So This Is the (Real) Tale of Our Castaways: Lessons from Shipwrecked Micro-Societies
The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse) by Théodore Géricault, 1818-1819.

So This Is the (Real) Tale of Our Castaways: Lessons from Shipwrecked Micro-Societies

Nicholas Christakis
Nicholas Christakis
10 min read

Survivor camps established after shipwrecks provide fascinating data about the societies that groups of people make when it’s left up to them, about how and why social order might vary, and about what arrangements are the most conducive to peace and survival. An archipelago of shipwrecks, formed over centuries, more or less at random, has resulted in people participating, unintentionally, in multiple trials of this experiment.

Shipwreck survivors have had a special hold on the human imagination for thousands of years, beginning at least since Homer crafted the Odyssey and stretching through when Shakespeare penned The Tempest, Cervantes described Don Quixote’s marooning, and more modern authors wrote Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Lord of the Flies. In fiction, the castaway narrative tends to feature an idyllic state of nature, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or a state of anarchy and violence, following Thomas Hobbes—two philosophers with rather conflicting ideas about human nature.

Hobbesian examples abound in real-world shipwreck situations. Consider the crew of the Batavia, who in 1629 systematically planned the mass murder of women and children to conserve resources. Or consider the crew of the Utile, a French slave ship that wrecked in 1761 on Tromelin Island in the Indian Ocean. The sailors managed to get off the island, but they left behind 60 enslaved persons. They promised to send help but failed to do so for fifteen years. When a ship finally arrived at the island, only seven women and a baby were still alive.

Some shipwrecks reflect a notably dysfunctional, if grimly familiar, breakdown of social order that includes not only murder but also cannibalism (which is not too uncommon). The extreme circumstances of the shipwreck may overwhelm people’s innate tendencies to behave well. The wreck of the Medusa in 1816 (which left 146 people on a large, unstable raft, only fifteen of whom lived to be rescued thirteen days later) and the wreck of Le Tigre in 1766 (involving four people, three of whom survived for two months) both exhibited murder and cannibalism as survival means. In the case of Le Tigre—as described in a book that was an international bestseller in the 18th century—special consideration was given to the lone female survivor, and the male survivors made provisions for her protection. The lone black survivor was murdered and cannibalized first, because of his lower perceived status. No such niceties applied in the case of the Medusa, where, as far as can be determined, male, female, black and white survivors all killed and ate one another indiscriminately.

The relationship of cannibalism to the breakdown of social order depends, of course, on the reasons for the cannibalism—whether the individuals involved ate the bodies of those who had already died because otherwise they would have died of starvation themselves (as in a 20th-century case involving a plane crash in the Andes) or whether people were deliberately murdered. Contemporary readers regarded the two shipwrecks in different lights. Le Tigre—ironically, given its fealty to sexism and racism—was seen as a remarkable story of resourcefulness and endurance, while the Medusa was held up as the epitome of depravity and animalistic barbarity.

We know about these events because of a quirky literature, marketed to armchair thrill-seekers, of first-person accounts of these disasters. And we can supplement these accounts with more formal evaluations of shipwrecks undertaken by historians and archaeologists in the 20th century.

During the period of European exploration of the globe, from the 16th century through the advent of modern navigation and communications, there were more than 9,000 shipwrecks. In the great majority of wrecks, all souls were lost to a watery grave. Occasionally, survivors endured at sea in small vessels; for example, the Essex went down in 1820, and its crew drifted in narrow whaleboats for weeks, eventually resorting to cannibalism. (Their story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.) But for our present purposes, we need cases in which survivors made landfall and set up camp, and those are rare.

A map of 24 shipwrecks in the period 1500–1900

The locations and dates of twenty-four shipwrecks in the period 1500–1900 are shown in the map above. Circle symbols indicate the twenty wrecks that are part of the core sample considered here (involving at least nineteen castaways stranded for at least two months). Open symbols are shipwreck communities lasting less than one year, and filled-in symbols indicate communities lasting more than one year. Symbol size corresponds to the number of castaways, with small size indicating wrecks with fewer than nineteen people, medium size indicating nineteen to fifty people, and large indicating more than fifty people.

