Castaways: A History of Abandonment at Sea

July 2023

An episode that revels in the extraordinary mix of adventure, horror, myth and fact that makes maritime history the BEST type of history! – We’re finding out about the history of castaways: of people set adrift on open boats, marooned by accident or even on purpose on isolated islands. This is the history of being abandoned; of being adrift; of being alone. Many never came back and are lost to history, a tiny dot vanishing on the horizon of the past, never to be seen again. Others did make it back to tell their story. This means that historians have been able to study castaways and their experiences and what a history it is…to find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with maritime historian Graham Faiella, author of ‘Castaways: Adrift and Abandoned‘.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the society for nautical research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast, dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast and today we bring you an episode that revels in the extraordinary mix of adventure, horror, myth, and fact that makes maritime history the best type of history! We’re finding out about the history of castaways of people set adrift on open boats marooned by accident or even on purpose. This is the history of being abandoned, of being adrift, of being alone. Many never came back and are lost to history, a tiny dot vanishing on the horizon of the past, never to be seen again, while others did come back and they told their story. This means that historians have been able to study castaways and their experiences and what a history it is. To find out more I spoke with maritime historian Graham Faiella, who has spoken with us before on the history of the Mary Celeste and what a fine episode that was. So please check it out is one of our most popular. Luckily for him, Graham was safe at home when we recorded this podcast and so comfy, warm, fed, healthy clothed and sane. Here is Graham!

     

    Sam Willis 

    Graham, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Thanks very much, Sam, for your invitation.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Right castaways? What? The more you think about castaways, the more complicated they are and the more different types of castaways you can identify, why don’t you tell me a bit more generally about a castaway?

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Well castaways come in different colours, shapes, haircuts and lifestyles and whatever’s genders. What we usually think of as castaways are castaways from ships or other vessels that have had drastic catastrophe at sea, or some major collision with a coastline and island a shipwreck in other words. Once that vessel has been, basically is no longer a platform of security, then the people from it are crossing a line or have to cross this line of great security into one of no security at all.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s just talk about that. So I mean, the ship itself, it’s got food, it’s got other people, it’s got safety from the elements and governance, there’s a system on board isn’t there to kind of maintain security and safety?

