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Islands of Despair

Two — Campbell Island Interlude

page 18

Campbell Island Interlude

At 5.30 a.m. on Sunday, 23rd January, Campbell Island was sighted. The captain had made a good course, and we were heading for the south-western part of the islands. As we approached, the course was altered to take us past Courrejolles Point and round the North Cape, and since visibility was good we got a fine impression of the nature of the island, which appeared to consist entirely of barren rocky peaks, with steep cliffs rising from the sea. A number of off-lying rocks served to heighten the illusion of extreme ruggedness.

By 10.45 a.m. we were at anchor in Perseverance Harbour, and shortly afterwards we were joined by the New Golden Hind. This harbour provides reasonably good anchorage, but is frequently swept by violent westerly storms, and on occasion the Ranui has had to use her engines as well as both anchors to avoid being blown on to the rocky coastline.

Campbell Island was discovered in 1810 by Captain Hasselbourgh, who was in command of the Perseverance, and he named it after his employers, Campbell and Company of Sydney. After returning to Stewart Island to report his discovery to his principals, and to pick up men and stores, Hasselbourgh returned to Campbell Island, and shortly afterwards he was accidentally drowned. On 4th November 1810 he sailed down Perseverance Harbour to visit a gang of men he had working near the entrance, and his small boat was capsized in a sudden squall. At the time he was accompanied page 19by Elizabeth Parr of Norfolk Island, and three men and a boy. One man and the boy reached shore safely, while another man named Bloodworth had gone to the assistance of the woman. Finding that she could swim he went to help Hasselbourgh, but the latter was so hampered with a heavy coat and seaboots that he was already drowned. Bloodworth then went to the aid of the remaining man, only to find that he too was beyond assistance. In the meantime Elizabeth Parr was getting into difficulties, and it is recorded that Bloodworth swam over a mile supporting her by one arm, only to find on reaching shore that she was dead. The three survivors followed the coastline to a point where they could hail the Perseverance, and the next day the scene of the tragedy was visited and the woman was buried. No trace was found of the bodies of Hasselbourgh and Allwright.

It was not unknown for women to travel on sealing vessels, and it is of interest to read that in 1838 Reverend J. Wilkinson testified as follows:

"Morality is at the lowest possible ebb, and is much the worse among tribes frequented by sailors. The women are very much affected by venereal disease of the most virulent type. I apprehend there is not one in fifty of them without this disease. Sometimes the women go to sea. Two or three instances I know of masters of vessels giving as much to their women as £100 and carrying them off with them on their voyage. Then they leave them on the islands, or take them with them, according as they can agree with the women themselves. Similar traffic appears to have been carried on in Sydney amongst European females. Convict women desirous of leaving the settlement were especially addicted to this method of effecting their escape. Traces of Elizabeth Parr's burial plot are still extant on the south-west arm of Perseverance Harbour. It was reputed to be the grave of a Frenchwoman, arising, no doubt, from the fact that the officer of a French expeditionary ship lost his life in the harbour, and is buried not far from the grave of the other."

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There is still little information available about sealing exploits on Campbell Island. One report, however, is quite interesting and worthy of record. On 10th January 1839 the Enderby schooner Eliza Scott (Captain John Balleny) arrived at Campbell Island in company with the cutter Sabrina (Captain Freeman). Captain Freeman went ashore to try for skins and found three men and a woman who had been there for four years and who were in a wretched state. During that interval they had obtained only 170 skins. The marooned persons were taken aboard the Eliza Scott on the understanding that their skins were to become the property of the Enderby Company. It was suspected that the unfortunate castaways had been left on the island by the New Zealander.

Then in 1883 the American sealer Sarah A. Hunt called at Campbell Island, anticipating a good haul following on the previous close seasons, but was unsuccessful. The captain was also financially embarrassed, as he owed his men a considerable amount of wages. He overcame his problem by sending his two officers with gangs of men in two whale-boats to the other side of the island. Then as soon as they were out of sight he put to sea, and when he reached Lyttleton he reported all hands lost. At the end of the year the Government ship Stella called, and found the second mate and his crew, who were so weak that they had to be lifted into the Stella's boat. They reported that at one time they had been blown off the island for a week, but had eventually got back again. No sign was found of the other mate and his boat's crew.

