Story: Castaways

Page 2. Survival

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The last match

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.

Cold reality

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.

Beloved weed

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 end of an era

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.

  1. Lindsay Pope, ‘Wild splendour.’ New Zealand Geographic 8 (1990): 99. › Back
  2. H. Escott-Inman, The castaways of Disappointment Island. Christchurch: Capper, 1980, pp. 57–59 (originally published 1933). › Back
  3. Quoted in C. W. N. Ingram, New Zealand shipwrecks. 7th rev. ed. Auckland: Beckett, 1990, p. 297. › Back
  4. James McGhie, ‘Life in Auckland Islands.’ Melbourne Argus, 14 November 1887. › Back
How to cite this page:

Ken Scadden, 'Castaways - Survival', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Ken Scadden, published 12 Jun 2006