Islands of Despair
Nineteen — Macquarie Island
Any account of these sub-Antarctic islands would not be complete without some reference to Macquarie Island. This island is not in New Zealand territory, and is in fact an Australian possession, but geographically it is in the same region as the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. The author has not had an opportunity to visit Macquarie Island, but has naturally been interested in the nature of the place and its historical associations.
Macquarie Island, like Campbell Island, was discovered in 1810 by Captain Hasselbourgh, and was named by him in honour of the Governor of New South Wales. Although Hasselbourgh is officially credited with the discovery, it must be mentioned that upon his arrival at the islands he found on its shores the wreckage of what appeared to be a large ship. This was possibly either the Boussole or the Astrolabe, the ships of the French explorer de la Perouse.
The island is approximately in latitude 50° 30' south and longitude 159° 3' east, and is about 600 miles southwest of New Zealand. The main island is about 20 miles long and four miles broad, with a maximum height not much over 700 feet. About 30 miles further south is an outlying island known as the Bishop and Clerk, while another islet called the Judge and Clerk is about seven miles north of the main island.
Macquarie Island is desolate and miserable to an extent that cannot readily be conceived. There are no trees of any kind, page 178and it is only in the more sheltered places that even the hardy tussock can survive. In many of the more favoured spots there is a profuse growth of Stilbocarpa polaris and Pleurophyllum. The hills rise abruptly from the sea, leaving only narrow shingle beaches.
The island possesses no harbour, but there are a number of broad open bays that can be used when the wind is in a favourable direction. The best of these is probably Caroline Cove, which is sheltered from all directions except south-west. Unfortunately the south-westerly is the prevailing wind at Macquarie Island, so visiting ships more frequently anchor at the Nuggets or Lusitania Bay, both of which are on the east coast.
The hills are blown completely bare by the wind, and the exposed rock is deeply fissured by the weather. There are a number of small lakes on the island, but the streams issuing from them are badly polluted by the penguins.
Following on the discovery of Macquarie Island immediate steps were taken to establish a sealing industry on its shores. The first cargo of skins was brought back by the Elizabeth and Mary in 1811, and she reported that the Star had sailed for England, while the Sydney Cove and the Unity were both at the island. The Sydney Cove returned a month later with about 100 skins and 40 casks of sperm oil. A regular trade then began, and the Aurora, the Concord and the Mary and Sally sailed for Macquarie Island.
On 4th October 1811 the Concord reached Sydney from the island with tales of very bad weather. She had left Sydney on 1st June and did not reach Macquarie Island until 12th July. Two boatloads of sealers came out to meet her, but as a gale suddenly blew up she was forced to take the boats and crews aboard and hastily put to sea. She was unable to regain the island for six weeks, whereupon the boat crews were put ashore with a supply of provisions. Two days later the Concord was again blown off the island, and on this occasion Captain Garbut decided to return to Sydney. He said that the sealing page 179gang was in a bad way through lack of food and other necessaries, as their supply ships had not arrived. The Mary and Sally had been sighted but she was unable to land stores and it was thought she had gone on to Campbell Island. The men said there had been much snow and the cold had been intense.
On 27th November the Mary and Sally arrived at Sydney. The Captain confirmed that the bad weather at Macquarie Island had decided him to make for Campbell Island, where he landed an oiling party. He then returned to Macquarie Island, where he landed a sealing gang with provisions, but he was again blown off and had to return to Sydney with an empty ship.
The Concord made a further voyage to Macquarie Island to obtain sea-elephant oil and seal-skins. On 24th January 1812 a boat was sent round the western coast to pick up skins, but it capsized in the surf and all six hands were lost. The vessel left for England on 10th March with 13,700 skins and 50 tons of oil.
Meanwhile the Perseverance sailed on 23rd February and returned on 7th May with 9000 skins and 66 tons of sea-elephant oil. She brought the news of the accident to the Concord's boat. The tragedy had occurred only twenty yards off-shore. Four of the men were from the Concord, and the other two were from the shore gang employed by Campbell and Co. About two months later one mutilated body was washed ashore, but the other men were not seen again.
On 22nd March 1812 Captain Siddons sailed in the Campbell Macquarie and on 10th June his vessel ran ashore on Macquarie Island. She soon went to pieces, but the crew of 12 Europeans and 30 Lascars all got ashore safely. The stores were lost, together with 2000 prime skins, 36 tons of salt and 118 tons of coal. The men were relieved on 11th October by the Perseverance, but in the meantime four of the Lascars had died. Another death also occurred in this period, the man being Thomas McGovern, who had been a seaman on the Mary and Sally. It seems that the Perseverance did not relieve all page 180the men, as the Elizabeth and Mary left Sydney on 7th November to pick up sealing gangs and the rigging of the Campbell Macquarie. There was evidently some difficulty in recruiting seamen for trips to Macquarie Island at this time, as shortly before the ship sailed the following advertisement appeared in the local papers:
"Mr. Joseph Underwood hereby gives notice that the schooner Elizabeth and Mary will sail for Macquarie Island for the relief of the gangs there stationed at the end of the present week, and that he will be responsible for the payment of any person's debts who may proceed thereon, provided they shall be brought in to him before the vessel sails."
