Castaways: Shipwrecked on Auckland Island

Schooners (1892) Courtesy Library of Congress

Captain Thomas Musgrave and Raynal François were planning to head for Campbell Island at the urging of the less than trustworthy pair “Uncle” Musgrave and Charles Sarpy. Looking for a sturdy vessel they located the schooner, Grafton. Then came the gathering of the crew. They enlisted two seamen and a cook, Alexander “Alick” Maclaren (Norwegian), George Harris (English) and Henry “Harry” Forgès (Portuguese).

On November 12, 1863 the Grafton left Australia. On the 18th they met with foul weather that threw them off course, but nevertheless they arrived at Campbell Island dropping anchor on December 2nd. They found no tin on the island and so Musgrave decided to head for the Auckland Islands to hunt seal. At least they would make a little money off of the expedition. January 1, 1864 found the crew at Auckland. Unfortunately, a storm came up on and the Grafton was wrecked when the anchor chain parted. All five managed to get away thanks in part to the Grafton’s boat.

Once ashore the thoroughly doused group found the peat soil made it difficult to keep a fire going. Musgrave immediately set to worrying about his family back in Australia, wondering how they would be able to get along. He did pull himself together, and the next day the survivors scavenged what they could from the still visible shipwreck. That night the survivors were startled to find two sea lion bulls fighting outside of their tent. The creatures would become a very familiar site to the five souls.

The Auckland Islands were a dismal place, the weather especially. Then there were the blowflies and the sand flies, the latter forever swarming and clinging to the poor men. The fierce wind caused the trees to grow crooked and contorted. When Musgrave would planted seeds, nothing grew. And the seal populace wasn’t what it had been in earlier years. Constant hunting had diminished the population. Because of that ships no longer frequented the Islands like once before. But the survivors made do.

Fur Seals Circa. 20th Century Courtesy Library of Congress

Sea lion meat was tried and the crew learned that the cow and pup meat made better eating, than the bull’s (they didn’t relish the task of killing the pups). The Aucklands are also home to mega herbs, which the crew discovered and added to their diet, particularly Stilbocarpa polaris. François proved an adept cook and located the Stilbocarpa, which they called sacchary. Much could be made out of the plant, Musgrave even creating a beer with it. But their main food source depended on the sea lions. For this reason the crew would set out in their boat from the Grafton and hunt for food. Regrettably, the sea lion population wasn’t constant, the seals coming and going at certain times. The group had tried preserving the meat, but not always with luck. For one thing the taste wasn’t particularly savory even to a starving man.

Amazingly, with François’ expertise a cabin was built along with a chimney. Glass taken from the Grafton was made into windows for their new home. The name Epigwaitt was chosen for the home.

No longer shipboard, the 3 sailors under Musgrave wanted equality. With Musgrave’s grudging approval an ‘election’ was held and Musgrave chosen as leader. If he didn’t live up to what they wanted he could be ‘impeached’. They also passed the task of being a cook around, each having their own turn.

Kakariki, the type of bird Forges caught Courtesy Wikipedia

To take their minds off of their predicament prayers were held, Bible read and a school was set up. Those who didn’t know how to read or write could swap their knowledge of a foreign language for that. Another method was keeping pets. Forgès found (it was more like kidnapped) three baby bird and ‘domesticated’ the two that lived. The birds lived happily in the cabin, one of them learning to talk. One day Forgès accidentally killed one them when he set down a large pot of water. The bird’s sibling pined itself away at its death.

François created a soap, made leather out of seal skin to make shoes (which they were in need of) and built a forge. Throughout the months hunger was a constant battle. At times they would luck out with a catch of sea lion most times thanks to Maclaren. Thomas Musgrave in the meantime was frequently depressed by their circumstances and his family was always on his mind. Many times he set out on his own to charter the island.

