Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Castaway on the Auckland Isles

Chapter VII. — ship-building commenced.—failure of the same.—the boat placed under repair. — sand-flies.—discovery of a cavern.—winter again

page 77

Chapter VII.
ship-building commenced.—failure of the same.—the boat placed under repair. — sand-flies.—discovery of a cavern.—winter again.

Sunday, January 1, 1865.—A whole year has now passed since I first anchored in this place, and in all probability another will at least pass before I get away, unless by chance of some sealers coming in the meantime. I have got quite grey-headed. My hair is now all coming out. Whether I shall get it again or remain bald-headed remains to be seen. I have also, since I last wrote, been very much troubled with boils, a number of which have been about my face; but these are going away again. The men continue quite healthy, which is well, for I have not even a dose of salts to give them or take myself, whatever happens. The only medicine we have is plenty of exercise, which is not only conducive to health, but dispels gloom, and makes people really cheerful. I take plenty of this medicine myself, and encourage it in others as much as I possibly can; and I am happy to say the result has proved so far satisfactory. I manage to keep the men almost constantly employed at something which is at the same time useful and amusing. We shall shortly commence to pull the schooner to pieces, and I have no doubt but we shall feel truly interested in the work of trying to get away. I hope we may succeed. It is quite true that by energetic perseverance men may perform wonders, and our success would by no means constitute a miracle. The men are all very sanguine, and I have no doubt but we shall be able to make something that will carry us to New Zealand. We are not quite ready to commence yet. Raynal and I have page 78not finished our new place, where we intend to live, and this house must be thatched, so as to preserve the sails, which, up to the present time, have covered it.

Providence continues good to us, for since I last wrote, when the prospect of getting food looked so gloomy, the bull seals have returned. They came at the beginning of November. They appear to pay annual visits to the cows, but unfortunately there are not more than three or four in the harbour. They have not yet had their calves. The bulls remain, however, and we are able to get one almost at any time; for they are very bold, and will come out of the water and chase us, in which manner we get them on shore and kill them; but they are particularly fierce. We are obliged to be very cautious in attacking them. There are some exceedingly large ones—quite as large, if not larger, than the largest we killed at Campbell's Island. These bulls, wherever they have been—whether about the roads outside or at other islands—have evidently had better food, or it has been much more plentiful than they find it here, for they have fallen away immensely since they came. I should not have been at all surprised at their losing fat after coupling time; but that is not yet come, so I conclude that it is owing to the nature or quantity of food which they get.

In November some of the birds lay their eggs—the blackbird; the robin, which is the first; and the green bird, which is the famous songster; and the seagull. We thought one day to have a treat, and spent the whole day in the boat hunting after and getting gulls' eggs. We got twenty altogether, out of which, when boiled, we got five good ones; the remainder were all addled. These are all the eggs we have been able to get. I am sorry to say the shag, or what we call widgeon, have all deserted the harbour. Very likely they are gone elsewhere to hatch their eggs. On the night of the 23rd November we had a severe gale, accompanied with rain, from north, and it was one of the heaviest we have had. The barometer fell in seven hours 1 inch and 14·00, from 29·92 to 28·78. The page 79heaviest part of the gale was from midnight until 3 a.m., when it hauled to N.W. At 9 a.m. it fell instantaneously calm, and continued so twenty-four hours, with dark, gloomy weather and showers.

Sunday, February 5, 1865.—Since I last wrote we have had some very severe weather. We had a rotatory gale, which continued without cessation from the 10th to the 25th of last month, during which time we were reduced to the point of starvation. It was impossible to launch the boat, and, although we traversed the shores as far as we could every day, we were unable to procure anything to eat. It rained heavily nearly all the time during the gale. I never suffered as I do now; it is no use talking about what I have suffered—God alone knows the extent of that since I have been here. I shall talk, or rather write, about something else; but, by-the-by, my hands are so stiff and swollen with hard work that I can scarcely guide my pen, for this is the first day's rest I have had for five weeks.

