Islands of Despair
Fourteen — The General Grant and its Gold
The General Grant and its Gold
The morning of Saturday, 9th December, proved to be almost calm, and could hardly have promised better for our trip. We had loaded everything except our bedding the previous day, and after an early breakfast we were aboard the ship by 8 a.m. On passing through the heads we found a moderate south-easterly swell, but the weather was still good. So we turned south and rounded Gilroy Head, and after passing Bollons Bay it was not long before we had Fly Harbour abeam. Fly Harbour is the only sizeable inlet on Adams Island, and is chiefly remarkable for a bar of kelp which rises in deep water, and, although it would be difficult to penetrate, it effectively smooths out the ocean swells that would otherwise surge into the harbour. It seems probable that the inlet was named after H.M.S. Fly rather than after the insects, which are probably as plentiful there as elsewhere on the islands.
The southern coast of Adams Island was a remarkable sight, with an almost unbroken series of sheer cliffs, rising to an estimated maximum of 1500 feet just south of Mt. Dick. Streams debouched over these cliffs as waterfalls, which reached the sea in a single mighty leap of not less than 1200 feet in some places. We passed very close to the Lantern Rocks and the gaunt Adams Rocks, and by noon we were off the south-west cape. Here we could see hundreds of black-browed molly-mawks nesting on ledges, where they were secure from the depredations of wild pigs.page break page break page 133
The wind was freshening now, and as we made our way towards the grim buttresses of Cape Lovett and Bristow Point I was beginning to think that things might not be too pleasant before the day was over. Once we had passed Bristow Point we eagerly scanned the cliffs for caves such as the one the General Grant is believed to have entered.
The General Grant, of 1095 tons, commanded by Captain Loughlin, sailed from Melbourne on 4th May 1866 with eighty-three persons on board, including six women and several children, also a miscellaneous cargo consisting chiefly of wool and hides. Land was sighted about 10 p.m. on 13th May, and was believed to be Disappointment Island, as about an hour later the main island was seen dead ahead. The wind was light and the sea choppy, so that the vessel barely had steerage way. She could not clear the land, and at about 11.30 p.m. she struck the cliffs and carried away her jib-boom. She then dropped astern to a projecting point where she carried away her spanker-boom and rudder, after which she drifted into a great cave. Here the foretopmast touched the roof of the cave and dislodged great pieces of rock, which stove in the forecastle. The ship lay there all night, striking heavily forward all the time, but with twenty-five fathoms of water under her stern. As soon as it was light a boom was rigged over the stern and the boats lowered. The pinnace was launched first, and three men were sent in her with lines and a kedge to be laid for hauling out the other boats. The gig came next, with the chief officer, three seamen and one passenger, and she got safely out of the cave.
At this stage the maintopmast came down, and allowed the ship to drift further into the cave, also starting a bad leak in the hull which caused the vessel to settle rapidly. The tide was starting to make, and the wind and sea were beginning to rise, so matters had become desperate. An attempt was made to hoist the stewardess, Mrs. Jewell, into a boat, but she fell into the sea. Her husband leapt after her and got her into a boat, where they were joined by two others who had page 134also jumped into the sea. The seas were now sweeping over the poop of the General Grant, so that the longboat was floated off the deck, and about fourteen persons scrambled aboard her. The position was critical, and all the boats had to get out of their dangerous position in the cave. The surge off the rocks was too much for the longboat, which was swamped, and only three of its occupants were rescued. The captain and one seaman could still be seen on the mizzen-mast when the ship sank. The two boats which had got out of the cave lay-to for a while, but no more survivors were seen. Their fifteen occupants decided to make for Disappointment Island, as it was clearly impossible to scale the sheer cliffs of the main island.
Apparently the boats did not reach Disappointment Island that day, and were forced to seek shelter in the lee of the Sugarloaf Rocks. They reached Disappointment Island next morning, but soon decided to row round the north-west cape to Port Ross. This journey apparently occupied a day and a night, and ended with the castaways safely ashore in the harbour. All of them were suffering considerably from exposure, as they had very few clothes. Although they were able to start a fire they had nothing but empty soup tins to cook in, and the whole party had only four or five knives amongst them. They later found the remains of a hut, which was possibly at Hardwicke, and they were then able to live in a somewhat greater degree of comfort.
The problem of clothing was overcome to some extent by manufacturing caps, coats, trousers, moccasins and even underwear from seal-skins. Unfortunately, the men were unable to find the supply of food which had been left in Port Ross by the Victoria a year earlier, and they were forced to subsist chiefly on seal meat, although this was varied on the occasions when a goat or a pig was captured.
