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.
The subantarctic islands
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:
- Grafton: This was wrecked in the Auckland Islands on 3 January 1864. The crew of five survived for 19 months before three of them sailed to Stewart Island in a boat they had made. The remaining two were rescued.
- Invercauld: Nineteen of the crew of 25 reached shore on the northern tip of Auckland Island on 10 May 1864. Only three survived, to be rescued a year later.
- General Grant: Of 83 on board, 15 reached the shore of Auckland Island on 14 May 1866. Four died attempting to sail to New Zealand and 10 were eventually rescued after 18 months.
- Derry Castle: This was wrecked on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands on 20 March 1887. Fifteen people drowned. The eight who reached shore were rescued 92 days later.
- Compadre: Following a fire, the crew of 17 reached shore on the north of Auckland Island on 19 March 1891. Sixteen of these men were rescued on 30 June 1891.
- Spirit of the Dawn: This was wrecked on the Antipodes Islands on 4 September 1893, and after 87 days 11 of the 16 crew were rescued.
- Anjou: Following the ship’s wreck on 5 February 1905 at Bristow Point, Auckland Island, the crew of 22 survived and were rescued three months later.
- Dundonald: The ship was wrecked on Disappointment Island in the Auckland Islands on 7 March 1907. Sixteen of the crew of 28 were rescued eight months later.
- President Félix Fauré: All 22 of the crew survived the wreck on the Antipodes Islands on 13 March 1908 and were rescued two months later.
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.