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Islands of Despair

Eighteen — The Antipodes and the Bounty Islands

page 165

Eighteen
The Antipodes and the Bounty Islands

Some reference should be made in this book to two other small groups of islands in the sub-Antarctic region near New Zealand. Seldom visited and little known, they are called the Antipodes Islands and the Bounty Islands.

The Antipodes Islands were discovered in 1800. Captain Waterhouse was en route from Sydney to London in H.M.S. Reliance when he sighted the group, and as he was at the time near the antipodes of London he named them the Penantipodes Islands. Although this name was used in the early part of the 19th century it has subsequently been corrupted to Antipodes.

The main island of the group is about five miles long by three wide. The island has no harbour, but rather precarious shelter can be obtained at Ringdove Bay, and also off the landing place near the north cape. North of the main island are two islets named the Bollons Islands, one of them having a remarkable archway caused by erosion of the sea.

The landing place gives fairly easy access to the summit of the cliffs which surround the island. These cliffs reach a height of 500 feet, in some places. The highest point on the island is Mt. Galloway, which has an altitude of 1,320 feet. It is reported that a lake with an area of about 14 acres is located on the summit of this peak. The southern part of the island is occupied by a plateau about 800 feet above sea level, but a great part of it consists of bogs. There is a good page 166water supply, one particularly good stream discharging near the landing place. The islands are entirely volcanic in origin.

The group is treeless, and the main vegetation is the ubiquitous tussock. There is a certain amount of scrubby veronica and coprosma, while a few patches of Stilbocarpa polaris are also to be found.

The Antipodes were soon found to be a rich source of furseals. The first sealing gang was left there about July 1804 by an American vessel, the Union, of 99 tons, and her tender, the Independence, of 40 tons. The Union then preceeded to Tonga, where her captain was killed, and the vessel was later wrecked. The Favorite, of 245 tons, was then dispatched with the Independence to the Antipodes. The sealing gang was found to have taken and cured over 60,000 fine skins. The two ships then separated, and the Independence was never heard of again.

The 45-ton brig Venus landed a gang on the island in 1806, this gang being picked up by the Star with 14,000 skins. An even better haul of 39,000 skins was obtained in 1807 by the Commerce.

The fur-seals were practically exterminated in very quick time, and the group slipped into obscurity. In common with the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, a provision depot was established at the Antipodes, and this led to periodic visits being made by a Government steamer to check on the contents of the depot, and to look for possible castaways.

In 1888 the Stella, in her round of the depots, landed three goats and six sheep on the Antipodes. Also some trees were planted and grass seed sown. On this occasion a board was found erected on a tussocky ledge above the landing place. The inscription read "To the memory of W. Foster, chief officer of the schooner Prince of Denmark, who was unfortunately drowned in the boat harbour, December 17, 1825."

Towards the end of 1893 Captain Fairchild was taking the Hinemoa on her round of the depots when he sighted a flag-staff on the Antipodes. On landing he found eleven survivors from the wreck of the Spirit of the Dawn.

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This vessel was an iron barque of 716 tons, built in 1869. She was bound from Rangoon to Talcahuano (Chile) with a cargo of rice. About 4.30 a.m. on 4th September 1893 the lookout reported that he thought he could see breakers ahead. There was a thick fog at the time, and Chief Officer Horner could not identify the breakers, but he called Captain Millington and ordered the helm to be put hard up. The vessel barely had steerage way and did not respond quickly enough to clear the rocks, which soon became clearly visible. All hands were issued with lifebelts as the ship struck. She sank so quickly that there was no time to lower the boats. Most of the men climbed into the mizzen rigging, where they remained until the first and second officers managed to get the starboard boat floated off the deck. The captain and four others were drowned, but the remaining eleven members of the crew all managed to get into the boat.

The boat drifted out to sea, but later in the morning the fog cleared, and the survivors pulled towards the island. About 3 p.m. a suitable landing place was found, and the boat was made as secure as possible.

The castaways found an overhanging bluff where they decided to camp. They cut tussock to lie on, and spread the boat's sail over themselves during the night. They had been able to get some shellfish, which they ate raw. They were afraid that it might be poisonous, and ate it sparingly at first. Fortunately plenty of good water was available.

Next morning, when the men went down to the beach they were dismayed to find that the boat had broken adrift and was gone. This was a serious blow, as it ended all hopes of escaping from the island. They looked round for wreckage from the ship, but found none. She had run on to a reef which extends for about half a mile from the southern end of the main island. Many of the men had very little clothing, and were consequently ill-equipped for their stay at the Antipodes.

