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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

The Mystery of the Solanders, 1808–1813

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The Mystery of the Solanders, 1808–1813.

FAIRLY in the road of steamers passing between the Bluff and any of the ports of Australia are two great detached rocks, standing like sentinels at the entrance to Foveaux Strait and visible from a long distance. They are the Solanders. The larger and more conspicuous of the two rises to a height of something like 1,100 feet, and its steep weather beaten sides are covered with such plants as can grow in the teeth of the southern gales of that locality, and can hold on to the rock where there is found only enough soil to give them sustenance. On rare occasions is the sea so calm that a landing can be effected on the exposed coastline of the larger island, and under the most favourable conditions the landing party has but the selection of two spots, one or other of which is taken according to the direction of the weather. The smaller island is even more difficult to land on.

The very fact that the islands were discovered by Cook while on board the Endeavour in 1770, and were named by him in honour of his naturalist, Dr. Solander, is sufficient to call passengers on deck to get a glimpse of the spot. That glimpse is, generally speaking, enough. We can readily understand that, unless visited in quest of seals, the cruel appearance of the islands would repel masters of the small sailing craft of a century ago from venturing too near their inhospitable shores. We know Captain Oliphant visited them for seals on the first trip of the Bass Strait sealers to exploit the sealing trade on the New Zealand coast. At one or two places a small page 208 area of flat ground is seen stretching back from the water's edge, but it is only a short distance before the steep wall of rock is met with. On these flats doubtless lived the sealing gangs for many weary months when left by their vessels, and on these flats to-day mutton-birders pitch their camps when visiting the island.

On the Solanders, not long after Foveaux Strait was discovered, two small parties of men came to reside for many years, but whether by shipwreck or left as a regular gang, or from both causes, cannot be determined. While the Perseverance was bound for Stewart Island on the flax expedition referred to in the last chapter, she made the Solanders and on 12th May, 1813, found five men living there.

Her report1 says that she “there found five men, some of whom had been there four years and a half, and the others nearly three years. Their preservation for such a length of time upon that island, which is not more than four or five miles in circumference, and scarcely anything but a barren rock, can be attributed to nothing short of that divine interposition which in numberless instances no less remarkable has imperatively exercised its gracious influence. Among them was a native of this Territory, who had lived in habits of perfect amity and good understanding with his unfortunate companions. They were cloathed in seal skins, of which their bedding also was composed, and their food had been entirely made up from the flesh of the seal, a few fish occasionally caught, and a few sea birds that now and then frequent the island:— The birds they always salted for a winter stock; the catching of fish was very precarious, and the flesh of the seals they entirely lived on during the summer season. They had attempted to raise cabbage and potatoes, of which plants one of them happened to have some of the seed when unhappily driven upon the island; but their first and every subsequent experiment failed, owing to the spray of the sea in gales of wind washing over the whole island, which rendered culture of any kind impracticable. They page 209 had long endured calamity, but had until the last few months of their relief, entertained some hope of succour, which from a length of disappointment had gradually immerged into a state of entire hopelessness; and but a few days before the Perseverance went thither, had by general concurrence agreed to contribute as much as possible to each other's comforts, as no expectation of relief was any longer to be encouraged or indulged. The island upon which it was their misfortune to be cast is about 5 miles in circumference, of very difficult access on account of the high surfs, almost perpendicular rocks, and of so forbidding an appearance as to any possibility of effecting a landing, as not to incline shipping of any kind to touch there, though they had seen several at a distance. From long observation they had reported the heaviest gales to proceed from the North West.”

Though the names of the vessels are not given us, we believe we are in a position to give those of the castaways themselves from the fact that on their return to Sydney the following advertisement appeared in the Gazette.2

“Notice is hereby given to the Public, and to the Masters of Vessels in particular, that may touch at Solander's Island in these Seas, not to meddle with, or take away from thence a quantity of Dried and Salted Seal Skins, the property of the Undersigned, they having been disposed of to S. Lord, Esq., whose Brig is now about proceeding to take them away. Any Person or Persons found interfering with them after this Notice will be rigidly prosecuted.”


Thomas Williams.

Michael Mcdonald.

Henry Shippey.

Charles Freeman.

On 20th July, 1813, the Perseverance landed the relieved men at Sydney.