In 1865 the five men got together and decided to upgrade their boat (made it larger, installed a pump, etc). With it they would attempt to make it to New Zealand. On June 27, 1865 the crew launched the boat and named it Rescue. However, the boat didn’t fare well with a complement of five so it was decided Harris and Forgès would remain behind while Musgrave, François and Maclaren ventured out to sea. The parting was sad, but the group saw this as their only way of being rescued.

At sea the three man crew sailed along, battling a hurricane. The food they had brought along had become so foul that it had to be thrown overboard. In any case being constantly swamped and pummeled by the ocean didn’t give them much time to eat. They lived on small bits of water. On the 5th day of the amazing voyage, July 24th, they sighted Stewart Island. They located a Maori village and a Captain Tom Cross took them into his home, where they were tended too. So exhausted where the survivors, that the trio didn’t know they had been taken aboard Cross’ vessel the Flying Scud until they awoke sometime later. Cross took them to Invercargill to have them see a doctor and to learn what could be done about Harris and Forgès. A most unfortunate incident befell the Rescue. While being towed behind the Flying Scud it was destroyed by the breakers. It was a sad end for the stalwart vessel that had been with them so long.

Remains of the wreck of the Grafton, at Epigwaitt, Auckland Islands. Ref: 1/2-098181-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

At Invercargill the inhabitants rallied to give aid to the survivors. Meanwhile Musgrave was doing his best to get a vessel to go back to Auckland Island and get his friends. Eventually the Flying Scud was enlisted and Musgrave went along as pilot. She left on July 19th and after several delays arrived at her destination on August 24th. The arrival shocked Forgès and Harris, who had taken to surviving on rats. While Musgrave was absent the two had had a spat, but were able to put together a raft showing that they had possessed ingenuity still yet.

Before leaving, the island was scouted for any survivors of some other unfortunate shipwreck (the Grafton survivors had months before found the wreckage of the Invercauld, but never the survivors, except for the remains of one James Mahoney). None were found and despite this Musgrave was unsatisfied, thinking perhaps somewhere on the island there were other souls.

The five men had survived on the island for nearly two years.

For an idea of what the crew of the Grafton were up against take a look at this photoblog: Forgotten Latitudes

Source: Druett, Joan. Island of the Lost : Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World.  


56 thoughts on “Castaways: Shipwrecked on Auckland Island

    • Yep, two years is a long time. The ‘shipwreckees’ from the Invercauld weren’t there that long and fell apart. Out of 19 that survived the shipwreck only 3 came away alive. And those 3 were taken off of the Island sometime before the Grafton survivors were ever located.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is, Francois seems to have been able to do anything. Plus the comradeship among them really helped them along.

      I enjoyed reading about the Grafton survivors more than I could ever have reading Robinson Crusoe.

      Thanks for commenting.


    • Yes, that’s what they were looking for on Campbell Island. Musgrave’s uncle and Sarpy were couple of crooks. They were suppose to send out a ship to look for the Grafton crew if they weren’t heard from after a certain period. I don’t think they did.

      Thanks for your comment and for reading.


    • Yes they did. Course the levelheadedness also helped their situation and they certainly knew how to make do. I can imagine something like this happening to alot of us today, “Where’s the refrigerator?” or “Eww, seal meat we have to eat seal meat?”

      Thanks for your comment!


    • The castaways were “tough ol’ birds”. You certainly have to give them credit for their ingenuity.

      With a raft they rigged up Harris and Forges were able to catch a seal and take half home (if I remember correctly the seal meat didn’t keep very well). Since the three other sailors had taken the boat away, Harris and Forges were no longer able to hunt seal like they had previously.


  1. Wow! What an interesting story! I think I’m surprised that they were able to last so long as well. I think forming their own mini community with everyone having duties was a big help to them. And how resourceful were they?! Shoes from seals, a windows from their shipwreck. Just wow.


    • Yep! I think if someone had wanted to name himself leader and the others hadn’t agreed, the story wouldn’t have had such a happy ending. And yes their resourcefulness really amazed me too.

      Thanks for you comment!


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