land was sighted, and despite desperate manoeuvring, the ship struck stern first, then broadside on to the southern cliff face of Disappointment Island, her doomed hull grinding on the jagged rocks.
With the sea “running like a mountain” it was impossible to launch the boats, so the crew took to the masts which listed towards the rock face. “As daylight dawns… we discover that the topgallant yards are about twenty feet from the rocks… [and] we notice three men ashore” who secure a rope to the cliff, and “we start one at a time sliding ashore”.
Bruised, wet and shivering, the survivors clambered to the top of the cliffs, where in the raw early dawn 16 of 28 gathered. “We felt the cold very much, as the majority of us had no coats, caps or boots.” Not realising they were on desolate Disappointment Island, plans were hatched to make for the depot. Alas, it was soon realised how appropriately named the island was. The main island, with its store of food and clothing, lay some miles distant across a strait of treacherous currents.
For the first two weeks they lived in a tent made of sails and ate raw albatross and muttonbird (the birds were nesting at the time). Then one of their number discovered he had some wax matches in his waistcoat pocket. A fire was successfully lit, and the menu changed to spit-roasted seabird.
With the only sound to accompany their own voices being that of whistling winds, pounding surf and the cacophony of squabbling flocks of seabirds, the marooned men established three encampments. Their huts were built over excavations in the spongy ground, thatched with turf, lined with reeds and furnished with a fireplace. In addition to their diet of birds, they discovered a root that “tastes like potato when placed on a fire and cooked till it is soft”. Three months into their incarceration the precipitous cliffs to a seal rookery were traversed and seal meat and blubber was added to their bill of fare.
Every resource was conserved. Lacking water for washing, they rubbed the inside of a mollymawk skin over their faces, then dried themselves with the feathered side. The same skins, turned inside out, made warm slippers. Before the young mollymawks took to the skies as many as possible were preserved by curing them in the smoke of their cooking fires. Caps, clothes and rough moccasins were made from seal skin stitched with unravelled canvas thread and needles made from the wing-bones of petrels.
In order that the main island be reached, their enterprise eventually turned to building a boat. Using every ingenuity, but restricted to stone-age craftsmanship,they made a coracle of veronica framework and canvas cladding. After waiting an eternity for a fine day, a crew of three tackled the currents using sticks wrapped in canvas as oars.
Success in crossing the strait was followed by failure to overcome the mist, rain, impenetrable forest and rugged terrain. After nine days they returned, defeated and despondent to Disappointment Island. Immediately another group set about building a larger craft, and despite having their first effort dashed on the rocks, eventually succeeded in producing a seaworthy vessel.
Four stout hearts “stepped into that frail boat determined to cross that strip of water and find that depot.” They took with them a peat sod with glowing embers in it. On the journey across “a bit of a breeze sprang up from the south-west, and the sea grew very choppy… our arms ached fearfully. It seemed as if red-hot pains shot through them… but tired as we were, our eyes were fixed on the shore to which we desired to go.” After a calamitous landing in which the embers were extinguished, they regrouped and set off in search of the depot. “After days and days of privation,” hungry, cut and bruised, “just at dusk one night we found a signpost, and three hours later we were in the depot. It was an unforgettable moment.”
After recuperating, they returned to Disappointment Island in the government boat, which they rigged with a sail assembled from their old canvas clothing. Having spent seven months on the wretched island the castaways were all eagerly transported to Erebus Cove to revel in the luxury of tinned meat and ship’s biscuits, the comfort of clothes and the sanctity of a rainproof shelter.
A month later, in November, the steamer Hinemoa on her annual service run to the islands brought the hardy sailors up to Bluff. They learned later that the Hinemoa had left the Auckland Islands after her previous trip only hours before the Dundonald foundered.
The rewards for such hardihood and courage in the face of the wildness of the Southern Ocean are scanty, but such is the pathology of survival that even in the bitter latitudes of 50° south the breath of life is deep.