A penguin was captured and eaten raw for breakfast. The two officers and two of the seamen then decided to walk round page 168the island in search of a better camping place. They found the walking conditions rather arduous, and on the first day they covered about half the distance. That night they slept in the tussock. They caught an albatross, but it was very unpalatable in a raw state, and they could not eat much of it. In the morning they forced themselves to finish it, and as the weather was again very foggy Mr. Horner thought they should retrace their steps to the landing place. The second mate, Morrissey, argued that having got this far they should carry on. Horner had his way, and they returned to the rest of the castaways. They arrived back, hungry, wet and weary, and informed the others that there was nothing to be found on the island.

The men tried eating nellies, but the legs were the only parts fit for consumption. However, more penguins then began to arrive, and these were eaten in great numbers. A favourite practice was to scrape the fat off the skins, and use it as a sandwich filling between slices of an edible root. Meanwhile they were keenly observing the increasing size of the penguins, and anticipating the arrival of the laying season. The first egg was laid on 2nd October, and the finder caused a great commotion with his excited shouts. The men soon found that the penguins were very vicious during the laying period, and the job of gatherings eggs was no sinecure. After about two weeks the eggs became addled, but the men cached about one hundred dozen in holes to keep them going.

The egg supply was becoming precarious when another species of penguin came ashore and commenced laying. The men considered the eggs to be excellent, even though they had to be eaten raw. It was perhaps at this time that the lack of a fire and a frying-pan was most bitterly regretted.

Shortage of clothing was another problem. It was partially solved when a new camp site was found under an overhanging cliff. The sails then became surplus and were fashioned into clothing. Needles were made out of albatross bones and mittens were unravelled to provide thread.

The men also erected a flagstaff, on which they secured an page 169old flag, a piece of canvas, and an old red singlet which had been washed ashore.

On the seventeenth day after the wreck they saw a barque, and again on the following day a full-rigged ship passed the island. Neither was more than three miles off, and it would have been easy to intercept one of them if the boat had not been lost. The men shouted so loudly that they were hoarse for days afterwards.

Finally the Hinemoa arrived off the island and spotted the flagstaff. Her crew were very surprised to learn that the castaways had not found the provision depot. The only explanation was that the men had shown little inclination for exploring the island, partly because they were not well enough fed, but probably more because they had little clothing and were afraid of death through exposure.

The castaways had kept reasonably good health, except for a half-caste Indian who suffered from frostbite in his feet. He lost four toes from one foot and two from the other. His companions had cut off the affected parts with limpet shells. All the men had suffered from the cold, particularly at night, when they would seal up their shelter with tussock and lie close together for warmth.

It was fortunate that the Hinemoa had sighted the flagstaff, as she had already visited the provision depot and was preparing to leave the island. The eleven survivors had been on the island for eighty-eight days.

Another wreck occurred on the Antipodes Islands in 1908. The victim this time was the French ship the President Felix Faure, a steel four-masted barque of 2860 tons. She had sailed from New Caledonia and had been driven south by bad weather. Captain Noel thought he was about seven miles south of the Antipodes when breakers were sighted on the starboard bow. The ship was sailing in the prevalent thick foggy weather at the time. The captain made every effort to clear the reefs, but without avail, and the ship ran on to the rocks. The lifeboat was provisioned and launched, and the entire crew of twenty-two page 170got safely aboard. They pulled for the shore, and although the boat was completely smashed on the rocks all the men got ashore without mishap. All the stores and provisions were lost.

Night was advancing, but some of the men decided to climb the cliff to get some idea of what the island had to offer. When they reached the open country at the top they were overjoyed to find the provision depot. The rest of the crew was immediately summoned. Although the hut was designed to accommodate about six men, the entire crew of twenty-two found they could squeeze into it. There was not enough room for them to lie down, so their first night on the Antipodes Islands was spent standing upright.

Next morning the supply of matches was found, and a fire was started. Unfortunately the food supply, like the hut itself, was never intended to meet the demands of such a large party, and it was soon exhausted. A search had to be made for an alternative supply, and the albatrosses were the first to fall victims. They were plentiful enough, and easily captured, but the castaways did not find them very good eating. Penguins were tried next, and these were eaten regularly until the time came for them to leave the island. After that the men were forced to live on albatrosses and shellfish.

Then particularly good fortune befell the men. They found cattle tracks, and these led to the discovery of a well-grown calf. It was soon caught, and held by twelve men while its throat was cut with the point of a file. It yielded a good supply of excellent beef. A bull and a cow had been left on the island by the Hinemoa, and the castaways later found the skeletons of these animals. The remains of the sheep were also seen. The skin of the calf was used for making footwear.

