Mrs Jewell & the Wreck of the General Grant is the story of the survivors of this most famous of shipwrecks. In 1866 the General Grant, carrying miners, their families and gold home from Melbourne struck towering cliffs that reared out of the sea at night. She was sucked into a cave and sank. Fourteen men and one woman (Mrs Jewell) made it ashore on the remote, sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands where they lived as castaways for eighteen months. This is the base for my new novel, due in June with Cuba Press, best-guessing to fill gaps in the survivors’ testimonies and reading between the lines in the context of the times and situation. Everything we know about the story has been told to us by the survivors and despite numerous searches along that wild coast for over 150 years, the ship and her gold has never been found.
But—and here we go again with history reasserting itself— that might be about to change. For that I blame swashbuckling shipwreck fanatic, Bill Day.
Right now, today, Bill and his group of intrepid explorers are tucked in an inlet in the Auckland Islands, waiting for a break in the westerlies that thrash along the furious fifties and smash into the cliffs so they can go wreck hunting. There’s no sign of a change in the ten day forecast. They’ve been there a week already. But this is Bill’s fifth attempt to locate the General Grant and this time, with new technology and a new hunch, he reckons he’ll find her. Got to love that tenacity.
They’ve found a wreck in a cave on a previous visit—it turned out to be the Rifleman—and among the treasures was a button which helped identify the ship. Such a poignant thing to salvage from the sea after 179 years.
But there are rumours that the General Grant carried considerably more than buttons, and potentially far more gold than the two iron-bound boxes listed on her manifest and the hidden fortunes stitched into returning miners’ clothing. It’s likely she picked up cargo intended for the wrecked London, including gold for the Bank of England. And were the nine tones of “spelter” used for ballast actually gold, hidden from pirates and mutineers? The ship was insured, incidently, for £165,000; that’s over £20 million today.
When Bill Day and his team find the wreck of the General Grant—surely, this time!—chances are there will be a wide debris field, smashed to smithereens by waves and ripping currents and covered in fallen basalt under the sky-scraping cliffs. But . . . if the ship is in a cave (there are hundreds of caves in those cliffs and Bill and his team have already dived many of them), if she is in a previously hidden cave, and was pulled in by the current, and she went straight down as the testimonies say, wouldn’t the gold have sunk to the bottom and remained there to this day? And perhaps, also, they may find a button, torn from the dress of Mrs Jewell as she was pulled from the icy sea into the long boat.
This is what keeps me awake at nights.