Castaway cache

Between 1867 and 1927 the New Zealand government built, supplied, and maintained a set of supply huts on islands in the Southern Ocean so that no more castaways would starve to death while waiting for rescue.

Castaway Hut on the Antipodes Islands
LawrieM, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last month I wrote about the tragic shipwrecks of the Invercauld and the Grafton, two ships wrecked on the same desolate island at the same time. That was in 1864. Two years later, yet another ship wrecked on the very same island: the General Grant.

This American barque, full of passengers and Australian gold, sighted the island too late to avoid smashing into it. The General Grant actually drifted into a sea cave; the roof of the cave drove the mast down into the hull and the whole ship went under. Of the 83 passengers and crew, only fifteen survived the sinking. They found a hut built by one of the Grafton survivors, and like the Grafton survivors they waited for rescue.

Wreck of the General Grant
Frederick Grosse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eight months later, four of the survivors set sail for New Zealand. Like the crew of the Grafton before them, they hoped to rescue the others once they found civilisation. Those four sailors were never seen again. Ten of the eleven remaining castaways were finally rescued eighteen months after the wreck. (The eleventh died just two months before the rescue.)

This trio of tragic shipwrecks spurred the New Zealand government into action. Beginning the same year the General Grant survivors were rescued, they began to set up the first castaway depots.

These were simple wooden huts stocked with all the provisions a castaway might need: non-perishable food, tools, weapons, warm clothing, and blankets. Plus the hut itself could be used for shelter. The islands were dotted with little signposts to point shipwreck survivors towards these caches.

New Zealand maintained these huts for half a century. In that time, about a half dozen different shipwrecks found and used the castaway huts – plus a few nefarious poachers. By the 1920s shipping had changed and the huts had outlived their usefulness. The NZ government still maintains them as historical curiosities, but you’re unlikely to find any supplies in them today.

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