It is interesting to note that at no time did the castaways see any seals.

The shortage of space in the provision depot had led the men to build two additional huts. These were made from the branches of stunted shrubs, and were covered with tussock and page 171peat. The men were unable to make them waterproof, and they leaked very badly during periods of rain.

The cold winds and the bleak climate were the men's worst enemies. They had little clothing and very few blankets. The fire was kept going as continuously as the limited supply of firewood permitted, but the men found the only way to keep warm was by constant exercise. The position was improved somewhat when they found some suitable wood for building additional rough bunks into the provision depot.

Plenty of old magazines were found in the depot, but very few of the men could read English.

At last came the day of relief, when a naval vessel was sighted. Fuel was piled on to the fire, and the castaways were overwhelmed with joy when they saw a boat being lowered to pick them up. The ship was H.M.S. Pegasus, which was on a cruise to the Chatham, Bounty and Antipodes Islands. She arrived in Lyttleton on 15th May 1908, two months and five days after the wreck.

Captain Noel expressed his appreciation of the Government's action in maintaining the provision depot. He was rather critical of some deficiencies in its contents, particularly the absence of tea and coffee. He attributed the wreck to bad visibility and inaccurate charting of the Antipodes Islands.

The Government steamer made its last visit to the islands in 1927, the maintenance of the provision depots being abandoned after that year. In 1947 the icebreaker Northwind from the American Antarctic Expedition left some cases of provisions at the depot. A small scientific party visited the islands in 1950, and reported that all the contents of the depot were in good order. This party found the islands supporting a wealth of bird life, but saw no fur-seals apart from one aged bull.

The Bounty Islands were discovered in 1788 by Captain Bligh, who named them after his ship, the Bounty. An extract from his Voyage of the Bounty reads as follows:

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"On the 19th at daylight we discovered a cluster of small rocky islands, bearing east by north four leagues distant from us. We had seen no birds or anything to indicate the nearness of land, except patches of rock-weed for which the nearness of New Zealand sufficiently accounted. The wind being at north-east prevented our near approach to these isles. The weather was too thick to see distinctly, their extent was only three and a half miles from east to west, and about half a league from north to south; their number, including the smaller ones, was thirteen. I could not observe any verdure on them; there were white spots like patches of snow. The westernmost of the islands is the largest, they are of sufficient height to be seen at a distance of seven leagues from a ship's deck. While in sight of the islands we saw some penguins, and a white kind of gull with a forked tail. Captain Cook's track in 1773 was near this spot but he did not see the islands; he saw seals and penguins hereabouts, but considered New Zealand to be the nearest land. I have named them after the ship, the Bounty Isles."

It is to be recalled that it was later on during the same voyage that the famous mutiny took place, and Bligh made his long journey in an open boat.

The group is in the form of a rough semi-circle, about three miles long. Only nine of the islets have any appreciable size, and all are severely eroded by the action of the sea. The islands offer no shelter of any description in stormy weather, and in such conditions no part of the land is beyond the reach of flying spray.

At sea level the rocks are as smooth as glass and extremely treacherous to walk on. This smoothness is mainly due to the action of the sea, but there is little doubt that the polishing action of the feet and flippers of millions of penguins and thousands of seals has contributed to some extent. During the breeding season vast quantities of guano are deposited on the page 173islands, but the winter storms sweep most of it off again. There is no reliable supply of water on the group. A certain amount of brackish water is impounded in hollows in the rocks, but it is polluted by the penguins.

Like the other islands in this region, the Bounties provided a rich harvest of fur-seal skins, which was soon to be exploited. Strangely enough, one of the earliest sealing expeditions had a profound effect on the introduction of Christianity into New Zealand itself.

It happened that on 1st July 1807 the Santa Anna, of 202 tons, sailed from Sydney to the Bounties. She made a call at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, and while there picked up a Maori chief named Ruatara. This chief was most anxious to travel to England to meet King George III, and knowing that the Santa Anna was bound for the Bounties and thence to England, he decided to throw in his lot with the sealers.