Campbell Island was occupied for many years as a sheep-station, but with indifferent success. The island is completely covered with tussock and patches of scrub, and mustering was very difficult. This was also complicated by the inadequacy of the fencing. Although a certain amount of fencing was done it would not have been economic to subdivide into paddocks the whole area of about forty-two square miles.

The lease of the island, at £15 per annum, was held for a long period by Captain Tucker of Gisborne, and it was later page 21 page 22taken over by Messrs. Murray and Mathewson of Dunedin. In both cases a manager was put in charge, with a staff of up to eight men. The number of sheep carried appears to have been about 7500, and the annual wool clip usually amounted to about 100 bales. The station buildings, yards and jetty were situated on the shores of Perseverance Harbour.

Captain Tucker also entered into an arrangement with Mr. Norton to operate a whaling station as well as managing the sheep-station, and this scheme appears to have worked quite well. At all events a similar plan was started by Murray and Mathewson, who arranged for the steamer Himitangi of 323 tons to tow the launch Komuri to Campbell Island for service in the whaling season. The Komuri was unfortunately lost very soon after her arrival in 1917. Her engine broke down when she was well out in a heavy sea, and she had to be abandoned. The crew had a desperate pull to the shore in a surf-boat which they had in tow at the time. The Komuri, which was of about 10 tons, was valued at £1000.

At various times shipping difficulties caused the shepherds to become extremely short of rations, although of course they always had plenty of meat. Good flounders were also obtainable, especially in North-East Harbour. These transport problems also worried the lessees of the sheep-station, as they preferred to have the wool shipped promptly for fear of damage by the great number of rats on the island.

In the 1920s it was apparently becoming increasingly difficult to find shepherds willing to live in the isolation of Campbell Island, and the place was at times left unoccupied. In 1926 the Tutanekai took a party of shepherds there after the station had been abandoned for nine months, and the first difficulty proved to be in regaining possession of the house and store-shed from the rats. They had brought a cat with them, but he proved unequal to the task, and the rats were shot by the hundred. Also they could find no sign of the station horse, but eventually its carcase was seen where it had got bogged in the peat. Mr. Warren of this party tried a new idea in communi-page 23cations by bringing two homing pigeons. One of these refused to leave the island and eventually drowned itself in the sheep-dip, and although the other bird left, it did not succeed in reaching New Zealand. Warren remained on the island continuously for five years, and during that period the number of shepherds with him varied from two to seven. He reported the usual trouble in obtaining regular shipping, and there was one interval of two years and four months without a ship.

Warren returned to New Zealand in 1931 and that appears to have been the end of the effective operation of the sheep-station. The station buildings and jetty in Perseverance Harbour soon deteriorated, and when we visited them the station could certainly not be considered worthy of being called a going concern. However, there is still a large number of sheep, probably about 1500, surviving on the island.

A whaling industry was started on Campbell Island in the early part of 1909 by a party of eleven Pelorous Sound whalers. They travelled in the Government ship Hinemoa, taking with them a launch equipped with an oil engine, and also a 32-ft. whale-boat. They intended to co-operate with the lessee of the sheep-station on the island, and upon arrival they proposed to shear the 7500 sheep, after which they expected to have time to erect the whaling-station in time for the start of the season. A report was received from the station in 1909. The men had found the ruins of an old whaling-station at North-East Harbour, complete with jetty. They did not favour this site, however, and built their new station at North-West Bay, Although there was no shelter for ships in this bay, they managed to find a safe place for their whale-boat and launch. They had captured thirteen whales and would have got more had they not lost some of their gear. They also reported that they were considering erecting try-works to enable them to obtain oil as well as whalebone.

