Campbell Island: Mysteries of the Sub-Antarctic

By Paul Charman

Paul Charman has Walter Mitty dreams about solving one of the greatest mysteries of the Southern Ocean.
Sandy Bay on Enderby Island. Photo / Paul Charman
Sandy Bay on Enderby Island. Photo / Paul Charman

The identity of a woman abandoned on Campbell Island shortly after it was discovered in 1810, is one of the greatest mysteries of the Sub-Antarctic.

Said by some to have been a Jacobite princess, this "Lady of the Heather" is a riddle equal, in my view, to that other great Sub-Antarctic conundrum - the present whereabouts of the General Grant wreck.

Ahead of my visit to the Campbell and Auckland Island groups, I'd had Walter Mitty day-dreams of solving both mysteries.

Not asking too much really.

For example, on Campbell Island, finding an 18th-century trinket or two would have done.

Perhaps including a silver medallion with the name Marie-Victoire discernable (grand daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie).

And finding the General Grant, the gold-laden ship that wrecked on Auckland Island in 1868, that would have been nice too.

While sailing down the rugged west coast of the Island, I could just see myself tapping the shoulder of the man at the wheel, drawing his attention to an object washed up on the shore. Of course, this would have been the captain's safe from the General Grant, and upon further inspection, still containing its 80kg of gold.

But though my voyage delivered on island scenery, seals and penguins, our seven-day schedule was a little tight for Indiana Jones-type archaeology.

No worries, scores of Sub-Antarctic expeditions, most with far more time to play with than we had, have failed to solve these mysteries.

As for the General Grant, it seems treasure hunters have set out to find her every few years since she smashed to pieces and sank within a gigantic but still-unknown sea cave.

The Spirit of Enderby. Photo / Greg Bowker
The Spirit of Enderby. Photo / Greg Bowker


And as for the "princess" - well, despite hundreds of pages of speculation written about her (including a romantic novel) - her identity remains elusive.

I scanned Perseverance Harbour for remains of the little sod cottage this woman apparently called home. There are accounts from people who visited this cottage in days gone by, plus testimony from sealers who saw her wearing a bonnet and Stuart tartan. Enough information, in my view, to make this legend worthy of further investigation.

The story goes that she was the natural daughter (or grand-daughter) of Charles Edward Stuart, who for political reasons was kidnapped by a sea captain, who had been told to land her on the furthest island from Europe.

But all the women known to have been in Bonnie Prince Charlie's life seem to be accounted for. I find it more likely this lady had been a convict previously transported to Australia. Sealers probably took her to the Sub-Antarctic, as they did many women, and then for whatever reason, abandoned her ashore. One account says she lived about a year before, horrifyingly, she died of starvation.

In 1838, a missionary called Rev J. Wilkinson said convict women wishing to escape Sydney would join sealing captains for sums of up to a hundred pounds. "Then they leave them on the islands or take them with them, according as they can agree with the women themselves."

Some were abandoned against their wishes.

Historian W. Eden said in 1839, the Enderby schooner Eliza Scott landed at Campbell Island and came across three men and a woman "in a poor state", who had been put ashore four years previously to find seal skins.

Some sealing captains seemed to possess ethics about on the level of pirates. Eden wrote that an American sealing ship, the Sarah A. Hunt called at Campbell Island in 1883. The captain owed his men a considerable amount in wages.

"But he overcame his problem by sending his two offices with gangs of men in two whale boats to the other side of the island. Then as soon as they were out of sight he put to sea, and when he reached Lyttelton reported all hands lost."

Legends vary, but most say this woman's heather-covered grave was found beside her sod cottage, that a small plantation of flax plants stood nearby and a well-made pebbled pathway led from these down to the water's edge. One story says after the grave was opened a skeleton and silver crucifix was found. Apparently it takes a while poking around in the tussock to find the site today. My bird-loving shipmates wanted to spend their few hours searching for the rare Campbell Island snipe. Ecology is the passion of most tourists who visit the Sub-Antarctic these days. But if I get to go back, I tell you it's gonna be with history buffs.

The view from Col Peak at the end of the Col Lyall Saddle track. Photo / Paul Charman
The view from Col Peak at the end of the Col Lyall Saddle track. Photo / Paul Charman


CHECKLIST

Getting there
The Spirit of Enderby sails to the Sub-Antarctic Islands on a regular basis.

- NZ Herald

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