Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Wrecked on a Reef

[the Auckland Islands]

page 218

The Auckland Island group lies some 465 kilometres south of Bluff in the South Pacific between longitude 165° 52' and 166° 20' east and latitude 50° 29' and 50° 59' south. From north to south there are three main islands: Enderby, Auckland and Adams, all mentioned in Raynal's narrative. However there are many more islets and reefs.

The Auckland islands were discovered by Europeans in 1806. On 18 August that year Captain Bristow of the whaler Ocean sighted them, naming them Lord Auckland Islands in honour of the First Lord of the Admiralty, a friend of his father. Bristow came back the following year on the Sarah to take possession of the islands in the name of the British Crown, and gave the name of Sarah's Bosom to the long fjord which separates Enderby and Auckland Islands.

Auckland Island, the largest oceanic island in the Pacific subantarctic, covers 51,000 hectares, roughly four-fifths of the total surface of the group. The exposed western coasts have stark, rugged cliffs which face the prevailing south-westerly winds coming from the Antarctic continent. The eastern coast is relatively sheltered though deceptively so, with numerous inlets and two large and deeply indented harbours: Port Ross in the north and Carnley Harbour in the south, where Raynal and his companions survived for almost twenty months. (Thomas Musgrave, captain of the Grafton, uses the name Sarah's Bosom for what is actually Carnley Harbour) The most striking feature of the south and western coasts is their massive wall of cliffs, perpendicular to the sea which explodes like gunfire as it pounds into deep caves.

Following discovery of these islands, a rush of sealers exterminated the seal population within a dozen years. Whalers occasionally landed in the Aucklands to find firewood and water or make repairs. Traces of their passage page 220were found by the castaways in several areas of Carnley Harbour (cf Ch XIV, the bricks at Camp-Cove).

Their relative closeness to the Antarctic continent attracted the great explorers of the 19th century. Between 1829 and 1840 four scientific ex-peditions anchored at Auckland Island. In 1829 Benjamin Morrell in the Antarctic was the only one to anchor in the south of the main island and spent five days in Carnley Harbour. The other three expeditions described only the northern area around Port Ross.

At the beginning of March 1840 the first to arrive was Commodore Ringgold in the Porpoise, under Charles Wilkes' American expedition. A few days later the French expedition under Dumont d'Urville entered the harbour in the Astrolabe and the Zélée. Botanists on board made studies of the island flora while Captain Jacquinot surveyed the harbour and the artist Lebreton made fine paintings of the island with the two ships anchored alongside.

D'Urville's comments on the resources of the Auckland Islands tend to correct the flattering descriptions of his 1829 American predecessor. He says: 'The navigator finds nothing in the depth of the valleys but a few miserable trees, twisted and stunted. On the somewhat higher parts … the only growth to be seen is a variety of grasses all yellow in appearance."1… "wood is knotted, brittle and unsuitable for construction…" and "Everywhere there are deposits of very thick peat which tremble under the feet as one walks over them."2

Unfortunately these remarks had no effect on the promoter of a colonisation scheme some years later. He probably did not know of d'Urville's work.

Most significant of the three expeditions was the visit of the English naval vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror under the command of Captain James Clark Ross (later Sir James Ross). A hydrographic survey of the fjord and a mapv
The low southern rata forest on Auckland Island.From New Zealand Coast& Mountain Plants, John Dawson& Rob Lucas, Victoria University Press, 1996

The low southern rata forest on Auckland Island.
From New Zealand Coast& Mountain Plants, John Dawson& Rob Lucas, Victoria University Press, 1996

page 221of the island group were made, while Dr Joseph Hooker (later Sir Joseph) and Dr David Lyall collected 80 flowering plants including the magnificent megaherbs and many species which found their place in his famous Flora Antarctica.

Several animals including pigs, sheep, poultry and rabbits were released, and vegetables and fruit were planted for castaways. It was unfortunate for subsequent history of the islands that Ross's map was not more widely circulated and used by sailors.

The beauty of the harbour and its surrounding coves convinced Ross that the islands might be suitable for replacing the New South Wales and Tasmania penitentiary establishments, now that these colonies had become respectable.

His report encouraged Charles Enderby, of the British whaling company Samuel Enderby & Co, to concoct a different colonisation project for the Auckland Islands in 1847. To counteract the powerful American whaling industry, a permanent whaling base would be established at Erebus Cove and he thought whalers would visit it to replenish stores. Besides, he said the islands "have a very rich virgin soil capable of feeding on one acre of land as many sheep as can be fed on six acres in Australia; the land is equally capable of feeding cattle, horses … and of growing all such products as are generally grown in England."3 He obtained a thirty-year lease from the British Government, sold it to the British Southern Whale Fishery Company, and organised in Port Ross the settlement of 'Harwicke' named after the Earl of Harwicke, the governor of the company.

