Part III: Knowledge and Destruction

Part III: Knowledge and Destruction

For more on Amsterdam and St. Paul Islands, see Part 1 and Part 2.

In between these two extremes – skirting the islands out of fear of an eruption and choosing an isolated existence on their shores – most Americans who viewed Amsterdam and St. Paul islands came in search of whales and fish. Even as some whalers and sealers confused the two islands, most knew how to find them, so distant from other land masses. By the time this map was made in 1856, merchants knew the route to China and Madras carried them past the islands.


“Physical chart of the Indian Ocean,” 1856 (see full map here)


Right whales proliferated in the waters around the islands in the warmer months of November and December. American whale ships would circle, the crews on board lowering their smaller boats when whale flukes were spotted (Journal of the Atlantic, 1835-7). The warm volcanic waters also attracted fish, ranging from small species to those reportedly weighing over forty pounds (Logbook of the George and Mary, 1850-2). Sailors in row boats could catch upwards of five hundred fish in a less than two hours, “all with the hook,” while paddling around the islands (Logbook of the Roscoe, Log 879, 1837-40).

The accumulation of knowledge about the islands drew more and more whalers to the isolated locales. By the middle of the century, over 300 people reportedly visited it in a year (Journal of the Atlantic, 1835-7). Eventually these were joined by a small community of settlers from the Mascarenes, perhaps two dozen in number by 1857 (Logbook of the Congress, 1857-9).  These settlers and their animals had a growing impact on the wildlife of the islands. The visitors brought goats and hogs to live on the islands. They set fires that may have burnt much of the plant life.

Most seriously, they brought a small herd of cattle by the 1870s to live on Amsterdam. The settlers themselves left the island within a few decades but their cattle remained.

Feral cattle on Amsterdam (source)

These voracious grazers, along with the settlers’ sheep and goats, cleared the grass that had covered the hillsides of the volcanic island. Non-human migrants, which included earlier stowaways of rats, cats, and other animals, decimated the bird populations of the island. They finished what the first sealers had started: eliminating the endemic flora and fauna of Amsterdam and St. Paul.

Amsterdam Albatross (source)

Out of twenty-two birds endemic to Amsterdam Island, five are now extinct and two are endangered. By the early twentieth century, the Amsterdam Island Duck, an endemic flightless bird, along with several species of petrels, were no long present on the island (source). By the 1980s, only a few breeding pairs of the Amsterdam albatross remained (source) although their populations may be recovering (source). The fur seal population was severely diminished by the end of the nineteenth century, although there is still a small colony on the island.

Fur seal on Amsterdam Island (source)

Today the cattle population of Amsterdam Island, culled from several thousand  in the twentieth century to only a few hundred now, represents the only known feral cattle herd in the world. Rather than remove the animals, they have been fenced into an enclosure where they continued to be studied by scientists (examples include: 1, 2).

Despite being colonized by foreign species and visited by lonely sealers and shipwrecked sailors in the nineteenth century, Amsterdam Island is once again uninhabited. Wild cattle wander Amsterdam Island, so far from other landmasses, and few people are even aware of this island’s existence, let alone it’s unique history.

Amsterdam Island Stamp (source)
Part II: Robinson Crusoe in the Indian Ocean

Part II: Robinson Crusoe in the Indian Ocean

For more on Amsterdam and St. Paul Islands, see Part 1 and Part 3.

St. Paul Island

“If the smoke and fires of Amsterdam had excited our curiosity, the discovery of two or three human beings running along the shore, as our ships approached it, on so miserable a spot, and so distant from any other land except the little neighbouring island of St. Paul, caused a still greater degree of astonishment.” (John Barrow, A Voyage to Cochinchina, in the years 1792 and 1793, 155)

The volcanoes of St. Paul and Amsterdam drew the interest of passing sailors but they were equally fascinated with the people who chose to live on the islands. The plentiful seals there had enticed dozens of intrepid American, French, and British men to spend months or years in the isolated locales, much to the astonishment of other Westerners. These small communities survived off the food they had brought with them, supplemented by local fish, birds, and seal meat. They built shelters, killed thousands of seals, and spent months on end with only the other sailors for company.

