Sailing from Boston to Melbourne late in 1865 the 1000 ton barque General Grant lost a man overboard in a gale. The young William Sanguily and others among the crew, thought this was an ill omen. Their ship reached Melbourne without further incident then loaded for London. But then:
By one of those coincidences, which sailors dread, we took aboard part of a cargo that had been intended for the steamer London. This ill-fated vessel had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on her voyage out, and there were many gloomy prophecies that no freight of hers would reach London in any ship.
The superstitious sailors also noticed that the rats had left the General Grant, a sure sign of doom in the lore of the sea. Nevertheless, the General Grant set sail for England on 4 May 1866 with a load of sixty men, women and children returning home from the diggings and a crew of 23 officers and men. Among the wool and hides in the hold was the unwelcome but hugely valuable cargo of gold – four thousand ounces.
After five days of good running, the ship was blown westward towards the sub-Antarctic Auckland Island. Several days of thick fog eventually lifted and land was sighted. But later, the breeze died. Despite the efforts of the captain and crew, around 1 in the morning of May 14 the General Grant smashed into the rocky shores of Auckland Island. She was forced further and further into the pitch darkness of a large sea cave. Crewman Joseph Jewell described the scene:
… such a night of horror I think was never experienced by human beings as we passed in the cave for seven long hours. It was so dark that you could not see your fingers before your eyes, and there we were with falling spars and large stones tumbling from the roof of the cave (some of which went through the deck), and so we remained until daylight.
The helpless crew and passengers huddled at the stern of the ship, still free of the cavern slowly sucking in their vessel. At daylight the mizzen top gallant mast collapsed through the ship’s hill and she began to sink.
The scene at this moment was one of such utter misery as few men ever see, and fewer still survive to tell of. Every sea washed over the stern and swept the deck. The long-boat was crammed with all who could gain a foothold. It was partly filled with water, and several poor creatures lying in the bilge were crowded down and drowned before she was clear of the ship. Women clinging to their children, and crazy men to their gold, were seen washing to and fro as the water invaded the upper deck.
One wretch saw his wife and two children driven by him in this way without making an effort to save them, while the last man who got aboard nearly lost his life trying to persuade the mother to be saved without her children.
The boats were launched into a swelling sea but only a few were able to reach them, most being trapped aboard the General Grant. The lucky few watched helplessly as men, women and children were washed away and the ship disappeared beneath the heaving water, her captain waving farewell from what was left of the rigging as he went down with his ship.
The two boats with their fifteen survivors, including one woman, spent two miserable nights and days in search of a place to camp. They had little food, few supplies and no water. Their clothes were inadequate for the climate and some were without shoes. A landing was eventually made at a place known as Sarah’s Bosom on the ominously named Disappointment Island. Here they confronted the possibility of cannibalism if they were unable to make a fire. Fortunately, they were. Albatross and shellfish made a welcome stew. From that time the fire was never allowed to go out.
The survivors split into two groups, existing as best they could in huts erected by earlier shipwreck survivors and a failed colony. They suffered greatly. There was dysentery, cold and a form of scurvy caused by their survival diet. Passing ships were sighted but they were unable to attract their attention. In October they decided to prepare one of the boats for a desperate attempt reach the New Zealand mainland, almost 500 kilometres away.
On Boxing Day 1866 they finished refitting their boat. Four men volunteered to sail her and they left on 22 January 1867. But without a chart or compass they would need to be both clever and lucky to reach safety.
Eleven souls watched their four companions depart. James Teer, Patric Caughey, Nicholas Allen and David Ashworth had all been passengers aboard the ill-fated ship. Aaron Hayman, Cornelius Drew, William Ferguson, William Newton-Scott, William Sanguily (known as Yankee Jack’) and David McClelland were all sailors, as was Joseph Jewell who was accompanied by his wife, Mary.
They waited hopefully. The weeks passed with no sign of rescue.
The anxious waiting which ensued told more severely on us than all the privation. The feverish excitement of hope caused a cessation of labour one day, and blank despair rendered us helpless the next. One man would accuse the unhappy crew of deserting us, and curse their selfishness. Another would, sobbing, deplore their cruel fate, and realise the noble men who ventured on a hopeless task.
Six more weeks they waited …. See Part 2