This gang operating from North-West Bay was led by a man named Norton, and in 1910 a second whaling-station was page 24proposed in North-East Harbour by the Cook brothers, who had had several years of whaling off North Auckland. Cook's party had no interest in the sheep-station, but intended to develop the whaling industry seriously, with a view to obtaining both oil and whalebone. They also intended to can the whalemeat for the Oriental market, and to convert the refuse into fertilizer. They had obtained a special vessel from England for use as a whale-chaser, and a communications vessel was being built for them in Auckland to ply between Campbell Island and Bluff.

In 1910 Norton's gang captured nine right whales of very large size, and although they were still not obtaining any of the oil their profits from the whalebone, together with their interest in the sheep-station, had brought them a satisfactory financial return. In February 1912 nine men from Norton's gang arrived in New Zealand by the Hinemoa for a holiday. They reported that in 1911 they had secured eight whales.

It was not until 1911 that Cook's party got established, with a personnel totalling fifteen men. Their chaser Hananui was a 44-ton vessel capable of ten knots, and was commanded by Captain Carmichael. This ship was equipped with a harpoon-gun. During their first season they killed thirteen whales, which produced 200 tons of oil, as well as whalebone.

From all accounts the two parties got on well together, and Cook's vessel was at times used to transport the island wool to New Zealand. Norton, however, was worried about the matter of more regular communications with New Zealand, as he had great difficulty in getting stores and mail. He also complained that his men could not undertake sealing, as the sealing season was always closed before the licences arrived. He had endeavoured to charter the Hinemoa or the Tutanekai, but considered that the charter fee of £500 fixed by the Government was excessive. In any case he thought he should not have to pay more than a proportion of the actual cost, as visits were supposed to be made to the provision depot. In 1914 he said that the depot had not been visited since 1908, and although page break
1. Sea-lions at Enderby Island: the New Golden Hind at anchor

1. Sea-lions at Enderby Island: the New Golden Hind at anchor

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2. (Top) Entrance to Carney Harbour: Perpendicular Head on right.

2. (Top) Entrance to Carney Harbour: Perpendicular Head on right.

3. (Bottom) Sea-leopard at Ranui Cove.

3. (Bottom) Sea-leopard at Ranui Cove.

page 25his men had used some of the stores (for which he had paid the Government) these stores had not been replaced.

I have not been able to discover when the whaling-stations ceased operations, but at all events the old buildings are in a dilapidated state at the present time.

So much for the facts surrounding the early days of Campbell Island, but mention should also be made of a legendary "lady of the heather". The early whaling crews apparently reported having seen a lady on the shore of Perseverance Harbour, dressed in the Royal Stuart tartan, and with a Glengarry bonnet and a sprig of heather. The story relates that the woman's mother was Meg Walkinshaw, who met Bonnie Prince Charlie at Holyrood during his brief stay in Scotland. Meg followed Charles to France, and on her death she left a daughter who was regarded by the Jacobites with deep suspicion. They believed that she acted as a spy on their movements on behalf of the British Government, and in order to get rid of her they decided to carry her out of the country. It was supposed to be a man named Stewart (after whom Stewart Island was named) who carried out this task. He is said to have sailed in a whaler from Dundee, kidnapped the woman, and transported her to Stewart Island and then to Campbell Island. Before abandoning her he built her a sod hut on the shores of Perseverance Harbour.

Whether or not there is any basis of truth in this legend, it is a fact that the remains of a sod hut are still to be found in Camp Cove, with a path of marble pebbles leading down to the beach. Also there is a tiny patch of heather beside the hut. Campbell Island is comparatively small, having an area of about forty-two square miles, and it is not nearly as rugged as it looks from the sea. The whole of the island is covered with tussock growing in peat. Consequently walking conditions are not easy. In sheltered places there is a certain amount of scrub, but there are no trees on the island.