The months slipped by with no sign of any ship, and it was decided to send what the men called "messengers". These were in the form of small boats about three feet long, and each had a tall mast to which was attached a bright piece page 135of tin to act as a sail and to attract attention. Details of the location of the castaways were carved on the ships. There is no record of any messenger ever having been found.
In December some of the men decided to try to reach New Zealand in the 22-ft. pinnace. The little craft was decked over with seal-skins, and was loaded with provisions, including a goat and two kids which had been captured on Enderby Island, some smoked seal, birds' eggs, and a few jealously hoarded tins of soup and beef. Fresh water was carried in vessels made from seal-skins. Four men, including Bartholomew Brown (first officer), William N. Scott, Andrew Morison and Peter McNevin made the trip, and the boat sailed on 22nd January 1867. No charts or navigating instruments were available, and nothing was ever heard of the men again.
The remaining ten men and one woman carried on as usual, watching in vain for a ship, seeking food, and suffering greatly from dysentery. During an expedition towards Matheson Bay they found a crude hut made of scrub, inside which were three bunks and a barrel inscribed "Minerva of Leith, May 10, 1864, and March 25, 1865".
In August 1867 David McLellan became ill. He was aged sixty-two, and he died on 3rd September.
On 6th October a sail was sighted in the west, and bonfires were lighted and the boat launched. The day was clear, and it seemed impossible that the signals would not be seen, but the ship bore away. This bitter disappointment led the castaways to shift to Enderby Island, where they considered that it would be easier to attract the attention of passing ships.
The next disappointment came on 19th November when another ship passed the islands without seeing the signal fires. However, it was only two days later that the brig Amherst, commanded by Captain Gilroy, was sighted off the eastern coast, and the boat put out to meet her. Rescue had come at last, and the ten survivors were taken to New Zealand after their eighteen months' exile on the Auckland Islands.
In January 1868 a subscription list was opened in Dunedin page 136for the castaways, many of whom were entirely destitute. Vigorous representations were also made to the Government regarding the establishment of provision depots on the islands, and it was urged that a steamer should be dispatched to search for other possible survivors. The Colonial Secretary acknowledged the request, and advised that the Amherst was being sent to Campbell Island in case the pinnace had drifted there, after which she would visit the Auckland Islands. He also advised that in the next session the Government would propose a vote for a provision depot at the islands.
It is interesting to note that in 1945 a member of the crew of the Ranui found a slate at the foot of a tree near the provision depot at Erebus Cove. On the face of the slate was the inscription:
"Sacred to the memory of Bart Brown, CO., Wm. N. Scott, A.B., Andrew Morison, A.B., Peter McNevin, A.B., who started on the 22nd January, 1867, for New Zealand in boat without chart, compass, or nautical instrument. Blessed are they that die in the Lord."
The inscription was very neatly scratched on the slate, which had previously formed part of the roof of a house at Hardwicke. On the reverse side was a record of the rescue of the ten survivors by the Amherst.
It was only to be expected that the news of the wreck of the General Grant would arouse speculation as to whether her gold could be salvaged. Her manifest showed that she carried 2570 oz., but a number of goldminers were passengers on the ship, and it was commonly believed that they had a considerable amount of gold in their possession. In any case it was evident that sufficient gold was aboard to repay handsomely any successful salvage expedition.
It was not long before the first attempt was made, and in 1868 the paddle-tug Southland left for the scene of the wreck. On board was James Teer, who was a survivor of the wreck, page 137and could therefore be relied upon as a capable guide. The tug is reported to have located the cave, but was unable to enter it on account of unfavourable weather. It is believed that subsequent disputes amongst the personnel led to the attempt being abandoned.
In 1870 the topsail schooner Daphne made an attempt to salvage the gold. Upon reaching Port Ross the cook and a boy were left in charge of the schooner, while the captain and five men took a whale-boat round the north-west cape in search of the cave. They were never seen again. The cook and the boy took the ship's dinghy and searched the northern coast, where they found part of a boat and an oar. Apparently they were not able to identify these definitely, as after experiencing much difficulty in getting the Daphne back to Bluff, New Zealand, they engaged a full crew and returned to the Auckland Islands to resume the search. H.M.S. Blanche happened to be engaged on survey work along the eastern coast at the time, and her officers assisted in the search for the six men, but without success.