In 1849 the settlers arrived with their wives and families and were surprised to find about sixty Maori and Morion' occupying the land. Following inter-tribal fights and fearing reprisals by the French Navy after the destruction of the French whaler Jean-Bart, they had come in 1842 from the Chatham Islands under chiefs Matioro and Manature and had established several camps and gardens around Port Ross.4 They helped the newcomers to settle, providing fish, birds and vegetables from their gardens. Charles Enderby, now Lieutenant-Governor of the islands, had a large house built for himself. Barracks, a jail, a chapel and cottages for the settlers were also built.

Local conditions were not as favourable as Enderby had dreamt them to be. Crops did not grow well in the acid, peaty soil and salt winds; the climate and isolation became unbearable, and the whales failed to appear. When Company inspectors came in 1852 they decided to close the settlement. Besides, the gold rush in Australia was attracting the settlers, weary of tilling the infertile land. Most of the Maori left; the last were taken back to their original province of Taranaki in 1856 by a whaling ship they chartered.

The status of the little Crown colony needed redefining. On 18 June 1863 a law was passed which solved the problem; the New Zealand territorial zone was extended to the 53th parallel comprising the Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes and Bounty Islands.

With the colonisation of Australia, its subsequent economic development and the gold rush, it became essential for shipping to move people and goods faster. The Great Circle trading route by Cape Horn and the prevailing winds page 222of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties were considered most favourable to shipping. Unfortunately the Auckland Islands, which stood directly in the path of sailing ships, were to acquire a very bad reputation.

From the 1850s there were no more voluntary residents in the Auckland Islands. It was by sheer bad luck that temporary residents happened to visit them, and they stayed very much against their will. Their testimonies make a distressing and grievous record of their miserable sojourn on these islands. They also constitute a catalogue of courage, self-reliance and sheer tenacity.

Between 1864 and 1907 there were seven confirmed shipwrecks in the Auckland Islands, and at least two probable ones. The best documented account is the wreck of the small schooner Grafton. Both Captain Thomas Musgrave and his French business associate François Raynal, mate on the Grafton, wrote accounts of the disaster.

Musgrave's account was the first to be known, almost as soon as he, Raynal and Alick Maclaren were brought from Stewart Island to Invercargill by Mr Cross on his schooner the Flying Scud. It appeared in instalments three times a week in the Invercargill newspaper, the Southland News, from 5 August to 17 October 1865.5 It was then edited and published in Melbourne by the end of 1865, and in London the following year. After Raynal's return to his native France, his account was published in Paris four years later, in the serious travel magazine Le Tour du Monde, with thirty-nine woodcuts by Alphonse de Neuville and one engraving by Mesnel. An enlarged version appeared in book form in 1870.

Remains of the Grafton, 1888. William Dougall took the photos for articles in the Southland News, Invercargill, about his travels to outlying islands to restock food depots. Opposite: the entrance to Carnley Harbour.Alexander Turnbull Library

Remains of the Grafton, 1888. William Dougall took the photos for articles in the Southland News, Invercargill, about his travels to outlying islands to restock food depots. Opposite: the entrance to Carnley Harbour.
Alexander Turnbull Library

page 223

The wreck of the fifteen-ton Grafton does not really fit in with the disasters that followed because it happened in the relatively sheltered Carnley Harbour, and there were no casualties. It stands out nevertheless as a remarkable tale of survival in an inhospitable environment.

Following the return of the Grafton castaways, two official expeditions were made to the Auckland Islands. The first was led by Captain WH Norman6 on Her Majesty's colonial steam-sloop Victoria from Melbourne with Captain Musgrave as cabin passenger and pilot; the second expedition with John H Baker,7 chief surveyor for Southland, on the steam tug Southland under Captain Greig.

On 10 May 1864, only five months after the wreck of the Grafton, a larger ship came to grief on the northern point of Auckland Island.

The Invercauld, from Aberdeen bound for Valparaiso, struck a reef during a storm and disappeared in minutes. Nineteen of its crew of twenty-five managed to reach land, only to die one by one of hunger or exposure in the months that followed. Only three men survived: Captain Dalgarno, the first mate, and Robert Holding, a young sailor of 23. After a miserable year on the island they were finally picked up by the Julian, a Spanish brig which had put up in Port Ross to repair leaks.8

For 133 years the disaster of the Invercauld was known only through the reports of its captain and first mate, quoted in Appendix I of Raynal's book. However, Robert Holding's great-granddaughter discovered her ancestor's unpublished account, and guided by his detailed description of his painful trek page 224to Port Ross, she managed to follow in his footsteps through the scrub and over the water to Enderby Island. Holding's journal and her amazing research were published in 1997 in Wake of the Invercauld,9 which complements and somewhat corrects other information available on the wreck.

The most famous Auckland Island shipwreck was the General Grant, which is described in Appendix II of Raynal's book (page 205). The American-built General Grant10 was a three-masted vessel of 1100 tons. It left Melbourne bound for London with twenty-two crew and sixty-one passengers, some of them having done well in the Australian gold mines. They were becalmed close to the western cliffs of Auckland Island, drifted towards the coast waiting for a breeze, and finally during the night drifted into a cave where the ship foundered on 14 May 1866. There were only fifteen survivors. Four of them disappeared later attempting to reach New Zealand in an open boat, one died of exhaustion, and after eighteen months of suffering the last ten were rescued on 21 November 1867 by the whaler Amherst from Bluff.

