Lives on the edge, Ann Beaglehole

 

This Barren Rock: 1875, A True Tale of Shipwreck and Survival in the Southern Seas 
Sylvie Haisman
HarperCollins, $34.99,
ISBN 9780733325557

 

Why do we find survival stories endlessly thrilling? The book under review – a story of survival after shipwreck – has a strong New Zealand connection. New Zealander Sylvie Haisman writes about her great-great-great grandmother Fanny Wordsworth’s shipwreck and ordeal on a tiny sub-Antarctic island. With 49-year-old Fanny is her only son Charlie (Haisman’s grandfather’s grandfather) aged 23. It is 1875, and the two are migrating from Scotland to New Zealand.

Their doomed ship is the Strathmore, an iron-hulled clipper from Dundee. On her maiden voyage, she foundered on rocks off the Crozet Islands between Antarctica and Madagascar. Half of her passengers and crew were drowned. Among the 49 survivors (in addition to Fanny and Charlie) were: sailor Black Jack; 15-year-old apprentice Harold Turner; and two-and-a-half- year-old Wattie Walker (not related to Fanny and Charlie).

The story of survival for seven months on the tiny island Grande Île is told through their eyes, with occasional personal asides from the author, such as “There is no one alive now who remembers Charlie Wordsworth – no one who can tell me about him.” These interjections could have felt intrusive but did not. Instead I became curious about Haisman’s motivation in writing the book. It has an element of personal quest: “What could I salvage from the tale of the Strathmore survivors to help me find my way in the world?”

The book contains the usual ingredients of shipwreck and survival stories – accounts of the courage and resilience of the survivors; of the slaughter of birds (not for the squeamish); and of the heart-rending and frustrating wait for rescue. It is written with insider knowledge of what being shipwrecked might feel like, as the author was herself shipwrecked off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia at the age of 16.

This Barren Rock is a thoughtful book. Diverse aspects of events and emotions are researched and considered. The story is largely based on the accounts of the survivors but there are instances where the author makes best guesses. As she notes, she has arranged the events “in the most dramatic sequence, even when I was unsure of the exact order in which they occurred”. While Haisman makes clear where there is no hard information to use and she is speculating, this book is not for those who like fact kept entirely free of fiction. A useful discussion on sources, a map, a metric conversion table and illustrations are provided.

I was struck by the (on the whole) exemplary behaviour of all concerned. A bit of drunkenness, malingering and grumbling is the worst anyone gets up to in tough times. The men’s treatment of Fanny, the only woman to survive the shipwreck, was remarkable. In circumstances of extreme deprivation, they made sure she had the least unpalatable food, the driest shelter, the only mattress. Would men today do the same? I surveyed male colleagues to try to answer this question and found that post-feminist man is unsure of his role.

The least effective aspect of the book is the treatment of the young child Wattie. His fate was a huge worry for me, as I imagine it will be for many readers. Such authorial observations as “Wattie would be the only child to live through the wreck of the Strathmore. He would not have an easy time of it”; or “Wattie would have sat with his parents in the little boat, feeling it rock and glide with the motion of the oars and the current beneath him” simply do not work.

Nor does having the painfully obvious aspects of Wattie’s plight spelled out: “The wreck had changed almost every detail of his life.” In case the point is still not clear enough, Haisman repeats it: “His old life of active play, regular meals and reliable maternal affection had disappeared completely.” However, my irritation was soon dispelled by the fascinating detail that Fanny, who is cared for so conscientiously by the men, does not play a part in looking after Wattie.

As Haisman says, “long sea voyages can be very boring”. At times, the author almost falls into the danger of boring the reader with too much background information and too much incidental detail (for example, about Fanny’s seasickness) in the early part of the book. Another quibble is that in these chapters we hear several times about the dirty sooty air, the smells from open sewers and other aspects of social conditions in Victorian Britain; and about Charlie hitting a drunk passenger, “which laid him in the scuppers”.

It is almost as though the early chapters are being treated as separate sections rather than integral parts of the whole book.

When we finally get to the shipwreck, survival on Grande Île and the rescue, the story maintains its pace and interest. The rescue is a long time coming, with several ships passing by without stopping, perhaps because they did not see the survivors, or because they chose, for whatever reason, not to rescue them.

The book is satisfyingly rounded off with details of what happened to the survivors after their rescue. The author writes perceptively about the lingering after-effects of their hardship and suffering. At the end she returns to her own quest and to the ways that “three years in the imaginative company of Charlie and Fanny” have helped her to move on.

I read this enjoyable book on holiday in a cosy seaside house, Chianti in one hand, turning the pages of This Barren Rock with the other. The wild ocean surf could be seen and heard from my cushy couch but was a reassuring distance away. If you worry that your life is safe and boring, you will find plenty to inspire you in this book about the ingenuity of lives on the edge.

 

Ann Beaglehole is a Wellington reviewer and historian.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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