Part of a month-long series on terrible trips, great journeys and getting lost.
Two weeks after getting shipwrecked, Robinson Crusoe decided to move out of his tent and into something more substantial. After a short search, he found himself a nice cliff side with a west-facing grotto and a sea view. He salvaged planks from the shipwreck, split them into stakes, and used them to build his palisade. Using sails and cables from the ship, he set up a double tent to keep all his provisions out of the rain. Then he hollowed out the grotto until it was a proper cave, gave up his hammock, and moved in: “The entrance into this place I made to be, not by a door, but by a short ladder to go over the top; which ladder, when I was in, I lifted over after me; and so I was completely fenced in and fortified, as I thought, from all the world, and consequently slept secure in the night, which otherwise I could not have done.”
For a year or so I lived in a cabin on top of a hill. It was tiny, just a little bit longer than a futon. The sink was by the bed, and the kitchen was a hot plate next to the sink. My refrigerator was in my bathroom, and I slept under my pantry. The cabin had a peaked roof, and the man who had lived there before me had rigged it with a miniature loft, just big enough to sit in, with a view of the ocean. Every afternoon the fog would roll in and condensation would pour down from the pine trees like rain. I couldn’t see my neighbors. At night, it felt like I was living in the middle of nowhere. It was like being at sea, or on a deserted island. Although it was cramped and far from everything, I loved living there. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live on a real deserted island. What would I build? How would I live? Would I choose the hammock or the cave?
More than likely, I wouldn’t have a choice. Uninhabited islands are usually uninhabited for a reason. The shipwrecked, the marooned, the stranded: they build their structures out of necessity, under the harshest conditions and with the poorest materials. Such conditions would, you might think, leave little room for expression. And yet everyone approaches the Crusoe problem—of how to turn survival into sustainment, and bare rock into a home—in a different way.
THE MYSTERIOUS CABINS OF CAPE FLORA
The Saint Anna was stuck fast in the polar ice of the Kara Sea. The flagship of the Brusilov expedition of 1912—an ill-fated Russian attempt to traverse the Northeast Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific—she had been frozen there deliberately with the hope that the polar currents would carry the ship over the North Pole and release it on the other side in the spring thaw. But the thaw never arrived. Instead, the Saint Anna remained trapped by the pack ice for 16 months. Although the expedition had been provisioned with enough food to feed its crew of 32 for well over a year, the captain hadn’t brought enough fuel, and only enough antiscorbutics to last four months. Faced with the prospect of a second winter on the ice, spent freezing and dying of scurvy, the expedition’s navigator, Valerian Albanov, decided that the best course of action was to flee. He took 13 members of the crew with him and set out across the ice.
The group was outfitted with sledges, skis and kayaks, its destination a remote chain of islands called the Franz Joseph Archipelago. This archipelago, discovered only 40 years before, was still not fully mapped. Albanov and his men were hoping that they could reach a specific point on the islands called Cape Flora, at the western edge of Northbrook Island. Cape Flora was already a famous site in the annals of polar exploration. The British yachtsman and explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith had been shipwrecked there in 1881. A dozen years later, it served as the base for the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition, which had succeeded where many other parties had failed and proven that Franz Josef Land was an archipelago. The history of the Jackson camp was well known to Albanov and his companions. Devoted readers of fellow explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North, they knew it as the site of the chance meeting between Nansen and Frederick Jackson, a fortuitous encounter, the Arctic’s own Stanley and Livingstone moment. The group hoped that the Jackson camp might still be standing—or that at least the hunting was as good as Nansen described.
But the chart Albanov carried (prepared by Nansen) was inaccurate. And eventually, somewhere en route to Cape Flora, the group split in two: Albanov took four men by kayak, and left four others to make their way on sleds. The men on sleds vanished. Walking and paddling blind, Albanov reached his target after a grueling passage of ninety days, but by then, only one of his companions, Alexander Konrad, remained alive. The moment when they first discovered signs of habitation came as a shock. After months spent crossing the polar wilderness, Albanov described the wonder of finding a house:
A cabin, a real house made of logs, with a roof sloping down on one side, and a chimney, and it was intact. … We were so engrossed in the contemplation of these huts that at first we paid no heed to our surroundings, so we were surprised by yet another wonderful discovery only fifty yards away. Hidden in a ravine, stored upside down with its keel up, lay a large Norwegian-style whaleboat in perfect condition. Stowed tidily next to it were oars and other accessories. It all seemed to have been used quite recently, perhaps this year. As quickly as our feeble legs would carry us, we ran to the largest of the three huts, hoping to find it inhabited. We were certain that a door would suddenly open and out would step a Norwegian or English sailor with a lighted pipe in his hand. This picture was so vivid in our imagination that we were expecting nothing else.
