Sealing, Sheep and Science

Before being blown off course and discovering Macquarie Island in July 1810, Captain Frederick Hasselborough was on a voyage to search for new sealing grounds in the Southern Ocean. He came upon Campbell Island in January that year, naming it after his employer the Campbell and Co shipping company and the main harbour after his ship the Perseverance. Sealing was a lucrative industry in the first half of the 19th century, and the perceived high numbers of fur seals on the island made it a prime target for the fur trade. In pursuit of the lucrative furs ships began visiting the island as soon as its existence was known, almost wiping out the fur seal population within 20 years – it certainly was not a profitable industry by the 1830’s.  On his return journey to Campbell Island in November 1810 Captain Hasselborough drowned in Perseverance Harbour, along with a young boy named George Allwright and Elizabeth Farr, a woman from Norfolk Island travelling on the ship. They were drowned when the small jolly-boat they and 3 others were rowing to shore in was capsized by winds. Elizabeth Farr was buried on the island, but the bodies of Captain Hasselborough and George Allwright were never recovered (McNab, p. 41-42).

Ships continued to stop at Campbell Island throughout the 19th century, often to take on water and wood during long journeys from the colonies of NZ and Australia. Sealing gangs were sometimes left on the island for years at a time, to be picked up later with their cargo. Whaling was pursued on the island, mainly from North West Harbour. The last whaling occurred on Campbell Island in the early 20th century, during the time of grazing leases. Like in the rest of the Subantarctic over-exploitation quickly reduced fur seal, elephant seal, sea lion and whale numbers to point where there was little profit to be had, and the target species were almost wiped out.

Castaway depots were maintained on the island until 1923. For years, ships dropped off sheep, goats, pigs and fowl to provide food for castaways and marooned sailors and it was noted in the 1870’s that the feral sheep on the island seemed to be thriving.

This raised the potential for Campbell Island as a farming outpost. In 1895 the NZ government leased a sheep run on the island for 21 years, and flocks were shipped across from NZ. Over the next 20 years another lease was granted and three more flocks brought to the island to produce wool and meat for the NZ market. The last grazing lease ran out in 1931 and was not renewed, the cost of maintaining and transporting sheep, wool and shepherds outweighing the benefits.  After the last lease expired the sheep were left to graze and breed unchecked. In 1970 the NZ government installed a fence across the narrow waist of Campbell Island, and eradicated all sheep from the northern side. The sheep on the southern side were progressively exterminated, with a small number being transported back to NZ for their breeding potential.

weather station huts

Old weather station huts and loading dock in Perseverance Harbour

Scientific interest in Campbell Island began as early as the 1830s, when exploratory expeditions to the high southern latitudes stopped off at Subantarctic islands to take on wood and water, and record the local environment. In 1874 a French expedition under Captain J Jacquemart spent nearly four months on Campbell Island, with the primary aim of observing the transit of Venus. While the crucial day was overcast, preventing astronomical observations, the expedition undertook the first comprehensive survey of the island (Hince 2005). They left their mark on the island in the names of some distinctive landmarks including Jacquemart Island, off the southern coast and Mount Dumas.

In the 1940s the NZ government Coast Watcher program to monitor any enemy ship activity during World War 2. Among the coast watchers sent to Campbell Island were geologists, meteorologists and surveyors, who spent their time in the isolated outpost documenting the island’s environment. Its value as a meteorological station was quickly identified and a weather station was established on the island in the 1950s, and was manned until it became automated in the 1990s. Research expeditions to Campbell Island occurred through the twentieth century, exploring the island’s geology, wildlife and botany – including the changes occurring after sheep were removed. Campbell Island’s dynamic environment continues to draw visitors from around the world, now with a view for observation and preservation rather than exploitation.