We have commenced in earnest the work of building a vessel to get away in. This will not prevent me from observing the Sabbath, but during the time mentioned it has been impossible to do so. Two Sundays we were out after grub; the next we were thatching the house; and last Sunday we were working at the wreck, trying to get her higher on the beach, to do which, with the means at my command, I have exhausted my ingenuity without success. We stripped the lower masts and bowsprit, and cut them away: took every ounce of ballast out, and disburthened her of all possible weight, without taking away any of her upper work, as I did not know what I might have done with her had I succeeded in moving her. But this can only be done by lifting her bodily up. I had seventeen empty casks secured round her bows, but they had not the slightest impression on her. She is built of very heavy hard wood, principally greenheart and coppy. She was built from the wreck of a Spanish man-of-war; but I am sorry to say they took care not to put any copper page 80bolts in her: but perhaps there were none in the original wreck. But they have not been at all sparing with the iron. She has got any quantity of that about her, which will be of more service to me than any other part of her, excepting the plant, which is already full of bolt-holes; but we must make it answer our purpose. The vessel I am going to build will be a cutter of about ten tons. We have got the blocks laid down, and a quantity of timbers cut. All the frame we shall have to get out of the woods, excepting the keel, which the 'Grafton's' mainmast will supply. Mr. Raynal is Vulcan; he has had some little experience in blacksmithing, which will now be of the greatest service to us, as we shall have to make nearly all our own tools. He has got a forge up ready for going to work at, as soon as we get some charcoal made. We have now a quantity of it in the ground, undergoing the process of burning. The schooner had a quantity of old iron in her bottom for ballast, amongst which we found a block, which will answer the purpose of an anvil. Mr. Raynal has undertaken to make a saw out of a piece of sheet iron. When we found the old sealers' camp on Figure-of-Eight Island, we found an old saw file, but the teeth were all rusted off it. This has been carefully reserved ever since, and Mr. R. ground it smooth on a grinding stone, which was our principal ballast, and with an old chisel, made out of an old broken flat file, cut fresh teeth in it; but unfortunately, as he was cutting almost the last tooth, he broke it—the part which goes into the handle—and about two inches of the file went. I think he can manage to cut teeth in the saw with it. I am afraid that augers will be the most difficult tools to make; but, now that the job is fairly undertaken, I have not the slightest doubt of final success in some shape or other. Every one works cheerfully and well: I sincerely hope nothing will occur to damp either. We work from six in the morning until six in the evening.

We have been able to work the whole of the past week, page 81but to-day it is blowing a hard northerly gale, with constant heavy rain, and threatens to continue. The barometer is low (28·70), which is the only sign of a change. We may expect the gale to haul to the N.W. whenever it shifts. Weather permitting, and God continues His goodness in supplying us with food, which we can manage to get in moderate weather, we shall get along very well—a critical position to be placed in, not knowing the moment all means of subsistence may be withdrawn from us.

Some time ago I mentioned a bark we had found, which I thought would tan, and I am now glad to say that it does make an excellent tan. We are now all wearing shoes of the leather it has made. It is very good leather, and if allowed to remain long enough in the tan would be excellent. I am inclined to think that the skin of these seals (which are the sea-lion), properly tanned, will make a very superior leather. What we are wearing now was about four months in tan, and it appears as if it will wear very well. This bark is from the hard wood, which I have said is good for ship timbers and knees.

Almost a year ago I mentioned a small fish, something like the anchovy, which were found in shoals. These fish appear to come annually, and are followed by the Australian mutton bird, which bird went away from here about May last. A great many were killed by the cold before they left; they returned again about the 20th January. I dare say these birds are eatable, but they are small. We have not had a chance of getting a shot at them this year, but we intend to try them when we can get one. We find that some of the cow seals have had calves, but not all, so that the latter part of January, and the beginning of February, is evidently the time for calving, and not December, as I have thought before. How long the building of our craft will occupy I am at present unable to judge, having had no previous experience in ship-building. I must see how the work progresses before I can form any idea.