Their exhilaration soon turned to disappointment. The camp was deserted, and most of its buildings were in ruins or filled with ice and trash. They were delighted, however, to find unopened tins of biscuits and peppermints for their tea. Puzzlingly, while the buildings were run-down, the provisions were fresh. Rabbit meat came out of a tin as if it “had just arrived from the finest delicatessen.”
The cabins themselves proved to be a mystery. Some appeared to have been made on site, others were clearly pre-fabricated. One, an odd, octagonal building with a conical roof, seemed completely unsuited to the Arctic; rather, it reminded Albanov of a circus tent.
The location seemed to accord with that of the Jackson Camp, but it was difficult to imagine that genteel explorer, who “always dressed for dinner,” living in such a filthy and neglected place. A sign on the wall of cabin read “Expedition of Lieutenant Sedov, 1913,” an expedition which set out for the North Pole at the same time as the Saint Anna, but the amount of deterioration seemed too great for so recent a stay. After some cursory excavation, Albanov found a scrap from a silk tent embroidered in red with the words “Ziegler Expedition to the North Pole.” He had never heard of it. A single, oversized sheet of paper with comical drawings from a New Year’s Eve fête deepened the mystery.
Gradually, it became clear that Cape Flora had been inhabited by multiple parties at different times. Some had built their own shelters, while others used what they found. Each group of explorers had left its own layer of detritus. Some left inscriptions; others, only mounds of trash. Nothing remained from the Stella Polare but a stone obelisk honoring their dead in gold letters.
Albanov himself left nothing behind but his memoirs, written up after he was rescued by the flagship of another failed Russian expedition, the Saint Foka. As for the ship he’d left behind, the rest of the Saint Anna crew disappeared without a trace—that is, until two years ago, when Russian explorers discovered a few artifacts scattered on the shore of another island in the archipelago. These objects—a watch, snowshoes, a knife, a spoon engraved with a sailor’s initials, and sunglasses made from an empty rum bottle—most likely belonged to the men who broke off from Albanov’s group. The researchers also found one of the sailor’s logs. One of the last entries read, “Today we got our last brick of tobacco; the matches ran out long ago.”
THE COMFORTS OF HOME
The habitations left on “uninhabited” islands often reflect the country of origin of their builders. Working with scant materials and in dire conditions, castaways nonetheless often manage to imbue their dwellings with some small features of home. Four Russian fishermen, marooned on a barren island off Spitsbergen in the 18th century, survived for seven years in a two-room hut built from driftwood and the remains of their boat. It was built with a high roof and an earthen stove “constructed in the Russian manner…a kind of oven without a chimney.” This was a pech, a characteristic feature of Russian peasant homes, used at once for baking, for heating a room, and as a place to sleep. In place of a chimney, the high roof allowed smoke to gather in a black pool above the living quarters without letting out any heat.
In the winter of 1630, eight English seamen, in the service of the Muscovy Company, were stranded on the west coast of Spitsbergen. There they found a large shed, some fifty by eighty feet, built for summer storage by Flemish whalers. “With great sagacity and sound judgment” they built another hut within this house. They scavenged the materials for it from other structures around the cove, disassembling chimney furnaces used for boiling whale oil and mixing their own mortar, which they had to heat constantly to keep it from freezing.
During his four years in the Juan Fernandez Islands, Alexander Selkirk, the real-life castaway on whom Defoe modeled Robinson Crusoe, built two huts of pimento wood. He thatched the roof with grass and carpeted the floor with goat skins. The smaller hut was his kitchen. The larger was his bedroom and his chapel, where he spent much of each day singing psalms and reciting scripture.
From excavations on Smeerenburg Island, the site of another Dutch overwintering above the Arctic Circle, we know that the stranded sailors made shoes out of their fashionable, but unseasonable, felt hats.
PANCAKES AND POLAR BEARS
In 1597, the Dutch Estates General commissioned an expedition to search for a Northeast Passage around Siberia to China. It was led by the experienced captain Jan van Heemskerk and the pilot Willem Barentsz. They set out from Holland in May; by autumn, they were imprisoned by the ice off the northern shore of Novaya Zemlya. To survive the winter they built a small cabin out of driftwood and planks from their ship. When they were finally done, the men christened it het Behouden Huys, or The Safe House.
The crew spent seven months in this house, beset by cold, darkness and hunger. They hunted polar bears, and they were hunted in turn. The surviving log of the winter, by Gerrit De Veer, one of the ship’s carpenters, records attacks almost daily. The bears were a constant menace outside the house and several times they tried to enter it. When they couldn’t get in through the front door, they tried the chimney. Even their meat was dangerous; the entire crew fell gravely ill with Vitamin A poisoning after eating a bear liver.
