The end of sealing left the subantarctic islands to the birds, who were disturbed only by occasional voyages of exploration and scientific observation from the northern hemisphere.
Islands of optimism
After visiting the Auckland Islands, Benjamin Morrell concluded: ‘I think that Auckland’s Island is one of the finest places for a small settlement that can be found on any island in the southern hemisphere above the latitude of thirty-five. Every valuable animal would thrive here … Grain, fruit, vegetables of all kinds (excepting tropical fruits) could be made to flourish here with very little labour. No island on the globe, of equal dimensions, can boast so many excellent harbours … The whole island … would form a delightful retreat to a few amiable families who wish for “a dear little isle of their own”.’1
In 1820 the Russian explorer Fabian Bellingshausen visited Macquarie Island. In December 1829 and January 1830 Benjamin Morrell, an American sealer and explorer, spent time in the Auckland Islands. Then in 1840 came three major expeditions to the Aucklands: Charles Wilkes, leading the United States Exploring Expedition; the French explorer Dumont d’Urville; and, at the end of the year, the Antarctic expedition of British Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross. Ross’s group included the great botanists Joseph Hooker and David Lyall, who brought the plants of the region to the world’s attention. His men also released sheep, pigs, poultry and rabbits, with less desirable long-term effects.
The major impact of these voyages was upon the image of the Auckland Islands. Morrell, living up to his reputation for fantasy, described the main island as having a salubrious climate and level plains of grass perfect for pasture. Wilkes praised the harbour at Sarah’s Bosom (as Port Ross was then known), while Ross believed the harbour would be a good place for a penal settlement and an excellent base for a whale fishery.
Charles Enderby’s dream
Charles Enderby was the head of S. Enderby and Sons, a major London whaling firm. Concerned at the decline of British whaling under competition from French and US whalers, and influenced by Morrell’s and Ross’s glowing accounts, Enderby proposed that the Auckland Islands become a major whaling base and thriving agricultural settlement. The firm took out a lease on the islands for 30 years and set up the British Southern Whale Fishery Company. Three ships and over 200 settlers arrived at Port Ross in December 1849 and January 1850. Enderby was given the position of resident commissioner and lieutenant governor.
Māori and Moriori settlement
The Taranaki invasion of the Chatham Islands in 1835 had not enabled all the invaders to gain land, so 40 Ngāti Mutunga and their 26 Moriori slaves came south in 1842. By 1849, when the European settlers arrived, the Māori and Moriori had settlements on both Enderby Island and Auckland Island. Two chiefs, Matioro and Manature, cooperated with the new arrivals. The chiefs served as constables and their people worked as labourers and grew vegetables for the settlement.
The newly arrived settlers put up their prefabricated buildings at Hardwicke, their settlement on Port Ross. These included a house for Enderby, barracks for single men, cottages for married families, and a chapel, workshop, storehouse, smithy and jail. Eventually there were about 30 buildings.
Get me out of here!
William Mackworth, the acting commissioner for the Enderby settlement, recorded in his diary the miseries of the settlers. On 17 July 1852 he noted that ‘every one in this place has been longing to leave from the time of his arrival and endeavouring by every opportunity to do so.’ When he finally departed, on 4 August, he commented, ‘The satisfaction I feel at this moment is beyond description. My miserable life at Port Ross will never be forgotten.’2
The dream fades
However, hopes of long-term settlement quickly soured. The land was not fields of grass, but impenetrable scrub and swamp. The acid peat soil and lack of sun made growing vegetables difficult – turnips were the size of radishes. Sheep escaped and were hard to catch. Whaling was the biggest disappointment. The ships were inadequate and the crews mutinous, and many voyages returned empty-handed. In all no more than 2,000 barrels of oil and 10 tons of whalebone was obtained. Disorder included much drunkenness among the whaling crews.
In December 1851 two special commissioners from the company arrived to investigate. Enderby went to New Zealand to fight for his dream, but the commissioners recommended closing down the settlement. On 4 August 1852, almost exactly three years after setting out from Britain, the settlers left for Sydney, where most eventually stayed.
Nor did the Māori stay. In March 1856 their Chatham Island families chartered a ship to pick up those who remained.