The lie of the land
In August 1849, Sarah and Isaac Cripps and their three children boarded the Fancy, bound for Auckland Island, 465 kilometres south of New Zealand. They were part of a group of 66 prospective colonists planning to start a new settlement in the subantarctic. As they put to sea, they imagined the sunny weather and gentle pastures that awaited them. They would not find out until December that they’d all been tricked.
The ship lurched and Sarah Cripps’ stomach heaved. She’d been at sea for months, but she’d never adjusted to the Fancy’s haphazard rolling. It didn’t help being confined below decks, packed like sheep into the steerage.
Worse, it sounded as though they were lost. The Fancy was cloaked in a thick fog, and people were whispering that the wind might blow them right past the Auckland Islands and out into the landless Southern Ocean. For the umpteenth time, Sarah entertained the notion of ending it all. Earlier in the voyage, she had pleaded with the sailors to cast her overboard.
It hadn’t been her idea to leave London. There, she had been running her own dressmaking business, and between that and the children—Mary Ann, Isaac and Emily—she’d always been busy. For the last few months, all she’d been able to think about was not throwing up.
All of a sudden there was shouting overhead, and feet pounding on the deck. Word filtered down: the prevailing curtain of mist had parted not a moment too soon, and they were sailing by the coast of Adams Island, the southernmost speck of the Auckland Islands.
On December 27, 1849, the Fancy sailed into the still, dark waters of Port Ross, a natural harbour at the northern tip of Auckland Island. Sarah, Isaac, and the other passengers were allowed on deck to survey their new home.
Sarah’s relief at the sight of land quickly gave way to a pang of dismay. The drizzle veiled scrubby bluffs above a strip of stony beach. Though it was supposed to be summer, she was shivering. Two other ships rested at anchor, which meant the other colonists had already arrived—but she couldn’t see any buildings. Where was Hardwicke, the new settlement? There was only an empty space on the shore, where the windswept trees had been cleared. Sarah thought of the bustling, gaslit streets she’d left behind.
And so began a dismal chapter for the Cripps family—founding members of the British Empire’s newest, smallest, most remote, and ultimately shortest-lived colony, some 465 kilometres south of mainland New Zealand.
Hardwicke was the brainchild of Charles Enderby, the grandson of a whaling and sealing mogul. Since 1775, the family company, Samuel Enderby and Sons, had been sending ships across the Arctic and Southern Oceans in search of blubber.
It was an Enderby ship, Ocean, which stumbled on the islands in 1806. The captain, Abraham Bristow, named them after his father’s friend Lord Auckland, and returned the following year to claim them for Britain.
Straddling the upper edge of the Furious Fifties, the Auckland Islands are the eroded remnants of two ancient volcanoes. Their steep-sided inlets offer shelter from the gales that encircle the globe at these latitudes, unimpeded by landmass.
Several early Antarctic explorers made pit stops on the islands, including Charles Wilkes, Jules Dumont d’Urville and James Clark Ross. However, it was Benjamin Morrell’s 1829 visit that laid the foundations for Charles Enderby’s subantarctic utopia.
In Morrell’s 1832 memoir, A Narrative of Four Voyages, the American explorer extolled the islands’ “extensive plains covered with beautiful grass and refreshing verdure” that would make “excellent pasturage or tillage land”. The climate, he said, was “mild and temperate”, making it a fine place for a settlement, “a delightful retreat to a few amiable families who wish for ‘a dear little isle of their own’”.
“Every valuable animal would thrive here,” he wrote. “Grain, fruit, vegetables of all kinds (excepting tropical fruits) could be made to flourish here with very little labour.”
Morrell’s fabrications would eventually catch up with him. Antarctic explorer Jeremiah Reynolds politely observed that his memoir contained more poetry than truth, while d’Urville accused him of discovering islands that weren’t there. On the run from American authorities on charges of piracy, Morrell washed up in 1837 in London, where Enderby refused to hire him as a captain.
Enderby had other things on his mind. Britain’s whaling industry was in a precipitous decline, and he had a grand idea to save its failing fortunes. He would establish a whaling station at Port Ross, on Auckland Island—the perfect location for taking advantage of the Southern Ocean’s bounty.
It wouldn’t just be a whaling station, though. Enderby envisioned a thriving colonial outpost with young couples, families and farms. Agriculture would supply the town with produce and livestock, while merchant ships bound for Britain from the southern colonies would call in to resupply and refit—a passage that was sure to become one of the great trade routes, he believed.
