Book review: ‘Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,’ by Joan Druett
February 4, 2016
Nothing makes for better reading than an adventure on the high seas. Throw in a good old shipwreck, and the story ramps up quickly. The icing on the cake, of course, is when the story is true. Joan Druett's book "Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World" covers all those bases, and it's a captivating read by any account. Druett, a noted maritime historian, pens her book to read like a narrative nonfiction, which brings immediacy to the powerful survival story that unfolds quickly from the first page onward.
The action opens on the docks in Sydney, Australia, in 1863, at the height of the windjammer era of naval exploration. A pair of adventurers, Captain Thomas Musgrave and first mate, François Raynal, were in search of a ship, one that was sturdy enough to sail 1,500 miles in rough waters but small enough to be managed by a crew of five. The goal was the remote Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean, where the men hoped to make a killing mining the volcanic island's rumored veins of silver-bearing tin.
The many islands scattered south of New Zealand are notorious for their jagged and dangerous shores, so the men planned their ship's sandstone ballast carefully, knowing such a small crew would require all hands in synchronicity if any problems arose. Barely out of port, the men encountered treacherous waters, and storm after storm threatened to break their vessel, The Grafton, apart. Their hopes for Campbell Island proved to be a bust, as the island was a veritable wasteland, so the decision was made to try for a moneymaking load of sealskins from the nearby Auckland Islands before they set their sails for home.
As they neared the rocky coastline, another storm began to build, and Captain Musgrave struggled to find safe harbor among the unfamiliar rocks with an anchor chain that was too short. Darkness arrived, and still the ship was not securely moored, given the intensity of the gale, which raged all night. Prophetically, at midnight, the ship broke free and foundered, sending the men into a lifeboat with minimal provisions to make a dash for land.
Druett capably evokes the mood that the men must have felt, which is that, for all intents and purposes, they had fallen off the bottom of the world. No one knew where they were, as the Auckland Islands had not been their initial destination. Before sailing, they had alerted their loved ones that a search was to be commenced if they did not return in four months, but their ship had wrecked only weeks into their journey.
Druett makes what could have been a dreary and monotonous read — akin to watching paint dry — into an exciting documentation of the day-to-day fight for survival that the men underwent from the moments their sodden feet made land. With winter fast approaching, finding shelter and enough food to sustain life and limb became the daily struggle, as the island was poorly supplied with native flora and fauna, save the seals they had hoped to pack home as riches. Even the seals began to desert them, quickly growing wise to their intentions.
The men spent their days trying to sustain life and hope, keeping their minds fixed on the unlikely possibility of rescue, and Druett uses many primary sourced references from the men's journals and letters to build the narrative, documenting what lengths they had to go to finding food. Seal meat became a staple, but the men knew that to prevent scurvy — the scourge of every sailor — plants would have to be a part of their diet. The islands were windblown and barren, so the struggle to find nutrients became an epic challenge.
What the men did not know was that only months after their ship wrecked on the southern side of the island, another ship suffered a similar fate just off the northern shore, resulting in 19 men struggling to shore with only the clothes on their backs.
This is where the book's pace intensifies, for the author tells the fates of the two groups of men in parallel, which makes for an intriguing study of human nature and the varying effects of deprivation on the human body and spirit. Unlike the smaller initial five survivors, who quickly selected a leader and established a daily routine for survival, the larger, less-cohesive group to the north floundered in disarray and animosity, with fear and suspicion cloaking their efforts from their first moments on shore.
Like a real-life "Lord of the Flies," the second group of men became quickly fractured and prone to violence, and cannibalism became a very real concern. Thankfully for the initial five, the two groups never encountered each other, but the contrast of the survival rates between the two groups makes for fascinating reading. "The Island of the Lost" takes its rightful place among some of the most riveting true-life accounts of survival. Written with clarity and with a scholarly voice, Druett delivers a masterful adventure story that will have the reader cheering when rescue finally arrives.
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