Their goals: to kill seals and stay alive.

“There has not been on record, I believe, an instance of a period of near two years being spent by any European on an Uninhabited and Desert Island. This simple fact will perhaps obtain for this Narrative some interest with the general reader.” (Charles Medyett Goodridge, Narrative of a Voyage to the South Seas and the Shipwreck of the Princess of Wales Cutter, 1)

Despite Goodridge’s boast, he was not the only one to survive on the island for years on end. More than two decades earlier, in 1792, a sealing group led by Françoise Péron arrived at Amsterdam Island from Mauritius. When they arrived, seven men were already living there, although they were to depart shortly after his arrival. Péron and four sailors were instructed to stay ashore for the next fifteen months to collect as many seal skins as possible.

Seals, from Mémoires du Capitaine Péron

Péron provides a lengthy description of his time on the small island and his commentary is supported by Barrow’s description (above). Barrow noted the stinking conditions. The men lived in squalor, surrounded by the dead carcasses of seals and sea-lions. The five sealers had exhausted their provisions and were living off the eggs of seabirds until a passing American ship provided them with rice.

After two years on the island, their ship still had not returned. The resentment between the British and French sailors boiled over. After some visiting sailors plied the two British sealers with alcohol, the visitors stole eight thousand skins before departing. Péron was livid. Then one of the British sealers demanded equal shares in the sale of the seal skins, which Péron refused. After two British men seized the only weapons on the island, the three French men had to live in a cave for several days without food until they managed to return.

After thirty-two months on the island, the men learned that their ship had been captured by the British in the South China Seas. They took refuge on a passing ship but were unable to take the seal skins. Péron managed to return to Amsterdam Island later but the valuable skins had been taken by another sealer.

For the rest of the nineteenth century, small groups of men could be found living on the island. William Townsend encountered a “sealing party” of five men in 1820 who begged him for provisions by waving their only blanket. Townsend described their home as “a wretched hovel to be sure.” Their lifestyle presented “a real picture of human misery.” (Ship journal of the Panther, 1819-22, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 828)

In 1833 a British ship was destroyed in a storm and the survivors made it ashore on one of the islands. To their joy, a small party of sealers (one American, two Cape Verdean) welcomed them as they awaited the return of their ship. The captain who rescued them? None other than Captain Péron (John M’Cosh, Narrative of the Wreck of the Lady Monro).

As the relieved survivors left the island, one of the convicts from the shipwreck, originally destined for Australia, escaped. This convict, along with the sealers, had chosen to live on the islands. The frequency of residence increased throughout the nineteenth century. Amsterdam Island was claimed by the French in 1843 and was home to cattle herders by the close of the century. In 1857, when people on board the Congress passed St. Paul, over 24 men originally from Réunion lived on shore. (Ship journal of the Congress, Manuscripts Reading Room, Library of Congress)

The question remains: why would men decide to pursue such a bleak life?

Killing sea-lions, from Mémoires du Capitaine Péron

“Nothing but the prospect of considerable advantage could be supposed to induce any human beings to reside fifteenth months together in a country so unpromising, and which their occupation in it rendered so disgusting.” (George Staunton, An Authentic Account of an Embassy…, 209)

 Such a life would be unimaginably hard to us but this was an era when alternative employments included bloody whale hunting and the harvesting of guano. The opportunities and perhaps hint of independence offered by isolation must have appealed to some of these “voluntary exiles.”

The merchants who encountered these temporary islanders were shocked by their stench and lack of civilization. By the nineteenth century, Robinson Crusoe had become the by-word for isolation. His experience was seen as an experiment in (white male) ingenuity. Passers-by were curious: would these men succeed in recreating civilization or devolve into barbarism?