We must acknowledge that, even in these twenty examples that fit our criteria, the survivors are not strictly representative of humanity. The people who traveled on ships were not randomly drawn from the human population; they were often serving in the navy or the marines or were enslaved persons, convicts or traders. Shipboard life involved exacting status divisions and command structures to which these people were accustomed. Survivor groups were therefore made up of people who not only frequently came from a single distinctive cultural background (Dutch, Portuguese, English and so on), but who were also part of the various subcultures associated with long ocean voyages during the epoch of exploration. These shipwreck societies were, consequently, mostly male. Furthermore, the majority of our research subjects had narrowly escaped death and were psychologically traumatized, arriving at their islands nearly drowned and sometimes naked and wounded.

We have already discussed some shipwrecks that went badly, devolving into murder and cannibalism. But what factors were shared by shipwreck societies that were most successful? In our sample, the groups that typically fared best were those that had good leadership in the form of mild hierarchy (without any brutality), friendships among the survivors, and evidence of co-operation and altruism.

Survivor communities manifested cooperation in diverse ways: sharing food equitably; taking care of injured or sick colleagues; working together to dig wells, bury the dead, co-ordinate a defense, or maintain signal fires; or jointly planning to build a boat or secure rescue. In addition to historical documentation of such egalitarian behaviors, archaeological evidence includes the non-separation of subgroups (for example, officers and enlisted men or passengers and servants) into different dwellings, and the presence of collectively built wells or stone signal-fire platforms. Other indirect evidence is found in the accounts of survivors, such as reports of the crew being persuaded, because of good leadership, to engage in dangerous salvage operations. And we have many hints of friendship and camaraderie in these circumstances. Violence and murder were not typical.

One shipwreck in which altruism involving resource sharing and risky volunteerism was particularly evident was the case of the Julia Ann. The ship wrecked in the Isles of Scilly, a reef in the Pacific, on September 7, 1855, stranding fifty-one people for two months. The misadventure was brought to a close when the captain and a crew of nine volunteered to row three days into the horizon to reach Bora Bora, 217 miles to the east, in order to get help. Five lives were lost when the Julia Ann struck a reef, but all of the fifty-one survivors were eventually rescued. A newspaper later reported:

Capt. Pond’s chief desire throughout the whole sad affair seemed to be to save the lives of the passengers and crew, as the following noble act illustrates: While the crew were engaged in getting the passengers ashore [using a lifeline from the wreck offshore], Mr. Owens, the second mate, was going to carry a bag containing eight thousand dollars belonging to the Captain, ashore. The captain ordered him to leave the money and carry a girl ashore…The child was saved, but the money lost.

This visible act of altruism at the outset powerfully established an example for the group to cooperate and work together. Half the Julia Ann castaways were of the Mormon faith, and this may have helped the group cohere. The captain noted that they were “so easy to be governed” and “always ready to hear and obey my counsel.”

The availability of local resources and specific expertise among the castaways clearly helped as well. The Julia Ann survivors found turtle eggs, coconuts and fresh water. They fashioned a forge and bellows and repaired a boat (the ability to make and use a bellows appears frequently in successful stories). And the men who volunteered to row the rescue boat risked their lives to save the group.

Or consider the Blenden Hall, which wrecked on July 22, 1821, on the aptly named Inaccessible Island in the middle of the South Atlantic. This wreck was also marked by heroism and cooperation as in the case of the Julia Ann, though arguments and some acts of theft and violence marred the experience. Seventy of the eighty-two people on the ship made it to shore and survived for four months.

In the initial days, the survivors were able to salvage wood, canvas and fabric to build shelters, as well as some liquor and a surgeon’s kit that contained some phosphorus they could use to start a fire. The salvaging of liquor was a mixed blessing—it offered calories and temporary mood elevation, but it also prompted violence and threats.

After the incessant rain from the storm that wrecked them had subsided, the castaways began to feel a bit more optimistic. The Blenden Hall survivors had relatively easy, though not unlimited, access to food and water. But the availability of food and materials needed to be coupled with effective collective resource allocation for the group to succeed and survive. The survivors took care to share resources such as penguin meat, wild celery, and clothing so no one starved or froze.

