I like to learn new things from history and Joan Druett’s The Elephant Voyage revealed the fascinating story of one sealing ship and the fates of it’s crew in a narrative that was educational from start to finish. There are two sections to the book, firstly an account of the voyage where some of the crew find themselves abandoned on a desolate, wind-swept island in the Southern Ocean, while hunting for elephant seals in the 1880’s, and secondly the public outcry and political ramifications in New Zealand of their rescue.
Captain Sanford Miner outfitted the schooner Sarah W. Hunt and recruited an inexperienced crew. After getting to Macquarie Island, a tiny island between Tasmania and Antarctica, they find the beaches devoid of seals and go on to Campbell Island, another rocky outcrop in the Southern Ocean, where the captain sends the mates and crew off in two whale boats to search for seals. Blown out to sea in a storm one boat barely manages to get back to shore after several days only to find the ship gone.
The captain, deciding the crew was lost, had sailed to New Zealand assisted only by the cook. For the reader the Captain is now the villain of the piece but you have to admire the feat of seamanship in getting safely to port. His arrival leads to calls for a rescue mission to search for survivors which starts the political wrangling. The crew are rescued but the consequences are surprising as the courts, politicians, the press and the US consul are all drawn into the story.
This book was interesting, not just for the story outlined above, but for it’s insights into both life in New Zealand at this time and also the establishment by them of huts and stores on the various remote islands for the use of castaways and what can be regarded as an early move towards modern search and rescue.