In the great majority of wrecks, all souls were lost

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

During the great Age of Exploration — 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.

Nicholas A. Christakis studied shipwrecks for data about the micro-societies that form and then succeed or fail:

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.

Shipwrecks make good stories:

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.”

This detail from the Blenden Hall account caught my eye:

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

Christakis directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale.


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    The shipwreck is an interesting microcosm of the world. Whether defined as a success or failure any group of people can be considered a society. To me success is defined by the society’s ability to move toward improvement. In the case of shipwrecks, success is getting rescued with the successful shipwreck societies defaulting to civil behaviour instead of barbarism/tribalism. Successful societies can be spotted across history by the relatively simple matter of following the track of humanity that moves away from tribalism to civility.

  2. Ezra says:

    A captain of a ship normally by law has great authority over the crew. After the ship sinks and they make landfall I am not so sure. Crew are then free operators?

  3. Graham says:

    Ezra poses what to me is a very interesting question. One that might traditionally have varied somewhat [though possibly not that much], and likely has changed a bit in modern times.

    That is to say, in the unlikely event a modern passenger vessel founders prior to the arrival of external authorities and rescuers, or the survivors at least are left ashore any significant length of time before these show up, how encompassing is the captain’s authority under maritime law, and is it affected by the laws in place on the piece of land they have landed on? There is no terra nullius outside Antarctica that I can think of, everything is now recognized as belonging to someone or being in dispute between known parties. Does the captain’s authority over passengers still extend as far as authority over crew, as once it did? The crew’s authority over passengers? How has the captain’s authority over crew themselves changed under emergency circumstances.

    My suspicion is that modern international and national law and, at least, jurisprudence, may have said quite a bit.

    Traditionally, I suspect that the captain’s authority continued without interruption or limitation, in whatever the same form as shipboard, until the arrival of superior naval, military, company, or civil authority.

    I am unaware of specifics, but I would note there was a lot of practical precedent for the authority of naval officers in far flung places ashore, over their crew, and passengers, and sometimes their nationals in general, where no higher national authority existed and as the sole representative of their national, sovereign authority. Especially if not only in new lands or otherwise uninhabited ones, or where the local authority was not presumed competent to be in charge of one’s own. This could be more a British than American thing, but I would be surprised if early American sailing navy officers in the Pacific and Asia, or the Middle East, did not act on a variety of implicit diplomatic, consular, gubernatorial and police powers when the only possible on scene authority.

    Certainly Royal Navy officers would on occasion find themselves the only King’s or Queen’s representative on shore, even given Britain’s early commitment to have quite a lot of civilians scattered around.

    I have never read anything by anyone claiming to be an expert on this specific matter, so anyone with citations welcome.

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