The story of human settlement on the subantarctic islands is a tale of dreams blighted by the realities of climate and soil.
The first people to arrive appear to have been Polynesian. Investigations in 1998 and 2003 discovered ovens and middens in the dunes behind Sandy Bay on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands. They were dated to the 13th or 14th centuries, the period when mainland New Zealand was first settled. There are no traces from later periods so it seems almost certain that settlement was short-lived.
British navigator James Cook probed far into southern waters on his second voyage (1772–75) but did not come across any of the islands. They were discovered by two of his officers on follow-up voyages. On 19 September 1788 Lieutenant William Bligh on HMS Bounty, heading from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) to Tahiti to pick up breadfruit trees, sighted the Bounty Islands and named them after his ship, which was to become famous for a mutiny seven months later. Three years later, on 23 November 1791, another of Cook’s officers, Commander George Vancouver, also heading to Tahiti, discovered islands that he named ‘The Snares’ because he thought they were a shipping hazard.
All in a name?
Frederick Hasselburg discovered Campbell Island in a sealing brig called Perseverance. It was an appropriate name. On 4 January 1810 the boat left a gang of seven sealers on the island. Distracted by his discovery of Macquarie Island, Hasselburg did not return to pick up the sealers until late October. He drowned some days later. In September 1828, almost 19 years after discovering the place, the Perseverance was wrecked at Campbell Island, the only wreck ever reported there. The main harbour of the island was named after the vessel.
The settlement and exploitation of the Australian colonies led to subsequent discoveries. On 26 March 1800 Captain Henry Waterhouse discovered the Antipodes Islands on his way back to Portsmouth in a Royal Navy sloop that had been based in Sydney. Waterhouse named them Isle Penantipode because they were so close to the antipodes of London (directly opposite London on the globe).
The biggest islands were the last to be found. Captain Abraham Bristow, who worked for the sealing and whaling firm S. Enderby and Sons, discovered islands on 18 August 1806 which he named after his father’s friend, Lord Auckland. In late December 1809, sealing captain Frederick Hasselburg discovered an island which he named after his employers, Campbell & Co. of Sydney. Six months later Hasselburg discovered Macquarie Island.
Waterhouse had noted seals at the Antipodes Islands, and with Bass Strait sealing on the wane, Sydney sealers turned to the subantarctic islands. Their focus was the New Zealand fur seal, whose skins were used for hats. The prize catch was six-month-old cubs killed in autumn, whose skins were sent direct to China. Those of older males caught later in the year often went to London. Some oil, used for lighting, was also occasionally taken.
It has been estimated that half of the fur seals caught in the New Zealand sealing trade were taken in the subantarctic islands. The Antipodes Islands contributed 27% of the total haul, Macquarie Island 14%, the Bounty Islands 4%, the Auckland Islands 3% and Campbell Island 2%.
The rush south began with three gangs dropped on the Antipodes Islands in February 1805. Over the next two years up to 80 sealers lived there. The slaughter was huge. Attention then turned to the Bounty and Auckland islands, but by 1810 catches were falling, and neither matched the Antipodes, which alone provided over 330,000 skins. From 1810 there was brief interest in Campbell Island, but for a year or so Macquarie Island was far more fruitful. By about 1812 the rush was over. There were revivals in 1823–26, and again, less intensively, in the 1870s and 1880s, when there was a brief trade in penguin skins used for ladies’ muffs.
The early slaughter had long-term effects – as early as 1830, Benjamin Morrell found not a single fur seal at the Auckland Islands.