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Islands of Despair

Four — The Wreck of the Derry Castle

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The Wreck of the Derry Castle

We had undertaken that before leaving Enderby Island we would erect a memorial tablet at the burial place of seamen lost in the wreck of the Derry Castle. This tablet had previously been carved and painted, and on Monday 28th Les and I made the journey to the scene of the wreck on the extreme northern point of the island.

On 12th March 1887 the iron barque Derry Castle, commanded by Captain Golfe, left Geelong for Falmouth with a cargo of wheat, and for 192 days she was not heard of. It happened that on the early morning of 20th March the barque was making about twelve knots with all sail set and a fair wind. It was the chief officer's watch. The night was hazy with an overcast sky. About 2 a.m., without any warning whatever, the vessel ran on to a partially submerged reef. Her impetus carried her almost over the rocks, so that the bow dropped into deeper water while the stern remained on the reef. The ship listed to starboard and immediately began to break up in the heavy seas. All hands mustered at the stern, but the boats were smashed and only life-belts were available. The ship then broke in two amidships and the men either jumped into the sea or were washed overboard. Despite the fact that the shore was visible only 200 yards away only eight of the twenty-three men managed to reach land, and the captain and both mates were lost. It is reported that when daylight came the castaways saw the sailmaker, who had climbed the mizzen-mast of the page 40ship and had clung to it all night, leap into the sea and swim towards the shore. Possibly due to his being stiff and numbed by the cold he did not succeed in reaching land, and his shipmates had to watch him being swept out to sea.

The survivors, finding themselves on a bleak and inhospitable shore, set about searching for shell-fish, and amongst the kelp they found the bodies of the captain, the chief officer and an able seaman. They had been badly battered in the surf. The eyes and other parts had already been eaten by skua gulls, so that the bodies were hardly recognizable. After removing the clothing for the use of the survivors the three men were buried in a grave dug with a knife.

Meanwhile the castaways had found that shell-fish were very scarce, and as they had no matches they were in a serious position. Fortunately there were no cliffs at the point where the ship had struck—in fact the vessel need only have been a hundred yards further to the north and the tragedy would not have occurred—so the men were able to set about exploring the island. Their jubilation can be imagined when they found a tiny hut, but they were bitterly disappointed to find that it contained no food apart from a bottle of salt.

This hut, as will be seen later in this book, was erected by the castaways of another wrecked ship, the Invercauld. Although it is not now easily found, the hut is still in existence, and was seen by members of the survey party.

From Enderby Island the unfortunate men could see the provision depot at Erebus Cove, but without a boat they were quite unable to do anything about it. Certainly there was plenty of timber available from the remains of the Derry Castle, but the men were without tools of any kind.

During the first week the castaways lived very poorly, as the only food that had washed ashore was two tins of herrings, a pumpkin, and some wheat which soon became mouldy and started to sprout. They attemped to eat seal-meat, but found they could not stomach the raw flesh. They were unable to page 41find birds' eggs, although they did eat one shag. Their diet therefore consisted mainly of shell-fish, and under these conditions the men soon wasted away. For bedding they had two blankets and a number of bags, while they were forced to use seal-skin fastened with rope-yarn for footwear.

Naturally the castaways were desperate to make a fire, both for warmth and to enable them to cook the wheat while it was still usable. One man had a revolver cartridge in his pocket, and it was decided to try to use it to start a fire. The bullet was removed and replaced by a piece of cotton which had been thoroughly dried by wearing next to the skin. The cartridge was then wedged in a piece of wood and detonated by striking it with a sharp stone. The flash caused the cotton to smoulder, and it was gently fanned to a flame. Having got the fire going a roster of fire-watchers was drawn up to ensure that it was never allowed to go out. The men toasted the wheat over the fire, and then crushed it and ate it mixed with hot water.