Following on the loss of the Campbell Macquarie the sealing and oiling trade flagged to a considerable extent. On 10th April 1814 the Mary and Sally returned with 80 tons of sea-elephant oil obtained during the period of three months at the island. The Betsy left Sydney on 28th December 1814 and on 13th February 1815 she landed a gang of sealers on Macquarie Island. She then left for the Auckland Islands and later proceeded to New Zealand, where she was lost, mainly due to the death of many of her crew from scurvy. Meanwhile her owners were becoming anxious about her non-return to Sydney, and on 26th March 1816 they sent the Elizabeth and Mary on a search expedition to Macquarie Island, Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands. She returned on 28th May with all the gang left by the Betsy, and also brought home a gang left by another vessel. These latter were in a pitiful state, as they had been out of supplies since October of the previous year, except for such items as the Betsy's gang had been able to give them. The following statement appeared in the Sydney Gazette in 1815:
"Between 3 and 4 years ago Macquarie Island was discovered to abound in seals, and above 100,000 skins page break page breakpage 181were procured there in the season. The case, however, is now very different, as the whole number collected there by several gangs this season does not exceed 5000 or 6000. The decrease of the amphibious brood may be very naturally accounted for from the practice adhered to of killing promiscuously all the seals that offer, of which the female seal furnish the great proportion. The pups or young seal were also indiscriminately slaughtered, so that the means of increase were totally annihilated unless from the solitary few which escaped the vigilance of the hunters, and which would require to enjoy a length of undisturbed security and repose before their numbers were sufficiently recruited to afford a complete allurement to renew hostility. These causes were sufficient to counteract the prospect of benefiting from a fitting out for seal for many years to come, but it might have been looked forward to as an advantageous scene of adventure at a future period. This prospect is however totally obliterated by the ravages committed on the younger seal by the innumerable wild dogs bred from those unthinkingly left on the island by the first gangs employed upon it. The birds which were formerly numerous, and were found capable of subsisting a number of men without any other provision, have also disappeared from the same same cause. Their nests, which were mostly in inaccessible situations, have been despoiled of their young, and the older birds themselves surprised and devoured by these canine rovers, which as they multiply must every day diminish the value of one of the most productive places our sealers were ever stationed at."
During the next five years the Elizabeth and Mary, owned by Joseph Underwood and commanded by Captain Beveridge, was almost the only vessel engaged in the trade. The ship was also engaged in whaling.
On 31st October 1815 there was a severe earthquake at Macquarie Island. Rocks were dislodged and men thrown to page 182the ground. The huts were wrecked and most of the provisions spoiled, but the men had subsequently to make the best of them in their damaged state. One gang of sealers was working in a rookery at the time, and their exit was blocked by a fall of rock. Luckily a second shock removed the blockage and they were able to escape. Their route home took them alongside steep cliffs, and it was a hazardous trip with rocks still tumbling down. One man who had been left at the camp was found lying under a heap of stone. He was in great pain, but was not fatally injured. During the following night ten more shocks occurred, and the men were frantic with fear, as after each shock loosened rocks came thundering down the hillsides. There were further shocks intermittently until 5th May 1816, and it is reported that many of the sealers were afraid that the island might disappear under the sea.
About 1820 there was a slight revival of the sealing trade, consequent on some natural increase in the seals during the previous years. The trade was now based mainly on Hobart, and the Regalia and the Robert Quayle were the vessels employed. Their masters reported that sea-elephant oil would be available in almost unlimited quantities to industrious gangs.
In 1820 Admiral Bellinghausen of Russia visited Macquarie Island. He arrived there on 17th November and was met by a boatload of oil-men who were not at all pleased to find that he had not come to relieve them. Bellinghausen wished to obtain water, and stood off the oiling station overnight. Next day he landed and inspected the station. The head man lived in a hut 20 feet by 10 feet lined with sea-elephant skin and covered with grass. At one end of the hut was a fireplace where sea-elephant blubber was kept continually burning. The lamp also was fuelled with molten fat. The bed was near the fire, and provisions were stored at the other end of the hut. Since the only window had a sea-elephant bladder instead of glass the hut was very dark. The head man had been on the island for six years. He said that seals were now too scarce to attract sealing gangs, page 183and the only trade was in sea-elephant oil. The sea-elephant was killed, the fat stripped off, and put into kettles heated by burning fat. The melted fat was then poured into casks. There were two gangs on the island, one of seventeen men and the other of thirteen. The men were very short of provisions, and were living chiefly on sea-birds, the flippers of young sea-elephants, birds' eggs and "Macquarie Island cabbage" (Stilbocarpa polaris). The men cooked the cabbage into a kind of soup.
