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Wrecked on a Reef

Raynal's book

Raynal's book

Wrecked on a Reef; or, Twenty Months Among the Auckland Isles is the translation into English of Les Naufrages, ou Vingt mois sur un recif des lies Auckland, published in Paris in 1870 by Hachette & Co, with thirty-nine woodcuts by Alphonse de Neuville and one woodcut showing the 'Sea-lion family' drawn by Mesnel. The English translation came out in 1874 (Thomas Nelson & Sons Publishers, London) and was often reprinted until the end of the 19th century. We decided to reproduce a copy of the 1880 edition, which was in a better condition that the earlier edition, and had the advantage of a handsome cover displaying a medallion reproduction of engraving No 17 of chapter VIII, which illustrates the sentence: "I fired two barrels at the cormorants, and brought down six-and-twenty."

The English edition does not contain the writer's prefatory dedication to his mother, nor his appeal to the reader's indulgence, but there are no important cuts in the text, only occasional omissions of a date before a journal entry.

The first version of Les Naufrages appeared in three instalments in the travel magazine Le Tour du Monde in July 1869, with illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville, specifying that they had been "drawn from sketches by the writer." The magazine version, which has not been translated into English, is much shorter though not basically different from the book. There are no chapter headings and only seventeen divisions instead of the twenty-three chapters of the book. It seems that the travel magazine wanted to preserve the direct impact of the story, cutting out any paragraph that might have detracted from the dramatic events. There is no introduction about the writer and his life before the adventure in the Auckland Islands. The first sentence of the narrative starts with "It was in 1863. I was in Australia…," as it does in chapter I of the book. Similarly, the end of the adventure is summarised rather briskly.

In the book, Raynal developed the various episodes of the ordeal, describing with greater physical detail the strenuous activities of the castaways. He explains more fully how he directed their efforts to salvage whatever they could use from the Grafton, how their cottage was built, how he solved the problems of making walls, roof, chimney and flooring.8 More details are given about making soap, tanning sealskins, making shoes and clothing, and finally how they transformed their dinghy into a sailing ship. This involved building a smithy, making bellows, tools and nails one by one. However, the narrative is never just a book of do-it-yourself recipes for would-be castaways, for we are made to follow problem solving step by step and we become involved in the ingenuity of the writer.

The desire to gather and pass on information on the islands is a feature of both Raynal's book and Captain Musgrave's Journal, A narrative of the wreck of the Grafton on the Auckland Island. Once the needs for shelter and food were catered for they explored their surroundings and made regular observations on the climate, birds, seals and plants. Raynal felt that the time page 235in the Aucklands should not be just a personal adventure; it should prove profitable to science.9 "We made it part of our duty, therefore, to take advantage of the fine weather for some solar and lunar observations, so as to define as exactly as possible the geographical position of the group…. The chart of Port Carnley which we had undertaken to lay down we carefully continued, and nearly completed."

Comparing their observations with the charts available at the time, they realised that those were inaccurate: "The Auckland group lies fifty miles more to the west than is shown by Laurie10 in his chart published in 1853, and the books Epitome of Navigation, by Norie11 and Pilot of the Pacific Ocean by Findlay."12

After their return to civilisation they were eager to denounce the consequences those faulty charts would have for shipping, especially after Captain Musgrave returned to fetch the last two sailors in Carnley Harbour. The discovery of the corpse of a dead sailor in Port Ross prompted him to alert the authorities on his return to Melbourne, so that a general exploration of the southern islands would be mounted to search for other castaways. His plea was heard and in October 1865, under the command of Captain Norman, the Victoria visited New Zealand's subantarctic islands in search of castaways. Captain Musgrave was on board as a cabin passenger and helped as pilot.

By the time Raynal's book was published, four years after their adventure, there had been two confirmed shipwrecks in the Auckland Islands. The cargo boat Invercauld wrecked only five months after the Grafton in 1864 — the corpse found by Musgrave was that of the second mate of the Invercauld. The General Grant wrecked in May 1866 — only six months after the Victoria's search for castaways — and was reported in the Illustrated London News.13 Good enough reasons for Raynal to include them in the two appendices following his narrative.

There are other elements in the book which transform it into a work of literature in its own right. Its length gives the writer scope to comment on the story by adding welcome paragraphs of personal reflection on the events. While Musgrave kept an occasional diary14 it was Raynal's duty as mate of the Grafton to keep the official log where meteorological and other observations were recorded: "Every night before going to bed … I also gave a brief summary of our adventures and actions; and sometimes I allowed myself to note my personal impressions" (chapter VIII).

From the outset, in spite of his weak physical condition, Raynal showed his willingness to share in domestic activities besides planning the building of the cottage. When they moved into Epigwaitt his conciliatory attitude did much to ensure the smooth running of the household. A hint of the men's reluctance to obey orders can be found in Musgrave's diary for 7 February 1864: "I find there is somewhat of a spirit of obstinacy and independence creeping in amongst the men. It is true I no longer hold any command over them, but I share everything that has been saved from the wreck in common with them, and I have worked as hard as any of them in trying to make them comfortable, and I think that gratitude ought to prompt them to still continue willing and obedient … They page 236have not as yet objected to do anything that I have told them to do, but they did it in that manner which says plainly, why don't you do it yourself?"

