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Castaway on the Auckland Isles

Chapter XII. — departure homeward.—explorations at the north of the island.—port ross.—laurie cove.—a barren settlement.—discovery of a dead body

page 122

Chapter XII.
departure homeward.—explorations at the north of the island.—port ross.—laurie cove.—a barren settlement.—discovery of a dead body.

Friday, September 1.—At about ten o'clock last night the wind came from S.W., and blew with very great violence till midnight, and it rained heavily: as the sailors say, it came 'butt-end foremost.' After midnight the gale moderated considerably, and at daylight had moderated to a strong breeze, with clear weather, broken detached clouds (wind S.W.); but Captain Cross was afraid there would be too much sea outside, and hung on till 10 a.m., at which time we shipped the anchor, and are now (11 p.m.) bundling out of the Bosom (Sarah's Bosom) in whose folds I have experienced the greatest misery of my life; but I fear much that the wind will haul to the N. W. again. At noon we cleared the heads. I brought the seal on board that I am skinning, but the vessel is too unsteady to admit of my finishing it till we get into port again; I hope it will not spoil. From the S.E. point of the island —where the entrance of our late 'prison house' is—to its N.E. extreme, the direct line is about N. by W. and S. by E., and the distance about 25 miles; while the land, from about five miles north of the former up to the latter point (the coast line), falls back to the westward, forming a bight about seven miles deep, along which are the numerous indentations and gullies, described in my former journal, with here and there a small sand or shingle beach. Shelter from westerly winds might, probably, be page 123found in some of these places; but they are all open to the eastward. There appear to be no off-lying dangers along this line of coast until reaching the N.E. point, off which, in an easterly direction, lie the numerous dangerous reefs which I have so often had occasion to mention. There are two small low islands amongst them, and they extend, perhaps, ten miles from the point. There appear to be clear passages through amongst them, but they are evidently connected with the shore by a ridge of foul ground, which causes an ugly swell and strong tide-rips, and until they are properly examined are well deserving a wide berth.

As we proceeded to the northward the wind hauled to the northward also, so we kept the land on board as close as possible, intending to go into Port Ross if we could find it, as we now had a head wind (W.N.W.); and Laurie Harbour—which, I suppose, is in Port Ross—has been represented to be such a snug port, and as it lay somewhere at the extreme north end of the island we should at least have shortened our journey some thirty or thirty-five miles. Besides, I had a strong desire to see this Port Ross, Sarah's Bosom,* Caroline, Rendezvous, or Laurie Harbour—for I believe they are all one and the same place; having received a different name from different persons who have visited it, in their ignorance of its proper one, which I should imagine is Laurie Harbour in Port Ross. Most likely the former was given to it by Captain Bristow, who discovered the islands in the year 1806; and in the year following left on shore in Laurie Harbour a number of pigs, which my informant remarks had, up to the year 1851, thrived remarkably well. And it no doubt received the latter from the explorer Ross, who at a subsequent period visited nearly all the islands in the Southern Ocean; and, in my humble opinion, names given by such page 124men are the proper ones to apply, and should be retained. It is the site of a settlement and whaling station which was formed about the year 1848, but shortly afterwards abandoned, from what cause I am unable to say; but most likely the scarcity of whales. I believe the company sank some £20,000 over it, and some of the people in Invercargill were quite surprised that I had not found out this place while we were on the island, as we should have been quite provided for had we got there; as we should have found good houses, plenty of pigs, and abundance of vegetables growing in wild profusion. Alas! for us that the distance was so great, and the nature of the country such as rendered travelling over it next to impossible. I now felt very curious to see this wonderful place, and Captain Cross was particularly anxious to get his vessel to an anchor before a N.W. gale came on, which does not appear to be far off. At half-past four in the afternoon we passed the N.E. point of the island, giving it a good berth (say a long ¼ mile), as it is low, and shallow water appears to run off it; and a ridge of foul ground evidently connects it with a small island which lies about 2½ miles east from it, and over which there was a nasty confused sea and heavy tide-ripples. One breaker came on board, but did no damage, and immediately we were in smooth water.

