« PreviousContinue »
the Cape of Good Hope and New Holland. Here again a hospice might be made self-supporting, although, like Tristan d'Acunha, they are the most solitary and barren bits of earth upon our planet. We cannot, indeed, imagine a situation more hopeless than a ship's crew cast away upon one of these islands, while upon the other, although within sight, being distant only about thirty miles, a rude and singularly curious abundance is to be found.
But in order to distinguish which of these islands is so happily supplied by nature, it is necessary to state that considerable confusion has arisen in consequence of captains of ships not knowing which of these isolated spots is St. Paul's and which is Amsterdam. This unsettled state of things arose in consequence of the alteration of the names of these islands, by Captain Cook, the great navigator, who took upon himself to alter the nomenclature of their discoverer, Vlaming, a Dutch navigator, who found them in 1696. Vlaming named the northernmost island Amsterdam, and the southern one St. Paul's; and Captain Cook, who surveyed them, adopted the opposite denomination. This circumstance has created great mistakes and has led to serious calamities, as^the correct latitude and longitude of these islands is often of importance to ships bound to Australia and China, It is the practice of captains to sight them to correct their chronometers; and as some captains of ships adhere to Vlaming and some to Cook, a discrepancy of thirty or forty miles is of course easily made in their reckoning. Even our best charts and encyclopaedias are at fault, and perpetuate the mischief. The Admiralty Chart, published in 1789, adopts Cook; but in 1842 these islands were surveyed by Captain Blackwood, R.N., and the Admiralty Chart of that date adopts Vlaming: so that we have two Admiralty Charts of these islands, the one contradicting the other. We cannot help regretting that the original names were reversed, for we conceive that Vlaming, by right of discovery, was entitled to name his islands as he pleased, nor can we imagine what right or what advantage our great navigator hoped to obtain by altering their names.
We have not forgotten the wreck of the Meridian upon one of these islands, and we shudder to think what would have been the fate of the crew and passengers, 107 in all, but for the gallant humanity of Captain Ludlow, of the United States whaler Monmouth, who, although blown off from the land for many days, at last succeeded, after severe trials, in rescuing them all, and taking them to the Mauritius. We wish we had room to narrate the whole of that gallant exploit, as it would exhibit the necessity of a hospice upon Amsterdam; besides, the humanity of Captain Ludlow deserves to be recorded as a stimulus to others, and, but for the want of space, we would repeat his daring perseverance, for, like sweet music, its echo would fall gratefully upon the ear.
But this much of that dreadful wreck we must relate, that on the 23rd of August, 1853, the Captain of the Meridian was running for St. Paul's to correct a suspected error in his chronometer, when, a little before 8 o'clock at night, the ship struck upon the sister isle of Amsterdam, and was totally lost. We should like to know whether the alteration or rather the confusion which exists respecting the names of those two islands had anything to do with the calamity that overtook this ill-fated barque.
We will now notice the island of St. Paul's, and, for the sake of avoiding misconception, we beg to say that we mean the southernmost of these two islands. On this singular place a hospice might be easily maintained ; indeed, this barren island might be made a source of profit to any persons willing to encounter solitude, as well as an unfailing source of curiosity to chance visitors, for perhaps it is, for its size, the most remarkable island upon the earth.
It was not uninhabited at the period of our visit, which was made for the purpose of correcting our chronometers. We found a solitary individual roaming about upon its lonely beach. He had been there two years !—two years upon a barren island 2,000 miles away from any civilised community. He had, however, managed to survive, and was so pleased with his island that he positively refused to leave his singular home, where we left him when we took our departure.
But the reader is doubtless curious to be informed what temptation induced this man to live away from all communion with his species, dying a daily death in a lonely sea-girt isle; the companion of sea birds, seals, sea-lions, and turtles; and as the story we have to narrate of this person and his no less singular island is so remarkable, we must assure the reader, in sober truth, that it is no yarn we are spinning, but a tale so strange that it is best described as
"Stranger than fiction."