In 1822 Captain Douglass of the Mariner visited Macquarie Island and described his visit in the following words:
"As to the island, it is the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exile that can possibly be conceived; nothing could warrant any civilized creature living on such a spot, were it not the certainty of industry being handsomely rewarded. Thus far therefore, the poor sealer, who bids farewell, probably for years, to the comforts of civilized life, enjoys the expectation of earning an adequate recompense for all his weary toil. As to the men employed in the gangs, they appear to be the very refuse of the human species, so abandoned and lost to every sense of moral duty. Overseers are necessarily appointed by the merchants and captains of vessels to superintend the various gangs, but their authority is too often contemned, and hence arises the failure of many a well-projected and expensive speculation. The overseer is clothed with no other authority than that of mere command, compliance with which is quite optional to those under him. We are happy, however, to bear testimony to one fact, that the native youths of the colony still maintain their character for industry and exemplary attention to their employers' interests. Some few of these young men are on this island, and their increasing industry, combined with their alacrity always to obey, greatly engaged our attention."
Gangs of men remained on Macquarie Island throughout page 184the year to produce the sea-elephant oil. Men belonging to two or three employers were frequently living there at one time, and keenly contested battles have occasionally raged for the dominion of half a mile of coastline. The combatants with their long beards and greasy seal-skin clothing looked like demons as they sallied forth with brandished clubs. Another visitor stated that their wretched stone-walled and grass-roofed hovels were indescribably dingy and dismal, and sent forth a most disagreeable odour.
In 1823 the Caroline entered the trade and made several voyages until on the morning of 17th March 1825 an incredibly violent storm blew up without any warning, and the vessel was driven ashore. No lives were lost, but the crew were unable to save anything from the wreck. Later on some cargo was washed ashore. Captain Taylor and his crew were forced to remain on the island until 30th August when the brig Wellington arrived. The Caroline was not insured, and her owners had sent the brig Cyprus to search for her, but the castaways had already been relieved when the Cyprus arrived at Macquarie Island. Following this the owners of the Caroline decided to try to dispose of what had been saved of the vessel, and advertised an auction sale of the goods as they lay at the island. The goods included one long-boat, quite new, but cut in two and lengthened to a 30 feet keel. This is taken to be an indication that Captain Taylor had abandoned hope of relief and was intending to make the boat sufficiently seaworthy for a long voyage.
The auction sale realized £37 10s., the purchaser being Joseph Underwood, who soon afterwards dispatched the Wellington to pick up his property.
The rookeries of fur-seals were now becoming more plentiful and from 1826 onwards more frequent voyages were made to Macquarie Island. In 1828 the Elizabeth and Mary had a bad passage and lost her boats and bulwarks. The sealing boom soon ended though, and in 1829 only one ship visited the island. This was the Faith, and she brought back two gangs of page 185men who had been there for thirty months, and who reported an almost complete absence of both seals and sea-elephants. The cook on the island was so excited by the arrival of the ship that he collapsed and died.
At the end of 1834 the brig Bee tried to revive the languishing trade. She landed a gang at the island and returned in the following year to find that practically no oil or skins had been obtained.
In 1838 the whaling brig Lord Nelson was wrecked at the northern end of the island, and her crew were marooned there for two years.
This wreck was followed in 1851 by that of the Countess of Minto on the east coast north of the Nuggets. There were no casualties.
The next victim was the Eagle, which was wrecked at Eagle Bay on the west coast in the sixties. The number of survivors is indefinite, but it included one woman who died on the island. The survivors were rescued about two years later.
The last wreck of this series occurred in 1877 when the schooner Bencleugh was lost. She was a vessel of 66 tons, and was driven ashore in an easterly gale.
On 22nd December 1890 the steamship Kakanui left Dunedin for Macquarie Island. Her departure was the outcome of public demand for the relief of ten men who were living on the island and who were believed to be short of provisions. This gang included seven men, two boys and a woman. They were employed by Mr. Hatch of Invercargill, and had been on the island since April. Mr. Hatch was exploiting the oil industry and was boiling down both sea-elephants and penguins.
The gang had been landed from the Awarua with six months' provisions, but at the expiry of the six months Mr. Hatch refused to send a relief ship, as he alleged that provisions had been left on the island by earlier gangs. This contention had been disputed by a member of the crew of the Awarua. Since the Tasmanian Government did not appear likely to take any page 186action the New Zealand Government decided to send the Kakanui, a small steamer of 83 tons. She was commanded by Captain Best and had a crew often men. Arriving at Macquarie Island on 2nd January 1891, she sailed again next day with eight of Mr. Hatch's gang. The remaining two, Mr. and Mrs. Mellish, elected to remain on the island. The Kakanui was never heard of again.
The New Zealand Government vessel Hinemoa left on a search expedition to the island. There Mr. Mellish told Captain Fairchild that two days after the Kakanui had left a terrible westerly gale swept the island. Casks of oil were blown along the beach and a hut was destroyed. It appeared that the storm was too much for the little ship. Ironically enough it was proved that Mr. Hatch was correct, and ample provisions were available at the camp. There was plenty of rice, flour and biscuits, and also penguin eggs. The Hinemoa then visited the Auckland Islands and the Snares Islands, and later made an intensive search of both these groups as well as Campbell Island.