Two months later the Southland provincial government sent the Amherst to establish food depots on the islands and signposts to help future castaways. These supplies were regularly replenished from 1877 by the central government of New Zealand, but this was discontinued in 1927.

The wreck of the General Grant attracted world attention, because there were many passengers on board, but mostly because it carried a lot of gold. Besides the former gold diggers' personal fortunes there were the 2576 ounces of gold belonging to the Bank of New South Wales.

The gold cargo of the General Grant has never ceased to attract attention though it has proved very elusive.

The list of wrecks in the Auckland Island kept growing into the 20th century.

During the night of 27 March 1887 the Derry Castle11 an iron barque bound for Falmouth with a cargo of wheat, was wrecked on the reef which bears its name on the northern point of Enderby Island. Only eight of the twenty-two men on board reached the rocks. They eventually discovered the food depot in Port Ross, but were marooned there for 92 days.

In March 1891 a fire was discovered on the Compadre12 bound from Calcutta to Chile with a cargo of sacks. Unable to extinguish the fire while fighting a very rough sea, this 800-ton iron barque broke up on the reef of the northern coast. All but one of the seventeen crew reached the shore, and survived thanks to the two food depots and live animals liberated on the land, until a sealing vessel brought them back to civilisation.

In February 1905 the Anjou,13 bound from Sydney to Falmouth with a cargo of wheat, ran ashore in a foggy evening on the west coast of Auckland Island. The twenty-one men on board rowed for ten laborious miles into Carnley Harbour where they eventually found the food depots. They were collected in May by the government steamer Hinemoa on its periodic visit to the island.

The crew of the Dundonald14 were not so lucky when they sailed from Sydney bound for Falmouth with a cargo of wheat. On 6 March 1907 she was wrecked on the steep northwest coast of Disappointment Island. Sixteen of the twenty-eight crew survived for seven months on the island itself, sheltering in page 225holes covered with tussock; then for five weeks on the main Auckland Island until they finally reached the food depots and waited for the government steamer which returned them to civilisation.

To this dismal list may be added another two vessels which disappeared in 1865, probably in the vicinity of the Auckland Islands: the Marie Alice and the Stoneleigh.

The wreck of the Dundonald marked the end of the shipwreck era in the Aucklands. As sail gave way to steam and the Panama Canal opened in 1914, these islands were no longer on the shipping routes.

The subantarctic islands of New Zealand were in the international news again briefly in 1874 when several scientific expeditions came to observe the extremely rare transit of Venus across the face of the sun. It was thought that observations made from various points of the earth would help to calculate the exact distance of earth to sun. The last such transit had taken place in 1769 when Captain Cook had sailed to Tahiti on the same mission, and going on to search for the fabled 'Southern Continent' had found and circumnavigated New Zealand. Another such transit is expected in 2004.

In 1874 German scientists set up a temporary observatory at Terror Cove in Port Ross. On Raynal's advice, French scientists went to Campbell Island on the Vire, under Captain J Jacquemart.

From around 1890 until 1910 a few unsuccessful attempts at farming were made on Enderby and Adams islands. Lands were leased and domestic animals let loose.

Finally in 1934, the Auckland Island group was declared a natural reserve where birds, seals and plants would be protected. People could no longer intrude on their lives. This policy began a new era. Gradually, bird and seal numbers increased and whales were sighted again around the islands, while benign scientific expeditions came to study their unique fauna and flora.

Another famous human odyssey to include the Auckland Islands deserves a mention. In August 1939, a few days before the declaration of World War II, the Erlangen, a German cargo boat from Bremen left Dunedin ostensibly bound for Australia. But the German officers on board, with the agreement of their Chinese crew, decided to escape to Chile. Since the steamer did not have enough coal or food to last the 4800 kilometres to South America, they came to take firewood and whatever food they could find from the Auckland Islands. They sailed into Carnley Harbour right to the head of North Arm and in the place now known as Erlangen Clearing they cut 250 tons of wood, and collected all the mussels and birds they could find. They then tackled the difficult problem of transforming their steamer back into a sailing ship so as to save their limited fuel by making use of the winds of the Great Circle route. They did manage to reach Chile, though they had to use all floor coverings as fuel, and anything else that could feed the boilers.

Following this incident, volunteers were called to man coast-watching stations on the island for the 'Cape Expedition' in 1941. As danger lessened towards the end of the war, scientific work replaced the coast-watching duties, and by 1945 the stations were abandoned.

page 226

From 1943 to 1945 a topographical survey of the islands was organised with the formidable task of reaching the highest points in the island, through the impenetrable scrub that Musgrave and Raynal had described so well in their accounts. Incidentally, complete aerial maps of the subantarctic islands were not obtained until 1984.