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Yes, it has a population, it has all of those things. And I haven’t thought about it quite a bit. Think that in light of the castaways predicament is that the governance of their small community is paramount because they need to have someone at the head of the pack, the leader who sustains the hope of rescue survival, and so on. Yeah, notwithstanding the fact that most of them are Castaway in small boats or rafts, with no provisions or very scant provisions at all. And very, you know, more dangerously, no fresh water.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I think it’s interesting that you can have castaways who have found themselves on a raft, as you mentioned, or an open boat. There are plenty examples of those. And then you’ve got castaways who find themselves on a remote stretch of mainland others find themselves on islands. It’s the the different way that you can experience being a castaway that I think is fascinating.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Yes, and they for the most part the least, I would say, the least perilous form of ‘castaway-ship’, if you’d like, is being on a, say a desert island or a deserted island. Because there are always resources there that will sustain you – vegetation. In some parts of the world like the small islands in the Southern Ocean, for example, south of New Zealand and Australia, the Auckland Islands and the Antipodes Islands were a number of shipwrecks happened that were famous for how long the survivors spent and were able to resource sustenance to keep them going for in some cases over a year. And in one case in the Auckland islands, there was a shipwrecked party of survivors there at one end of the island. And it was so rugged and inhospitable that they weren’t aware at all of the presence of survivors from another shipwreck there at the other end of the island. The one I think were, they were there for 18 months or so and they survived the others less so. But they all managed and what they had, and what the leader of them had to get out of them was the resourcefulness to sustain themselves with whatever means of subsistence they had. In those areas of the world it was often walruses, seals, mammals, and seabirds, including seabirds eggs in particular, but very little in the way of plant life – except for rough, tussock grasses and things like that. But in other parts of the world on islands, I’ll give you an example of one of those was at the end of the chain of the Hawaiian Islands were some islands near what was called his French Frigate Shoals, Midway Island, and Ocean Island, which is at the very far end of the Hawaiian Islands chain. There are several shipwrecks there of motor ships, actually, you know, not sailing ships. And they stayed on the, on the island. And there were 60 or 70 people from one of the shipwrecks, and they were perfectly well sustained by the albatross eggs and albatrosses themselves, but not from the provisions leftover from the ship. So the weather was relatively benign rainfall and that sort of thing. Whereas in other parts of the world, you don’t get much rainfall, you certainly don’t get very benign weather, especially in the Southern Ocean. And around the Crow’s Bay islands, I’m thinking of, for example, but most interestingly, and most dramatically, were the islands of south of New Zealand and Australia, as I said, some very famous and infamous shipwrecks there.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Not only that, but they were parts of the world, where the oceans are so extensive that you could have a lot of shipping going by, but they are on shipping routes. So they if a ship or even as a string of ships, goes within 20 miles of where you happen to be, you know, lying on some atoll in the middle of the Pacific, nobody would see you nobody would know you were there. Remember, this is all happening before there was any substantive means of communication. Because we get castaways these days, I mean castaways of from yachts, that have sunk and whatever. But we also have IPRB emergency beacons and all sorts of other means of communication. In those days, you have to remember there’s absolutely no means of communication whatsoever, apart from a distress signal, which might happen to be seen by someone but by a very small chance. So when they were wrecked on islands in the Pacific, although there was a lot of, of trading and trading vessels going around the Pacific. And by the way, it is mainly around the Pacific that you and the Indian Ocean, Southern Indian Ocean, that you get these sort of events of castaways getting shipwrecked or adrift for example. In the Atlantic It was mostly of collisions leaving ships sunk and the survivors in small boats. And one of those, actually, that I wanted to tell you about, which was very interesting from a number of points of view did happen in the Atlantic, which was the sinking of the yacht Mignonette in 1884. And this was interesting for one very big reason and another sort of coincidental reasons. Now the yacht, Mignonette, which was a small 19 tonne, about 35/40 foot boat was being taken to Australia, or ordered to be taken to Australia by its owner under a crew of four people. The captain, Dudley, first mate, Stevens maybe just a seaman, Brooks, and a 19 year old cabin boy by the name of Richard Parker. When they left Southampton to go to Sydney in May 1884. Stoped at Madeira on the way and by early July of 1884, they were in the mid Atlantic roughly halfway between Africa and South America. Taken over by a severe storm, the ship was knocked about, it sunk, the four of them got into a small boat, and they were adrift with two one-pound-tins of turnips in their boat, and that was it. No water, no such thing. Oh, no. Anyway, so they’re adrift and they’re right in the middle. There’s no they weren’t in the in the shipping lanes at all. Anyway, they had their two pounds of turnips. After the fourth day of adrift they caught a small turtle, which sustained them for a few days. But then after about three weeks or so. By the way, the boat was 13 feet long.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    The whole story of castaways is also linked with trade, isn’t it? I think this is interesting. So you have people who maybe have a shipwreck, and the whole point is that they end up drifting to a part of the ocean, which is not regularly past by shipping. So even in the kind of the, you know, the mid 19th century, you’re getting people who are ‘cast away’, even though there is quite intense global trade going on. So there were still parts of the world which are which are not regularly visited.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s not much is it.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    And they were ailing anyway, after about three, almost three weeks, it was decided between Captain Dudley and first made Stevens but not Brooks, Brooks had no part of it, that they would have to kill the cabin boy Parker who was about sources say 17/18 But I think he was 19 years old. Anyway, they were in the last stages. So they, between the two of them decided Parker’s got to go to sustain us. So unless a ship appeared within 24 hours, no ship did appear. Dudley approached Parker who was lying in the bows of the boat and said, Parker, your time has come, or words to that effect, took out his penknife and Parker didn’t have much to say except for ‘who me sir?’ Anyway, he took out his pen knife stuck him in the jugular, drank their blood opened up the body ate the heart and the liver and bits of the body over the next four days before a ship came on the scene. The bark, Montezuma Moctezuma German bark was headed from the West Coast of South America I think, to Falmouth, they found the three of them now because the Parker was no more or he had become subsumed into the two because I don’t think Brookside any part of it. But anyway, they took them on board they took them back to they took them to Falmouth, where they arrive early September of that year, sixth of September. In the meantime, Dudley and Stevens but mostly Dudley had written an account of the incident he had no compunctions of doing so because he had no expectation that it was wrong or illegal or anything to kill someone in order for them to survive. So they had no thoughts that that would be used against him in any sort of trial or arrest or whatever. However, he wasn’t arrested, so was Stephens, and tried for the murder of the boy Parker. And he was found guilty. There was a huge amount of sympathy for the the two of them because of their situation it was a life and death or life or death situation. But the benchmark case of English law decided that necessity for survival is not a justification for murder, even in those extreme circumstances on the high seas, without the boundaries of the territory in which they were being tried and convicted, ie England. So they were convicted, they handed down the mandatory death penalty. But that was commuted by Queen Victoria to six months in prison. A lot had to do with the fact that there was so much public sympathy for them. Anyway, they were out within six months and got on with their life. And that was it. But it was a very interesting legal case, because it was a very interesting moral predicament for them. And to tell you the truth, it was nowhere near unique that people, castaways, ate the bodies of other shipmates or comrades, or companions, in small boats, or in other similar circumstances. What was somewhat unusual was that they actually drew they killed a person in order for that to happen.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I wonder if it was unusual that they killed the youngest person?