In April 1891 the loss of the Kakanui was the subject of a magisterial inquiry. In the course of his evidence Mr. Hatch outlined the arrangements made for the relief of his gang. After landing them from the Awarua he had sold the vessel, and intended to send the Gratitude to relieve them. This ship was first dispatched to Sydney to have her hatchway altered, and she arrived back just after the Kakanui had left. He did not believe there could be any shortage of food. Furthermore he considered the Kakanui to be an unsuitable type of ship with too small a draught. He thought her deck cargo of coal was too big, and he would have preferred a sailing vessel himself.
He went on to say that in February he himself went to Macquarie Island in the Gratitude, and he found on the island three casks of biscuit, three-quarters of a cask of flour, and plenty of peas, rice and oatmeal.
Various other witnesses testified that the stores on the island were unfit for human consumption. The meat was so page 187bad that it made the men sick, and the biscuit was green with mould.
Mr. Mellish stated that many items of stores had become exhausted, including tea, sugar, coffee and meat. Also the available casks had been filled with oil, and the men were discontented through lack of work. They were short of clothing and boots, and when the Kakanui arrived they embarked immediately. Captain Best had told him that he had travelled under sail most of the way down, and Mellish noted that the ship was very deep in the water—just over the Plimsoll mark in fact. She sailed into a rough north-easterly sea. The wind dropped later and shifted to the west, when for sixteen hours it blew a living gale. He thought the Kakanui would be about one hundred to one hundred and fifty miles off the island when the storm broke.
The Kakanui had been chartered for £150. She had a carrying capacity of 65 tons in the hold and 12 tons in the bunkers. A deck cargo of 63½ tons of coal was loaded, this being her requirements for seventeen days of steaming. Her two masts carried fore and aft sails, and she had plenty of spare canvas.
The general conclusion appeared to be that the ship had probably been pooped and her fires extinguished. The vessel was known to have a tendency to ship a following sea.
The Kakanui tragedy did not discourage Mr. Hatch from continuing operations at Macquarie Island, and he usually sent the Gratitude down three times a year, in December, February and March. The boiling down of sea-elephants had been almost entirely discontinued, and his gang was concentrating on Royal penguins. These birds are quite big, and are very numerous. They leave the island in June and return in October. Their nest is built of stones, and generally three eggs are laid, although it is commonly believed that the first one is discarded. The season for fat birds lasted for only six weeks, and during that period the gang at the Nuggets was kept very busy.page 188
The oil works at Lusitania Bay had now been abandoned, but the enormous heap of offal gave testimony to the number of penguins that had been slaughtered. Lusitania Bay is a King penguin area, this species being the largest of the penguin family to be found on the island. The King penguin does not build a nest, it just lays its single egg anywhere in the rookery, and often in water. The egg is then tucked by the feet into a fold in the lower part of the abdomen.
In 1894 the Gratitude was forced by very bad weather to leave the island before all the cargo had been loaded, and on the homeward voyage a heavy sea carried away two boats and the galley. The cook and a boy were in the galley at the time with one of the deck hands, and all three were lost.
Finally in 1898 the Gratitude met her doom. She was struck by a heavy storm while at anchor, and after weathering it successfully for three days she became badly damaged and had to be beached. She soon broke up, but her crew and cargo were saved. The crew were stranded on the island for three months before being picked up by the New Zealand Government vessel Tutanekai.
On 23rd May 1899 the Annie Hill anchored at the Nuggets, and found that one of the shore gang, Richard Hands, was sick and had been unable to work for some time. The captain decided to leave him in the comparative comfort of the shore quarters until he had finished loading the cargo. Meanwhile the rest of the shore gang came aboard and the ship proceeded to Lusitania Bay for cargo. Whilst there a storm blew up and the vessel had to put to sea. Although she regained the island four days later a further storm immediately blew her so far off the land that any thought of returning had to be abandoned. As a result the sick man was left with only the company of his dogs until such time as the Annie Hill was able to make a second trip to the island.
In 1900 William Belcher wrote from Macquarie Island to a Dunedin newspaper complaining about the infrequency of the page 189shipping. He alleged that the shore gang had become dependent on the Government ship Hinemoa for provisions. He also considered that what stores were sent by Mr. Hatch should first be examined by a Government official as to quantity and quality. Belcher, who had spent four years on the island, also mentioned that no medical supplies existed.
This letter was followed by an editorial which expressed sympathy with the plight of the oiling gang. It was pointed out, however, that action by the New Zealand Government was not possible while Macquarie Island remained under the control of Tasmania.
The publicity provoked a reply from Mr. Hatch. He explained that the shipping was regular except when unforeseen circumstances arose such as at the time of the Kakanui disaster. Also on one other occasion the brig Carin had been dismasted off the island and had been unable to land her stores. He mentioned that all the visits of the Hinemoa had been arranged and paid for by himself. Also he had liberated rabbits and wekas especially to provide fresh food. He had personally visited the island on several occasions and had once lived there for five months, eating and working with the men. He considered their conditions were no worse than could reasonably be expected in such a location.