The object of our visit was to obtain a new value for the latitude and longitude of the island, and to check on the page 26accuracy of the existing survey. The basic survey of Campbell Island was the work of a French expedition which had been sent to observe the transit of Venus. Although cloudy weather prevented their achieving their primary objective, they did carry out a fairly complete survey. Certain deficiencies in their surveys had been corrected by Les Clifton during his previous stay on the island. The French expedition was also responsible for the numerous French names for prominent natural features.

It was on Sunday, 23rd January 1944, that we arrived on the scene, and on the same day we made a quick inspection of possible sites for a measured base-line, a line finally selected immediately behind the old sheep-station buildings. This site also had the advantage of being very convenient to the Ranui. The next day we spent erecting beacons on some of the hills we intended to use for trig stations. Also on that evening the sky became fairly clear towards 10 p.m., and I worked till 2 a.m. on observations for latitude and longitude. The following days were spent on finishing the erection of beacons and in getting the base-line cleared and measured. We also constructed a tide gauge in the harbour so that we could establish the mean sea level.

Several rookeries of sea-elephants were established on the shore near our anchorage. The occupants were bachelor bulls who had come ashore to shed their coats, none of them being very old. They are immense creatures, but are most lethargic when ashore, so it is quite easy to approach as close as one wishes. Certainly they rear up and lunge towards the intruders, coughing a blast of moist air that reeks of stale fish. But this is all bluff, and when they realize they are not frightening anybody they wriggle reluctantly towards the sea, occasionally looking back hopefully to make sure that the visitor is still there and that their painful journey is really necessary. They are unable to raise themselves to any extent to help themselves along, and progress over the boulders gives every appearance of being a tiring business.

These bulls had been ashore for some time judging by the page 27depth that they had wallowed into the peaty mud. I was told that it was not unusual for a sea-elephant to wallow so deeply that he would be quite unable to get himself free again. With experience we found that it was advisable to approach a rookery from the windward side. The smell is almost intolerable.

The older bull elephants have a pronounced enlargement of the nose which is somewhat like a trunk, hence the name elephant seal. Unfortunately the breeding season was well past at the time of our visit, and the pups had already gone. No doubt they would have been just as attractive as the adult of the species is repulsive.

During our operations on the island we lived aboard ship as the coast-watching camp did not have sufficient accommodation for three extra men. It was often after dark before we reached the ship, but dark or not we soon learned to remember that our boots had to be thoroughly washed before we stepped on to the well-scrubbed deck of the Ranui. The threat of being thrown overboard was not one to be lightly disregarded in those latitudes. Les told us how cold the water was when he fell off the tide gauge.

On Friday, 28th January, the weather was fairly good and I made a start on the triangulation observations at St. Col Peak. This peak is so sharply defined that when the theodolite was set up there was no possibility of walking round it, and I had to crawl precariously between the legs of the tripod every time I wanted to shift to the other side of the instrument. I also got observations completed at another point about two miles further off, and the next day I carried out similar work on Mt. Dumas, which is one of the highest points on the island, its altitude being 1650 feet.

Three days of impossible weather followed, but on Wednesday, 2nd February, I visited Beeman and also a point on the shore of the harbour to observe angles. This completed the necessary triangulation work. All that remained to be done was another couple of hours of astronomical observations. These page 28were accomplished on Friday 4th, and the next morning I informed Captain Worth that he could return to the Auckland Islands as soon as he wished. He decided to leave at 2 p.m., and a party was immediately dispatched in pursuit of fresh mutton. The men returned with four prime lambs, but in the meantime the weather had chan ged for the worse, and we stayed where we were. For this decision we were all grateful, as the weather became really bad, and it was not until February 10th that we finally got away.

We sailed at 10.25 a.m. to the sound of the bagpipes played by a member of the coast-watching party, which was remaining on the island. This farewell aroused a certain amount of criticism from the mate of the Ranui, who averred that it would assuredly bring us head winds. However, I suppose they were inevitable anyway.

Some time during the afternoon Campbell Island slipped out of sight astern. I was not sorry to see the last of it, as for me it had merely been an interlude in the main programme of work. I would not recommend Campbell Island to anyone— it is too small and too dreary.