     

    Graham Faiella 

    I think he was certainly the most susceptible.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    He wouldn’t have put up a fight. He was a young guy. And he was he was pretty, you know, he was they were all in a very emaciated and and weakened condition. That was almost certainly the case. He wouldn’t have objected. Also, because Dudley was the captain, Stevens was the first mate. It was a sense of the pecking order there – who’s going to get the biggest peck when it came down to it, you know, and Parker was the boy.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? I thought what you mentioned there about public sympathy is interesting. So there’s a lot of this in the press, isn’t it? It’s covered in the press the the inquiry, which I believe is at Falmouth, as well. And it made me sort of think about, as you said, it wasn’t a strange occurrence and being ‘cast away’ was not an unusual occurrence, as well. And it made me wonder whether, as a society we had more understanding, more sympathy of, you know, the difficulties of being at sea, we were kind of more attuned to the likelihood of this happening.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Well, I can tell you one thing, we certainly had more sympathy, more attunement with the sea itself. And with the mariners life, lifestyle, as it were, we don’t today because we don’t have that connection. But in those days, in those years, there was a great connection, because that was the modus operandi of international of international trade, not least because we the British actually had a merchant, Merchant Marine Merchant Navy. The fact is that there had been, I wouldn’t say numerous but certainly, quite a few other cases, where people had been, castaways had been cannibalised at sea, after they had died. And their companions who were barely at the edge of existence, had basically eaten bits of their flesh to stay alive. And the only reason we know about this is because they did stay alive. And we can only guess at the number of incidents where you know, they didn’t. But there were basically it was not an unknown thing. But I think also this public sympathy came from the fact that the experience of castaways and shipwrecked mariners was something that occurred at regular intervals anyway, you know, it was, it was reported in the press, we just don’t have that sort of thing. Because life at sea today is far far more safe and secure than it ever was in the 19th century and before that, but a lot of these things were never found out about until and unless they survived for one thing. But it would have been months afterwards.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The Mignonette example is fascinating, and it’s from 1880. But it makes me think that even by then people have been familiar with stories of people being adrift in open boats for a very long time. And I’m thinking particularly here with a Mutiny on the Bounty, so the 1780s and Bly and that’s that’s an extraordinary story as well, isn’t it with with people being adrift in open boats?

     