Sunday, March 12, 1865.—It is now more than a month page 82since I last wrote, during which time we have been busily employed in our projected work of ship-building, although I myself have been unable to do anything with my hands, because for about three weeks I have had one or both of them in a sling with boils. I am now beginning to get the use of them again. We have got the keel, stem, and stern-post of the craft, and a number of timbers ready for bolting them together; but also here we are stuck fast, and find ourselves unable to go any farther. Mr. Raynal has made a saw, chisels, gouges, and sundry other tools. His ingenuity and dexterity at the forge have indeed surpassed my expectation, but making augers has proved a hopeless failure. Assiduously he wrought at one for three days, and it was not until there was not a shade of hope left that he gave it up; and if he had had the material to make them out of I feel confident he would have succeeded. The only steel he had was two picks and some shovel blades, which tools we took from Sydney, in hope of having some mining operations to perform at Campbell's Island. Yes! that is the rock I split upon.

But to my subject. It was truly deplorable to view the faces of all as we stood around him, when he decidedly pronounced it impossible for him to make one: they all appeared, and I have no doubt felt, as if all hope was gone. It went like a shot to my heart, although I had begun to anticipate such a result, and had made up my mind for immediate action accordingly; but when I saw positively that I must, as a last card, put my project into practice, I felt I was tempting Providence; for my tacit project and unalterable resolution is to attempt a passage to Stewart's Island in the boat. When I communicated my intention to the men, with the exception of the cook they unhesitatingly desired to go with me, which request I did not object to on this occasion; and the cook, rather than remain behind by himself, is going also. It would have been better for them in the boat if some had remained behind, but humanity prompts me to take them all page 83with me; for it is very doubtful whether those remaining on the island would find sufficient food or not to subsist upon through the fast approaching winter. The seals are very scarce, and in all probability abandon the place entirely about the latter end of April, at which time they began to disappear last year, although they had previously been so exceedingly numerous. The truth is, starvation is staring us in the face, which, it will be admitted, is enough to drive men to desperation. And this fact has moved me to the resolution which I have taken, and I think I am acting prudently. I have given it my serious and deliberate consideration for the last three months, as I have all along had my doubts about being able to make augers, without which it is utterly impossible to build anything better than the boat; and I think I can make her so that if she could carry two persons in safety she can carry us all. I shall make some alterations in her before we go, as I do not intend to start before next month, when, after the equinoctial gales, we may reasonably expect fine weather. And as up to the present time the weather in this year corresponds exactly to that of the same months in last year, I am in good hopes of being able to get away and arrive in safety. The boat is a clinker-built dingy, 12 feet on the keel, and, I am sorry to say, very old and shaky. I intend to strengthen her as much as possible; to raise her about a foot, and lengthen her about three feet; all of which we must contrive to do between this and the 1st of April, so as to be ready to embrace the first favourable opportunity of starting.

Since December, as I have before noticed, the weather resembles very much that of the corresponding months of last year; and I must not forget to remark that during the last nine days we have had some of the finest weather that we have experienced since we came here. This we cannot expect to last much longer, on account of the equinox. On the 8th and 9th instant we had a sharp frost in the night, with light north-east airs, and clear weather; page 84indeed, a more favourable opportunity of going in the boat could not possibly have presented itself. We could have pulled all the way to New Zealand. May it please God to grant us such another chance when we may expect it, and are ready! On the last occasion of my writing, I forgot to mention having seen a comet to the southward. It was visible from the 23rd up to the 26th January, after which date, for some time, the weather was so cloudy as not to admit of its being seen. Barometer has been nearly stationary for the last nine days, at 29·80.

Sunday, March 26, 1865.—The sea booms, and the wind howls. These are sounds which have been almost constantly ringing in my ears for the last fifteen months; for during the whole of this time I dare venture to say that they have not been hushed more than a fortnight together. There is something horribly dismal in this boom and howl; sometimes it makes my flesh creep to hear them, although I am now so well used to it. Had the romantic admirers of this sort of thing been in my place, I would have been thankful; and they, I have no doubt, would have been quite satisfied. I could not wish my greatest enemy to be similarly situated. Well, I have said I am about to leave. Yes; this, I hope, will be the last Sunday but one that we shall spend in this part of Sarah's Bosom; and perhaps by that time we may have had the good luck to have got out of it altogether. Yes, we go in now for death or freedom! But I have good hope of our success; in fact we are all in high spirits about it. This, however, is natural enough, I have no doubt; for men, after suffering such an imprisonment as we have done, are ready to regain their liberty at any price, especially when grim starvation is urging them on.

