This is a book that I’ve been meaning for years to read. I was inspired to pick it up and start (again) after completing an iteration of a webinar I do on leadership lessons based on Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance expedition. Like the Shackleton story, Island of the Lost did not disappoint on either the adventure or the leadership lessons.
The story is set in the South Atlantic, near New Zealand, specifically on the Auckland Island group. In 1864, not one but two groups were shipwrecked on the main island. The barely 20 miles between the groups might as well have been 20,000 leagues, as the rough and unexplored terrain and the privations of both groups meant that they had no way to know of the others existence or to connect with the others even if they had. The book tells of both groups’ experiences in parallel and compares their fates as well as (briefly) the contrasting styles of leadership in the groups.
On the Southern end of the island, the 5-person crew of the Grafton is wrecked in the North Arm of Carnley Harbour (so named because of its suitability as a harbour, not because there was any infrastructure whatsoever). Their mostly wooden ship dashed on the foreshore rocks, the crew establishes a shelter and undertakes the struggle of survival with minimal provisions and tools. Their leader, Captain Thomas Musgrave, and the co-leader, François Raynal, establish order and routine, share in the work and hardships, and build an exemplary camaraderie that ultimately enables the entire group to survive and almost thrive in their desolate location. Being inland, their chances of discovery and rescue are minimal, made even less likely by the fact of their being in a different location altogether than their planned itinerary (they had been to and were returning from nearby Campbell Island when they made their unplanned and disastrous diversion to the Aucklands).
More remarkable than their survival and leadership were the ingenious and innovative solutions they developed for their situation. For example, they build a fireplace and chimney in their house from available rocks and some copper sheeting recovered from the wreck; discovering no clay for the fireplace construction in their immediate environs, they made their own cement by extracting calcium carbonate from seashells and mixing it with sand and water. When later they refurbished a lifeboat for an attempt to sail for help, they built a functioning forge for blacksmithing salvaged materials from the wreck for the new craft. They also made lye soap from ashes, tanned seal skins into leather for shoes, and thatched their entire shelter.
Ultimately, all five men survived their 18+ months on the island and returned to the world and their lives, with several continuing their work on the seas. Both Musgrave and Raynal maintained journals during their time at Epigwaitt (their poetical name for their castaway shelter) and published their accounts upon returning home.
Meanwhile, on the Northern end of the island, the 25-man Invercauld wrecks on the reefs after several terrible navigational errors and poor decision making by Captain George Dalgarno and first mate Andrew Smith. 6 men perish in the wreck, with the remaining 19 in dismal condition and circumstances on an isolated and barren beach. Over the next several months, the crew members are in considerable disarray and agony. Many die of starvation or exposure (the wreck was at the start of the Southern winter months, and most supplies including clothing went down with the ship), several venture off on their own and are never seen again, and there are a few instances of cannibalism. The true and unsung heroic survivor is Robert Holding, an enlisted crew-member who emerges as the more innovative, brave, and inspirational of the final survivors, certainly more so than the officers. By the end of the winter, just the captain, the mate, and Holding have survived, with the officers depending almost entirely on the efforts and successes of Holding for their food, shelter, and security. They are rescued nearly a year after their wreck by a passing cargo ship; being unaware of the other castaways elsewhere on the island, no further rescuing is undertaken by the ship.
In addition to the unfortunate location of their wreck and the construction of their ship (mostly iron and wire instead of wood and rope), poor leadership and decision-making was the root cause of so much loss. The captain and mate insisted on maintaining rank and order in the crew, to the point of refusing to do any of the labour; when they wanted water or food, they ordered the unfortunate cabin boys out into the cold or rain to fetch it (unsurprisingly, both boys perished in the first few months). They also maintained separate quarters from the rest of the crew and refused any group discussion or input to decisions, many of which were then delayed due to paralyzing despondency and indecision of the captain; indeed, they sometimes took the opposite decision to suggestions from Holding or others simply because those men were not officers, often with disastrous results.
Upon being rescued, the captain ordered Holding to “keep quiet and let me do the talking”, ultimately claiming all of the ingenuity and success (such as it was) for himself, never mentioning his role in the unfortunate fates of his crew or the contributions of Holding to his survival. Holding indeed kept quiet until writing his own memoirs in the 1920s and 30s, which were not published until 1997 by his granddaughter.
There are several parallels between Musgrave and Shackleton as leaders. Both ensure the survival of their entire crews; both focus on building camaraderie and fairness; and both are optimistic and realistic about their circumstances. However, Musgrave had an unfortunate tendency to brooding and despondency, which was often demoralizing to the group, whereas Shackleton kept his doubts and sadness to himself. Thankfully for Musgrave’s group, the optimism and MacGyver-ishness of Raynal supplanted Musgrave’s moodiness and provided the ideas, innovations, and strength that ultimately enabled their survival; the soap, the forge, the cement – these were all Raynal’s innovations. Despondency aside, Shackleton also had strong and ingenious co-leaders in Frank Wild, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley.
Both Musgrave and Shackleton applied what would now be called servant leadership and participatory decision-making in their styles, and the ultimate results reflect the success of these approaches. Like Shackleton, Musgrave returns to the shipwreck site as quickly as possible to rescue the remaining crew members and returns again at a later date to survey for any other unfortunate souls marooned on the island. There are also parallels in their circumstances; during the Shackleton Endurance expedition, both crews – one on either side of Antarctica – are challenged by shipwreck and nearly 2 years of hardship, privation, and isolation, but one crew survives completely due to sound leadership while the other suffers tragedy and loss due primarily to poor leadership and bad decision-making.
The stories are based on the author’s research and readings of the various accounts from the survivors, which as one would expect have conflicting elements and details due to the varying memories of the writers, plus embellishments by publishers and variations due to translations (Raynal’s account was originally in French). Druett’s telling of these stories brings colour to the characters and circumstances without overdoing or caricaturing anyone or any place, and while not focusing on the leadership elements, presents compelling evidence of the differences in both approach and outcomes for these unfortunate crews. While not a work of fine literature, this is a well-told story of adventure and perseverance, as well as an historical perspective of a bygone age of exploration.
Fate: the book is not mine but is a favourite in our house and so will remain on the bookshelf amidst other tales of adventure and examples of leadership.