We now commenced to look anxiously for this said port. Here we were, amongst a whole host of small islands and rocks—the names of which we were quite ignorant of—night and probably a gale coming on, no place in sight in which there was any probability of obtaining shelter, and our only directions for finding the desired port were the following, which I copied from a letter which has found its way into print, in a little book, entitled 'A History of Gold,' by James Ward, and, slender as it may appear, served us in some measure as a guide to the place. He says—'Port Ross is at the extreme north of the island, and contains secure anchorage for vessels. From the entrance to the head of the port, the distance is about four page 125miles. Entering the harbour from the north, you pass Enderby Island on the right, the Ocean Island and Ocean Point, until you reach Laurie Harbour, which is not visible to the line of sight, as it runs behind the back of a small wooded peninsula, which projects into the sea. After passing Ocean Island, a ship may anchor in perfect safety in any part, but the upper end of the inlet (Laurie Cove) is the most suitable for ships wanting to heave down or undergo extensive repairs. It is perfectly land-locked, and the steep beach on the southern shore affords the greatest facility for clearing and reloading vessels.' And also—'The buildings are at the head of Laurie Cove, perhaps one of the most beautiful inlets on the wide range of ocean.'

From these brief remarks I at once concluded that the desired haven was a small snug basin, whose waters the fierce winds of the Southern Ocean found it impossible to ruffle. Such a place would indeed be suitable for clearing or discharging, heaving down, repairing, and reloading vessels; and such, in fact, is absolutely necessary, unless in a case of great emergency. But of this anon. I have not yet seen the place with daylight; when I have I shall be better able to describe it. Now (10 p.m.) we are at anchor in two fathoms of water, at the head of what may be termed a lagoon, with a clear drift for an easterly wind of at least 4½ miles. It is about a quarter of a mile wide where we are, and widens to about three-quarters of a mile at the entrance. On three sides of us are hills rising abruptly from the water to the height of about 900 feet. Now I will endeavour to describe the manner in which we reached this place; its name I must omit, for the simple reason that I don't know whether it has one or not; it cannot possibly be Laurie Cove.

The evening was fine and beautifully clear, and with a nice whole-sail breeze and smooth water we beat in amongst the islands, finding clear passages between them, until we had the largest and most northernmost of the small group (its centre or thereabout), which I take to be page 126Enderby Island, bearing N.N.E.; the highest hill on the north end of Auckland Island, which is somewhat remarkable, having on its summit a bare peak, something in the shape of one's thumb when pointed upwards, bearing S.S.W. On the right, when heading for the latter bearing, is an island, lying close off a bluff-looking point, and between them is a small, low islet.

This is no doubt Ocean Island and Ocean Point. On the left, with a clear passage between it, and a low, thickly-wooded point, is another island, while straight ahead Port Ross lies open before you, the head of its waters washing the base of the high hills. Between Ocean Island and a small, low peninsula, with some naked, dry trees upon it —a great deal of timber having been cut down—which lies on the west side, there is a beating width of from three to two miles smooth water, with westerly or southerly winds, but subject to a swell with northerly ones, as there is a long fetch for any wind between N.W. and N.E.

Having got the vessel into the position mentioned, with the said bearings on, we stood up for this small and once thickly-wooded peninsula; but before reaching it the wind died away, and left us becalmed. We at once put out the boat, and Mr. Wheeler (Cross's mate) and myself went ahead to look for Laurie Cove, leaving them to row the cutter up after us. The night was then fine and moonlight, which is but an uncertain light to strangers in a strange place; however, away we went, frequently taking a cast of the lead, and on getting round the peninsula we found an arm running in farther than we could see, in a S.W. direction. Up this we pulled, expecting to find the strongly-desired Laurie Cove, when 'lo! and behold,' we found ourselves in one fathom of water, and close up to a point which juts out from the southern side. We now pulled over for the northern side, and finding deeper water, went back to the cutter, which was not very far behind. She had then a light air following her up. We directed them which way to go, and then went page 127ahead again, thinking we should find the place above the point. But no; above the point there was not more than two fathoms water, and that only between the point and the northern shore: there is about a cable's length between them. Here we anchored, and here the cutter now lies. A very unsatisfactory place; perhaps we shall find the right one in the morning. Just before anchoring it commenced to rain heavily and continuously. Barometer 28·63.

