Historical Truth is a Slippery Thing, in English in Aotearoa, Issue 107, July 2022
By Cristina Sanders
When we talk about history, we’re telling stories about the past. We look at events and institutions and culture and change. And almost always our studies include people, as the driving force behind everything else. People tell stories about themselves and other people. They put their experiences into some kind of narrative form, where they are captured, processed, passed on, documented, re-told, reimagined, developed, curated. This collective retelling becomes our history.
Recently, during the process of researching my book Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant, I have come to realise how historical truth is a slippery thing.
My novel is historical fiction. It’s a retelling of the well-documented story of the gold-laden sailing ship the General Grant, on route from the Melbourne goldfields to England in 1866, which wrecked in a cave in the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, leaving 15 souls castaway for eighteen months until rescue came in the form of a whaling brig out of Invercargill.
Full text (digital version to follow)
Woman Overboard, Newsroom,21 June 2022
Woman overboard: Is this the best historical novel of the year?
In February of this year a random stranger (me) sent shipwreck expert Bill Day a bottle of champagne and an unedited novel, printed off and spiral bound at the Warehouse Stationery: Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant.
The General Grant is a ship that wrecked on the Auckland Islands in 1866 carrying a cargo that included an undetermined amount of gold and 83 passengers. Eighteen months later, 10 survivors were rescued by a whaling brig and taken to Invercargill, where they told their story to an enraptured audience. The wreck has never been found.
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is my fictional interpretation of what happened to the 14 men and one woman who survived and lived as castaways on a bleak and stormy sub-Antarctic island. The woman was Mrs Jewell, returning with her new husband to England from Melbourne, with gold from the mines stitched into the folds of their clothing.
As I researched and wrote the novel, I became aware of the powerful hold that this story still has on people’s imaginations. And then, one day, as can happen often with historical stories, the history I was researching jumped up and bit me.
One hundred and fifty six years after my story was set, shipwreck hunter, diver, businessman, all round expert on everything General Grant-y, Bill Day, was going to the Aucklands to search for the wreck. Hence the champagne and the book, and a cheeky suggestion that when he found what he was looking for he might write the last chapter.
I’ve subsequently learned that lots of randoms contact Bill Day with treasure-hunting advice and suggestions of how to conduct his adventures. He’s good-natured about all of this, realising how compelling his real “boy’s own” life is to armchair enthusiasts and understanding their burning desire to make the story true and be part of it. Read the full article: Woman Overboard
First colonial settlement of Wellington by the NZ Company, Dominion Post Feature article, 18 January 2020
The arrival of the ship the Aurora in Port Nicholson on January 22, 1840, marked the beginning of New Zealand’s first systematically settled colony, one of many towns to be designed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the New Zealand Company in London.
Though we mark that date as the founding of Wellington, it wasn’t called Wellington then, and the first colonials were camping across the harbour at Pito-one.
They called the new settlement “Britannia”, and the men who had arrived only a few weeks earlier on the survey ship the Cuba were busy trying to peg out a town for the settlers on the shifting gravel of the Heretaunga River. There were floods and fires and earthquakes. Within a few months they moved across the harbour to Te Aro, and the new town became Wellington 10 months later.
Wakefield came up with the concept of transplanting the best of a cross-section of English society to a new land while he was languishing in Newgate Prison, in London. He and his brother William were serving time for abducting an heiress – an early example of his get-rich-quick schemes – but that’s another story. Read the full article: Idea for Wellington Settlement thought up in prison