Mr. Hatch appears to have dropped temporarily out of the Macquarie Island picture shortly after this, and a syndicate from Port Chalmers purchased the schooner Enterprise with a view to carrying on the penguin oil industry. The schooner left Port Chalmers on 30th August 1903, and reached the island on 16th September. She was blown off the land immediately and did not regain the island till the 25th, when a shore gang was landed with stores. On 5th October the vessel shifted to the south end of the island, where a new boat was lost before the wind again drove her out to sea. After regaining Lusitania Bay on the 9th a further gale prevented any contact with the shore gang and she had to put to sea once more. The ship was now very short of water, and snow had to be collected page 190off the deck to replenish the supply. It was decided to make for the Auckland Islands, and after a spell of nine days in this group the Enterprise returned to Macquarie Island on 13th November. Shortly afterwards she left for New Zealand.
The shore gang proceeded to repair the huts and the digesters, and in due course commenced the production of oil. By January the provisions started to run out. All the meat and vegetables were exhausted, and the men had to smoke tealeaves as a substitute for tobacco. Charles Anderson fell sick, and to relieve the shortage of accommodation three men left to live in another camp. On 6th April Anderson died, the cause of death being given as dropsy. He was buried at Nugget Point, in a grave covered with shingle, white stones and shells. A wooden cross was erected to his memory.
In 1908 Mr. Hatch reappeared on the scene, when he dispatched the Jessie Nicol with a gang of ten men. The camps he proposed to use were at the Nuggets, where Royal penguins were boiled down, and at the north end of the island, which was the site of the sea-elephant oil works. Mr. Hatch preferred the Royal penguins, as the King penguins produced too much refuse. This refuse would be a valuable fertilizer but there was no way of using it. On this occasion the gang erected another digester, making a total of four with a capacity of 2770 birds per day. The men worked in two shifts of twelve hours each, and the digesters were always going. Only the mature birds were killed, these weighing twelve to fifteen pounds each.
The penguins were usually available in two seasons of about twenty-one days each. The men were paid according to the amount of oil produced, and therefore did not benefit from the interval between seasons. The gang that went down in the Jessie Nicol expected to earn £45 each, this being based on an estimated yield of 150 tons of oil. In actual fact the production amounted to only 56 tons, and the average cheque was only about £15. The head man used to receive 6s. 6d. per ton of oil, the engineers 6s., and the other men 5s. 6d.
A detailed account written by one of the men who went page 191south in the Jessie Nicol gives an excellent impression of the living and working conditions.
After fifteen weary days cooped up in a wretched little schooner of 90 tons, which jumped and rolled in a manner undreamed of by steamer passengers, they sighted the island, a precipitous mountain piercing a stormy sky. All those who were not too sick quickly assembled out of the evil-smelling forecastle to feast their eyes on the longed-for sight.
The forecastle was just high enough to enable an ordinary man to walk upright. It was 11 or 12 feet wide at one end, tapering to 3 feet at the other, and was about 11 feet long. In this space 12 men had to live and sleep, and when the small hatch was closed to keep out the water the atmosphere became most oppressive. The small slush lamp found great difficulty in fulfilling its mission of providing some light in this gloomy hole. There were no portholes. Four bunks were built on each side and four at the end. It was too wet to go on deck and there was nowhere else to go. The walls glistened with the water which found its way from the deck above, and there was a general air of humid discomfort.
Further aft a still smaller cabin accommodated the captain and four other men. Of the 17 souls aboard the ship 7 constituted the crew, the other 10 being passengers bound for Macquarie Island.
After sailing a few miles down the coast the skipper dropped the anchor about a mile offshore. They were on the leeward side of the island, but a tremendous surf thundering on the beach precluded any possibility of landing. A little above high-water mark they could see the remains of the Gratitude, and a short distance from the wreck were two small huts and a galvanized iron shed.
Seven days elapsed before landing was possible. On the fifth night the wind changed suddenly and the ship began to jerk savagely at her anchors. The skipper was loath to put to sea, as contrary winds might easily prevent him from making the land again, and he was getting short of water. On the other page 192hand the anchors were dragging, and there was a danger of the ship joining the Gratitude on the rocks. However, after an anxious couple of hours the crew was just preparing to slip the cables when the wind shifted back to a more favourable quarter. The passengers lay in their bunks listening to the wind shrieking through the rigging and wondering if they would ever see New Zealand again.
The following Sunday broke bright and clear, with only a moderate sea, and at 5 a.m. a start was made on unloading. Four of the men were put ashore, two remained aboard to help the crew, while the remaining four manned the boat. They had aboard a large digester and boiler, the digester weighing nearly five tons. The first job was to make these water-tight so that they could be floated through the surf. After an hour's work the digester was winched clear of the deck and the engineers started to plug the openings. This had just been completed when some of the steadying tackle carried away, and the digester started to swing across the ship like a gigantic pendulum. One of the men narrowly escaped being crushed, and the mast which carried the whole weight bent like a bow with every roll of the ship. Fortunately it held until another tackle was rigged, and eventually the digester was safely lowered into the water. After towing it to the beach the next job was to get it up above high-water mark. This was accomplished with a block and tackle, and after fourteen hours' continuous work the job was completed.