We had been some months at sea, and suspecting an error in our chronometers, our captain determined to sight St. Paul's to correct it, for this is even now the chief use of this island, and shows how careful navigators ought to be in not confusing one of these places for the other. At length we made the land, and sent a boat on shore. We landed amidst wonders, in the crater of an exhausted volcano— for St. Paul's is the peak of a burning mountain, whose base or root is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. The basin into which we steered our boat is about two miles in circumference, and occupies so much of the island as not to leave more than six or seven miles of surface for vegetation, which consists of coarse grass, cactus, and shrubs. The entrance into this huge salt-water crater is nearly dry at low-water, leaving a passage about pistol-shot wide practicable for a boat at the lowest ebbs. The width, however, from cliff to cliff gradually increases with their elevation, and they are about 700 feet high. This basin must have been, therefore, at some remote period, the largest kind of crater. Even now the. volcanic fires only slumber; they are not extinct, for upon the sides of the sloping crater, and in places upon the beach, and even in the sea there are hot springs, as they are called, varying from 196 to 212 degrees. Swamps and stagnant pools of water, varying from 70 to 150 degrees, are numerous. The aspect of this remarkable lagoon is volcanic. Signs of fusion are everywhere visible. Steam and smoke issue from the edges of the basin, while obsidian and pumice abound, and the rocks have the appearance of scoria? from an iron furnace. If we add to this brief description that the hot earth trembles under the feet, and if the ear be placed near the ground a sound like boiling water may be plainly heard, the reader will have a notion of the features sketched from the rough notes we took when upon a flying visit to this island.
We had barely finished taking notes, all of admiration, when we landed upon the fiery soil of the exhausted volcano. We soon perceived a stranger issuing from behind a rock, who made towards our party. This was the solitary inhabitant of St. Paul's. He had been, as before stated, left there two years previously by a whaler to catch seals, the captain having promised to call for him on his return to America, while he in the mean time, with his ship, departed to a distant sea, for the grander purpose of killing whales.
When first left upon St. Paul's he had a companion, and they lived together pretty amicably for some time. But one of them, it seems, was a desperate character; indeed our Robinson Crusoe was one of the most ruffianly-looking fellows imaginable. His story was, that he suspected his companion secretly intended to murder him, and by that means obtain a double share of the produce of the seal skins they had collected and dried. "Dead men tell no tales," said our friend, "and of course it was easy to tell the captain when he called that I had died from natural causes." When this idea once got possession of him he lived in continual dread, and the conduct of his companion daily becoming more suspicious, he quarrelled with him. Between two such spirits, words were soon hatched into blows, and they fought like furies, stabbing each other with their seal knives so seriously that they lay for some time helpless, exposed to the effects of the sun and the hot vapours of the subterranean fires that slumbered in comparison with the rage that burned in each of their breasts; they had tried their best to kill each other, and had failed. Slowly recovering, they parted, and lived in opposite parts of the island, but as necessity brought them in contact at the crater, when they met, they scowled and passed on in silence. They however lived in mutual dread of each other, and at night they crept into sly and sequestered nooks to sleep. It would have been dangerous for the one that was caught sleeping, as our solitary said, "he would never have risen again." Under such circumstances life at length became unbearable, for the dread of being murdered in their sleep weighed heavily upon them, and they came to the conclusion that one of them should leave St. Paul's and depart for the sister isle of Amsterdam. Each man must have an island to himself. With characteristic indifference they tossed up which should go; and the reader must be told that the loser would in all probability lose his life, for the trip to the isle of Amsterdam, though only about thirteen leagues, was a most dangerous exploit to attempt in an open boat single-handed. They tossed up, and the man we found there won, when the loser, true to his word, in less than an hour took the boat left them by the ship, and safely navigated her to the island of Amsterdam, where, however, he would have starved had he not been fortunately taken off, together with about a dozen other persons (who had been wrecked there a few days previously), by a brig four days after he so singularly joined them.
The man we found upon St. Paul's was named Stewart, and he looked in good condition. He had a good larder and well supplied, and the crater not only furnished him with abundance of fish, but served him for a fish-kettle to cook them in. He had red perch, rock cod, bream, and an incredible quantity of cray-fish. These fish require no skill to catch them, they bite at anything, and by lowering a basket baited with a piece of seal's flesh into the water of the crater for a few minutes, it will be full of cray-fish when drawn up. The singular part of the story is yet to be told. In the same crater in which the fish are caught, perhaps not a couple of boat's lengths off, the water is hot enough to cook them. This may appear a marvellous statement, but a paper in the twentieth volume of "Philosophical Transactions," which gives an account of the discovery of this island by Vlaming in 1657, says "that the seawas then so crowded by seals and sea-lions that in order to effect a passage from the ship to the shore it was necessary to kill them, and that in the crater fish might be caught in the sea with one hand and cooked in the other." This statement was also corroborated by Mr. Barrow, who in 1793 dropped some perch living off the hooks in a boiling spring, and found them cooked to perfection in fifteen minutes. This fact is also confirmed in the history of Earl Macartney's embassy to China. It may be as well to state that since that distant period, when a visit to this island was a rare occurrence, scores of navigators have witnessed the same feat performed; and the author of this paper is a living witness that nature still exhibits her curiosities at the crater of St. Paul's to all persons who will take the trouble to examine them.
