One woman, forty-seven men and a three-year-old boy, shipwrecked on a tiny sub-Antarctic island. For seven months they eat albatross and burn penguin skins for fuel, before a passing whaler picks them up.
The woman was my great-great-great-grandmother Fanny Wordsworth. She and her son Charlie, my grandfather’s grandfather, were migrating from Scotland to New Zealand. Two months out, their ship struck a rock in the Roaring 40s, halfway between Antarctica and Madagascar…
The year was 1875. Fanny Wordsworth was an independent-minded Edinburgh widow and Catholic convert. Twenty-three year old Charlie was her devoted only son–a footloose amateur artist and lover of adventure. Together they set sail for New Zealand, embarking on the maiden voyage of the Strathmore, a clipper from Dundee.
Also on the ship were three-year-old saloon passenger Wattie Walker, and able-seaman Black Jack Warren. A partially literate Irishman, Black Jack was charismatic, a natural leader–generous, sunny-tempered, hard-drinking and free with his fists. Three-year-old Wattie, a lively little boy, would be the only child to survive the wreck–though hardly unscathed.
The forty-nine survivors landed on Grande Île, a treeless rock inhabited only by seabirds. For the next seven months, battered by gale-force winds, rain, sleet and snow, they struggled against starvation, disease, freezing temperatures and waning hopes. They built shanties from mud and stones, hunted and ate albatross and other seabirds, and made bird-skin shoes and clothes. They formed alliances and enmities, cared for their sick and buried their dead. To keep up their spirits they told yarns, watched the antics of penguins, and dreamt unusually vivid dreams:
often about something to eat, often about being at home and the ship that was to take us off the island–always pleasant. Dreaming, in fact, was by far the pleasantest part of our existence on that miserable island.
– Charlie Wordsworth
In this account of her ancestors’ shipwreck, Sylvie Haisman draws on letters, diaries and historical records to look into the lives and dreams of the migrants and crew on a nineteenth century sailing ship. Filtering the story through eyes of Fanny and Charlie Wordsworth, Black Jack the sailor and three-year-old Wattie Walker, Haisman follows the journey of these human beings pushed to the limits of their physical and mental endurance, and explores the effects of the ordeal on the survivors’ later lives.
With the exception of two rings and… [my] rosary, I have not a relic of my past life.
Even when I thought I was going to the bottom, I regretted our lovely picture of my dear father (a life-size painting of my father when a boy, with his favourite pony–the figure by Sir Henry Raeburn, and the animal by Howe).
However, we have ourselves, and it has been Almighty God’s will that we should lose the rest.
– Fanny Wordsworth, writing to her daughter after being rescued
Sylvie Haisman is a writer and performer who lives in a one-room hut at Paekakariki Beach in New Zealand. When she’s not writing or performing, Sylvie enjoys many things including: contact improvisation dance, jewellery-making, reading and ginger crunch.