Ross, Westland, New Zealand, July, 16th 1868.

Narative of Crew Member Joseph Jewell in a letter to his father Captain John Jewell, of Clovelly, Devon.

Dear Father and Mother,

"After seeing the account of the wreck of the "General Grant" in the Illustrated London News I thought I would try and write you the real facts of the case. In the first place my wife was not stewardess of the "General Grant," neither was I assisted in the boat by Mr. Tier; and had I not jumped overboard and gone to my wife's assistance, she would not have been with me today. The "General Grant" sailed from Melbourne on the 4th day of May, 1866, with 83 souls on board, bound for London. All went well until the night of the 13th of May. At about 10:30 pm the man on the look-out cried out, 'Land on the port bow.' We were steering east by north at the time with the wind on the port quarter; the land we saw was afterwards proved to be Disappointment Island. The vessel had been running all day before half a gale of wind, and you may imagine what a sea there was running with the wind N.W. When we made the land the helm was put hard to port and the yards squared, and the vessel then ran S.E. for about half-an-hour. It was raining and very dark. The vessel was then brought with her head to the eastward and was steered that way for about twenty minutes when land was seen right ahead. The vessel was then brought to the wind on the port tack, but being a bad sailor and lightly laden, she made more lee than headway against such a heavy sea. When we saw the land it appeared like a cloud right over our heads, and at about half-past twelve at midnight the vessel struck the cliff and carried away the jib-boom. Then she backed astern against the other point which formed a small bay, and carried away the spanker boom, the wheel, and rudder. One man had his ribs broken. The vessel then turned with her head to the east and went into a cave that was about 100 yards from shore.

She struck the second time. When the foremast struck the roof of the cave, it went close to the deck, the main topmast and mizen-top-gallant mast were carried away with it.

Everybody got into the cabin out of the way of the falling spars and large stones which were falling from the roof of the cave. And such a night of horror I think was never experienced by human beings as we passed in the cave for seven long hours. It was so dark that you could not see your fingers before your eyes, and there we were with falling spars and large stones tumbling from the roof of the cave (some of which went through the deck), and so we remained until daylight. The sides of the cave were perpendicular, with the exception of a ledge of rocks that projected under the starboard quarter of the vessel, where she kept bumping heavily during the night, and we were afraid she would sink before morning, and if she had there would not be anyone left to tell the tale.

"And such a night of horror I think was never experienced by human beings, as we passed in that cave for seven long hours"

Picture courtesy of the artist Mike Myers (c) 1978

The greatest order prevailed on board all the time, and at the first peep of the day we commenced to clear away the boats from the wreck. There were three of them laying bottom up on the deck, and about 7 a.m. the first was launched over the stern of the ship; there was a studdingsail boom rigged with a block and whip; to keep the boats from dropping too quick into the water.

Three men then got into her with about 250 fathom of rope and some iron for an anchor. They were to run the line out and drop the anchor for the purpose of hauling the other boats out. While they were doing that I took a survey of the cliff. It was about 600 feet high and overhanging, and I saw it was an impossibility to escape that way.

By this time we got the second boat out with four men and the mate in her. The vessel's main deck was level with the water and the sea making a clean breach over her stern. I then stripped everything off but my shirt and trousers and took the handkerchief from my neck and tied it around my wife's head to keep her hair out of her eyes, got the rope from the end of the studdingsail boom and tied it round her waist and lowered her overboard. Mr. Tier was in the boat and got hold of her, and if it had been possible to have got her into the boat I should have slung some of the other females the same way, but the boat was filling fast with the backwash from the sides of the cave, and it was as much as the men could do to keep her off the rocks. When I saw Tier pulling my wife's clothes off trying to get her into the boat, and could not do it, I jumped overboard and got her in myself. Two others jumped after me and we all succeeded in getting in the boat; there were then nine persons in the boat and she half full of water. We pulled out to the first boat and put five of ours into her and were returning to the ship. When about 100 yards from her we saw the long boat float from off the vessel's stern with about forty persons in her. The boat could not get clear of the backwash from the rocks, and when about 30 yards from the ship she capsized and the vessel sunk at the same time in 18 fathoms of water. We got as close to the long boat as possible, three swarm clear of the breakers and we picked them up; all was over with the others in a minute or two. When we saw they were all gone we began to look for a landing place, but as far as the eye could reach, north or south, nothing could be seen but perpendicular cliffs. We saw Disappointment Island about eight miles to windward, it was then about 8:30 a.m. and blowing very hard; our boats were nearly full of water several times. That day we could not get to the Island, but got a little shelter under some rocks for that night; it was snowing the greater part of the time.

Next day we tried to get round the N.W. point of the main island, but it was blowing hard and a very heavy sea running, so we made for Disappointment Island, which we reached at 12 a.m. In one of the boats we had about fifty tins of soup and bouilli and about fifty ponds of pork. But misfortune still followed us, for in trying to get to land to get some water the boat swamped and we lost it all but nine tins of soup and three pounds of pork. The men got on the rocks and we got hold of their boat with ours and got her off the shore, and after a long while managed to get her bailed out and then backed our own boat as close as we could and threw a rope to the men and got them in their boat again. We were three days in the boats, and wet through all the time, and bitter cold. My wife, through being cramped up so much, did not get the use of her limbs for months afterwards.