Since I last wrote, we have worked steadily and industriously at the boat, and have got along as fast as our skill and tools will permit; and I think we shall be able to launch her in about ten more days from this. We have worked from daylight in the morning until half-past nine page 85at night, Raynal at his forge, and I, after dark, at the sails in the house. We have had sails, masts, and everything to make. But the other day I thought we were ruined, for I broke the gimblet, without which our only means of making holes would have been to have burned them, which would be a most tedious process, for we required a great number of them; but, fortunately for us, Mr. Raynal managed to make it so that we can make a hole with it.

I have not said anything about the blow-flies and sand-flies lately. I may briefly state that they are equally as bad as they were when we first came here; and in consequence of having to work on the beach we are constantly exposed to the virulence of the latter, which surpasses my powers of description. I have seen mosquitoes very bad. I knew an instance, in a place called Nicarie, on the coast of Surinam, of a sailor being driven mad by them, and, seeking relief by plunging overboard, was drowned. I have also been in many other places, where I found them as troublesome as the Nicarie; but never have I seen anything in the shape of mosquitoes to equal those sand-flies in malignity. If the wind is moderate in the least degree —that is to say, if it is not blowing a whole gale, they are flying about in myriads, from daylight to dark (fortunately they modestly retire in the night), and alight on you in clouds, literally covering every part of your skin that happens to be exposed, and not only that, but they get inside our clothes and bite there. I do not think that at the present moment I could place the point of a needle on any part of my hands or face clear of their bites. I remember on one occasion, when working at the boat, a long time ago, having to abandon my job and come into the house. But there is no abandoning it now—we must grin and bear it, and persevere to get the job done. When the boat is launched, which she must be as soon as possible (as we are not able to get much to eat without her), we shall have to leave this place, and go down to page 86Camp Cove, where she can lie at anchor. We shall there be in a convenient position for popping out on the first opportunity. The seals are getting very scarce; indeed we have not seen one in the water for a long time. The few cows that had calves here this year took them to the island (Figure-of-Eight), as they did last year, but I think we have got them all.

On the 17th and 18th we had a hurricane, which was actually the heaviest that I have ever experienced, either at sea or on shore. Mr. Raynal, who has resided in Mauritius for a period of seven or eight years, says that these gales are frequently much more severe than the Mauritius hurricanes. They are, indeed, terrific. Notwithstanding all this, there have been two opportunities of going away in the boat during the past or rather the present month; and I hope and trust we shall get another one as soon as the packet is ready. Before we leave I shall write my whole story—at least sufficient of it to be well understood, and leave it sealed up in a bottle, so that whoever comes here next—which, undoubtedly, some one will, although that event may not happen for a long time—may be enabled to discover what has happened to us.

Sunday, April 2, 1865.—The past week leaves us but little farther advanced with our work, as the weather has been very wet and boisterous, which has prevented us from working outside. Indeed, with the best of weather we only get along slowly, and I find we shall not be ready as soon as I expected. There is a great deal to be done, and our tools are such that it is almost impossible to get along at all. I allowed ten days from last Sunday, and I find I may yet allow that time at least. Mr. Raynal is constantly employed at the forge, as there is a great deal of blacksmith's work to be done. We have everything to make—even the nails, of which, and small bolts, we require a great many. Since we have not been able to launch the boat, and particularly during the last week, we have been very much pinched for food, for there is little or nothing to be page 87picked up in the neighbourhood. We have had one hand out all the time grub-hunting. But he had very poor success, and things were looking very gloomy, when to-day

Heaven, all bounteous ever, its boundless mercy sent.