Saturday, September 2, 1865.—It was calm during all last night. The sky, at daybreak, had a very wild and threatening appearance, and the sun rose red and watery-looking, and a light air sprang up from the northwards. We at once got under weigh, and proceeded in search of Laurie Cove. We beat down the arm, or lagoon, again; but the wind suddenly increased, with every appearance of a heavy gale. We brought up in a small bight in 4 fathoms on the S.W. side of the 'low-wooded peninsula,' with its extreme point bearing N.E. by N., and a bluff point at the other extreme of the bight bearing S.W. by S.-half-S. The distance between them is about half a mile, and the other surrounding land (to the eastward) is from half a mile to two miles from where we are anchored, and a S.E or easterly gale would come with considerable force on a vessel lying at anchor here. We are, however, land-locked, and well sheltered from any westerly wind; but a swell comes round the peninsula which causes the vessel to roll about a good deal.

After breakfast Captain Cross, Wheeler, and myself went on shore to have a look round. We found that a great quantity of timber had been cut down on the peninsula, and the north side of it is evidently the site of the old settlement, and that the 'Flying Scud' is now riding at anchor in Laurie Cove, and rolling about almost as much as if she was at sea. What a disappointment! In place of getting into a perfect dock, as we expected, we find it almost an open road. And the buildings, and page 128vegetable gardens, where are they? All gone; scarcely a vestige of a house remains; bare levelled places point out where many of them have stood, as remaining traces of rude fences also point out where innumerable small gardens have been; but the ground everywhere, except where some of the houses have apparently stood, is choked up with a vigorous growth of thick long grass, and there is not the slightest sign of any edible vegetable, or even a single shrub that is not a native of the island, if we except a few flax bushes, which appear to thrive well, and two small trees. As for the pigs, we have found no traces of them.

While we were on shore it came on to rain heavily, and blew a hard gale from N.W. After strolling about for an hour or so, and getting thoroughly wet, we went on board and ran out the second anchor. It has continued to blow and rain heavily up to the time of writing (9 p.m.). I consider it extremely fortunate that I knew nothing of there ever being a settlement here, or most likely we should have been tempted to try and make our way to it, in which case it is highly probable we might have starved to death, for there appear to be no seals here. We have only seen one, which was in the water, and there are very few of the roots here which we used to eat. The formation of the soil is the same here as at the other end of the island. I have seen some rock which is different, but much that is similar, while the timber and other vegetation is precisely the same. Barometer, 8 a.m., 29·60; noon, 29; 8 p.m., 28·95: thermometer, 42°.

Sunday, September 3, 1865.—About midnight last night the wind came from W. or W.N.W., and blew very hard, drawing down the arm where we were at anchor the other night, and sending a heavy roll round the point, so that it was necessary to pick up the anchors, and haul farther into the bight. She is sheltered from the wind, but lies very uncomfortably. After breakfast Captain Cross, my boy George, and myself went on shore. It came on to page 129rain, and I took shelter tinder a flax bush, while they proceeded in another direction, and I lost sight of them. I now commenced another survey of this deserted spot, but saw nothing that I had not seen yesterday, except that I find they have made stone pathways here and there—no doubt the earth was so soft that they required them; we made similar ones at Epigwaitt—and over these walks the grass has shot up with more vigour than in other places: it is so thick and long that it is almost impossible to trace them. After wandering about for a couple of hours, I returned on board, bringing with me some specimens of rock and earth. I have just arrived on board. Cross and George have not yet returned.

8 p.m.—I had scarcely finished writing when Captain Cross came on board, and they informed us that they had found a man lying dead on shore, who had apparently died of starvation, and had evidently not been long dead, as flesh remained on his hands. They brought with them a slate—a common roof slate — on which were scratched some hieroglyphical zig-zags, which had no doubt been written by the deceased man, probably when dying, but which we found impossible to decipher any further than the Christian name, James. I reserve the slate, as some one will be able at least to make out the whole name. They had not disturbed anything about him farther than removing an oil-coat which was lying over the upper part of the body. After dinner, Captain Cross, George Wheeler, George Harris, and myself went ashore to see and examine the body, taking with us a spade to bury it with.

