Book Review: Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant

One of the joys of reading historical fiction are books about events that immerse you in the world of your ancestors – to imagine what it would be like and the perils that accompanied voyages across the seas, for example. I wrote about the 1894 wreck of the Wairarapa on Great Barrier Island in The Only Living Lady Parachutist so I was keen to read this newly released novel by Cristina Sanders about a different shipwreck in 1866.

1866 was also the year that my great-great-great-grandfather, James Montgomery Hannay, arrived in New Zealand on the Queen of the North with his 9-year-old daughter. From a story in the Chattanooga Daily Times (7 June 1874) it appears that Hannay not only absconded with his daughter but with $3000 of his employer’s cash after he was sent to New York to buy a printing press.

The stockholders of the late American Union of this city (of whom we were which) whose money Mr Hannay used in the manner stated above in January 1866, may feel a mournful satisfaction in knowing what became of their funds. As according to the Irishman’s proposition a thing is not lost when you know where it is, they are now $3000 better off than they thought they were.

Less than a month earlier, the General Grant, was en route from Melbourne to London when it struck the cliffs of the subantarctic Auckland Islands and was sucked into a cave and wrecked. Some of the passengers were successful gold miners returning home with gold sewn into the hems and pockets of their clothes and the ship also carried 2,576 ounces of gold, and 9 tons of zinc spelter ballast. Of the 83 passengers and crew, only fourteen men and one woman – Mrs Jewell – made it ashore.

Mary Ann and Joseph Jewell Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Ann Jewell is barely mentioned in the survivors’ accounts (including one by her husband, Joseph) so this fictionalised novel imagines the ordeal from a woman’s point of view in a vivid and plausible story. It opens with Mary’s gripping account of the shipwreck – the author has experience crewing on the tall ship Spirit of New Zealand – and it is truly terrifying. But the tension doesn’t let up once the castaways reach bleak and bitterly cold shore.

A fire would be crucial to their survival but they are down to their last match: He struck it with a steady hand. The flame leapt, a delicate orange orb. It shifted to a patch of moss and hesitated, felling its way around a twig, hissing over a leaf, not alive or dead. We waited for the intake of breath. A gasp of air from below and the orange burned darker. It ran along a strip of dry grass. I stood up in the circle of men and we willed the wood to catch, each of us praying, making promises to God of faithfulness and obedience if only the sticks would catch, if only we could have this fire, this most basic comfort.

When at last the fire catches: It was like a birth, another living thing among us. Without it I’m sure I would have died that night.

It was the Irishman, James Teer, who kept the survivors alive with grit and brute strength and the shifting allegiances between the survivors makes for a rollicking read.

In this interview, Cristina Sanders says: “The General Grant is a better adventure story than you could possibly make up: shipwreck and treasure, castaways, trauma, desolation, heroism, survival. It’s Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies, Titanic and Castaway rolled into one.” I absolutely agree!

Wide World Magazine, 1898

Rumours that the ship carried more gold than declared on the ship’s manifest continue to this day. Sanders speculates that the inconsistencies and eerie similarities in the survivors’ testimonies were made with the intention of keeping the location of the wreck secret – three made trips back to the islands trying to locate it, so I refer you back to the Irishman’s proposition: that a thing is not lost when you know where it is. My Hannay ancestor was lucky he didn’t lose his ill-gotten gains, or his life, in a shipwreck.

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