But this was only an introduction to Macquarie Island. Next day the men were roused at daybreak and worked continuously till after midnight. They found that the larger of the two huts was divided into two rooms. One contained eight bunks, while the other was used as a kitchen. The other hut contained three bunks and a unique stove consisting of about twenty pieces of old iron tied together with wire. Periodically this stove would fall to pieces. Both of the huts were over-run with big rats. They seemed inclined to dispute possession the first night, and the men did not relish having rats nibbling at page 193their feet and heads during the night. At first, too, the rats would not run away, but just moved out of reach and stood watching. The beds were made of two sacks sewn together and partly filled with chaff. These were thrown into the bunks, and the weary men would throw themselves on top, fully clothed, with a rug to cover them. Sometimes the rats would get into the bags, and when a man lay down they would start to squeal. The man would then have to open the bag and tip out the contents, which would be shovelled back after the rat had escaped.
All the coal used in the boilers was brought in barrels, which were floated ashore in rafts. These barrels weighed about five hundredweight, and immediately they touched the beach the waves would begin to bury them with sand. Unless they were moved quickly they soon became almost immovable. Four men were detailed to roll the barrels to a safe place. One man was sick, and another injured almost immediately. He was heaving at a barrel when a great wave came in and rolled all the barrels together. The unfortunate man happened to get his leg badly crushed between two of them, and he limped for four months afterwards. That left only two able-bodied men on the job. They struggled on all day, working up to the waist in icy-cold water, with only two brief intervals to have a drink of tea and to eat a ship's biscuit. Just as it was getting too dark to see clearly they discerned the boat leaving the ship with something in tow. To their dismay it proved to be the boiler. They had already worked like demons for seventeen hours without a proper meal, and had just secured the last of the coal barrels.
However there was no option. They waded into the surf and helped to drag the boat up. The boiler had taken in a certain amount of water, which made it a good deal heavier; but the men eventually got ropes round it. One of them was nearly swept out to sea by the backwash, and the boiler itself was rapidly sinking in the sand. It was now pitch dark, and the hurricane lantern refused to stay alight. The tackle was fixed page 194to a rock and after a hard struggle the boiler was moved enough to get some timber under it. Once this was accomplished the job was more straightforward, and after three hours' work they had it in a secure position.
That finished the second day. Luckily the cook had come ashore with the boat, bringing some food, so all hands made a meal of salt meat, potatoes and cold duff. After supper the men wrung out their wet clothes and hung them in front of the fire. It was nearly 3 a.m. when they got to bed, and day was just breaking. Nobody worried about rats that night.
Next day was wet, but as the sea was still moderate the rest of the coal and some provisions were rafted ashore. It was desperately important to get the casks of provisions landed, as there was always the likelihood of the ship being forced to put to sea at a moment's notice. The men would be in a serious plight indeed if they were stranded without food supplies.
On one trip when the boat was towing thirty barrels of coal the combined effect of the wind and the current forced her to drift well to the south, where she beached a full mile and a half away from the camp. That meant a good deal to the men, as they not only had to get the coal out of the surf, but had to roll the casks along the beach to the camp. This was extremely hard work, as a man's own weight was enough to cause his boots to sink out of sight in the loose gravel of the beach, and the job took a full day.
The sea was much rougher when the last raft came in and the surf was thundering in 20 feet high. The men had a most unenviable task in the water. There was a good chance of being carried out to sea, but a better chance of being killed by the barrels of coal, which were being tossed about like eggshells in the breakers. The boat's crew was unable to land; in fact it was not until four days later that they got ashore.
Having got the last of the cargo ashore a start was made on sorting things out. All the casks looked alike, irrespective of whether they contained coal or food. One barrel was found to contain flour, oatmeal and rice. Sufficient sea-water had got page 195into it to burst the paper bags so the three commodities were well mixed. Another cask contained sugar, salt and other items which had similarly got mixed, and were also partially spoiled by the salt water. The cask containing salt meat had broken adrift from the raft and was lost, but the men still had to pay for it.
An inspection was then made of the boiling-down works, where the engineers were preparing the plant. This place was called "The Hall of Smells", and it was usual to fill one's pipe before entering. Two very ancient-looking boilers, with flakes of rust peeling off them, and one of them without a water-gauge, stood at one end of the shed. Behind them were three digesters. In another corner were three tanks for cooling the oil, but one of them was eaten through by rust. One of the boilers had been leaking so badly during the previous season that it used to put the fire out, and it was to be replaced by the one brought down by the Jessie Nicol.
The next ten days were spent in erecting the plant. First it was necessary to clear a track from the beach to the shed, and then the new digester was dragged up by means of a block and tackle. It was 11 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, so the roof and sides of the shed had to be removed to get it in. Timber from the wreck of the Gratitude was used for a foundation, and in due course both the digester and the boiler were erected.
On 9th January 1909 the first of the fat penguins came ashore. A barricade of barrels and staves was set up, leaving a small opening, behind which a man was stationed with a club. The first man to try this job nearly killed himself instead of the penguin. He swung the club, missed the penguin, and broke the club on a rock. This caused him to overbalance into the creek, where he cut his face open on a sharp stone.