Enderby published pamphlets which described “scenery that could scarcely be surpassed” and raved about the island’s fertile soils and forests full of timber. The idea attracted support from influential corners—Henry Labouchère, a prominent politician, praised the “well-judged project” at a party in honour of Enderby, and Ross backed the idea, writing that “in the range of the whole Southern Ocean, no spot could be found combining so completely the essential requisites for a fixed whaling station”.
In 1849, the Southern Whale Fishery Company was established, and a Royal Charter granted, giving the company full possession of the Auckland Islands. Enderby would serve as chief commissioner of the company, and lieutenant governor of the new colony. This was more than a money-making endeavour; for the British, whaling success was a matter of national pride.
In reality, the Auckland Islands are hilly, coated in twisted rātā, dense scrub and peat bogs, and beset by ferocious winds and incessant rain.
Nearly 170 years after the would-be colonists sailed into the shelter of Port Ross, I’m speeding across the same dark water in a Zodiac. I’m only a little younger than my great-great-great-grandmother Sarah Cripps was when she arrived at the bottom of the world. As we disembark onto the strip of kelp-strewn rocks at Erebus Cove, the sun dips behind a rocky peak shaped like a rearing sea lion.
A thick canopy of rātā covers the shore, and at first, there are no signs of human habitation. A dark, dense forest, underlain by a carpet of moss and ferns, has swallowed all but the faintest traces of Hardwicke. It smells equal parts earthy and salty, and the peaty soil yields underfoot.
A boot-worn path follows roughly the same route as Hardwicke’s main street. My great-great-great-grandfather Isaac, a constable, would have walked this ground, his mahogany truncheon swinging at his hip. I try to picture cleared land, a line of buildings, a jetty.
But here are rātā, orchids, and in the shallows, an aloof sea lion casting a wary eye over the intrusion.
It’s an unseasonably clear, 17-degree summer day—the opposite of the lashing wind and pelting rain that Sarah and Isaac endured. Earlier, on nearby Enderby Island, the rātā florets had shone crimson, illuminated by the sun, alive with darting tomtits and bellbirds. Deep in the forest behind Sandy Bay, hidden among the ferns, I had found the corroded remnants of the farmhouse stove. Sarah had once cooked here during a bleak winter week in July 1850. Rough with rust beneath my fingers, it’s something tangible that connects me to her.
But then the sun fades. As evening descends over Port Ross, the air is cool and the birds are quiet. Hardwicke feels mournful, a lonely place at the edge of the world.
As 1849 ticked over to 1850, construction of the settlement proceeded chaotically. It took two weeks to clear a sufficiently level space for foundations, among the tangled roots and soft mud, with workers bogged down by the persistently terrible weather. The settlers were forced to continue living aboard ship. Meanwhile, the lies they’d been told continued to unfurl.
It turned out Enderby’s “uninhabited” island already had people living on it. Passengers on the first ship to arrive, the Samuel Enderby, had been shocked when three Māori, tattooed and dressed only in sealskin loincloths, paddled out in their waka to greet them, then skilfully piloted the ship to anchor. Enderby had known that Māori lived on the islands, but kept this to himself, worried about panicking the settlers.
At a ceremony on January 1, 1850, Enderby was sworn in as lieutenant governor, while 24-year-old William Mackworth was appointed assistant commissioner.
Mackworth immediately regulated the sale of alcohol, set up a court of magistrates, and dismissed the captain of Fancy for “gross misconduct”, considering he had very nearly missed the islands altogether.
At the end of January 1850, the Brisk headed south to the ice on her first whaling voyage, and the colonists finally took up residence on shore, having spent nearly six months afloat.
Each person in the new settlement—36 men, 16 women, and 14 children—had a role to play. Sarah was a nurse and midwife; Isaac, formerly employed by the London Metropolitan Police Force, was a constable and labourer. There were smiths, masons, coopers and carpenters, three medical officers, an accountant, a surveyor, and a storekeeper.
Though it was summer, the settlers quickly discovered that the 30-odd buildings they’d constructed were ill-suited to the wild climate. Wood that hadn’t rotted on the journey from England shrank and warped in the cold and wet, leaving the inhabitants vulnerable to the continual rain.
Growing vegetables in the acidic peat proved nearly impossible, with meagre yields of radish-sized turnips and potatoes. Mustering livestock in the rugged terrain was challenging, and stocks of fresh meat regularly ran low. The hungry settlers turned to wild pigs, but the pork was almost inedible—it was laced with a strong fishy taste, thanks to the pigs’ diet of seal carcasses and seaweed.
