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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



General Grant

More than anything else, it is the gold in her hold that reminds men today of the ill-fated General Grant, which was wrecked nearly 100 years ago in the Auckland Group of sub-Antarctic islands deep down in the southern latitudes nearly 300 miles from Bluff. The bullion lies there still in spite of all efforts at salvage. The General Grant was a full-rigged ship of 1,103 tons, London bound from Melbourne in May 1866, when she crashed into the towering cliffs on the west coast of the main island of the group. Her manifest included wool, skins, pelts, and spelter, but it was the gold bullion in her cargo which persuaded shippers to insure it for £165,000. And the passenger list included many successful miners returning to England with their private hoards. When the ship struck in the pitch darkness of the early morning of 14 May, the suddenness of the disaster caught everyone unawares and for some time no coherent or intelligible orders were given. The result was that the ship drifted astern and was blown into a cave 250 yards deep, the roof of which forced the masts through the hull. Two boats got away early to explore the position, and with the dawn an attempt was made to get the passengers and crew ashore. But by this time the vessel was doomed and after one longboat was got away, with about 40 persons on board, the General Grant sank. Even the 40 in the longboat were not destined to reach the rocky coast. The craft capsized in the breakers and the unfortunate passengers were caught in the backwash from the rocks and drowned.

There were 83 persons on board the General Grant when she struck, but only 15 survivors (10 members of the crew and five passengers) could be counted when on the following day two boats left the scene for nearby Disappointment Island. Captain W. H. Loughlin had gone down with the ship, which by this time had settled on the bottom inside the cave. Cold, wet, and hungry, the survivors, 14 men and one woman, after two days' privations and a capsize which cost them invaluable stores, found a rough haven at a spot known to the sealers of the Southern Ocean as Sarah's Bosom. The prospect before them was bleak in the extreme. They faced life on an inhospitable, uninhabited island with resources that were almost nil, and only the faintest possibility of being picked up by a passing or sheltering whaler or sealing ship. The marooned community found a single match between the lot of them, and with this a fire was kindled which for 18 months was never allowed to go out. Seals were plentiful and a menu of sorts was assured, supplemented with sea-fowl eggs. Later, goats and kids were ensnared with difficulty. Gradually a substandard of living was achieved, with sealskins providing the grave deficiencies of wardrobe among the company whose possessions comprised only what they stood up in. The winter passed slowly and painfully and little improvement came either with spring or summer. A model ship with an appeal for help engraved on its deck was set adrift but with small hope that it would reach anywhere. Actually it was picked up at Stewart Island months later, but by then the castaways had been rescued by a Bluff whaler. After nine months, in sheer desperation, the chief officer of the General Grant and three of the crew decided to attempt to reach New Zealand in a 22 ft pinnace with a beam of 5 ft 4 in. On the morning of 22 January 1867 this gallant quartet set out on their 290-mile voyage to Bluff across one of the cruellest oceans in the world without compass, chart, or nautical instrument of any kind. They were never seen again. In September one of those left behind died of sickness, leaving 10 to wait for help. The following month a sail was sighted, but in spite of frantic efforts by everyone on the island, it continued relentlessly on its way and disappeared over the eastern horizon. That was on 19 October. Exactly one month later another ship was sighted on 19 November, but though a boat was launched and fires were lit, it too, went on its way. Then two days later a vessel was seen heading for the island. It was the whaling brig Amherst from Bluff. The long ordeal was over and 10 skin-clad figures were taken aboard after an 18 months' desperate struggle for survival.

With the rescue of the survivors of the General Grant, it might have been thought the chronicle of the disaster was closed. But the lure of gold was too strong. The tug Southland from Bluff made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the wreck in 1869. The enterprise was a dismal failure. Then in 1870 the 48-ton schooner, Daphne, sailed from Bluff under Captain Wallace, but the expedition ended disastrously with the loss of six men who were drowned when their boat was swamped while attempting to reach the General Grant's cave. The irony of this catastrophe lay in the fact that one of the seamen drowned was David Ashworth, who three years earlier had been rescued with the rest of the survivors of the original wreck. In 1907 the ship Dundonald took up the quest but disaster again occurred; the vessel ran into the cliffs of the western shore of Disappointment Island and 12 men were drowned. Another 16 managed to get ashore, but it was seven months before they were taken off by the Government steamer Hinemoa. In all there have been nine attempts to recover the gold. In 1960 another enterprise was planned with the hope of salvaging the General Grant's gold, but this time the Marine authorities stepped in and placed a ban on any further attempts on the grounds that such expeditions were too perilous and hopeless to be practicable. The gold has already cost 91 lives and now looks like lying undisturbed in its sea-washed cave for all time.


Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

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