    Graham Faiella 

    It’s a very it’s an extraordinary but also multifaceted story. It takes in so many dimensions because Fletcher Christian, who was first mate on the Bounty, organised a mutiny against what he and his mutineers perceived as being cruel and unusual punishment by Captain Bligh, in the Royal Navy, when probably it was not particularly cruel and unusual. It may have been hard, and it definitely was hard. But whether it was cruel and unfair, is a different matter altogether. But in that case, Fletcher Christian, just put Bly and 18 or so other Bounty men, crew members, into a small boat, 19 foot long. And that was a really extraordinary small boat voyage in itself, they were forcibly ‘cast away’, chucked a few bags of hard tack bread, and then said, you know, find your own way to wherever you’re gonna go. And he did it under sail in a small boat in 40 days, and if you look from where he was ‘cast away’ off the island of Tofua in the middle of the Pacific, near the Tonga islands, all the way to Timor and if you think that’s Indonesia now, going up, landing on the Northeast Australian coast, through the Tory straits, and to Timor where there was a Dutch settlement that he understood would be, you know, the best, the best destination for them, and he reached it in 40 days, which and he only had about two or three inches of freeboard on that little, you know, the boat to go all that distance and it wasn’t all plain sailing either. But he lost, not a single person on that voyage. The other interesting aspect was that the Bounty mutineers themselves and Fletcher Christian went back to Tahiti. They had a cohort of Tahitian men and women and Fletcher Christians, and with some of the other Englishmen, we’ve got to find a place to go and hide out because basically, they’re going to come and get us because it was mutiny in the Royal Navy. So they said, look, we’ve got to find this, the most remote spot we can find as a hideaway. And eventually they decided on Pitcairn Island, which was 1200 miles or so. South East of Tahiti where they were, they arrived there, set up a settlement, they burned the bounty at the bottom of the cliffs there on Bounty Bay and that basically, they cast themselves away on Pitcairn Island to be safe. Now what was interesting and what I’d just I’d like to go into this a bit as a perhaps as a final thing, is that the Pitcairn islanders at the time they’re about 70 or 80 of them that set up a settlement there by the mid 19 century, i.e 1850s or so, the population of Pitcairn had grown to almost 200. So with the population now, too large to be supported wholly on this small Pitcairn island they all requested on were displaced to Norfolk Island between New Zealand and New Caledonia in 1856, 193 of them. Well, in 1858, two years later, a ship by the name of the Wild Wave sailed from San Francisco. It was wrecked on Elena Island, which is one of the Pitcairn group of islands. And they sailed. They left Elena in a small boat and said, look, we’ve got to find some better place. Elena is completely deserted. It has no fresh water, not even trees, it wouldn’t support life. It’s a wildlife refuge these days. But so they were arrived on the island of Pitcairn in March 1858. In that period, when Pitcairn was completely deserted, there was a small settlement there. There were chickens running around, there were pigs running around there was still corn and plants being, you know, growing but  in that two year period when Pitcairn was deserted these shipwreck castaways from the Wild Wave arrive just when it was completely deserted. So, but anyway, they had the use of a lot of materials there. And Pitcairn is a very fertile place. I’ve been there, and it’s a fantastic, a fantastically fertile place for all sorts of vegetables and sugarcane and coconuts and whatever. But it’s, it’s a very inhospitable for anyone coming across it and landing on it because it’s bounded by cliffs on all sides. It doesn’t have a nice sandy beach or anything like that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Have they embraced their history of being a location for castaways? Or is it a kind of forgotten history?

     

    Graham Faiella 

    It wasn’t really, Pitcairn at that time was simply a group of far flung people of community who shipps stop there mainly to pick up provisions of fresh fruit and vegetables. And they often called at island especially whaling ships, because it was in their track, but a ship sailing from West Coast, North America, San Francisco, Seattle, that track often took them very near Pitcairn as they sailed south west, and then southeast to go around the horn. So they were visited quite often. But so they were known about but there was nothing particularly special in the way we think of them today. You know, they didn’t have press relations, boosting their tourism appeal. In fact, these days. They’re on full throttle for that because the population is only about 50/55. But they do get a lot of cruise ships these days. But in that time, when the Wild Wave castaways, there’s absolutely no one there. So they stayed for four months, as they kept captain Knowles of the ship was built and rigged a small boat for them to go on to the Marquesas Islands, which were in some way towards the northeast and well known as a refuge of positive civilization. In other words, New Coiba, that sort of area, and then about six months after they left in July of 1858. In January 1859, the first small group of Pitcairniers came back from Norfolk Island to repopulate Pitcairn, I think they just wanted to go back home basically. And a small group of family members came back to Pitcairn. God knows what they felt when they saw that their their houses had been slept in and there wood used to make some shipper or whatever I don’t, I think Knowles, left a letter in some sort of document to say that they had been there. But I should think that the Pitcairniers we’re pretty surprised and found someone castaway there in their absence. But I think it was remarkable that in the 230 year existence of settlement of Pitcairn that these castaways arrived right in the period of two years when there was nobody there.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? It made me wonder how you kind of research stories like this was there decent accounts of this in the press or you’re looking at private diaries and journals?