There were happy times, too, as the settlers attempted to establish the rhythms of the life they’d left behind. There were picnics, dinner parties and boat races. The Cripps family spent a week on holiday at the farmhouse on Enderby Island, which had an arc of sandy beach. On rare occasions when the weather cleared, sunshine illuminated the crimson rātā, casting an almost tropical ambience across the island.
But those moments of contentment were sparse, and life in the colony unfolded like a grim soap opera. With inadequate lodgings, poor food supplies, and, at one point, even a shortage of shoes, morale languished.
Many of the colonists drowned their misery in drink. In January 1851, two inebriated men stole a small boat with the intention of sailing back to New Zealand. Their voyage ended prematurely when they wrecked the boat on nearby Rose Island and had to be rescued.
In February 1851, Hardwicke’s surgeon, John Rodd, nearly drowned after drunkenly falling from the jetty. When hauled out of the water, he was so violent that he had to be ferried across to the makeshift jail on nearby Shoe Island. From then on, the jail was known as Rodd’s Castle.
Another medical officer, John MacNish, lasted less than three months before being reprimanded for intoxication and leaving the settlement in disgrace. His replacement, William Ewington, managed to avoid alcohol-fuelled trouble—but his wife was another story. Ewington stayed five months, but told Mackworth he wanted to leave his liquor-loving wife behind rather than pay her fare back to Sydney.
Meanwhile, whaling crews regularly refused to work, and voyages were often delayed. It didn’t help that Enderby tended to meddle with magistrates’ decisions and flip-flop on fines and sentences.
Thus Rodd’s Castle received many guests, but it wasn’t any good at keeping them in. A few days after the surgeon’s near-drowning, the jail was burnt down by a gang of angry inmates. The replacement lock-up didn’t fare much better—two prisoners easily escaped through the warped wooden structure.
Local Māori were hired to help keep the peace, and some troublemakers were put in the custody of chief Manutere at his Ocean Point pā. Others were exiled for periods of time to Adams Island, at the opposite end of the archipelago, where the sea acted as prison walls.
For some settlers, life took a tragic turn. In October 1850, Hephzibah Hallett attempted to shoot her brother, Charles, the chief medical officer, before turning the gun on herself. She survived, and Enderby overlooked the incident, the doctor assuring him that it wouldn’t happen again. Hephzibah recovered, but two months later, Dr Hallett was sacked, and departed with his sister for Sydney.
In February 1851, Kuini, wife of another chief, Matioro, attempted to hang herself after being falsely accused of consorting with sailors, but was found and rescued in time by Thomas Younger. Three settlers lost their lives: 22-year-old Thomas Cook drowned, and two infants, Isabel Younger and Janet Stove, passed away at only a few months old. Isabel’s father, Thomas, carved her headstone from a mill wheel—it had never been needed to crush grain, because no grain ever grew.
Meanwhile, the pursuit of whales in the Southern Ocean was no more successful than life on land. The first voyage returned from Antarctic waters without a single barrel of whale oil. The next 16 expeditions, which travelled as far as the North Pacific, netted 2000 barrels, equivalent to about 40 whales—a paltry amount. Enderby’s subantarctic dream was rapidly unravelling.
Its troubles did not escape the Southern Whale Fishery Company’s directors in London, who expressed concern that very little oil had trickled back to England from their Antipodean business venture. On visits to Wellington, Enderby denied rumours of the colony’s failure, declaring in the newspapers that everything was going swimmingly down south.
By July 1851, the oil was still not flowing as Enderby had promised, and the company was sufficiently worried to dispatch two special commissioners to Hardwicke, with the authority to take control if needed.
Thomas Preston, the company’s secretary, and George Dundas, a director and member of the British Parliament, arrived at Port Ross on December 18, 1851. They laid bare the whaling venture’s shortcomings—£30,000 spent, but only £3000 incoming—and took command of the settlement, much to Enderby’s dismay.
On December 31, Enderby submitted a letter to Preston and Dundas defending his subantarctic whaling scheme, but the special commissioners ignored it and began dismissing company employees. It was a clear snub.
A month later, Enderby finally tendered his resignation as chief commissioner.
Preston and Dundas promptly laid out ten charges of misconduct, sending Enderby into a tailspin of indignation. The list of offences included “disregard for instructions”, “wasteful and reckless expenditure”, “absence from the settlement without sufficient cause”, and “constant vacillation of purpose”.