After the birds had been clubbed other men would carry them up to the shed and pile them in heaps. Then one man would stand on top of the digester while another would throw the birds up to him. It took nearly 300 birds to fill the four page 196digesters. Since the supply of coal was limited the engineers had instructions to burn as many penguins in the boilers as possible. The birds burn well for about half a minute, but then they tend to deaden the fire, so that they could be only used with discretion. When handling penguins in such great numbers the men could hardly be expected to verify that every bird was dead before it was tossed into the digester. So long as the penguins did not peck they were judged ready for boiling. After being boiled for twelve hours the oil rises to the top of the digester, the steam is shut off, and the outlet cocks opened. The oil then runs into the cooling tanks. The bottom door of the digester is then opened, and the remains of the birds raked out. In theory the refuse is supposed to go down the stream to the sea, but actually most of it remains on the banks, where it causes a bad smell.
Work was continuous, one shift being from midnight to mid-day, and the other from mid-day to midnight. At this time of year the sun would rise at 3 a.m. and set at 11.15 p.m., so there was practically no real darkness. The poor condition of the plant made the job of the engineers a particularly hazardous one. One night the lower door of a digester blew loose with a loud report. There was forty pounds steam pressure inside, and a jet of boiling oil and steam hissed out, narrowly missing one of the men. The jet roared for two hours after the steam was shut off.
After the first penguin season was finished the gang had a few days' spell before the next season began in March. The provisions were already running low. The sugar was finished, and the mixture of flour, oatmeal and rice was nearly exhausted. The cook had been making this into some kind of bread. The potatoes were unusable, and the only thing that was in plentiful supply was ship's biscuit. There was also an ample supply of a kind of pickles that nobody would eat, and plenty of tea which nobody wanted without sugar and milk.
A number of small earthquakes were experienced, but little notice was taken of them until a very severe shock occurred page 197one day when the men were eating their breakfast. The shock threw most of them to the ground, and was accompanied by a loud rumbling noise.
In view of the food shortage and the non-appearance of the schooner an attempt was then made to find food on the island. The gang had been told there were plenty of rabbits, but they were unable even to see one. One of the gang managed to catch a few fish, but they were only a few inches long. Shortage of ammunition prevented them from killing sea-elephants to obtain the tongues.
On one of these foraging expeditions some of the gang travelled to the sea-elephant-oil works at the north end of the island. This plant was used mainly in the winter months, and the men were not interested in the attractions of trudging through snow laden with bags of blubber, dripping with blood which fills the boots and saturates the clothing.
Two men attempted to walk to the south end of the island, but they did not succeed. They were away for three days, and one of them nearly lost his life in a bog. Two others were lost for two days in a dense fog without provisions of any kind.
When the second penguin season started the gang was unable to produce oil, as the schooner had not returned with a fresh supply of coal. Three of the men were sick, and some of the others were discussing the possibility of reaching the Auckland Islands in the boat. They knew of the provision depots maintained there by the New Zealand Government. However, before a decision was reached the schooner was sighted. The boat was hastily launched and a supply of provisions brought ashore. It was fortunate that this could be done, as the ship was blown off the island next morning, and she did not reappear for a week. When she returned the supply of coal was rafted ashore, but the penguins were already starting to leave the island. Only 56 tons of oil had been produced. The 330 barrels of oil were towed out to the schooner, and the gang was ready to leave; 20 barrels of water were also taken aboard. The only page 198supply of water was the creek up which millions of penguins had walked. It was the colour of weak tea and full of feathers.
One man named McKibben decided to remain on Macquarie Island during the winter to get some oil on his own account. He was left what stores could be spared, and later he was given a further supply by the Nimrod. Another gang of oilers was also landed for Mr. Hatch.
The trip to New Zealand was a very rough one which occupied fourteen days. During the voyage the second mate died, and was buried at sea.
On arriving home the men received their pay. The price of the provisions, including those unfit for consumption, was first deducted, after which some of the men had nothing to draw, while the others got only a few shillings. The men were paid 5s. 6d. per ton for the oil, but they were not told the cost price of the provisions. Perhaps it wasn't for nothing that they arrived home on the 1st of April.
Following upon the death at sea of the second mate of the Jessie Nicol Mr. Hatch was unable to find a new mate, and he had to arrange for the Hinemoa to call at Macquarie Island in July. All the gang returned with her, but the captain refused to wait while the 600 casks of oil were loaded. This considerably annoyed Mr. Hatch.
The gang had been very short of provisions and had lived largely on the produce of the island—the hearts and tongues of sea-elephants, wekas, penguins, and Macquarie Island cabbage. Their clothes and boots also wore out, but they made trousers out of blankets and boots out of sea-elephant hide. Even McKibben had had more than enough of the place and was glad to get back to civilization.
At this stage Mr. Hatch publicly announced his intention of basing his activities on Hobart. From time to time there had been suggestions that Macquarie Island might be handed over to New Zealand administration, mainly with a view to obtaining more effective control over seal poaching during the close season. The proposal was first made about 1897.page 199
However, Mr. Hatch was first confronted with another problem, as on 12th December 1910 the Jessie Nicol was wrecked on the island. She had just landed a new gang when a violent north-easter blew up so suddenly that she was unable to get away. She was not insured, as Lloyds refused cover on a sailing vessel working in those waters. The ship Ida M. Clark reported the wreck and offered to take the castaways to Campbell Island. They had plenty of food, however, so they elected to stay at Macquarie Island until relieved by Mr. Hatch. The relief vessel was the Huanui. She was chartered by Mr. Hatch, who decided to travel to the island with her.