The discovery, in May, 1813, of four Europeans and one Australian native on Solander Island, some of whom had been put ashore in 1808 and the others in 1810, makes us page 210 regret exceedingly that no mention was made in the report of the vessels from which these men were landed. One of the vessels must have sailed from Sydney, as is evidenced by the fact that she had an Australian aboriginal on board. The first gang must have been left about the time Foveaux Strait was discovered, and as we know that from that time onwards vessels were continually in the neighbourhood, it is remarkable that the presence of these unfortunate castaways had not been detected. Probably it is due to the fact that at this time all trade in the sealing line gravitated to the Campbell and Macquarie Islands where a rich harvest of skins and oil awaited it.

Contemplating the notice, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the four names given above were those of the four rescued Europeans, and that the seal skins were those secured during their long captivity. Of course it is possible that the castaways sold the skins to their deliverers, but as that would only be likely if the captain charged them for their rescue, it may at once be discarded as highly improbable. At that date the names of men taken on board vessels were advertised in the local press, and the only name on the Perseverance list resembling any of the four given above is Henry Shaffrey.

The author regards the circumstance as calling for comment, that Captain Murray made for the Solanders, although he describes the islands as “of so forbidding an appearance … as not to incline shipping of any kind to touch there,” and finding these five castaways from two different vessels, did not record the names of the vessels. Captain Murray had been a long time at Stewart Island, having been landed there by the Fox in command of a sealing gang. Could it be possible that he had heard of castaways being on the island? If he had, or actually knew that they were there at one period, it would explain his calling; and his silence about how they first came there might be explained on the supposition that they were from vessels his employers were interested in. Continuing this line of thought, the reader will recall that early in 1809 page 211 the Governor Bligh fell in with the brig Fox and the schooner Antipode, in the vicinity of Foveaux Strait.

A perusal of the shipping lists reveals the names of Robert Murray and Henry Shippey as intending to leave in the Perseverance, which sailed on 8th August, 1808, for the “sealing grounds,” and the names of Michael McDonald and Thomas Williams in the Fox, which sailed on 31st August of the same year for the “Southern Isles.” Here we distinctly have three of the names of those who were found on Solander Island. Henry Shippey appears again in June, 1809, intending to ship by the schooner Unity, after the Fox had sailed on her last trip on 4th April, 1809. If a boat from the Unity was driven on the Solanders the date would fit in with the report of the rescuers. The Fox probably supplied those of the party who had been four years and a half on the island. Following up the history of the Fox, the mystery is unfolded. She was on 31st January, 1809, without anchors and cables and short of water, met by the Governor Bligh and relieved. On 15th March she returned with her crew in a terrible condition with scurvy, no less than 26 out of 28 of them having been taken ill, rendering it difficult for the vessel to get safely into port. She had also encountered bad weather, had suffered considerable injury to her upper works and had lost one of her boats.

One of her gangs, including Thomas Williams and Michael McDonald, had evidently been placed on the Solanders, and storm and sickness had prevented their release. On 7th May, 1809, the Fox again sailed for the sealing grounds, landing Mr. Murray and a gang at Stewart Island. If on this occasion she attempted the relief of the Solander party, Murray, in 1813, as captain of the Perseverance, would have been acquainted with the whole position. We have already seen that the Fox never returned for her gangs, but in September, 1810, was wrecked at Amsterdam Island. The Macquarie Island rush took away Campbell & Co.'s gangs to the islands in the far south and the lonely gang on the Solanders was forgotten.

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Murray, who knew of their having been left there in the first instance, called in the Perseverance to see what had become of them, and was fortunate enough to end their long vigil. If the surmise of the author is correct there is no longer any wonder why Murray says nothing of the names of the vessels and why Williams' report is silent on the same point. It was to the interests of all to keep the particulars from publicity. The second party arriving in 1810 was driven on the island, so says the report. Northerly or nor-westerly heavy weather, which they complained of most, would drive them off sealing stations along the Preservation Inlet coast, and the opposite weather, which is not so prevalent, would take them off the Stewart Island sealing stations. Here is a mystery of Foveaux Strait yet to be solved, but the author thinks that when it is unravelled it will be found that the Unity supplied the boat which was driven on the Island.