The captain, Alexander Greig, showed leadership and tact, keeping the peace at crucial moments and organizing a division of labor (work parties for salvage, exploration and firewood collection). Unfortunately, the survivors often formed distinct groups at odds with one another (sometimes along the lines of class, rank, sex and race). Tensions erupted, and in late September, the crew attacked the passengers. They were repelled by twelve men organized by the captain. Afterward, he attempted to organize punishment for the ringleaders, but the lashing was staved off by the entreaties of one of the women whom the crew had attacked.

The eighteen-year-old son of the captain, who himself showed great leadership during the ordeal, kept a diary in penguin blood written in the margins of salvaged newspapers. He perceptively described their predicament:

I must acknowledge that to me it was always incomprehensible what could induce such a feeling of hostility to exist at this period…among the passengers generally. It is true that our troubles were calculated to ruffle our tempers and render us irritable; but at the same time one would have imagined that in our extreme exigency, with starvation almost inevitable, the common dictates of humanity would have been sufficient to suppress outbreaks and induce each to commiserate with his fellow-sufferer.

Group divisions remained prominent even after the crew members’ attack. Rather than working together and pooling the scarce available salvaged materials, three separate groups competed to build boats to leave for Tristan da Cunha, an island twenty miles away. One party of six left on October 19; they were not heard from again. But another party made it to Tristan da Cunha on November 8 and sounded the alarm. The others were then quickly rescued. Would the survivors of the Blenden Hall have fared better if they had not been plagued by aggression for their entire four-month stay? Probably. But in the end, their access to necessary resources likely reduced the extent and impact of the strife, and their capable leadership and evident cooperation were crucial, too.

In the case of the Sydney Cove, wrecked on Preservation Island off Tasmania on February 9, 1797, fifty-one people initially made land-fall. The documentary and archaeological evidence suggests the creation of substantial social order, including collective digging of a well and construction of a common dwelling; and surviving accounts indicate altruistic acts.

On February 28, seventeen men set out in a longboat for Port Jackson, on the mainland, but wrecked again, this time on the south-eastern coast of Australia on March 1, at which point they began walking to Port Jackson, nearly four hundred miles away. Here is how the supercargo, William Clark (the person charged with overseeing the cargo and its sale), who led this secondary expedition, put it:

Imagination cannot picture a situation more melancholy than that to which the unfortunate crew was reduced—wrecked a second time on the inhospitable shore of New South Wales; cut off from all hopes of rejoining their companions; without provisions, without arms, or any probable means either of subsistence or defense, they seemed doomed to all the horrors of a lingering death, with all their misfortunes unknown and unpitied. In this trying situation, they did not abandon themselves to despair…Danger and difficulty lessen as they approach—the mind, as if its ultimate strength were reserved for arduous occasions, reconciles itself with calm resignation to sufferings from which, on a more distant view, it would recoil with horror.

The success of their journey depended not only on this mental fortitude but also on the fact that the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia showed noteworthy altruism to the strangers. On several occasions, Clark reported, they were befriended by locals who escorted them up the coast, gave them fish and other food, and even rowed them across rivers. In his diary entry of March 29, 1797, Clark wrote that there appeared to be “nothing human” about the Aborigines “but the form,” and he frequently referred to them as “savages”—a reflection of our universal tendency toward in-group bias. But Clark soon changed his tune:

We came to a pretty large river, which, being too deep to ford, we began to prepare a raft, which we could not have completed till next day had not three of our native friends, from whom we parted yesterday, rejoined us and assisted us over. We were much pleased with their attention, for the act was really kind, as they knew we had this river to cross, and appear to have followed us purposely to lend their assistance. Between 9 and 10 o’clock we were most agreeably surprised by meeting five of the natives, our old friends, who received us in a very amicable manner, and kindly treated us with some shellfish, which formed a very acceptable meal, as our small pittance of rice was nearly expended.

A couple of other encounters with the indigenous people were more hostile, and one meeting resulted in three men sustaining wounds. Still, the overall interaction hardly supported Governor John Hunter’s later summary of the trek in which he described the “savage barbarity of the natives.” If anything, it appears that the Aboriginal people saved the strangers’ lives. Clark’s party viewed them as both barbarians and friends. I would not be surprised if the indigenous Australians felt similarly about Clark and his men.

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Nicholas Christakis

Sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab.