Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Islands of Despair

Eleven — Western Harbour and the Sealers

page 103

Western Harbour and the Sealers

Trig stations had now been established on all the hills that could be reached from our camp on Musgrave Peninsula, and before theodolite observations were commenced it was necessary to erect more signals near the western coast. So on Tuesday, 5th September, we shifted to a field camp in Western Harbour. The day broke gloriously fine and sunny after a heavy fall of snow overnight, and the scenery as we sailed down the harbour was really attractive. The Ranui left us as soon as we had got our belongings ashore, as the weather was then threatening, and Western Harbour did not offer a secure anchorage. We found a reasonably good camp site and worked desperately to get things under cover before the rain started. It did start, too, and fell heavily all night.

Next morning was windy with frequent violent hailstorms. Les and Graham were left to organize the camp, while George and I started clearing a bush track up the western coast of the harbour. The job proved easier than usual, and we were interested to find that we were on the route of an old sealer's track. We did not follow it all the time, but at various points the evidence of previous clearing was unmistakable.

The fur-seal is a timid animal which does not frequent the open beaches, but prefers a rocky coast, the more inaccessible the better. The sealers camped in the harbours, such as Western Harbour, and then travelled overland to the western cliffs, where they were lowered by ropes to the rocks below. Usually page 104two men were lowered to each rookery with a supply of food and blankets, as they were often a week or more in cleaning it up. The fur-seals were found in crevices between rocks, or in small caves. They were killed with a club, but the sealers usually carried a gaff as well, so that when a seal was in a place where the club could not be used his head could be gaffed into a better position for clubbing. The skins were then hoisted by rope to the cliff top, and if the overland trip to the camp was not too arduous the blubber would also be hoisted up, and carried to the camp to be melted down in a try-pot. Often it was a long journey from the cliffs to the camp, and in such cases the blubber would be left. The skins were salted, then rolled up carefully and packed in casks.

After a few visits by sealers the rookeries soon became depleted, and so a constant search was made for new rookeries. When one was found every endeavour was made to keep its location a secret from other gangs.

The value of the skins seems to have fluctuated a good deal from season to season, but appears to have ranged from 10s. to 25s. each. Usually the crew of a sealing vessel was paid by a system of "lays", and a seaman who was on an 80th lay would receive one skin out of every eighty obtained on the voyage. As a matter of interest, the brig Active used the following system in 1821:

Master 10th lay
1st mate 25th lay
2nd mate 35th lay
Cooper and carpenter each 50th lay
Boat-steerers each 65th lay
Seamen each 80th lay
Steward 100th lay

As a further sidelight on the matter of conditions of employment, it is interesting to record a list of stores shipped to a party working on the islands:

page 105
12 casks flour 2 boxes soap
11 casks pork 1 cask beer
24 casks beef 2 chests tea
22 bags sugar 2 puncheons
2 casks ironmongery 1 hogshead rum
2 casks slops (seamen's clothing) 2 kegs tobacco

During the peak of the sealing years an almost incredible number of seals was killed. For instance in 1823 an American schooner named Henry obtained 13,000 skins from "the Aucklands and adjacent islands". The ship masters were usually reluctant to state exactly where they were working, and the shipping returns often referred only to "the sealing islands". The Midas is known to have obtained 1600 skins in ten days at the Auckland Islands, but doubtless a proportion of these would not be from fur-seals. Actually, it was quite a profitable proposition to kill sea-lions, or hair-seals, as, although their skins were of little value, they produced quite a lot of oil. An old bull, known as a "wig", would yield five or six gallons of oil, although the sea-bears or "clapmatches" would not be so profitable.

In August 1825 the Yankee arrived in Sydney with 2000 fur-seal skins from the Aucklands, but although the Sally arrived at the Aucklands on 3rd November of the same year, and spent three months there, she obtained only 300 skins, and was unfortunate enough to lose six men through drowning. Strangely enough the Samuel was at the islands at the same time and left on 5th December with 2000 skins.

As may be imagined, the life of a sealer was a hazardous one, and tragedies were by no means uncommon, although there are few records now available. For instance, there is an episode involving four convicts who escaped in a small boat from Norfolk Island, and who were picked up by a whaling vessel which happened to be shorthanded. After working on page 106her for some time the men joined a sealing gang on Stewart Island, after which they were taken on the crew of a sealing ship named the Adventure, commanded by Captain Keith, who apparently promised to take the men to England upon completion of his sealing work. However, he found he was running short of supplies and he put the four convicts ashore on the Snares Islands with no food except some potatoes. Although the men resisted, they subsequently found they were not badly off, as mutton-birds were plentiful and the potatoes grew reasonably well.

Unfortunately, they struck trouble of an entirely unexpected nature. One of the men became subject to attacks of melancholia, and he would go away for weeks at a time and live in a cave on a cliff face. The others had no idea how he subsisted during these periods, although they surmised that he must have been able to get birds' eggs. At all events he was never seen to leave the cave during these absences. As time went on, the man began to show signs of violence, and the other three became apprehensive for their own safety. They accordingly decided to dispose of him, and when a favourable opportunity occurred they cast him over the edge of a cliff. To their dismay the body was caught on a projecting ledge of rock, from which it could not be dislodged, and there it remained until the attentions of the birds gradually reduced it to a skeleton. This process apparently occupied many days, and profoundly affected the remaining men.

It was only to be expected, then, that they gave an enthusiastic welcome to Captain Coffin of the whaler Enterprise, who was attracted by their smoke signals. Although at least four vessels had previously passed close to the islands, the convicts had not signalled to them for fear of being sent back to Norfolk Island. Now the tragic episode of their companion's death had preyed so much on their nerves that they were unable to remain there voluntarily. Unfortunately for them Captain Coffin took them to Port William, where he transferred them, much against their wishes, to a vessel bound for Sydney. Upon page 107arriving at that port they were identified as escaped convicts, and were sent to Norfolk Island for execution.

Another sealing tragedy of a different type occurred on the Snares Islands in 1831, when Captain Bucknell of the Currency Lass (90 tons) left a gang of ten men with two boats at the islands. There is only a small boat harbour, and running off it is a deep cave which has a narrow entrance, but widens into a spacious dome-shaped aperture. The rock ledges inside this cave were found to be a favourite haunt of the fur-seals. One boat with two men was sent into the cave to disturb the seals, while the other boat waited at the entrance, so that the seals could be clubbed as they emerged. Unfortunately, nobody had realized just how many seals were inside the cave at the time, and the whole lot came charging out in panic and capsized the waiting boat, whose seven occupants were thrown into the sea amongst the infuriated seals. When the other boat came to the rescue the water was tinged red with the blood of the unlucky men. However, four of the men were rescued, and the lacerated body of one of the others was recovered later.

A detailed account is also available of a sealing expedition to the Auckland Islands in 1841. This gang used North Harbour as a base, and had considerable success in some rookeries at what was known as Blackness Point. Some of the rookeries could not be reached from the sea, and it was decided that the men would lower themselves over the cliffs with ropes. A boat party guided the shore gang to the best position to come down the cliff face, and it was arranged that the carcases of the seals would be rolled over the cliff edge to the waiting boat. Seven men descended 300 feet from the top of the cliff to a rock ledge, where a large cave was found, with rock shelves six or eight feet above the floor. The men immediately fell to work clubbing the numerous seals which were lying amongst the rocks.

Suddenly disaster struck. The panic-stricken seals on the raised ledges simultaneously charged towards the sea, and page 108tumbled down amongst the men on the floor of the cave. In the partial darkness the confusion was indescribable. The carcases of seals piled up in the narrow entrance to the cave until both light and means of escape were cut off. One of the men got into a corner where he struck a light and kindled a small fire with blubber. Two other uninjured men were able to join him, but a fourth man was found to be critically injured. Another man was later discovered wedged amongst a mass of seals, some of which were still alive and had to be killed before he could be freed. The men then set to work clearing the pile of seals that obstructed the outlet of the cave, and amongst the pile they found the bodies of the other two men, both terribly mutilated. The bodies were wrapped in skins and lowered from the ledge, after which they were buried at sea.

Occasionally, of course, tragedies must have occurred when no survivors were left to tell the tale. For instance, on 23rd July 1879 Captain Drew of the Awarua left a gang of seven men on the Auckland Islands, and then went to Campbell Island, where he left seven more. He returned to the Aucklands in October, and remained there for fourteen days without seeing any sign of the men. Concluding that they must be working down the coast in the whale-boat, he decided to leave four months' provisions for them, and then returned to New Zealand via Campbell Island. He again visited Port Ross early in 1880, and found the Campbell Island gang established there—they having been brought from Campbell Island by the Friendship. These men reported that they had searched as far as possible for the missing men, and had been assisted in the search by an American whaler, which had sent her boats right round the islands. The only outcome of this search was the discovery of some timber from a small boat in Carnley Harbour, and they were forced to conclude that this must have been the wreckage of the sealing gang's whale-boat, which had evidently been capsized in a squall.

The peak of the sealing activities on the Auckland Islands was confined to the early part of the nineteenth century. The page 109slaughter of the fur-seals was so heavy during this period that the animals were all but exterminated, and by 1826 it was no longer an economic proposition for sealers to operate continuously at the islands. In 1829 the American schooner Antarctic anchored in Carnley Harbour, and after a four-day search with two boats no fur-seals and not more than twenty sea-lions were seen. However, as has already been observed, sealing trips were still made intermittently during the following years, although it is unlikely that any spectacular results were achieved. In 1881 the New Zealand Government decided to exercise some control over the sealing activities, and Captain Grey of the Stella was asked to report on the matter to the Legislative Council. Provision was made for controlling the industry, but offences against the regulations were naturally difficult to detect.

In July 1889 the crew of the Janet Ramsay appeared before a Court for seal poaching. They had been to the Macquarie Islands, but had been blown off by violent gales, and it had taken them six weeks to beat back to land again, only to find that weather conditions still did not permit them to get ashore. In the meantime the ship had been badly strained by the heavy seas and it was decided to return to New Zealand to refit. Unluckily, further serious damage was sustained on the home-ward voyage, and it became necessary to call at Port Ross, where the ship was beached and repaired. While there the crew saw a notice proclaiming that the close season for seals ended on 1st June 1889, and as it was now 3rd June they obtained a number of skins. When the ship reached New Zealand it was found that the close season had been extended to 30th December. The misunderstanding was reported to the Customs Authorities, who decided to prosecute. The Court was of the opinion that the men were fully aware of the extension of the close season, but the magistrate imposed the minimum penalty of conviction and a fine of £5 plus a further fine of 5s. for every seal killed.

Further sealing regulations gazetted in 1909 aroused a page 110certain amount of criticism. In the first place, it was held that the restriction relating to age and sex was impracticable, as it was obviously impossible for a man in a dimly lit cave and surrounded by frightened and angry seals to determine either the age or sex of any of them. Seal-skins at that time had a market value of about 25s. each, and it was considered that the Government levy of 10s. per skin was too high. In many quarters, too, it was held that some relaxation of the regulations controlling the killing of sea-lions was desirable, as these animals are much heavier consumers of fish than are the smaller fur-seals. It was also suggested by some sealers that a further clause should be inserted in the regulations, making it an offence to leave a carcase of a seal in a rookery, as the seals will not return to a rookery where a carcase has been left. They mentioned a case where a sudden change in the weather forced a gang to leave a rookery before all the carcases could be removed, and even after a period of forty years no fur-seal had ever been seen there again.

