The early 19th century was a time of rapid exploration and expansion in the sealing and whaling trades in the Southern Ocean, particularly from the new colonial settlements of Australia and what was to become New Zealand. In August 1806 the whaling ship Ocean, captained by Abraham Bristow and funded by the London firm Samuel Enderby & Sons was headed for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) to engage in the whaling trade. On their way west from Cape Horn they came upon a group of islands at 50⁰ south which the captain named after Baron William Auckland. This is the first documented account of the Auckland Islands. The initial impression of the islands was they looked green, bountiful with seals and whales and well placed to host a colony or whaling station. Bristow returned a year later, taking possession of the islands for the English crown and releasing pigs as a future food source. The islands were mapped on this expedition, incorrectly, it turned out later.
Located on a main shipping route via Cape Horn to Australia, in the 3 decades following their discovery numerous ships stopped at the Auckland Islands to harvest seals and whales, with some work gangs staying on the islands for months at a time. Scientific and exploration expeditions also stopped at the islands, including the French explorer Jules d’Urville and the Porpoise from the United States Exploring Expedition, led by Charles Wilkes. In 1839 Sir James Clark Ross stopped at the islands on his voyage of exploration to Antarctica, leading the ships Erebus and Terror.
The first documented attempt at settlement on the islands was by a group of Maori and Moriori from the Chatham Islands. They arrived in 1842 and the final members of the community left the island in 1856, making their colony the longest-lived attempt at settlement on the islands (Hince 2005 p. 158). During the time of the Maori settlement there was an ill-fated attempt at colonisation by English merchant Charles Enderby, son of Samuel Enderby of the famed shipping company.
In 1847 the English Crown granted Charles Enderby the Auckland Islands, and he proceeded to make plans for a whaling settlement there. He somehow managed to recruit 200 people to join him in establishing a settlement on the island, and in 1849 the first ship left England. The settlement struggled from the start to establish a viable base. Despite the green and lush appearance of the islands, the acidic peat soils were hostile to all attempts at cropping and the whale, seal and sea lion populations were already in decline from heavy harvesting. In 1852 the last settlers departed the islands, leaving only a few broken down huts and a small cemetery.
Ships still passed by and stopped at the Auckland Islands, sometimes in tragic circumstance. Shipwrecks were a sadly frequent event in the 19th century, and at least 9 ships were wrecked on the rough coasts of the islands. Often survivors would make it to shore, only to perish in the harsh conditions on land. One of the most famed shipwrecks was the Grafton in January 1864. Facing a gale, the captain decided to anchor in Carnley Harbour in what looked like a protected spot. But the topography of the surrounding island peaks channelled the gale into the harbour, dashing the ship on the rocky coast. All five men on board survived and made it to shore. For 19 months they eked out an existence on Auckland Island until the captain and 2 of the crew repaired and enlarged the ship’s dinghy, and sailed for New Zealand. They made it, and launched a rescue expedition to retrieve the other 2 crew. In response to the frequent shipwrecks the New Zealand government installed castaway depots, maintaining them until 1929 and regularly sent patrols to the islands.
Although no further attempts were made at settlement, the Auckland Islands were still seen as an economic asset and in 1894 the New Zealand government auctioned off cattle leases on the islands. By the 1930s the environmental value of the islands was becoming recognised, and the last grazing lease ended in 1934. Cattle were removed from Adams Island as early as 1910, but remained on Enderby Island until 1992.
Shipping traffic to the islands continued throughout the 20th century with numerous scientific, and later tourism, expeditions stopping off over the summer months. A notorious episode in the islands history took place during World War 2, when in 1940 the German steamer Erlangen slipped her moorings in southern New Zealand and headed south, in an attempt to get back to Europe. The ship took shelter in Carnely Harbour before heading for Chile, and once the NZ government became aware of this they instigated a coast watching program that ran until the end of the war. Under the code name ‘Cape Expedition’, the Coastwatchers undertook survey work and kept detailed dairies of their observations and experiences.
Today the human presence on the Auckland Islands is limited to eco-tourism groups though the summer, where activities are limited to zodiac cruises and defined walking tracks, and a research station at Sandy Bay on Enderby Island. Dedicated field researchers live for months at a time in a cluster of small huts, studying the wildlife and ecology of the islands and expanding our knowledge and understating of this unique and rich island group.