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