On arriving at the place indicated—the second bight to the northwards of the peninsula—we saw the remains of a dead man. When he died he was, no doubt, under the shelter of an old frame-house, then partly in ruins; and since his death, and very recently, it has fallen down entirely, but without touching the body, and leaving it exposed to the weather. The body lay on a bed of grass, with some boards underneath raising it a few inches from page 130the ground, and was close up against the west end of the house, which end and the sides had fallen outwards, while the roof, being pressed by the wind towards the other end, had just fallen clear of the body, which, with the exception of ordinary dress, had no other covering than the before-mentioned oil-coat, which Captain Cross had removed. Within his reach were two bottles containing water, one nearly empty, the other was full. Close by lay a small heap of limpet and mussel shells, which fish appear to have been his sole sustenance. He has no doubt died from starvation. The unfortunate man lay in a very natural and composed position. His feet, which were off the side of his bed, lay across each other; the body was on its back, and the hands were laid on the lower part of the body, with the fingers quite straight. The finger nails were quite perfect on the right hand, and on both hands some flesh still remained. The skin and flesh had disappeared from the other parts of the body, excepting the head and face, on which the skin remained, and was parched and dry and of a blackish colour. The deceased has been a man of slender frame, height about 5 feet 7 inches or 5 feet 8 inches; hair light brown, or approaching auburn; forehead low; high, prominent cheek bones; upper jaw protruding, and had one front tooth out; the remainder were perfectly round and beautifully regular, and the chin was pointed. He had on a sou'wester hat, three woollen mufflers, a dark brown cloth coat, with an almost invisible stripe in it, and trowsers to match; a blue serge vest, a brownish-coloured Guernsey shirt, a red and black check Crimean ditto, and a blue Guernsey ditto next the skin. Cotton drawers next the skin, trowsers and woollen drawers over all, and three or four pairs of woollen socks and stockings. One old shoe was partly on the right foot, and the left one was tied up with woollen rags, as if it had been sore. Round his neck hung some Roman Catholic relic in the shape of a heart, made out of two small pieces of leather sewn together, with something sacred placed page 131between them. This and a lock of the unfortunate man's hair I have brought with me, as it is not impossible but we may yet, by some means, discover who the poor man was; and these may be claimed and valued by some relative or friend as the last memento of one gone.

After a gloomy and somewhat lengthened examination of the lamentable object of our present visit, we dug a grave, in which we placed the mortal remains of the unfortunate unknown, and, after offering up a brief prayer, his bones were mingled with their mother earth. There was not a vestige of clothing to be found about the place other than that described, which he had on. How he has come here I cannot conjecture. Has he been the only one saved from some ill-fated ship? or, have there been others who saved their lives also, and have they undertaken to travel over the inhospitable island in search of something where-upon they might subsist, while he, poor man—perhaps sick, or lame, or both — preferred remaining here to take his chance? or, worse than all, has he been turned ashore by some inhuman brute of a captain? Such things have been done, or the idea would not suggest itself to me. The only fact which presents itself is, that he has died of starvation, and been alone in this solitary spot. We raised the fallen roof from the ground to see that no one was underneath it. As we sailed along the shore the other day, we kept our eyes and glasses fixed on it, but did not see any smoke, or the slightest sign of there being a human being on the island. After performing the last melancholy ritual to the remains of our unfortunate brother tar, we returned pensively and gloomily towards the vessel.

This lamentable spectacle would undoubtedly give rise to serious thoughts in anyone, but how infinitely more in me, whose bones might at the present moment have been lying above the ground under similar circumstances, had not the hand of Providence showered such great mercies upon me, perhaps the least deserving. What a field for serious reflection! And it is not impossible that at the present moment page 132there are other poor men lying dead, or perhaps dying, on other parts of these desolate islands. Throughout the day the wind has been at W.N.W.; hard gale and showery; barometer 29·15. I should have noticed that the deceased had not a single article in his pockets, or about his person —not even a knife or matches, although not far from the remains, and under the fallen roof, were evident signs of fire having recently been burning there.

Monday, September 4.—This morning we took a pull in the boat round the weather shores of the bay, and I found marks of habitations for a distance of about two miles along the shore, to the northward of the peninsula. We also went up into the bush at several places, but saw no further signs of anyone having been about here recently. In the afternoon we all remained on board, and I proceeded with skinning my seal; but the weather was so bitterly cold that before I got the skin off I was obliged to lay it aside again. It has continued to blow a very heavy gale from W.N.W., with frequent showers of hail; thermometer 34°, barometer 29·20. This evening the weather appears to be clearing up a little. I have every hope that the wind will be more to the southward in the morning, and we shall be able to get away.

* I am now of opinion that the name of the place where I lost the 'Grafton' is Carnley's Harbour.