     

    Graham Faiella 

    These days it’s, what I do, is I basically go online. I used to go to the Guildhall library. Look up Lloyds, old Lloyd’s list under the casualty section. And you’d often get a clue as to what happened. And I’d make a note or they had a report. These days, you can go online research old newspapers from the 19th century in particular, put in a word, a search word, like castaways, or as I often do terrible tails of the sea. And then you find something and it’s an opening. And then you prise it open a little bit more and then you prize and you go into something. And there’s one thing, I’ll return to the Mignonette just for a moment to show you what I mean. I didn’t know this when I was looking at the Mignonette as a castaway story. But it was a coincidence that the boy’s name was Richard Parker. In an Edgar Allan Poe’s novella, the narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in 1838, which was almost 40 years before the Mignonette. There were four castaways in the story. There were four castaways in a small boat who drew lots to decide which one should be sacrificed to save the others. It fell to the person, the man who suggested the idea in the first place, who was a sailor by the name of Richard Parker, which was the name of the boy who was killed on the Mignonette. And the other coincidence was in Yun Mattel’s 2001 book ‘The Life of Pi’, where the boy is in the lifeboat with the Bengal tiger. The name of the Bengal tiger was Richard Parker.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I’m not sure if coincidence is the right word. I think the people who wrote both of those books knew very well about the story of the Mignonette.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    You think?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, absolutely. And we should also talk very briefly about the WhaleShip Essex because that’s one of my favourite stories of people being being cast adrift. We’ve had the story of the Mutiny of the Bounty where you’ve got one human making another human a castaway. But this is a very different story, isn’t it? Tell us about the WhaleShip Essex.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    The Essex came out of Nantucket. And I didn’t look it up recently. But I have read so much about it, but you know, dates and things. I think it was in the 1820s. And I think at the back of my mind 1823, when whaling was at its height, or getting towards its height. So the WhaleShip Essex out of Nantucket by Captain Pollard arrived on the what was called the line or the equator of the Pacific. And it was essentially rammed by a whale it sunk, the men got out in three boats. But it, they continued to go southeast, they wanted to reach the coast of South America. Now that was a long way from where they were rammed, and the ship sunk, the Essex was sunk by a whale. But they did there to the boats, arrived, and they were rescued just off the coast of Chile, I think it was, or Peru or Northern Chile, Southern Peru. But the interesting thing, the most interesting thing, and most notable thing about the Essex, sinking of the WhaleShip Essex, is that it was inspiration from Melville’s Moby Dick. It wasn’t, which was published in 1851. So it was quite a long way away. But it wasn’t the only ship sunk by a whale. And those weren’t the only castaways ‘cast away’ by a sunken WhaleShip. But they weren’t the most famous. And from memory, I think there were three boats and only two were rescued, the other was lost at sea never heard of again. But the the there were a lot of interesting things about that. And I think cannibalism played a part in it. But also Captain Pollard, who became, he went back to Nantucket. And in his old age, you know, he was basically a broken old man there who they didn’t give him any monuments or anything. But one of the great nonfiction books of the sea, concern that sinking of the WhaleShip Essex, which is in the heart of the sea, which is a great read, actually, just for the drama. And it was a very, very dramatic incident, because it was retold by the survivors. Pollard but mainly by Nichols, I think is what was one of the crew members. And a lot of these, you know, you ask where do I get these from? A lot of them, the stories are from narratives told by survivors of the shipwrecks or a strandings or collisions and whatever. So they get reported as verbatim narratives of the incidents themselves, and that I find most interesting, because they’re so immediate. You know, you’re right there, when you’re reading these things, you’re there in the presence of the aftermath of whatever incident is being narrated by a survivor of the of the incident of the catastrophe, as it were. I come from a place that was actually began life as a settlement of castaways. The sea venture was taking a shipload of colonists to Jamestown in Virginia 1609 wrecked in a hurricane, a September hurricane, off the northeast coast of Bermuda. It was wrecked, everybody got ashore alive. Bermuda had never been populated beforehand. And that was the beginning of the settlement of Bermuda as a British colony from 1609, of which I am a descendant.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fantastic, what a wonderful claim to fame. I think we should find out a little more about that another day. Graham, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today.

     

    Graham Faiella 

    Sam. Thanks very much.

     

    Sam Willis 

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