The next attempt was made by the steamship Gazelle in 1877, and once again a survivor of the wreck was included in the expedition, this time the man being Cornelius Drew. The Gazelle also succeeded in finding the cave, and the crew were fairly confident that they had located the wreck. Unfortunately, the weather was bad, and they were unable to get a diver down, so the attempt had to be abandoned.
In 1893 a salvage syndicate was formed in Invercargill, but the scheme fell through before it reached the stage of sending a vessel away.
In 1911 Captain N. C. Sorenson of America, who was formerly a diver employed by the Auckland Harbour Board in New Zealand, announced that he was forming a salvage syndicate, and he expected to expend about £10,000 on his expedition. The syndicate had a capital of £30,000 and Sorenson believed that the value of the gold was between £300,000 and £400,000. He expressed the opinion that ship-page 138masters were reluctant to indicate how much gold was aboard their vessels, on account of the prevalence of piracy, and he believed that 170 bags listed as containing "sundries" actually were bags of gold.
Mr. Sorenson said that previous salvage attempts had failed because they approached the wreck from the sea, and were therefore defeated by bad weather. He proposed to anchor in an inlet on the eastern coast, and to construct a road on the western cliffs. He would then erect a cantilever extending about 25 feet beyond the cliff edge, and from the cantilever two cables would be let down to the sea and anchored. It would then be possible to operate an elevator from the cliff-top to the sea, and a diver would be able to enter the water regardless of the weather conditions, and without being in any great danger. He was arranging for the heavier equipment to be made in England and Australia, but the smaller items were to be manufactured in Dunedin, New Zealand. When interviewed in November 1911 his Dunedin representative, Mr. May, advised that the construction work was expected to take about six months, and that he intended to make a preliminary trip to the islands to determine what equipment and length of cable would be necessary.
In 1912 the Sorenson Salvage Company purchased the steamer Wairoa, of 95 tons, and arrangements were made for the vessel to be fitted out in Dunedin. She was to be commanded by Captain Perriam of England, who was reputed to be familiar with the scene of the wreck, while Sorenson was to act as diver. At this stage Mr. May estimated that the expedition would cost £15,000, but he revealed that he now had positive information that there was £500,000 worth of gold in the wreck. A number of working bullocks were purchased in Heriot, and were put in charge of Mr. R. Harris, of Roxburgh, who with two other Roxburgh men was accompanying the expedition.
On 13th May 1912 about fifty people assembled at Port Chalmers to see the Wairoa leave for the Auckland Islands. page 139She was scheduled to sail at 4 p.m. and when she was still there an hour later it was discovered that a writ of attachment had been nailed to the mast, restraining the vessel from leaving port pending settlement of a claim for £400 due to Messrs. Stevenson & Cook for repairs. Apparently the finances of the syndicate were unable to meet this emergency and the expedition was abandoned.
Mr. May returned to America, but early in 1914 he advised interested persons in Dunedin that he intended to resume operations. He had previously obtained from the Southland Land Board a licence permitting him to erect machinery on the islands, but the Board now advised that unless he commenced work by July 1914 his licence would be cancelled. Urgent representations were made for an extension of time, as the syndicate had been reorganized under the name of the American Deep Sea Exploring Company, and had purchased a ship called the Robert Henry. The licence was extended until October 1914, but no further extension could be offered, as another applicant was seeking a licence, and May had already held his for a long time without getting anything done. As it happened, the Robert Henry was lost in American waters, and the whole scheme collapsed.
The next attempt to salvage the gold commenced in 1915, when Captain Catling purchased a 20-ton cutter named the Enterprise and made a reconnaissance trip to the islands as a preliminary to a serious effort to recover the treasure. During this visit he decided on the probable location of the wreck, and made detailed plans for the salvage work.
Catling sailed again from Dunedin on 29th February 1916, with a crew of four. He intended to do the diving himself, and he had engaged a Norwegian mate and three seamen. The cutter, which had a 14 h.p. engine, was provisioned for six months, and carried modern diving equipment, a dynamo and submersible electric lights for use if night diving was found necessary, and a telephone for communication between diver and boat. He also took with him a launch powered by a 4 h.p. page 140engine, and two small boats. On his way south he called at Stewart Island, and finally left Wilson's Bay for the Auckland Islands on 13th March.
