Moral strength and ingenuity vs despair and cannibalism

BOOK REVIEW: Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett (available on Amazon Kindle $US11.99)

This well written book tells a tale of moral strength and ingenuity versus despair and cannibalism.

Two shipwrecks in the same year, on the same island within 30km of one another led to entirely different outcomes.

One party of castaways showed qualities of leadership, courage and resourcefulness and the other despair, disunity and selfishness.

Situated 465km from New Zealand, the Auckland Islands are one of the bleakest places on earth - home to unique mega flora, sea lions and some of the most ferocious weather on earth.

By 1860 Auckland islands had a reputation as a graveyard for ships, unrelenting weather and unfertile soil.

An attempt to found a British colony in 1853 was defeated by the sheer difficulty of surviving in such an inhospitable place. It has the distinction of being the site of the shortest lived attempt to found a British colony –two years and nine months.

On January 3, 1864, the schooner Grafton, out of Sydney with a crew of five, was wrecked on the coast of the Auckland Islands.

On May 10, 1864, the 888 ton freighter Invercauld from Melbourne en route to Peru with a crew of 25 was also wrecked about 30km from the Grafton. Both groups struggled for existence without ever becoming aware of the other's presence.

The five men from the Grafton wreck were saved by the leadership of the captain, the skills of Francois Rayne and a resolution to keep busy in spite of weakness, sickness and injury.

All the Grafton castaways suffered with boils and other ailments attributable to intermittent semi starvation and malnutrition. Their diet of sea lion and was too high in protein and fat and they didn’t get enough carbohydrates, in spite of eating tubers of the mega herb Stilbocarpa.

In grim circumstances they fed, housed, and clothed themselves using salvage and anything the environment had to offer. They even managed to build a boat to take three of them back to New Zealand. Upon landfall they organised a rescue mission to pick up the other two.

The fate of the castaways from the Invercauld was quite different. Of the twenty five crew nineteen men survived the wreck to be washed ashore at the foot of a three hundred foot cliff.

Robert Holding,  a 23-year year old sailor, was the only one of the crew who showed any initiative or compassion for his fellows. Those who found shellfish ate them before they could be stolen. There was no thought of sharing.

Holding managed to persuade the men to climb the cliff and hunt for food and shelter. Two men died of misadventure and exposure, one group went back to the wreck to see what could be salvaged and were never seen again.

Eventually Holding found the remnants of the now deserted colony of Hardwicke and persuaded the group to move to a broken down house and there they stayed.

Invercauld's Captain Delgarno could have organised the men into work parties and hunting groups, but he remained sunk in apathy, as his crew died of exposure and malnutrition around him.

Joan Druett's inescapable conclusion is that if Holding had held rank and been allowed to take control, more of the Invercauld group would have survived. Within five months sixteen men had died of privation and neglect - it is certain that the other three would have also died if they hadn’t been rescued by a passing ship.

Today these remote islands are seldom visited. The occasional department of conservation scientist makes an appearance, otherwise these lonely seas and skies are seldom visited except by the sea birds and sea lions who call the Auckland Islands home.

This is a very well written and researched book – the author’s notes at the end describing her sources and how she came by them are as interesting as the story itself.

I thoroughly recommend this book to those who are interested in sailing, adventure stories, and the early history of New Zealand.

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