Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joann Druett
- Shipwrecks are the ultimate nonfiction subject for a beach book, and this short one has a great twist
- 299 pages (the Author’s Note is worth a skim)
It’s the mid-1860s, and Australia is full of men seeking their fortunes in its gold fields or going to sea. Two men in Sydney, one a resourceful Frenchman and the other an experienced English seaman, plan to try their luck prospecting for tin on an uncolonized island 285 miles off the coast of New Zealand instead. The pair have few funds, but they can afford a worthy little ship and the wages for three more sailors. They hire a taciturn but capable Norwegian named Alick, a wiry Portuguese sailor and a weathered English sailor to round out their crew and set out.
A Three-hour Tour…
Despite passing the harbormaster’s inspection, their ship is equipped with anchors and chain too light to really hold her in any kind of weather. The two investors recognize the problem from the outset but are obliged to take the risk, as their budget prevents upgrading. They’ve also had to rely on loose sandstone blocks as some of her ballast, which can shift position in rough seas. Naturally, then, when a serious storm blows up, the anchors fail to keep her from drifting into the reefs surrounding the island of interest. Then, the reefs tear a hole in her, as the sandstone shifts and pulls the little ship over on her side. The ship is wrecked, but not sunk: the crew will have access to her materials in the months to come.
Fortunately, all hands not only make it to shore, but have time to liberate a few belongings from the ship’s hold before abandoning her. Raynal, the Frenchman, can rescue his gun and some shot, which permits at least a little variety in the diet. Food consists largely of fur seals and sea lions which colonize the island, although Raynal sometimes shoots some fowl with the gun. On most hunts, however, at least one man clubs a seal or sea lion to share with the group. The castaways also discover a ubiquitous, edible megaherb with which to supplement their protein-heavy diet. Rabbits and pigs were released into this group of islands by other crews, but these castaways never encountered them (releasing animals onto uninhabited islands was common practice for seal hunters and other sailing ships at that time). Pumpkins and potatoes from the ship’s larder fail to thrive in the island’s soil.
Survivor, Auckland Islands Edition (A Few Very Minor Spoilers)
Over the next twenty months, the five men will rely upon one another for food, shelter and a range of other projects like making shoes – the last of these an important piece of technology for men who have a lot of running and climbing to do in all sorts of weather. The officers abandon the distinctions of rank and forge a spirit of unity instead. When the team finishes building a semi-permanent shack complete with hearth and chimney, they vote on the name for it. Evening prayers are said together, the job of cook rotates, and every man does the same work for the same share in the food. Together, they gradually make their circumstances more comfortable and find ways to pass the time during the winter nights. Most notably, they set up an informal school for each evening. Each man teaches something to the others: Norwegian, Portuguese, math, et cetera.
It’s all very Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe for the first part of the book. Hell, you might think, this castaway thing doesn’t seem so tough. These five guys aren’t better than you, right? However, what gives this book its crazy twist is that it also records the simultaneous experiences of another group of castaways from a different ship wrecked in the same islands. Neither party was aware of the other during their trials there.
This second group of sailors and officers lack the sense of camaraderie of the first group. These sailors gobble down any edible bit of flora (the megaherb the other group also discovered) or fauna (limpets) they can find without sharing, and officers expect to maintain the privileges of rank among men too exhausted and starved to serve them. Eventually, they work out seal hunting, but only share the enormous carcasses because no single one of them could eat an entire seal before it spoiled. Among the survivors, officers shelter together while the last of the common sailors find their own space. The cabin boys perish from overwork in addition to the malnutrition and exposure, as they are forced to wait upon everyone else. Although this group numbers sixteen initially, only a few survive, and their shared suffering has not forged any real bond among them.
Aftermath and Theme
Of course, we wouldn’t have the bones for author Joann Druett’s capably researched tale if at least some journals hadn’t reached civilization. We learn that this island group was a popular spot for seal and sea lion hunters, so the survivors’ hopes of rescue were not unreasonable. Reading the post-island part of the story is almost as interesting as the shipwreck portion, and it makes for a significant amount of the text. Druett tells us that the plight of these stranded men inspired efforts not only to map the region more fully, but also to deposit emergency boxes around the islands for castaways to access.
During their wandering, the second group discovers a small settlement, abandoned, that had been meant as a colony for seal hunters. That little village fell into utter disorder for lack of leadership, a story Druett includes in the larger narrative. Its story underscores the exceptional nature of the shipwreck survivors from Raynal and Musgrave’s party. Leadership is an important theme in this book, especially the idea that leadership and rank don’t march in lockstep. I picked up this book because I thought it would be a fun story for the beach – and it absolutely is – but it’s also a thought-provoking study of human nature and how nearly identical circumstances can bring out the best or the worst in people.
Image: Byrd Vernon, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2013, from commons.wikimedia.org.