Despite the new regulations and the greatly diminished number of seals, occasional visits were still made to the Auckland Islands by sealing vessels. In 1916 a party of seven men was landed there by the Rachel Cohen, and since they were equipped with a launch they were able to visit a number of well-known rookeries. A start was made by calling at Disappointment Island, where 107 fur-skins were obtained. The gang then visited the famous Red Rock rookery, but it was found that half of this historical rookery had been destroyed by a land-slip. Actually this was the first time this rookery had been reached from the sea, and the day's work yielded fifty-one skins. A day spent at the Quartette rookery produced sixty-four skins. Bad weather prevented them from using the launch on some occasions, and during these periods they were able to get a few sea-lions on the beach near the camp. An accident occurred on one of these occasions and one of the men was badly gashed by a wounded sea-lion.

The party had a serious misfortune on 28th September page 111when the launch dragged her anchor in a gale and became a wreck. However, the men managed to repair a reserve launch which had previously been damaged, and on a later trip were able to get fifty-one skins from the north-west rookery. A further accident was narrowly averted on this occasion when a frightened seal dived over a rock on to the back of one of the men, knocking him sprawling. Another seal landed on his leg, but strangely enough he was neither bitten nor hurt.

It was then decided to try the southern end of the islands, and the gang set out in the launch, which they had fitted with a mast and sail. On reaching the entrance to Carnley Harbour, they decided to round Gilroy Head and go into Fly Harbour. This turned out to be an unfortunate decision, as the boat struck very squally weather. Eight attempts were made to enter Fly Harbour, but on each occasion the boat was blown out to sea and had to beat her way back again. It was not until mid-afternoon of the next day that they were successful, after having been twenty-eight hours in the open boat in the most miserable of conditions. Their troubles were by no means ended, as their clothing and their swags were completely soaked, and their provisions were mostly ruined. To make matters worse, they found no seals, either in Fly Harbour or in Carnley Harbour.

Three of the party decided to walk overland to Port Ross, and left from the north arm. The trip required three days of arduous and unpleasant travelling, and they reached Port Ross to find the launch was already there. The Rachel Cohen arrived on Ist November, and all hands loaded the cargo of about 500 skins and 3½ tons of oil, obtained in a period of just under three months.

Whilst dealing with the subject of sealing on the Auckland Islands some mention should be made of whaling activities, although it must be remembered that whaling enterprises would necessarily have little interest in the islands, except as a place to obtain fresh water, and perhaps to refit their vessels. The first nation in the field appears to have been France, and page 112about 1837 a French vessel was responsible for erecting a large hut in Laurie Harbour. The United States Exploring Expedition, which visited Port Ross in 1840 in the Porpoise, found that three French whalers were using the harbour as a base, the ships being the Jean Bart, the La Manche and the L'Herion. It seems that the French interest did not last much longer, and it was not until the Enderby Settlement was established that really serious whaling activities were commenced. As has already been recounted, this venture was singularly unsuccessful, and, as far as I have been able to ascertain, no subsequent whaling stations have been maintained on the islands.

Returning from this digression on the days of the sealers, we were still clearing our track up the hills west of Western Harbour. The job was soon completed and we pushed on through the familiar high tussock to a group of rocks which, on account of their distinctive shape, we called the Finger Rocks. These had an elevation of 1374 ft. and offered a suitable site for another trig station.

Next day we were greeted by a high wind and steady rain, but three of us made a start on a track up the eastern side of the harbour, and by nightfall we had it completed, and a load of trig poles, bracing wires, iron spikes and iron pipes deposited at the top in readiness for better weather. Upon returning to camp I found a large black cat occupying my tent.

Friday, 8th September, treated us to a whole gale, but it was fairly clear overhead, and George and Graham climbed to the high plateau west of the Tower of Babel. However, the wind was too much for them, and they were unable to erect any trig signals. Meanwhile Les and I took a trip towards Victoria Passage, where we managed to get a signal up in a semi-sheltered position, but the wind was cruel. We were quite close to the western cliffs, and a stream that normally discharged over the cliffs as a waterfall was being blown back in a cloud of spray that looked like smoke. As soon as the spray page 113fell on the tussock it became ice. We ate our simple lunch in the welcome shelter of a rock outcrop overlooking Victoria Passage, and were rewarded by a most inspiring view of angry seas hurling themselves through the passage and against the western cliffs of Adams Island. We were fascinated watching the huge seas climbing up the Adams Rocks, and we wondered if one of them would reach the top. Surely enough one did, but it was not until some weeks later that we found that the height of this particular rock is 388 feet.