Catling had decided to base his expedition at Carnley Harbour, and he entered Victoria Passage on 15th March. On the 18th he started out in the launch for the General Grant cave, but he was driven back by a gale, and continuous gales of great violence followed for a period of six weeks. The Enterprise was lying in Western Harbour, and during this interval the crew made an overland trip to Smith Harbour to inspect the locality of the wreck from the cliffs. This trip left the men completely exhausted, on account of the difficult terrain. When the weather improved the launch succeeded in reaching the cave, but soundings had just been commenced when the wind got up and the launch was very nearly wrecked on a submerged rock, which is uncovered only in rough weather.
On 13th May, fifty years to the day since the wreck of the General Grant, moorings were laid at the entrance to the cave and the Enterprise was brought round from Western Harbour. The weather was fine and the little vessel lay outside the cave all night, although a close watch was kept. Catling estimated that the cliffs were 650 feet high at this point, and were overhanging in many places. During the next day he made several dives, but was unsuccessful in locating the wreck. By that time the wind was freshening again, and the party had to return to Western Harbour, where they were weather-bound for more than a month.
Catling then shifted camp to North Harbour, and on the first suitable day he took the Enterprise round the north-west cape to the cave. On this occasion he had made only one dive when a very sudden change in the weather made him leave hurriedly, and since the wind blew from the north-west he had to run for Carnley Harbour again. However, this incident was followed by a remarkable spell of good weather, and he was able to take his cutter right into the entrance of the cave.page 141
Catling examined the sea floor just outside the cave, especially alongside buttresses of rock on the southern side of the entrance, as it was there that the Gazelle had reported finding the remains of the General Grant in 1877. However, he found only a ledge of rock which he considered might have been mistaken for a wreck by men who were hampered by working in a heavy swell. Catling found the water very clear, and while examining the ocean floor outside the cave he had suspended himself below the Enterprise while the cutter moved slowly back and forth over the whole area. The sea bottom was practically a level sheet of rock, although there were several rock pinnacles right at the entrance which Catling considered would prevent a sunken ship from being carried out to sea.
He therefore commenced a thorough examination of the cave itself. He rowed into it and dropped an anchor, and the Enterprise was pulled in stern first. Although the weather was still very good there was a considerable surge inside the cave, and he had some difficulty in diving. Nevertheless, he succeeded in examining the bottom of the cave carefully, and although he found two pieces of timber jammed between large boulders, there was no other sign of wreckage, and no sign of any gold. If the gold had been in the form of dust it would probably have been washed out to sea, but Catling was sure it had been in bars, which would not easily have been shifted. The water was 30 ft. deep at the mouth of the cave, and 21 ft. deep at the inner end. The roof was about 60 ft. high, and he estimated that the cave ran about 600 ft. into the cliffs. The cave narrowed towards the centre and then opened out into a large dome-shaped chamber which was both higher and wider than the rest of the cave. At the inner end there was a steep boulder beach. Catling was positive that it was the right cave, as there was no other one that resembled it, and he considered that a ship the size of the General Grant could have entered it quite easily. He spent two days examining the floor of the cave, but it was quite bare.page 142
It was a bitter disappointment to Catling to realize that all his careful planning had been in vain, and he returned to Dunedin on 9th July 1916, fully convinced that the gold had been obtained by a prior expedition. He expressed the opinion that the treasure had in all probability been lifted by the men from the Daphne, and when they were drowned the gold went with them. He thought it unlikely that anyone else had got it, as the news would have leaked out sooner or later.
So ended a very courageous and well-planned salvage attempt, with a result that would seem to give fairly conclusive evidence that any further expeditions would be futile. However, it seems possible that yet another attempt may be made to locate the elusive treasure. A cable message from Brisbane, Australia, dated 13th June 1950, indicates that Mr. H. Marfleet hopes to recover about £500,000 worth of gold from the wreck of the General Grant. At that time Mr. Marfleet was working as a member of a salvage crew of Moreton Island, and he was studying modern techniques with a view to employing them at the Auckland Islands. Mr. Marfleet stated that he was in possession of notes written by William Sanguilly, who was a survivor of the wreck. Sanguilly was in charge of the cargo, and acting under instructions from the master of the ship he had marked a consignment of gold as spelter, with the object of deceiving possible pirates who were believed to be among the passengers and crew. At the time of writing this chapter there has been no further report of Marfleet's activities.
It will be readily understood that we scanned the line of cliffs with the keenest of interest, although our course from Bristow Point to Disappointment Island took us fairly well off-shore. It would seem probable that the General Grant cave is located about or just south of the Beehive Rocks.