On reaching the Bounties, Ruatara and thirteen others were left to kill seals while the ship returned to New Zealand and Norfolk Island for supplies. The ship was delayed for a long time at Norfolk Island and again at Sydney, finally leaving Sydney on 14th October 1808. When she reached the Bounties she found the sealing gang had undergone severe privations through lack of food and water. The Commerce had called earlier in the year, and had provided some stores. She also took delivery of 3000 skins. Since her departure conditions had become worse and three men had died. The Santa Anna loaded the cargo of 8000 skins, and sailed for London. Upon arrival, Ruatara was not given any opportunity to see King George. The captain of the ship treated him most harshly, and refused to give him either wages or clothing. He was eventually put aboard the convict ship Ann, which was bound for New South Wales. On that ship he was befriended by a missionary named Samuel Marsden. When they arrived at Sydney Ruatara stayed with Marsden until he could return to New Zealand, after which he did everything possible to help Marsden and the cause of Christianity. Had it not been for this friendship page 174with the Maori chief it is likely that Marsden's work in New Zealand might well have been a hopeless task.

No information is available to show to what extent the Bounty Islands were visited by sealing gangs in the following years. In 1831, however, two of the Enderby Company's vessels visited the islands. They were the brig Tula, of 148 tons, commanded by John Biscoe, and the cutter Lively. They had left the Chatham Islands in company, but became separated in thick weather. On 19th December the weather was still very thick, with an easterly gale and heavy seas. The captain was worried, as he had had no sight for three days, and knew he was near the Bounties. The large number of penguins and quantities of kelp confirmed this. The bad weather persisted, with continuing easterly gales and much rain, but on the 22nd conditions began to improve, and at 9.30 a.m. the islands were sighted. A short time later the Lively was also sighted. Boats were sent ashore, but they returned to report having seen only five seals, and those were on a rock where landing was impossible. The boat crews landed on another of the islets, and there found the remains of a hut. Its roof was constructed from the skins and wings of birds, and inside it was a baking dish, a water cask, a provision cask, half a bottle of oil and some firewood. It was evident that it had been used fairly recently by Europeans.

The Bounty Islands became part of New Zealand territory on 9th July 1870. As a matter of interest the deed of annexation reads as follows:

"I, George Palmer, Captain of her Britannic Majesty's Navy, and at present commanding her Majesty's ship Rosario, do hereby make known to all whom it may concern that by virtue of an order from Commodore Rowley Lambart, C.B., A.D.C., commanding H.M. ships in these waters, I have this day taken possession of the Bounty Islands, in the name and on behalf of her most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the page 175United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen Defender of the Faith, etc., and I do hereby declare the said Bounty Islands to be annexed to her Majesty's Colony of New Zealand. God save the Queen! Given under my hand this ninth day of July 1870, off the Bounty Islands. George Palmer, Captain of H.M.S. Rosario.

The proclamation is accompanied by a brief descriptive passage, which relates that the islands are very exposed and completely barren. One of the western islands has a blowhole which throws water and spray to a height of more than 300 feet. The islets are in two groups with what appears to be a clear passage between. The maximum height is 280 feet.

A provision depot was erected on the Bounty Islands, but it was destroyed soon afterwards, probably by lightning. On subsequent visits of the Government steamer the weather was never fine enough to permit building materials being taken ashore for repair purposes. However, a sail had been rigged so as to hold a supply of rain water. Actually the lack of this depot did not cause much concern, as there is no record of any vessel having been wrecked on the Bounty Islands.

Vessels approaching the islands get their first smell of the penguins while they are still some distance off shore. As they approach, the stench becomes almost indescribable, and the noise is deafening. The largest islet has an area of about thirty acres, and every available square inch seems to be occupied by penguins. Captain Fairchild estimated that there were five million penguins living on a total area of about one hundred acres.

Although landing on the islands presents some difficulty to men, it is no trouble to the penguins. They dive towards a sloping rock face, and as the sea surges forward they swim rapidly under water. Just as the wave is about to retreat they leap forward and land neatly on the face of the rock. Then two or three vigorous jumps, and they are well out of reach long before another wave crashes on the rock.

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Apparently when the Government vessel made its periodic visit to the Bounty Islands it was standard practice for the steward to require all personnel to change their clothes immediately upon returning to the ship, on account of the terrible smell of penguins and guano. Incidentally, it is the guano deposits which Captain Bligh thought might be patches of snow.

Although all of the sub-Antarctic islands are clear of the pack ice, icebergs are at times encountered in these waters. On one voyage the Hinemoa passed five bergs, the largest being 300 feet high and about 2½ miles in circumference.

The scientific party which visited the Antipodes Islands in 1950 also made a brief call at the Bounties. The leader of the expedition expressed the opinion that this group has the most spectacular concentration of sea-birds to be seen anywhere in the world. Apart from the millions of penguins the islands provide a home for mollymawks, petrels, shags, gulls and terns.