The sky itself was capricious. In midwinter, during the long polar night, the sun suddenly appeared on the horizon, only to disappear again. This deeply troubled the men, who knew from their star charts that it was two weeks early. In fact, they were witnessing the Novaya Zemlya Effect, a type of mirage caused by atmospheric refraction.
Though the environment was alien, their house was familiar. In building it, they gave it a few domestic touches—a decorative eave, a branch over the door, and two false painted windows to make it look like a real Dutch home. It was well built, too. A Norwegian seal hunter found the house still standing in 1871. Inside, he found furnishing fit for a fine Amsterdam manse: copper cauldrons, chests, paintings, several colored garments, candlesticks, tin mugs, a sword, books, various nautical instruments and a flute.
When Barentsz’ men completed their house, as a final touch, they added a chimney and set up a May-pole made out of snow on its roof. On January 5th, they celebrated Three King’s Eve with pancakes and mulled wine. For that one night they were back in Holland. The sailors danced reels and arranged a contest to choose an Emperor of Novaya Zemlya and an Almond King. Even the captain joined in, ordering two pounds of flour to be measured out for plum cake and biscuits. De Veer writes that it felt as if “we were in our own country and amongst our friends, it comforted us as well as if we had made a great banquet in our own house.”
The next day they went back to their many routines: hunting foxes, sewing clothes, mending shoes, nursing the sick, reading the Bible, singing songs. The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who tells their story in Still Life with a Bridle, his collection of essays about the Dutch, notes that they also had an elaborate clock which constantly froze and which they constantly repaired, since it was the only means they had for dividing up the perpetual night into a “human yesterday and a human tomorrow.” In June, when the ice finally broke, they left it behind with everything else.
THE SELF-IMPROVING CASTAWAY
Occasionally, island architecture offers eloquent testimony to the moral condition of the marooned. An illustration of this occurred in 1864 in the Antarctic waters south of New Zealand. The circumstances provided an almost perfect natural experiment into the effects of morale on survival. In that year, two ships were wrecked on the shores of Auckland Island: the Grafton and the Invercauld. The island is so rugged that the survivors never came into contact with each other. Nor did they know of each other’s existence, except for a fleeting glimpse of a distant campfire, written off as an apparition. The crew of the Grafton, who had come to the island to prospect for tin, constituted a miniature Babel: the leaders were an Englishman, Captain Thomas Musgrave, and a Frenchman, geologist Francois Raynal. The rest of the crew was made up of one Norwegian, one Englishman, and a Portuguese cook with no nose.
All five survived the wreck. Working together, they built a stout home, 24 by 16 feet, complete with a stone chimney and a forge in which to make tools. A board floor and glass windows completed their comfort. During the day, the five busied themselves scavenging for food, building furniture and forging tools. At night they taught each other their respective languages. Raynal taught mathematics. Captain Musgrave read aloud from the Bible and Paradise Lost and improvised sermons; he was watchful that his men did not swear in his presence. Chess provided another diversion. An attempt to introduce playing cards, made from the pages of a log book, led to discord, and they were consigned to the fire. After nearly two years on the island, they painstakingly fashioned a new boat from the remains of the Grafton and timber they cut and nails they forged themselves, then used it to make a daring passage to New Zealand in search of aid. All five made it home safely.
On the opposite side of Auckland Island, the survivors of the Invercauld fared less well. The Invercauld, an Aberdeen clipper bound from Melbourne to Callao, wrecked on the jagged western shore of the island and sank straight to the bottom, leaving the 19 survivors with no provisions or supplies. For the first weeks they stayed on the beach, huddled in a tiny lean-to. The captain sank into a dejected apathy while the rest of the crew scavenged for roots.
At one point they found the ruins of Hardwicke, a whaling station built twenty years before by the London firm of Erebus and Sons. Hardwicke had not prospered; most of the settlers were committed drunks, including the surgeons. They did manage to build a number of houses, workshops, storage sheds, a wharf, and a prison, but twelve years later, a single broken-down house remained. The survivors of the Invercauld slept in a lean-to in its yard. They did nothing to improve its condition, succumbing to the delusion that its inhabitants would come back.
In the following five months, 16 of the men died of hunger and exposure. Starving, some decided to draw lots for who should die to feed the others. Horrified, one of the sailors, Robert Holding, fled and set up a wigwam of rata poles and tussock grass, far from the rest of the group. Eventually, Holding became the leader of the last three survivors, who decamped to nearby Rabbit Island, where he built them a sod house lined with sealskin. The captain complained that it “protected us very imperfectly against…the severity of that frightful climate.” There they awaited their eventual rescue by a Portuguese worker transport.