After about a month two more bodies were washed ashore. The survivors thought they could identify one of them, but the other body had been reduced almost to a skeleton by the skuas. These remains were buried with the others, and an effort was made to erect a monument on the spot. The ship's wheel was placed at the captain's head, and at the other end of the plot a life-belt was set up on a post.

During the following weeks the men gazed long and often at the provision depot across the cove, even though some of them were not sure that it was not just a rock that they could see. After a period of ninety-two days on the island they found an old axe-head half buried near the hut, and realized that at last they might be able to construct a boat. They carried timber over from the wreck, and fashioned it into a rectangular boat six feet long by two feet six inches wide. The seams were caulked with rope-yarn pushed into place with a piece of hoop-iron they had found near the axe.

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The boat was launched and with Sullivan and Rennie aboard it left for Erebus Cove. During the absence of these two men a ship was sighted entering Port Ross, and the remaining six men hurriedly piled fuel on to their fire to make plenty of smoke. However, their consternation can be imagined when the ship immediately put about and left. The men conjectured that she must have been a seal-poacher, and that the captain thought that the men had been left there to keep a watch for poachers.

On the third day after the departure of the boat smoke was seen rising near the provision depot. They then knew that their companions had reached their objective. Shortly afterwards the two men returned with plenty of food and clothing. The whole party then transferred to Erebus Cove. They had to use their improvised boat for the job, as although there was a boat at the depot it was unfit for use. As will be mentioned later in this book, this provision depot was erected and maintained by the New Zealand Government for the use of castaway seamen.

The company now had adequate supplies of all necessities, and was in reasonably good health, although some of the men were suffering from exposure. They were very concerned as to when the Government vessel Stella would arrive on her routine visit, and on 19th July they were greatly excited when after dark they heard the rattle of an anchor chain. They hailed the ship unsuccessfully. As it was too boisterous for them to go out in their boat it was not until the next morning that they found that the visitor was the sealing vessel Awarua commanded by Captain Drew. The ship had called to pick up a dinghy which had been left there on a previous occasion.

Captain Drew took the castaways aboard and transported them to Melbourne. It is understood that the Awarua had a very bad passage and was nearly lost. Actually the men would have had a very long wait for the Stella, as she had visited the depot only a day or two before the Derry Castle was wrecked.

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The scene of the wreck was later visited by Captain Fairchild of the Stella. He found the figurehead of the barque, and erected it beside the lonely grave. Other relics of the wreck were found at the provision depot at Erebus Cove, including a slate on the mantelpiece inscribed as follows:

"Sacred to the memory of the Captain, first and second officers, and twelve of the crew who lost their lives by the wreck of the Derry Castle on the north side of Enderby Island, March 20, 1887."

The writing appeared to have been done with a piece of burnt shell. On this visit Captain Fairchild erected a boatshed and left a boat on Enderby Island, and also erected finger-posts indicating the location of the provision depot. He reported finding a number of huts, constructed of tussock and fastened with thongs of seal-skin, which had been used by the castaways.

The figurehead of the Derry Castle has now been taken to New Zealand, and the memorial board that Les and I took to the scene of the wreck was intended to be a substitute. The Derry Castle reef was easily found, and we soon located the grave, which is on a low bluff and is surrounded by a circle of stones.

There is still a fair amount of wreckage in the vicinity although the timber is now useless, due to the effects of over half a century of exposure to the elements. There is an occasional unexpected relic to be found, too, as one of us discovered when he realized that the white object he had kicked on the beach was a human skull.

At this juncture it should be mentioned that a further wreck occurred on Enderby Island a few years later. In 1895 Captain Fairchild reported finding the wreckage of an iron ship on the north-eastern coast. The rocks were strewn with wreckage and also with a large quantity of Australian wool. There was no sign of there having been any survivors. It was page 44at first suspected that the vessel was the barque Stoneleigh, which was missing en route from Melbourne to London, but it was later considered to be more likely to be the French barque Marie Alice bound from. Sydney to Antwerp. Neither ship was ever heard of again.