Page 1: Biography
Goldminer, mariner, castaway
This biography, written by Mary Louise Ormsby, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993.
James Teer was born in Newcastle, County Down, Ireland, probably in 1826 or 1827. His father was Thomas Teer, a fisherman; his mother's name is not known. The family earned their living in a poverty-stricken fishing community, and from an early age James was familiar with the sea and with deprivation. He left Ireland for Australia at the age of 18.
Tall and strong, he suited the frontier environment and for 20 years worked in Australia and New Zealand as a goldminer and mariner in isolated situations. He joined the West Coast goldrush in the early 1860s and in December 1864 came to public attention when he piloted a ship across the bar of the Hokitika River. He returned to Australia in 1865 and, having had some success as a goldminer, decided to take his savings to Ireland.
On 3 May 1866 Teer left Melbourne to sail to London via Cape Horn on the General Grant. On board were 83 people and a cargo which included about £10,000 worth of gold. On 14 May the ship, off course and becalmed, was washed into a cavern on the west side of Auckland Island where it sank. Teer was among the 15 survivors and, in spite of the presence of a ship's officer, he immediately emerged as leader.
He knew, from accounts of earlier wrecks, that it was possible to survive the harsh sub-antarctic conditions and that there was water, wildlife and vegetation on the islands. One of his companions later said that Teer roused them from despair during the two days they struggled in lifeboats along the coast searching for shelter. They found a suitable landing at Port Ross and Teer's position as leader was reinforced when he produced matches. Only one ignited and the fire it started was kept burning for 18 months.
Teer had a 'wonderful mechanical talent' and was able to find a use for any object. Under his direction the group built shelter, explored the terrain and learned to survive on natural resources and the remains of earlier settlements and camps. Teer fashioned needles from albatross bone, thread from flax and devised a way to soften sealskin. With these materials he and Mary Ann Jewell, the only woman survivor, made shoes and clothing. A hook on the end of a pole, devised by Teer, enabled them to catch goats and pigs. He kept a diary scratched on dried sealskin, and organised a roster of duties.
Teer settled disputes, sometimes using force. On one occasion he is said to have disciplined a man who harassed Mary Ann Jewell. When the party became inert with scurvy he forced them into activity, at least once with an improvised whip. In times of disappointment and depression it was Teer who persuaded the group to persist with their daily and seasonal routine. On 8 March 1867 he organised a move to Enderby Island where seals, their staple diet, were plentiful. From here they kept a daily watch for passing ships. On 21 November 1867 they attracted the attention of the Amherst and were rescued.
They landed at Invercargill on 13 January 1868 where Teer was nominated as spokesman. He is said to have declined an offer to replace his lost savings as it was not extended to his companions. By 16 March he was back in the Auckland Islands advising a group hoping to salvage the cargo and gold from the General Grant. Teer identified the location where the ship went down but bad weather prevented any attempt to dive. Although he did not return to the islands after this, Teer was able to sell his notes and diagrams to a number of salvage ventures.
He returned to the West Coast where, dressed in his sealskin clothes, he gave lectures in mining communities on life as a castaway. In 1874 he worked as a boatman on the Hokitika River but in 1875 settled at Arawata, an isolated area near Jackson Bay. Here he came into conflict with Duncan Macfarlane, the resident agent for the Jackson's Bay Special Settlement, for killing seals – now his preferred diet – out of season. He had never married. He died on 30 April 1887 and at his burial, in a customary West Coast gesture of admiration, a bottle of whisky was poured over his coffin.