Living upon this island is therefore an easy matter, and a hospice might be maintained at trifling cost if it was needed. But it rarely happens that a wreck occurs here—it is invariably upon the sister isle of Amsterdam, upon which nothing can live, for it is the barrenest spot in existence. There a hospice would be a great boon, and it might be supplied from St. Paul's, if a few persons were permanently maintained at the latter island for that purpose.
Now we are in the Southern Ocean, we will briefly notice another locality where wrecks are frequent and where hospices would be of great use. The growing commerce of our Australian colonies is the wonder of the day, not only with the mother country but with India and China. The professional reader is therefore probably aware that much of the traffic passes through Torres Straits. There are two routes from Sydney to Torres Straits, the inner and the outer. Formerly a great prejudice existed against the inner route, but a more intimate knowledge of these waters has to a considerable extent removed it. The chief objection to the inner route is the trouble of anchoring every night in those parts where the dangers are greatest. In weak-handed ships this is a great drawback, still the risks and anxieties of the outer passage are far more objectionable than this labour, irksome as it is. The trouble of anchoring every U. S. Mao., No. 312, May, 1857. D
night may be much lessened, if the passage be made between the first and last quarters of the moon j the extra light of that luminary will enable the mariner to reduce his anchorings to five or six times at most during the twenty or twenty-five days it takes to make the passage from Sydney to Booby Island.
Opinions, however, differ as to the respective merits of these two routes—for dispatch the outer one is perhaps to be preferred, but under all circumstances the inner one is certainly the safest. But as no part of the ocean is more beset with difficulties than these straits, the inner and the outer passages may be said to be a choice of evils; for select which you will a dangerous navigation is before you. Captains of vessels have to contend with currents, tides, reefs, rocks, islands of every dimension, shoals, sandbanks, breakers, in short with every description of ship-trap that can be imagined ; and if once ashore his fate is deplorable.
To avoid this calamity sailing directions of the most minute kind are necessary, and the sailing directions published by the Admiralty go far to meet the exigencies of this sea of tribulation. Still, what with fogs, wind, chafed cables, faulty anchors, and inexperienced shipmasters, a great many casualties annually occur in these waters. There are times when sailing directions are useless; and so great is the relief felt by captains of vessels when they reach Booby Island, which is at the opening of the strait, that they generally land upon this bit of rock and note their safety in a book deposited there for that purpose by Colonel Hanson of Madras.
Booby Island is an instance of what might be done elsewhere. It is a rock post-office, and, perhaps, is the smallest possible bit of earth that can be found capable of keeping its head permanently above water. Certainly, we know of no other post-office without a postmaster, letter-sorter, carrier, mail-bags, or revenue attached to it. But there is a sort of nautical honour amongst captains of ships calling there to do this duty themselves; and they are, moreover, expected to keep the post-office box in repair, and we understand that, much to their credit, it is done. To say the least of it, the establishment is unique ; and so, we should imagine, is the correspondence. Its existence, however, is a proof in favour of hospices, and we record it with pleasure.
In making the outer passage, ships are in the habit of passing Rain Island, which is near the middle of a large opening in the reefs. This island is a sample of innumerable others in this sea. It is a low coral rock, about a quarter of a mile in length, and naturally destitute of sweet water. This defect was remedied, to a certain extent, by H.M. ships "Fly " and "Bramble," assisted by the Colonial Government of New South Wales. Through their joint labours a tower or beacon has been built on the eastern extremity of the isle. The building is 30 feet diameter at the base, and 27 feet at the top; the summit is 64 feet high from the land, and 75 feet above the level of the sea. It is painted with red and black vertical stripes, and is a distinguishable object in fair weather from a ship's deck, eight or nine miles.
Rain water is collected in an iron tank, capable of holding five tuns;