I will recount the day's proceedings. First thing after breakfast we all started off, taking different directions, and about one o'clock we began to return, one coming in after another without having met with anything (one brought two small fish), and we were all looking very blue at each other, when in came the only remaining man, carrying on his back a load of meat, weighing about one cwt. He had met with, and killed, two large cow seals about five miles from the house. We at once got something to eat, and all started off to bring the meat home. We had to make all possible haste, as we had only just sufficient time to go and come back again before dark; and we had also the risk of being caught by the tide, and being unable to get back again to-night at all, as there are several places on the way we had to go where there is six feet of water when the tide is up, and it would be almost impossible to get by going any other way.

On the way, Mr. Raynal and one of the men parted company with us, they going through the bush in passing the point, whilst we went round the point. They fell in with a young seal, and in chasing him he fell or leaped into a deep narrow gully, about thirty feet deep, with perpendicular sides, and at the bottom runs a stream of water which occupies the whole width of the chasm, and at a distance of about 100 yards from the beach is filled up at the top, and the stream is lost sight of, as it runs underneath the ground, and comes out of a small hole on the beach. One of them ran down to get to the hole before the seal would get there, but he did not come out, so Mr. Raynal went down after him, whilst the men kept guard over the outlet. He found, to his great surprise, after getting down to the bottom, that there was plenty of room to walk in page 88under what we have always termed the bridge, (We have some very strange names for distinguishing places by.) He saw the seal lying at the outlet, and watching the man who was outside waiting for him. When he found Raynal coming towards him he showed fight, but on getting a knock bolted for the hole, and was duly received by the man outside. He was a one-year-old bull; a very nice addition to the two cows already killed. But the place underground, where Raynal was, proved to be a spacious cavern, divided into two apartments by the stream running through the centre, each of which was about forty feet long and twenty wide. The roof was about twenty feet high, and through the centre was a round hole which had escaped our previous notice, and by which a flood of light was admitted to the cavern. Mr. Raynal describes it as a very comfortable place to live in. In the meantime we had gone on. After killing the seal and making these discoveries they followed and missed us, but fortunately fell in with a cow and calf. The calf they killed, after having a severe battle with the cow, and then returned. But they were behind us about an hour, and had to swim with their load across some of the six feet places, as the tide was up. We were wet also, for it rained heavily since noon, and still (9 p.m.) continues to do so. After all, we have been kindly dealt with, for Providence has always at the last push provided us with something.

Sunday, April 16, 1865. —Since I last wrote hoary winter has set in in earnest, and with the utmost severity. It has blown an incessant gale, with constant hail, snow, and pelting rain, since the 3rd inst., and has almost entirely prevented us from working at the boat since that time. We have, however, by dint of great perseverance and many a wet jacket, managed to get all done except putting on the planks, and I have no doubt but we shall finish in two or three days; but we must have better weather to launch her. Small as she is, there has been a great deal of work about her. There are about 180 clinch bolts in her, and page 89there will, when finished, be about 700 nails and spikes in her. Raynal has had to make all these out of short bolts of all sorts and sizes, belaying pins, &c., welded together and drawn out. But I must be brief to-day, as I intend to insert here a copy of the letter which I am going to leave here, and which I have just finished writing, and the blank space is getting very small.* However, I cannot omit taking notice of a small bird which appears to be an annual visitor to this island, as they have been here about the same time both last year and the present one. They come in immense flocks, fly rather high, and in waves. They are evidently a seed bird of the sparrow species, and very much resemble the wild canary, both in colour and size. They only remained here a few days, and I fancy they went away on the 3rd of this month, which was a fine day, with a light southerly breeze—in fact, one of the most pleasant days we have had since we came here, and we have had only one anything like it before. So much for this wretched land; but it has made up for that fine day since, by blowing a continuous and one of the heaviest gales that it is possible to imagine. I have been round both capes (i. e., Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope), and crossed the Western Ocean many times, but never have I experienced, or read, or heard of anything in the shape of storms to equal those of this place.

* The copy does not appear to have been made.—Pub.