The romantic life of a sailor

Most of the visitors decided it was the latter. Barrow noted that the men lived in a “small miserable hut, as dirty and offensive as that of an Hottentot.” (Barrow, A Voyage, 156) The unfavorable comparison suggested not merely a class distinction between the captain of a ship and the sailors forced to reside on the islands but also a racialized one.

Of course the overlap of class and racial hierarchy was typical of the nineteenth century. The shipwrecked British in 1833 even found the energy to degrade the lascar sailors for their laziness (M’Cosh, Narrative)

Not Amsterdam Island

In 1877, Jules Verne used the islands as a vehicle for examining the real lives of Robinson Crusoes. One of his characters concludes that when a “little island is all his world,” a man suffers an unenviable death in the midst of loneliness (Jules Verne, A Voyage Round the World, 29).

Source: Jules Verne, A Voyage, 31

After Verne’s characters explored the island, they said goodbye to one of the residents there. They left, “wishing him all the happiness possible on his desert island,” although the images included in the book suggest the limits of this possibility.

Definitely not Amsterdam Island

Of course Hollywood could envision a different future for the islanders.

Part I: What if a volcano erupts… and no one is there to see it?

Part I: What if a volcano erupts… and no one is there to see it?

If you sail beyond the Cape of Good Hope and even past Madagascar, heading to the southern waters of the Indian Ocean, you might pass the volcanic islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul. Their stark high walls, created by flow after flow of lava, rise from the ocean and created a landmark for travelers circumnavigating the ocean. The islands were first visited in the sixteenth century, but remain without a permanent human population, aside from scientists, even today The distant islands have come to symbolize the disastrous human impact in previously uninhabited islands.

Amsterdam and St. Paul Island

During the nineteenth century, isolated and tiny islands, such as the coral atolls of the Seychelles and the volcanic islands of the southern oceans, became frequent stomping grounds for mariners. As Americans in particular sought to strip the natural world of resources that could gain a profit, the islands were targeted for their fish, seal skins, and guano deposits.

Isolated islands of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans

Unlike the similarly uninhabited island chains of the Mascarenes and Seychelles, Amsterdam and St. Paul are barren and windswept, with the only food from fish, seals, and bird eggs. Both islands are volcanic and nineteenth-century American visitors noted a sulphuric smell pervading their landscapes. Their shores were “literally covered with the skeletons of the different kinds [of animals] inhabiting and frequenting the island,” many of them birds perhaps having flown too close to the mouth of the crater (The log of the Atlantic, 1836, Mystic Seaport Museum and Library). The islands are so isolated that scientist Erik Klemetti labeled Amsterdam “The Loneliest Volcano on Earth.” Klemetti explains that it is unclear if a person has ever viewed an eruption on the island. American ship records suggest otherwise.

Nineteenth-century mariners were fascinated with the interplay between fire and ocean waves on the islands. They recounted the active thermal springs and on at least one occasion, describe what may have been an eruption or a massive forest fire (and some scientists believe that the latter was more likely).

On March 8, 1820, William Townsend, the third mate on board the merchant vessel Panther arrived at St. Paul Island, having left Providence, Rhode Island more than three months earlier. On his way to the small island, he could observe Amsterdam island:

He “saw the first from the volcano on the island of Amsterdam, acting the same as a revolving light being out for a few moments & then showing itself again. This is certainly one of the wonderful works of nature, to see the earth pouring forth flames from a furnace & smoking so as to make the air quite thick likewise a ‘Newport fog.’ I could also distinguish with the night glass the sparks or as we supposed them to be, stones thrown out of the ground.” (The ship log of the Panther, 1820, MSS 828, at the Rhode Island Historical Society)

William laments his inability to visit the island without great danger, thanks to the thick smoke that encircled this “Isle of Fire.”

(Robert Brown, Our Earth and its Story: A Popular Treatise on Physical Geography, Vol 1, 1887, page 161)

Could research into shipping records reveal hidden secrets about these isolated parts of the world?

Parts II and III examine what convinced European and American men to spend years living in this desolate spot and speculate as to the impact of their residency on the islands.