It’s tempting to see the story of the two crews and the two houses as a Victorian morality tale, pitting industry against sloth and sobriety against indolence. This wouldn’t entirely be fair though, as the Grafton was better provisioned, and lucky enough to land in a sheltered cove, home to a multitude of sea lions, while the crew of the Invercauld languished on unforgiving cliffs. But to contemporaries, the lesson of the ordeal was clear. Jules Verne, who transformed the story of The Grafton into his novel The Mysterious Island, in which a group of Civil War soldiers escape from Richmond by balloon to create an island paradise in the South Pacific, put it best: God helps those who help themselves.
WHEN THERE IS NO HOME TO BE BUILT
Deserted islands are fascinating because they’re the terrariums of human behavior: confined, often unfamiliar environments with few resources, to which people bring little more than their memory and will. Stories of shipwrecks let us witness the furthest limits of human ingenuity and resourcefulness. But sometimes an environment is so harsh that nothing can be made of it.
The publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 sparked a mania for stories of castaways and marooned men. Scores of imitations came out in the following decades, giving rise to a new genre, the Robinsonade. One of the first of these was also one of the strangest. In 1726, a London publisher brought out a pamphlet called Sodomy Punish’d. It claimed to be the translation of the diary of one Leendert Hasenbosch, a bookkeeper for the Dutch East India Company, who was marooned on Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic as punishment for the crime of buggery. He died there, and his journal was found by a passing English ship.
Ascension Island was a barren volcanic rock, with no running water and hardly any vegetation. (It has more now, thanks to intensive landscaping by the British in the 19th century.) Hasenbosch was left there with a cask of water, two buckets, a hatchet, an old frying pan, some peas and rice, and the clothes on his back. For six months, he survived on birds’ eggs and turtles’ blood. He spent his days walking over the bare hills of the island, searching for water and looking in vain at wild goats he couldn’t catch. He pitched a tent on the beach and set up a pole with a flag for passing ships to see. None came. Gradually, thirst and the sun took their toll. Hasenbosch started to hear voices. Devils appeared before him to reproach him for his sins. An old acquaintance of his, a debauched soldier from Batavia, tempted him by cursing and speaking blasphemies.
For readers in the 18th century, Sodomy Punish’d (pdf) would have provided a dark, real-life counterpoint to Crusoe’s story: where Robinson Crusoe triumphs thanks to industry and divine providence, Hasenbosch succumbs, because of sin. The book was a minor hit, going through a number of editions. In each succeeding version, his visions grew more elaborate and his tortures at the hands of demons more extreme.
The appeal of Hasenbosch’s story lasted into the 20th century. In the late 1970s, it became the basis for a rather elaborate (and obscure) literary hoax. A writer named Cy Adler, under the pseudonym Peter Agnos, claimed to have located a copy of the original diary in the New York Public Library, which he published in translation as The Queer Dutchman. His version built off of the English text, but deepened the narrative by adding characters, back story, and a love interest. Hasenbosch, now renamed Jan Svilt, complains about his bigoted shipmates and remembers his stern, rat-catching father and his voyages to Cape Town and Indonesia. The book also gives him a lover, a beautiful Javanese half-caste boy named Bandino Frans, who quotes Sufi poetry to him and begs to be taken back to Holland. The whole thing reads like a great Jim Shepard story, but it’s presented as a historical document, with odd appendices on Dutch shipping and maritime law interspersed throughout the text. For twenty years, it was taken as fact, at least in the English-speaking world. It even worked its way into a few academic works on early modern sexuality, which I suppose makes Svilt the JT Leroy of historically-rooted Dutch seafaring journals.
But while most of The Queer Dutchman is an embellishment,
especially the love affair, a kernel of that affair is visible in
the original 1726 version. Although he says almost nothing about
his past, not all of the visions Hasenbosch had when he was
marooned on Ascension Island were hostile. One morning, while he
was fetching firewood from the shore, “an Apparition appear’d to me
in the similitude of a Man, whom I perfectly knew.” From then on he
became a constant companion, appearing “so often that I now scarce
mind him.” From hints in the text, it seems that the two of them
had been lovers. Even so, and despite being completely alone in the
middle of the Atlantic, Hasenbosch was afraid to write down his
Previously in series: Portraits From A Cross-Country Road Trip, Fly Fishing The Universe, A Chat With A Person Who Has Been To Disney Parks 40 Times, Hiking The Grand Canyon In A Day and The 2006 World Cup With No Game Plan