The gang reported that the Jessie Nicol had arrived in bad weather, but had landed the shore gang without mishap. When the north-easter blew up she tried to beat out to sea, but was unsuccessful and was forced to anchor close inshore. Her anchors would not hold, and she dragged until her rudder was smashed on a rock. At that stage the second mate and three seamen came ashore, but the captain, the first mate and the cook refused to leave the schooner. Later the cook tried unsuccessfully to swim ashore, and he had great difficulty in regaining the ship. Immediately afterwards a huge sea struck the Jessie Nicol and she capsized. Captain Holmes was seen to be struck by a water tank, and the cook was washed overboard. The mate climbed into the rigging, where he held on for about fifteen minutes before he too was washed away. The captain's body came ashore soon afterwards, and a fortnight later the mate was found. It was a month before the remains of the cook were washed ashore. The official inquiry revealed that the wreck was due solely to the hazardous nature of the landing place, and the certificate of the second mate was returned to him.
The island claimed another victim on 14th November 1911, when the schooner Clyde became a total wreck. All hands were saved and returned to Hobart on the Toroa. The Clyde had been purchased by Mr. Hatch to replace the Jessie Nicol, and the wreck occurred on her first visit to Macquarie Island.page 200
The Toroa had arrived at the island on 12th December 1911, having been chartered to take a scientific party that was associated with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Dr. Mawson. The party consisted of five men led by a meteorologist named Ainsworth. The other members included a geologist, a biologist, a radio operator and an engineer.
Mr. Hatch now arranged for his oiling station to be serviced by the Rachel Cohen, and it was also arranged that she should carry supplies for the scientific party. It had been intended that the scientists would be relieved by Mawson's ship Aurora early in 1913, and accordingly when the Rachel Cohen visited the island in January 1913 she carried only oiling station supplies. However, the Aurora failed to pick up the scientific party, and in July the Rachel Cohen was chartered to take supplies to them. Unfortunately she encountered extremely bad weather, had most of her sails carried away, and was driven to Stewart Island. At the request of the Antarctic Expedition the Tutanekai was dispatched to Macquarie Island in August. Mr. Hatch, who had been on the Rachel Cohen, travelled as a passenger on the Tutanekai.
The oiling gang numbered ten men, and upon the arrival of the ship they aired their usual grievances about the poor food supply, the non-arrival of the Rachel Cohen, and the poor financial returns. They had obtained only 41 tons of penguin oil and 6 tons of elephant oil, which would bring them an average return of about £13 10S. After deducting the value of the stores supplied to them it seemed likely that the men would finish their contract with a debit balance. Mr. Hatch was not sympathetic, as he pointed out that the poor season would mean a heavy financial loss to him.
The visitors on the Tutanekai took the opportunity toinspect the oiling stations, and they were particularly impressed by the difficulties associated with the boiling-down of sea-elephants. Although a big sea-elephant would yield three-quarters of a ton of oil, they could appreciate the labour involved in carrying the sacks of blubber to the digesters. The beaches were page 201strewn with sea-elephant skeletons, but there was no indication of the species being exterminated.
A hazard of the penguin oil industry was also mentioned. The platform used by the man throwing the birds into the digester became slippery, and one member of the gang had the misfortune to overbalance and fall into the steaming digester. He was rescued in a badly scalded condition.
Mr. Hatch had a wide knowledge of the island, and he took pleasure in discussing his theories with the scientific party. One of these provided an explanation for the quantities of gravel usually found in the stomachs of sea-elephants. Various reasons have been given to explain this, but Mr. Hatch averred that the real reason was that the sea-elephant swallowed the gravel to increase its weight so that it could descend to greater depths when seeking its food. He also affirmed that when the adult penguins drive their young ones into the sea for the first time they eject oil on the water to make it smoother. He said that although the oil from one bird would be insignificant it had to be realized that probably thousands of penguins would be ejecting oil simultaneously.
The Tutanekai brought back with her seven of the disillusioned oiling gang, but it was not until the end of 1915 that the scientific party was relieved.
Mr. Hatch had, in the meantime, shifted his refinery to Hobart, and was still using the Rachel Cohen to service the island. He had now equipped the vessel with auxiliary engines, and the station functioned without particular incident in the following years.
In a lecture to the South Australian Royal Society in 1919 Sir Douglas Mawson made a strong plea for restrictions to be imposed on the slaughter of penguins at Macquarie Island. He considered that in view of the cost of maintaining the station the actual profit must be very small, and could not justify the killing of these handsome birds. He understood that Mr. Hatch paid the Tasmanian Government only £40 a year for the lease of the island, and in fact he believed that for many years the page 202annual rental was only £20. Since Australia and New Zealand were really trustees of the bird and animal life of the southern islands it seemed to him that the leasing of Macquarie Island was not justifiable.
Dr. Mawson's appeal did not go unnoticed, and in 1920 Macquarie Island was declared a sanctuary.