Wreck of the General Grant

14 May 1866

Wreck of the General Grant (Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0033-1868-376-1)

On 14 May 1866 the General Grant, sailing from Melbourne to London, hit cliffs on the west coast of the main island in the subantarctic Auckland Islands. Of the 83 people on board only 15 made it ashore on Disappointment Island.

The castaways were left with little more than the clothes they stood up in. Faced with endless rain and bitter, cold winds, their ability to make a fire would be crucial to their survival. An account of the wreck describes how a survivor watched in dismay as five of their six matches 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.

The survivors grew potatoes and caught wild pigs using iron hooks. They also domesticated pigs and goats. After nine months, four of them set out in a small boat for Bluff, more than 500 km away. They were never seen again. Eventually the 10 surviving castaways were rescued by the Amherst after 18 months on the appropriately named Disappointment Island.

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