Our vantage point provided us with a very good view of Victoria Passage, and although it was hardly what we had expected from Captain Musgrave's description, it definitely is not a passage to be recommended. In this weather, of course, the great seas surged through the passage and buried Monumental Island in a seething mass of white water. Even on the calmest of days there was always a strong surge through the passage, and huge whirlpools and eddies could be seen inside the entrance.

The only ship that is known to have used this entrance is the steam corvette Victoria, commanded by Captain Norman in 1865, and it is reported that her master had an anxious time as the ship inched her way through. The passage has also been used several times by small boats, probably on every occasion at slack water. Captain Lovett of the Sally passed through successfully in a whale-boat, but he reports that his other boat missed the tide, and neither boat nor seamen were ever seen again. Another successful passage was by the cast-aways of the Anjou, as will be described later. Victoria Passage was also negotiated safely by Captain Catling in the 20-ton cutter Enterprise, and on other occasions in his 4-h.p. launch.

The bad weather continued for several days, and although I did carry the theodolite up to the Finger Rocks I was driven home by high winds and heavy snowstorms. The only consolation was in having the theodolite there ready for work, and that did mean something, as with its sturdy case and tripod it seemed to get heavier every day I used it.

page 114

During our enforced idleness in the camp we were interested to observe the first sea-lions reappearing in the harbour, after spending the winter months at sea. Most of them were bears, and they were very sleek and glossy. Even the old wigs seemed to be less shabby and disreputable in appearance after a few months of regular food. All of the birds were also acquiring their spring plumage, and even the woebegone shags were looking glossy and almost handsome.

During this period the weather was quite clear, except when squalls of hail or snow were passing over, and it was most irritating to be prevented from working only by the persistent strong wind. In the summer and autumn our chief worry had been low cloud, which of course was beyond our control, but now that the low cloud was no longer a trouble I determined to find a solution to the problem of the wind. The answer appeared to be a portable shelter, which would have to be light enough to be easily carried over the very rough country, and would also have to be strong enough to with-stand the furious squalls without any danger of carrying away and wrapping itself round the theodolite. I knew that any windproof material, such as canvas, would be unsatisfactory, as it would act as a diaphragm, and when it shuddered in the wind it would make the instrument vibrate. However, I thought that a large piece of hessian that we used for wrapping the tripods would prove suitable, and this was attached to a pair of straight poles that we cut from the bush. Two guy ropes were attached to each pole. The idea was to anchor the feet of the poles in rock crevices, or to build large loose rocks around them, and then to hold the poles erect by attaching the guy ropes to iron spikes driven in rock crevices. The screen was about six feet high by eight feet long.

It was not until 16th September, after we had been confined to camp for seven days, that the weather moderated enough for it to be worth while attempting work. On that day I was able to carry out observations at a trig near the south-west cape, and the screen proved to be an outstanding success, page 115providing a reasonable amount of very necessary shelter to both instrument and observer, and making just the difference between work and no work. It took a certain amount of wrestling by both men to get it erected, of course.

Next day Graham and I climbed the Tower of Babel, which has an altitude of 1835 feet and which we found was at the eastern end of a fairly extensive plateau. The plateau consisted entirely of bogs, which fortunately were firmly frozen and therefore easily crossed. My observations at the trig occupied four hours, as the snowstorms were very frequent. Since we were thoroughly wet and the temperature was below freezing point our clothing soon froze rigid, and we were rather relieved when the job was finished. I had scarcely thawed out by the time we got back to camp, and had a severe attack of cramp during the night. Actually, conditions were not much better at the camp, except for shelter from the wind, as our tents were coated with frozen layers of hail and snow.