On the afternoon of the third day we got into Port Ross, a fine harbour on the east side of the island; it was on the west side that the ship was lost. One of the men had a few matches and one after the other was tried, but all failed until it came to the last one, which happened to strike and a blessing it did or some of us must have perished from the cold before we could have got a fire by friction, for everything on the island was so wet. We got two albatrosses and made some warm soup, and drank it, and it did us all a great deal of good; we had seven tins of soup and bouilli left, which we intended to keep as long as possible.

"We pulled down some branches of the trees to lay on the wet ground for a bed, and thus we passed another miserable, rain and sleet falling all the night. Next morning we gathered limpets and mussels and made warm soup for breakfast. We then went in search of better lodgings, and we found an old hut that had fallen down with the roof on the ground, but it was a covering for the fifteen of us, under which we slept after having another meal of limpets and mussels. The next day was the same. One of the boats went over to Enderby's Island, distant across the bay about three miles. Those that stayed shifted to an old hut that we found standing, rather the worse for wear, while we were repairing it as well as we could with our knives, the only tools we had. The boat returned with three seals, they having found them on Enderby's Island. (The seals are very large; I have seen some that would weigh fifteen hundredweight). And from that time until the day we were taken off the Auckland Isles seal flesh was our chief food; we used to kill them by striking them on the nose with clubs. The fire gave us a great deal of trouble as we could only get small light wood to burn, and had to keep watch that it did not go out, and for the first four months our sufferings were dreadful. The seal flesh gave us all the diarrhea; we used to roast most of our meat, and sometimes we'd boil it in soup and bouilli tins. We found some roots and ate them, but we had no salt; and at night, for a bed, we used to get under some damp grass and try to keep ourselves warm.

"We all thought the Victoria Government had placed some stores on the island, when they sent the "Victoria" steamship to look for shipwrecked persons in October, 1865, so one of the boats start in search, and after remaining away for seven days it returned unsuccessful, and the crew were nearly dead; it was snowing the whole of the time they were away. We then made a sail out of seal skins, and in a week or so six men started in the boat on another expedition, and after a three weeks' search all round the east side of the island the returned, having found Captain Misgrave's hut, who was wrecked there in a schooner in 1864, while sailing in Carnley's harbour, which is about forty miles from Port Ross by the sea coast. The hut was in pretty good repair, and our men also found a bottle with a paper in it that was left by the "Victoria," stating that a few goats had been left there. Another bottle was found at Port Ross with a paper stating that a few goats and rabbits had been left on Enderby's Island. It was a great disappointment for us when we found that nothing else had been left. We had seen seven goats on Enderby's, and those were all there were there.

"The hut we were living in was too small for the fifteen of us, so it was agreed that one half of the men should go and live in Captain Misgrave's hut, and in a few days the boat, with seven men on board, started again for Carnley's harbour. It was arranged before they left that if we got no relief in six months time some of us should try and reach New Zealand in one of the boats. The few clothes we had were wearing out fast and our boots were soon worn quite out; in fact, some had none when they landed.

"In turning over the remains of some old huts on Enderby's old station (I believe he settled in 1848 and left it again in two or three years - all the buildings had fallen down and were overgrown with grass) in hopes of finding something that would be useful to us, when we had time we used to turn them over, and in so doing we found some old files and some flint, so we made tinder, and by that means we could have got a light in the event of our fire getting extinguished; we also found some sheet iron, out of which we made frying pans. We found two small cast iron ovens, and they were most serviceable to us, for by means of boiling the salt water in them we were enabled to get salt and preserve the seals' flesh by salting and smoking it, and I can assure you it was quite a change. We generally made our soup for dinner, and done our frying twice a day. For vegetables we used the stinging nettles. Sometimes we used to get rabbits and boil them, but they were very dry eating, especially without anything else with them. For eighteen months and seven days we never tasted bread, and we only had one potato each during the time. We found some growing wild, but we took the greatest care of them and planted them again in the hopes of their growing, for it was impossible to tell how long we should have to remain on the island. I should say that we killed over one thousand seals for our use while we were on the island, and sometimes we had to go a distance of ten or twelve miles to get them.

"In a few months after we landed all the men but four were sick with swellings in their legs. We wanted soap very much to wash ourselves with, and after some time we found out that by boiling the wood ashes in the water that it was a good substitute. The next thing we wanted was needles to try and keep our rags together, and those we made out of the bones of the albatross. We also made fish hooks out of some nails, and lines out of the New Zealand flax growing there; we caught a great number of fish sometimes. The next thing we wanted was to soften the seal skins to make clothing, for when they are dry they are quite as hard as bullock hide, and we found that by splitting them with a knife that it left the skins soft enough for our use. We got some fur seal skins; those we sewed together and made blankets of, but we were there for eight months before we made all those discoveries.

