Hidden Stories: John Nunn and the Wreck of the Favorite

Most of my favourite stories come from real life. Hidden gems, tucked away in annuals and magazines centuries-old. Unbelievable tales from friends that you would not believe if you saw it in a film or read it in a book. The incredulity and haphazardness of what real life can throw at you beats any bizarro film, any magical realism novel.

If you want to exercise your powers of portraying the bizarre, take a look in these places. You never know what you will find.

Two years ago I found what I still consider to be my favourite story of all. It’s the story of a young sailor, name of John Nunn, who was shipwrecked in the wild and desolate Kerguelen Islands in 1825. I may be biased, because this is a tall ship story, and it involves Kerguelen, but yet, it is like no other.

Portrait of John Nunn smoking a pipe
Portrait of John Nunn

Nunn was no stranger to being shipwrecked, but even still, his resourcefulness that allowed him and his few friends to survive, for two years with limited supplies (not much more than hunting tools and a bible) is stunning.

How did it happen? Well, Nunn was part of a whaling expedition to the Southern Hemisphere. Only fifty years prior, Admiral de Kerguelen, a Breton Frenchman, discovered the Kerguelen Islands, opening up a whole new area of the Southern Ocean to industry after it was found that a whole lot of sea creatures  frequented the place, which was completely uninhabited by humans.

Part of the reason for the lack of human colonisation is that fact that, to this day, these islands lie in the path of one of the strongest ocean currents on the globe.  The whole region of the Southern ocean between South Africa and Australia is so fraught with danger that in the 1870’s, the British Navy habitually sent ships out to search for shipwreck survivors, as it was naturally assumed by then that people would fall under misfortune when taking the perilous shortcut to Australasia.

Map of the Southern Ocean around Kerguelen, showing Antarctic Convergence line
The perilous zone of the Southern Ocean, as shown by the Antarctic Convergence line. Image © roc.asso.fr

Of course, Nunn went before all this, when the whaling industry was in its prime. After a chaotic journey south involving a pirate chase, they arrived at Kerguelen in a ship christened the Frances, armed with weapons that could take down anything from baby sea elephants to adult whales.

The most haunting part of the story comes when he talks about the events which led up to the first shipwrecking. During a stint in which him and four crewmates took a shallop (a small, open rowboat) out to Iceburgh Bay to hunt sea elephants, they experienced a series of strange events. First, the mysterious discovery of a cavern, in which a dozen baby sea elephants were imprisoned by bars of ice. The group of men, heads full on enchanted tales from their childhoods, broke the ice bars and freed the baby seals.

Later, aboard the shallop, the men observe the sea fall still, and in that gentle stillness, a giant whale rises from the sea depths and arcs above them, rocking the boat with its tail in a fantastic display of proximity and threatening with that majesty to send them all into the water.

They then realise that the oil lamp has been burning all night, unnoticed. This is an ill omen, on top of the other two strange events. Nunn and his friends find themselves unable to get it out of mind, and experience a sense of dread.

The following day their shallop encounters foul waters and they are shipwrecked across that same stretch of coast.

The 'Loon', the shallop Nunn was shipwrecked in
The ‘Loon’, the shallop Nunn was shipwrecked in

I can only imagine the awe, intrigue, and sense of chill strangeness they must have felt in the lead-up to the shipwrecking. The sense of ill-portent fulfilled, that bit of magic creeping into reality with devastating effect.

Confined to the small bay with no way to obtain fresh food and no resources for cooking meat, they nonetheless survived and were rescued by the captain of another ship, the Favorite, a month later. But soon the Favorite fell under the dismal spell too.

It started with a dream John Nunn had. In it, he is trying to escape a sinking shallop and ends up swimming to shore. When he told his friends with whom he had been shipwrecked, they took him very seriously and asked that he tell the first mate. He did not.

A few days later, when navigating an awkward bay, the Favorite sprung a leak. Nunn had to swim to the shore. And this time it was no month but two years before him and his shipmates were rescued.

Throughout that time the group made use of abandoned whaling huts and seal oil distilling equipment, and scraped out a living worthy of a 21st Century post-apocalyptic film.

I won’t spoil the rest of it for you; you can read it for free here.

My parting advice: look in the forgotten places. Find the stories that hide there. Your imagination will be all the richer for it.

Shallop