Shipwrecks have always been an unfortunate part of New Zealand’s maritime heritage. For castaways marooned on offshore islands, particularly in the subantarctic, life was grim. Quite apart from the trauma of shipwreck, once the basics of food, shelter and fire had been secured, and discipline and social organisation established, there was the dreadful prospect that rescuers might never arrive.
New Zealand’s subantarctic island groups lie in a semicircle to the south and south-east, and many ships that strayed into their path have been wrecked. The islands lie on the Great Circle Route, which was used by sailing ships leaving southern Australasian ports for Europe. They dropped down into the Southern Ocean to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds, which blew uninterrupted on the way around Cape Horn.
There were 11 known shipwrecks in the New Zealand subantarctic between 1833 and 1908. From two there were no known survivors. An unknown number of ships were lost with all hands in the Southern Ocean.
The nine ships that left people marooned as castaways were:
While the actual number of castaways was relatively small, the impact they had was great. Their stories were told in newspapers and numerous books, and became part of the maritime history of southern New Zealand and international maritime folklore.
Following news about the castaways of the General Grant, the New Zealand government established provision depots in the Auckland Islands for shipwrecked mariners in 1867. From 1877 to 1927 government steamers (supplemented occasionally by naval and other vessels) maintained the depots regularly, while also servicing lighthouses and policing a prohibition on sealing.
One government official on a depot relief expedition wrote a message on a case of provisions, to scare potential thieves: ‘The curse of the widow and fatherless light upon the man that breaks open this box, whilst he has a ship at his back.’ 1
The depots consisted of a variety of buildings. Some were stocked with ships’ boats and ample supplies of warm clothing, blankets, compasses, tools, matches, preserved food, cooking utensils, fishing gear, and sometimes rifles and ammunition. To provide food for castaways, pigs, goats, cattle and rabbits were liberated. This had an enormous impact on the islands’ fragile ecosystems.
Southern sealers and mariners saw the depots as an easy source of provisions, and pilfering from them was widespread. Distinctive patterns were used for the clothing to discourage theft.
Finger posts were set up around the islands to point the way to the depots. The number of depots and boats was increased as, in several well-publicised instances, castaways found themselves on different islands to the depots and had to use ingenious methods to reach them.
Most castaways were left with little more than the clothes they stood up in. The endless rain and bitter winds of the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘furious fifties’ made cold a constant presence.
Because only one or a few matches survived most wrecks, the last match signified the difference between life and death – this was a recurring theme in survival stories. A General Grant survivor watched in dismay as five of the six matches the group possessed 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.’ One of the men dried the last match against his body. ‘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. 1
Seal meat, roots, blubber, shellfish, birds and occasional eggs made up the diet. Seal and rabbit skins were turned into serviceable clothing, and albatross bones were used as needles. The Dundonald crew used albatross skins to wash themselves.
Charles Eyre of the Dundonald crew recalled their first dawn ashore:
‘Well, there we were, a group of shivering, bleeding castaways, standing on the edge of those black cliffs in the grey light of morning … I cannot describe the cold … we trembled with it so that we could not keep still … Most of us too had very little clothing and the majority of us had kicked off our boots.’ 2
During their 20-month sojourn on the Auckland Islands, two of the Grafton’s crew wrote journals using seals’ blood when their ink ran out. They also made their own soap and alcohol, taught one another languages and mathematics, and one seaman was taught to read and write. Solitaire, chess, cards and dominoes were played using home-made equipment. Some crew caught a kākāriki (native parrot) and taught it to talk.
The General Grant survivors grew potatoes and caught pigs using iron hooks. They also domesticated pigs and goats. The Dundonald survivors were one of the last and most desperate groups. Having no suitable trees on Disappointment Island, they made beehive-shaped huts from tussock. Their rescuers noted: ‘In these crude huts were found a number of bone needles, mats of bird skins and sealskin shoes.’ 3
As castaways despaired of rescue, they often began to build boats to carry themselves to safety. The Grafton crew constructed a forge (with sealskin bellows) and lengthened and deepened the ship’s boat using primitive home-made tools. Three of them then sailed to Stewart Island. This was one of the great open-boat journeys of all time.
James McGhie, from the Derry Castle, described the crew being reunited with tobacco:
‘[T]he Maoris of the sealer Awarua, our rescuers, came to us in their boat, [and] our men with pipes in their hands cried out for tobacco before the boat’s keel touched the sand. The Maoris with true sailor generosity, held up plugs of tobacco in their hands … I did not know which were the most delighted, the white men pulling hard at their cutties or the Maoris enjoying the relish with which they emitted the thick clouds of smoke.’ 4
The Derry Castle men constructed a primitive wooden punt to sail from Enderby Island, across exposed water, to the provision depot on the main Auckland Island. The Dundonald men on Disappointment Island constructed a coracle of hebe branches and canvas to sail to the Auckland Island mainland.
Except for the Grafton survivors, all castaway groups were rescued by government steamers or visiting vessels. The sense of relief, after months of scanning the horizon for a sail, can only be imagined.
The advent of steamships, more accurate charts and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 saw the end of the shipwreck era in the subantarctic islands.
Allen, Madelene Ferguson. The wake of the Invercauld. Auckland: Exisle, 1997.
Escott-Inman, H. The castaways of Disappointment Island. Christchurch: Capper, 1980 (originally published 1933).
Eunson, Keith. The wreck of the General Grant. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1974.
Ingram, C. W. N. New Zealand shipwrecks – 195 years of disaster at sea. 7th rev. ed. Auckland: Beckett Books, 1990.
Raynal, François. Wrecked on a reef, or, twenty months in the Auckland Islands. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2003 (originally published 1880).