Madagascar Lemurs and American Whalemen

Madagascar Lemurs and American Whalemen

The women labor around a carved-out tree trunk, alternately lifting and lowering the large pestles with seeming ease. Their bodies are covered with cloths, the hint of decorated borders and fringes providing an element of ornamentation to their simple dress. Their faces are framed by knotted hair and jewelry. Despite their physical labor, the two appear to be barely exerting themselves. The words “Madagascar Corn Mill” appear to mock this scene of domestic labor, as if to ask:

This is the height of industrial sophistication on the island? Women performing agricultural labor?

From the Voyage of the Clara Bell, Mystic Seaport Library
From the Voyage of the Clara Bell, Mystic Seaport Library

To their left, a man stands at attention, with two cloths around his torso and one over his shoulder, a mark of prestige. He grips a long and deadly-looking spear in his right hand. His hair and earrings are similar to the women, but his strength is undeniable. Below his form is a similarly dismissive label, that of “Native.”

At first glance, this rural African scene could be from almost anywhere in Africa: an idyllic scene of rural production. The bodies of the Africans are likewise idealized as powerful, but their dress and activities stress their distance from Western influences. The three Africans are simultaneously exotic and simple.

Stops and route of the Clara Bell
Stops and route of the Clara Bell

The placement and production of this particular image further indicates the islanders’ distance from the cosmopolitan world of the mid-nineteenth century. This picture of life in St. Augustin Bay appears in Robert Weir’s journal where he detailed his daily experiences on board the New Bedford whaler, the Clara Bell. His commentary alternates between expressions of the tedium involved in searching for elusive water spouts and struggles between sailors and humpback whales. His pencil and pen drawings express an urgency only known by men who had sat on board tiny ships dwarfed by their prey.

The son of a gifted artist, Weir ran away from New England to escape gambling debt and family shame. His guilt followed him from port to port, as he sought to recover news that his father had forgiven him. His drawings have been featured in publications about nineteenth-century American whaling. He even transformed some of the more simple artwork into color paintings, as seen in this link:

Taking a Whale, by Robert Weir

As Weir learned the dangerous craft of hunting, the Clara Bell stopped at a variety of ports throughout the southwestern Indian Ocean. At each tropical beach, Weir celebrated the abundance of food. In the Seychelles, fruit was “as cheap as sand” and he was “reveling” in the varieties of bananas, coconuts, and many others for which he lacked the names. As the boat returned to sea, the “boys” on board stowed sugarcane in their berths to supplement their diet of hard tack and salt beef. Sailors rejoiced when the captain purchased oranges from an “Arabian” slave ship and ate countless eggs of sea birds taken from the uninhabited “Bird Island.” The environmental repercussions of their procurement were immense in this world of feast or famine.

When the ship finally steered into St. Augustin Bay in 1858, the crew having been at sea for over two years, it was as if they had entered a fertile paradise. Despite the aridity of the surrounding shoreline, men and women immediately boarded the whaling bark with food for sale. After a few weeks at anchor, the whaler set sail again with ample sea stores and terrapins skittering across the deck. Clearly turtle soup was on the menu.

Lemur from the Clara Bell

While Weir never mentions eating corn in Madagascar, his calm picture of well nourished women grinding corn into meal provides a significant departure from his other images of life at sea. Even the strong warrior offered something to admire. Weir confesses that he “should very much like to get several spears, shells, + different kinds of cloth” from the people of Madagascar but he lacked the necessary purchasing goods to acquire these souvenirs. Weir’s idealized view of St. Augustin Bay provides him with a different souvenir of his visit to Madagascar: a memory of abundance carefully crafted by the people living along the shores of Madagascar.

Even a lemur was offered for purchase by local merchants, clearly aware that sailors prized such pets on board their ship. Weir’s sketch depicts a tame primate in a relaxed, almost human pose. The animal’s relaxation provides a stark contrast to the harsh and violent existence of sailors on board an American whaling vessel of the nineteenth century.

For more on the voyage of the Clara Bell, see the scanned copy of Weir’s journal online at the Mystic Seaport Library.