In February of this year a random stranger (me) sent shipwreck expert Bill Day a bottle of champagne and an unedited novel, printed off and spiral bound at the Warehouse Stationery: Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant.
The General Grant is a ship that wrecked on the Auckland Islands in 1866 carrying a cargo that included an undetermined amount of gold and 83 passengers. Eighteen months later, 10 survivors were rescued by a whaling brig and taken to Invercargill, where they told their story to an enraptured audience. The wreck has never been found.
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is my fictional interpretation of what happened to the 14 men and one woman who survived and lived as castaways on a bleak and stormy sub-Antarctic island. The woman was Mrs Jewell, returning with her new husband to England from Melbourne, with gold from the mines stitched into the folds of their clothing.
As I researched and wrote the novel, I became aware of the powerful hold that this story still has on people’s imaginations. And then, one day, as can happen often with historical stories, the history I was researching jumped up and bit me.
One hundred and fifty six years after my story was set, shipwreck hunter, diver, businessman, all round expert on everything General Grant-y, Bill Day, was going to the Aucklands to search for the wreck. Hence the champagne and the book, and a cheeky suggestion that when he found what he was looking for he might write the last chapter.
I’ve subsequently learned that lots of randoms contact Bill Day with treasure-hunting advice and suggestions of how to conduct his adventures. He’s good-natured about all of this, realising how compelling his real “boy’s own” life is to armchair enthusiasts and understanding their burning desire to make the story true and be part of it.
Nevertheless he took my book (the champagne probably helped) and read it in the stark isolation of the Auckland Islands as his ship lay holed up, waiting for a break in the relentlessly difficult weather. He passed the copy around his crew.
“I loved the book and what a privilege to read it while in the Aucklands searching for the wreck,” he wrote to me, which was followed by a lively discussion between us of our mutual admiration for Irishman James Teer, hero of the castaways, who had kept the survivors alive with brute strength and grit.
This gave me the historic collywobbles. I’d written a fictional account of an event that happened back in Victorian times, and on the day it went to edit with my publisher there were divers reading the story on location, pulling it back to life from those bleak waters.
Not many people have been to the Aucklands. It’s an inhospitable place. The weather is relentlessly ferocious, the sea fog blankets the islands nearly all year around, the rocks are hard, trees stunted and there is something about all this that makes the place almost Wuthering Heights romantic.
Bill Day describes the location in wistful terms: the cliffs towering hundreds of metres from tide to sky, the soaring wide-winged birds, the extraordinary sea life. He’s dived the many dozens of caves and crevices that could potentially be hiding the shipwreck, working in icy temperatures and swimming through the kelp with sea lions. He makes it sound exhilarating.
Bill and his team work with facts. They’re serious explorers with cutting-edge equipment and technology. They took a magnetometer to the island, carefully calibrated it against two known wrecks before trawling it along the entire west coast. They will find the ship, or not (and it’s not so far but I’m holding my breath), with science and facts.
I, on the other hand, am looking for a story, researching what is known of each of the castaways and the society of their time and class, where they lived and died after the rescue and filling in the gaps by imagining what, plausibly, might have happened. Both of us are engulfed in the same historic legend but we come at it from very different angles.
When Bill and I spoke after he returned from his adventure, we discovered that our facts and fiction are not so clear cut. We have access to the same source documents, which are few enough, and neither of us is confident to label them either fact or fiction, though our different interpretations enrich us both.
Three of the survivors left testimonies, recorded in newspapers, letters and journals. These have inconsistencies, but also some eerie similarities that give the suspicious “what goes on tour” feeling of reconstruction. Three survivors made trips back to the island, which made little sense; there are obvious gaps in the narrative and inexplicable motives.
The source material on the story of the shipwreck and its survivors has been patched together to form a history of sorts. The General Grant wreck is even plotted on the LINZ Topo50 Map, but she’s not there. Which begs the question: how true were the survivors’ memories? Recollection of a series of events can be notoriously unreliable, particularly months later, and after trauma.
Also, how strong was the incentive of the General Grant survivors for secrecy? If they deliberately fudged the story – because they intended to return for the gold or any other reason – is it possible their secrets have remained hidden all this time? Without the physical evidence of a wreck, or subsequent evidence of sudden unexplained riches for the survivors, what, exactly, can we declare as historical truth and what the realm of fiction?
Either way, our fact and fiction sides of the story align with the agreement the General Grant is a better adventure story than you could possibly make up: shipwreck and treasure, castaways, trauma, desolation, heroism, survival. It’s Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies, Titanic and Castaway rolled into one. Part of the story is true and part not. We just don’t know for sure which is which.
For me and my fiction, that just adds to the mystery. But I can’t help feeling Bill Day would still like to pull some shining sovereigns out of the sea.
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press, $37) is available in bookstores nationwide.