An entry a week later shows Raynal's influence on the group. Musgrave's diary, 14 February 1864:

Since we came into the house we have arranged that one man shall cook for a week, and that they will take it in turns; and as Mr. Raynal wished to take his turn with the rest, I did not object to his doing so. He was cook last week (they change on Sunday nights), and an excellent cook he is; he has set the others a good example for cleanliness and good cooking…

If we read Raynal's account of the same incident we have a measure of his influence on the organisation of the household. His competence in practical and technical matters, displayed throughout their stay in Carnley Harbour, must have impressed the men. Similarly, his willingness to help with teaching the three illiterate sailors, providing games to occupy the long winter evenings and reading in common from the Bible, underline his contribution to the atmosphere of the household. We may conclude that when Musgrave uses "we" he should often have said: "Raynal and I."

Musgrave had more reason than any of the other castaways to be frustrated with their exile. His impatience and occasional short temper, noted several times by Raynal, were brought on by his anxiety for his wife and family. Musgrave's agony is a recurring note in his diary; he feels guilty for having undertaken the trip, guilty of surviving in limited comfort at Epigwaitt while his family may be lacking food and support altogether. Musgrave finds some relief in jotting down his concerns and explains that his best way of fighting the pain of separation is to go for long exploratory walks around Carnley Harbour. While physical exertion helps to combat depressive moods, making precise observations on climate, geography, flora and fauna, gives him a sense of purpose. Both Musgrave and Raynal hoped that others might one day benefit from their observations. They even planned to bury their notes and journals for safekeeping, if they ever felt that the end was near.

While impatience and despondency are frequently mentioned in Musgrave's account, they are played down in Raynal's. Nostalgia for past Christmases with his family in France appears once in chapter XVIII, on Xmas day 1864. It is presented as a determining factor in the decision to leave the island by building a boat instead of waiting for an elusive rescue.

We may never be able to fully compare Raynal's personal diary, the logbook he kept as mate of the Grafton, with the printed texts we have, for unfortunately these documents have disappeared.

Raynal's narrative differs from Musgrave's inasmuch as it has a special claim to being a work of literature. The power of memory to recreate events and places is constantly at work, underlining the difference between diary jottings and terse logbook entries and a narrative intended for a reader totally unfamiliar with the experience of survival on a subantarctic island. Raynal follows chronological order in his retelling, but lingers on chosen moments so that the reader may share in the atmosphere of the story and in the significance of chosen incidents.

page 237

Take his evocation of the furious equinoctial tides at the beginning of chapter XI, and the first snowfall around Epigwaitt in chapter XIII, faithfully rendered by the translation:

May 23rd: An extraordinary calm broods over sea and land. The surface of the bay is scarcely rippled by the almost imperceptible breath of the hushed wind. The emerald crests of the waves have ceased to move to and fro, and no longer wear their white crowns of foam. The sea, smooth as a mirror, reflects every surrounding object — the cliffs and the trees of the coast, as well as the mountains shrouded in their white panoply, which appear, through an optical delusion, not above one-half their usual altitude.

At the end of the same chapter we delight in his evocation of the Aurora Australis:

"It was a southern aurora in all its pomp of splendour. The cold was intense; the breeze had ceased to blow … The stars paled before the sheaves of fire of different colours which rose from the horizon, and sprang towards the zenith, swift as lightning, but succeeding one another without intermission…"

There are more passages where the writer evokes the beauty of the wilderness. He conveys the lonely grandeur of the land while remaining strictly precise in his descriptions. Those who have visited the western arm of Carnley Harbour can vouch for the accuracy of his description of Victoria Passage in chapter VII:

It was a scene worthy of Salvator Rosa's brush. Let the reader figure to himself a kind of ravine, about five hundred yards wide and three thousand long, pent up between two cliffs as perpendicular as walls, and from eight hundred to twelve hundred feet in height. The base of these immense rocks was hollowed with numerous caverns, into whose depths the waves plunged with hoarse wild murmurs, which, repeated in all directions, prolonged them-selves indefinitely … The west wind dashes violently into it, and finally breaks upon a little isle, which … divides it again into two small very dangerous creeks.

In contrast to the overwhelming grandeur of the island landscapes, he remembers the comfort of returning to Epigwaitt after a day's hunting for seals in chapter XV:

We opened the door; we crossed the threshold: what an enticing spectacle was presented to our gaze! What a contrast with the scene we had just left! Outside, night and intense cold, and a whistling, biting wind; inside, light and warmth. A huge fire crackled and flamed upon the hearth; a warm atmo-sphere surrounded and penetrated us; all the lighted lamps filled the interior with a joyous brightness.

There is a wonderful appreciation of the birds and their songs in Chapter VI, and the delightful episode of Harry's caging of 'parroquets' in chapter XI. A superficial critic dismissed these passages and the book altogether as "an alternative and a highly romanticised version of the shipwreck published in Paris under the name of Musgrave's French mate, M Frederic Raynal,"15 yet page 238Wrecked on a Reef stands apart from usual shipwreck stories as an exceptional work of literature. The fact that Raynal's first name Frangois is misquoted as Frederic may point to a rather hasty perusal of his book.

Raynal's book was extremely popular until World War I. It was translated into Italian and German in 1871, into English in 1874 and into Norwegian in 1879, and was often reprinted. In France it joined the ranks of edifying end-of-year school prizes, and Hachette & Co published it in their collections intended for families.

The maxim that "Style is the man himself is true in the case of Raynal, and gives a clue to the success of his book. The manner of telling his unique adventure reveals a balanced and sensitive personality, unlikely to change. The testimony of those he worked with after his return to France includes an appreciation by the president of the 'Commission des Contributions Directes' dated 7 December 1886 which summarises previous testimonials and the impression his readers may have formed:

M Raynal … intelligent, educated, active and hard-working, writes well, shows courtesy and good manners. He shows a great concern for his work and a devotion to duty which cannot be praised enough…