"On the 6th of October, 1866, we sighted a ship coming from the N.W. Two out of the seven men at Port Ross were very ill at the time, and you can imagine our joy at seeing the ship. It was a very fine day, which is an exception in that part of the world, and we all took a trip to a small island. I left my wife and one of the sick men to light signal fires, while four of us started in chase of the vessel, and we got within two miles of her; then the wind freshened and she passed on without taking any notice either of us in the boat or the fires on shore, and I am sure they must have seen the smoke. It was dark when we got back to the island, weary and disappointed after our hard day's pull. I found my wife careworn and depressed, and the few clothes she had on were torn to pieces while she was gathering bushes and grass to keep the signal fires alight. The ship was a large one, and, I believe, home-ward bound.

"In December the boat came from Carnley's harbour to fit out for New Zealand. We covered her over with seal skins so that nothing but a heavy sea could hurt it. The seals' fullets we blew full of wind and dried them for the purpose of holding water, and with twenty pounds of seal flesh, a few dozen sea fowls' eggs, the seven tins of soup and bouilli that we saved, and a goat with two kids that we caught on Enderby's Island, was all the provisions they had. Without compass or chart, and without even knowing the course they were to steer, the mate with three seamen started out on the 22nd of January, 1867, never to be heard of again in this world, but I hope to meet them in Heaven.

"In December, 1866, we found an axe, which we considered a great blessing, as we were then able to get plenty of firewood, and also to build two good huts on Enderby's Island, so that we had a better look out for passing vessels. We used to keep the look out in turns day and day about (we had piles of wood ready for signal fires), the rest of our time was fully occupied fishing and hunting.

"In October, 1867, David MacCleland, a native of Ayre, in Scotland was taken ill, and died on the 3rd of November, 1867. It was the saddest day we had passed on the island. To see the ten that was left standing round his new dug grave was sad indeed. It was the first death amongst us, and no-one knew whose would be the next; but thank God, that was the first and last.

"That there were pigs on the main island we were aware but up to September, 1867, we only had the good fortune to catch one small one, as they very seldom came on that part where we lived. For the first seven months we had to go a long distance with the boat and launch her up on the rocks, and if any accident had happened to her we would have been separated, or we should have tried to catch some before. The plan we adopted for catching them was with large hooks, made out of some half-inch iron bolts that we found. The hooks were then fastened to a stick about nine feet long, and rope made of flax was made fast to the hook. We then used to get close to the pigs while they were feeding and drive the hook into them. When we got the hook fast we would pull the stick away and hold them with the hook and rope. We caught a good many by that means, and some of the young ones we brought home alive. We built styes for them, and in a short time they got quite tame (the pigs were landed there twenty-six years ago by an American whaler) and in the course of time we should have had plenty of pork and potatoes.

"On the 19th November, 1867, the man on the look-out sighted another sail. We found out afterwards that it was the cutter 'Fanny,' on a sealing voyage, but the weather being foggy they did not see our signal fires. We were away some fifteen miles in the boat looking for seals, and when we returned she was out of sight to the S.E., but they were at Carnley's harbour and saw what we had written on the paper that we found in the bottle, and would have come to Port Ross to look for us.

"On the 21st November, the brig, 'Amhurst,' Captain Gillroy, of Invercarjale, came into Port Ross and rescued us from our miserable condition, and words cannot express the joy we felt when we arrived on the vessel's deck. The captain and crew did everything they could do for us, and I think they were as glad at finding us as we were at seeing them. We stayed on board the "Amhurst" and assisted them to get seals, as we knew the run of the islands, also the habits of the seals. It was late in the season as the seals have their young in December, and at that time of the year are very poor. They only got 8 1/2 tons of oil from about seven hundred seals, but when the seals are fat they will average from six to seven gallons of oil each.

"On the 6th of January, 1868, we bid good-bye to the Auckland Islands, and in four days after we arrived at Bluff Harbour, in Southland, New Zealand, and the kindness we received at the hands of the inhabitants of Bluff and Invercarjale will never be forgotten by us. They soon had us out of our seal skin clothes and supplied us with everything of the best during the eight days we remained there. Mrs. Taylor, the wife of the superintendent of Southland, came down from Invercarjale in a special train and kindly took my wife to her own house to stay with her, and we were sent to a first-class hotel.

"The Southland Government sent the brig, 'Amhurst,' back to the Auckland Islands to make depots of stores in case any others should be so unfortunate as to be cast away there. The vessel also went to Campbell's, Bounty's and the Antipodes Islands to leave provisions and to search for our four men that left in the boat, but returned finding no signs of anyone being on the islands.

"When we arrived in Melbourne the Government could do nothing for us as we were under the American flag. The 'General Grant' having belonged to Boston, United States, and the American Consul said he could do nothing for us as we were all foreigners, and as none of us were fit for work they made a subscription, and we received £ 5 11s. 5d. each. It was not enough to pay for our board, much less clothing that we were in need of - only having the suit that we received in Southland.

"And now I will conclude by saying that the Captain of the 'General Grant' did everything a man and a good seaman could do up to the last, and there was no blame attached to him for the loss of the ship.

Joseph Jewell
One of the survivors of the General Grant

To John Jewell,
Clovelly. Bideford. Devon.