Enderby, however, would not let go. On February 8, 1852, the Lord Nelson returned to port after a year spent whaling, bringing 300 barrels of sperm oil, a rare success for the colony, and a number of scurvy-stricken sailors. One man had died and been buried at sea, and a further five were suffering severely upon arrival.
But the colony was in such dire straits that there was not a single vegetable to offer the men. The infirmary was full, so three of the ill had to be put up in the laundry—a shack with no ceiling, a leaky roof and slapdash floorboards, which let in a bitter draught. The ill were left to languish in a “stench so great they could not endure it”, wrote Ewington in a subsequent affidavit. On February 21, seaman John Downs, initially deemed likely to recover, died.
Enderby immediately blamed the special commissioners for Downs’ death and demanded an autopsy, but Preston and Dundas ignored him again, and arranged a burial. Incensed, Enderby posted a public notice declaring he had been “grossly insulted”. If he had hoped that this would turn public opinion in his favour, he was wrong.
On March 6, 1852, Mackworth announced the settlement would be disbanded, and on April 24, Enderby set sail for Wellington on the Black Dog, under the eye of the special commissioners. The tiny settlement faded quickly into a curtain of mist and drizzle—Enderby’s last glimpse of his failed dream.
At Port Ross, the settlers began to dismantle the colony they’d struggled so hard to build over the previous two and a half years. In June, a southern right whale was captured in the harbour for the first time, and the entire community loaded into boats and lined the shores to witness the flensing and butchering of the great beast.
Less than a month later, most of the colonists boarded two brigs bound for Wellington and Otago. Nearly every trace of Hardwicke was packed up and shipped away—the prefab buildings were later sold at auction in Sydney. The last colonists departed in August 1852, and for Mackworth, this wasn’t a moment
“Everyone in this place has been longing to leave from the time of his arrival,” he wrote in his diary. “The satisfaction I feel at this moment is beyond description. My miserable life at Port Ross will never be forgotten.”
After initially expressing their intention to stay, the Māori later requested transport to Stewart Island, but this was refused. In 1854, when an opportunity to leave arose, Matioro and most of his people left the subantarctic and resettled on Stewart Island. The last Māori departed for the Chatham Islands about a year later.
Enderby returned to England, where he became embroiled in a legal battle. It stretched on for years, resulted in two parliamentary papers, and never reached a resolution. He fell into obscurity, and died penniless in 1876.
The Cripps decided against returning to England, due to Sarah’s extreme seasickness on the outbound voyage. They spent two years in Wellington, then sailed to Castlepoint in the Wairarapa. In 1857, they bought 40 acres of land and ran an accommodation house, Sevenoaks. Sarah opened a shop and post office, and acted as the local midwife. By then, she and Isaac had 10 children of their own—but according to her reputation, she never missed a call, riding on horseback to reach women in need. ‘Granny Cripps’ became a respected community figure, hailed at the time of her death in 1892 as “the best-loved woman from Wellington to Ahuriri”, the Māori name for Napier.
Today, the only trace of Hardwicke lies in the thick scrub above Erebus Cove: a tiny cemetery enclosed by a modern white-picket fence. Only three of the six marked graves belong to settlers, while the other mounds are the final resting places of castaways and shipwreck victims. As I contemplate the graves, I hear a familiar melody—a lone blackbird. An introduced species, so far from the quaint country lanes of England, here in the deep south. It feels eerie, almost post-apocalyptic.
Our futile attempts to tame this land linger through introduced animals. Enderby Island hosted distinct varieties of cattle and rabbits, as well as mice, but all three were eradicated in the 1990s, leaving the island to the will of its megaherb moors and yellow-eyed penguins. The much-larger Auckland Island is still home to seaweed-munching pigs, in addition to feral cats and mice—but plans are afoot to rid the archipelago of these destructive overstayers once and for all.
In the place where Hardwicke stood, I encounter the adaptable flora and fauna that have found their way here without the help of humans: rockhopper penguins leaping boulder to boulder, a seething crowd of sea lions, shags alighting from the basalt cliffs, beaks stuffed with material for their nests.
Everything here has found a way to live at the edge. I meet cliff-dwelling seabirds, flightless ducks foraging in the wavering kelp, and gaudy flowers with bizarre adaptations. But for humans, these islands proved to be too extreme—and I can’t help but feel thankful that these steep fiords escaped the concrete scabs of civilisation.
This land doesn’t belong to people. It belongs to the windswept rātā and wheeling albatrosses and fierce winds.