Apart from French scientists on Campbell Island and German scientists on Auckland Island who came to observe the transit of Venus in 1874, the next groups to endure life on the subantarctic islands were castaways.
The islands were on the grand circle route for sailing ships from southern Australia to Europe via Cape Horn. Charts were often inadequate, winds fierce and visibility poor. The result was at least 11 shipwrecks there between 1864 and 1908. On nine occasions survivors made it to shore to await rescue. Seven groups ended up on the Auckland Islands – castaways from the Grafton and Invercauld (1864), General Grant (1866), Derry Castle (1887), Compadre (1891), Anjou (1905) and Dundonald (1907). The wrecks of the Spirit of Dawn in 1893 and President Félix Fauré in 1908 left survivors on the Antipodes Islands.
There were some extraordinary stories of survival as castaways battled the climate, risked starvation, and endured the hopes and disappointments of possible rescue. Perhaps the most famous (because two of the five crew members wrote accounts) was the Grafton. The men lasted for 19 months before they built a boat on which three sailed to Stewart Island.
Depots of plenty
The castaway depots contained biscuits, tinned meat, fat, matches, cooking utensils, tools, a medicine chest, fishing lines and hooks, knives, needles and thread, rifles and ammunition, blankets, underpants, woollen singlets, flannel shirts, woollen socks, three-piece woollen suits, leather boots and cherry pipes. Little wonder that the supplies were often ransacked by visiting sealers.
Following the Grafton experience caches of food and equipment were left, and with the end of provincial government in 1876 this process became more regular. Animals were also released on the islands to provide food. By the 1890s there were five depots on the Auckland Islands, with more on the Snares, Campbell Island and the Antipodes. 65 finger posts were erected to direct castaways to the supplies. Government steamers regularly serviced the depots and looked for survivors.
The development of steam-powered shipping and improved maps effectively brought the castaway era to an end by 1910.
The regular voyages by government steamers permitted visits by passengers – including three governors (Lord Glasgow in 1895, Lord Ranfurly in 1900 and Lord Plunket in 1907). Many prominent scientists accompanied them or made special trips, including Andreas Reischek, Thomas Kirk, James Hector and F. W. Hutton. In 1907 the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury sent no fewer than 22 scientists to the Auckland and Campbell islands, including botanist Leonard Cockayne. The last visit by a government steamer was in 1927 and included naturalist Herbert Guthrie-Smith, botanist W. R. B. Oliver and ornithologist Edgar Stead.
The dream that the subantarctic islands might be good for farming did not die with the Enderby failure. In 1874 Dr F. A. Monckton took up a lease over the Auckland Islands and sent sheep and a married couple to Port Ross. They lasted until 1877.
In November 1894 three runs were offered on the Auckland Islands, one on Campbell Island, and even some on Antipodes and Bounty islands. No-one took up the Bounty offer (it was nothing but rock). W. Dinwiddie took a lease on the Antipodes, as an investment. He never visited and finally surrendered the lease in 1925.
The last men to attempt farming on Campbell Island suffered torments characteristic of the place. In the absence of regular steamers and radio communication, the Warren brothers, who farmed from 1926, took carrier pigeons, but one drowned in a sheep dip and the other flew off and didn’t return. When finally picked up in 1931, the men had had no bread or vegetables for eight months. They brought back some wool and seal skins, but the price of the wool barely covered the charter costs. They received 5 shillings each for the skins, but the duty was £1. They had lost everything.
On the Auckland Islands, W. J. Moffett took up the northern block in 1895 and landed a few cattle and sheep. In 1900 George Fleming took it over and obtained the other two Auckland Islands leases. He built a house at Carnley Harbour, and landed 2,000 sheep. The sheep starved, and Fleming abandoned the effort in 1910. Adams Island became a reserve. When the mainland leases expired in 1934 the rest of the Auckland Islands became reserves.
Campbell Island saw the most intense efforts at agriculture. A succession of farming endeavours took place there between 1895 and 1931, with up to 6,800 sheep shorn annually in the 1920s. William Tucker, a former mayor of Gisborne, took up the lease in 1900. He employed Shetlanders (who were accustomed to a rough climate) and then whalers from Tory Channel and the Bay of Islands to combine sheep work in summer with winter whaling. Neither group lasted.
In the end pastoral ambitions were defeated by isolation, the climate, and a lack of regular shipping to bring in supplies and take off wool.