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St-Paul & Amsterdam Islands, Part 1

A History of Two Islands - Introduction

Falaises d'Entrecasteaux, cliffs on Amsterdam Island.

Falaises d'Entrecasteaux:
cliffs on Amsterdam Island,
elevation ca. 2,360 feet/720m.
© Cyril Szakolczaï
Photos des TAAF
All Rights Reserved
(click on image to enlarge)

On March 18, 1522, Juan Sebastián del Cano — a Spanish explorer who had served under Magellan — discovered an island located at 37°52' S, 77°32 E in the southern Indian Ocean (see map), while sailing on the Victoria from Timor (île de la Sonde) to Capetown, South Africa. The ship's journals, which were kept by the navigator Francisco Alvo, mention "an island of high elevation, approximately six leagues [=18 nautical miles] in circumference and appearing uninhabited, but where one could not land in spite of several attempts."

A century later, Harwick Claesz de Hillegom spotted a second, smaller island about 17 leagues (50 miles, or 80 km) further south — located at 38°43' S, 77°29' E — and named it after his ship, the Zeewolf. This second island is known today as Ile Saint-Paul (see map).

While en route to Java on June 17, 1633, the Dutch Governor van Diemen named the northern of the two islands after his ship, Nieuw Amsterdam — or "New Amsterdam" as it was known until recent times. In 1696, the Dutch navigator Willem de Vlaming also described the two islands in his accounts. At this stage of New Amsterdam's history, it was thickly forested.

But it was not until March 28, 1792 that the Admiral Joseph-Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux (1739-1793) and Huon de Kermadec carried out the first explorations of the eastern coast of New Amsterdam, performing detailed surveys. During this visit, d'Entrecasteaux witnessed an immense bushfire on the island, not knowing whether the fire was of natural or human origin.

Admiral Joseph-Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux
Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni, Chevalier d'Entrecasteaux

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the two islands were sometimes visited by victims of shipwrecks and fishermen from the island of Réunion. American and English whaling ships would leave part of their crews there to hunt otaries (a type of fur seal), which were extremely abundant at that time, and whose skins were valued highly in China. By the end of the 19th century, however, the massacre of an estimated 50,000 seals had left the species virtually extinct.

At about the same latitude as Melbourne, situated halfway between Africa and Australia, both islands were well-marked on all the old Australian maps and school atlases. Although they could be seen from about 20 leagues (roughly 111 km, or 60 nautical miles) in clear weather, many a sea captain was afraid to hit the islands in the middle of the night, as happened to several ships bound for Australia.

According to an entry in the Fall 1813 edition of The Naval Chronicle (pg. 321), "Prior to the use of chronometers and lunar observations, it was customary for ships bound to the Oriental sea to sight the islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam for a correction to their latitude."

The spectacular caldera (crater lake) at Saint-Paul Island.

The spectacular caldera (crater
lake) on Saint-Paul Island.
© Paul Carroll
All Rights Reserved

In describing Amsterdam's diminutive southern neighbor, the Chronicle stated, "On the east side of St. Paul, an inlet leads to a circular basin that was the crater of a volcano, and into which the sea ebbs and flows over a causeway at the entrance of the inlet..."

For Australians, it is the site of a spectacular shipwreck involving the 300 survivors of the Meagara, one of the first iron-hull British navy ships, sent to Hobart in 1872 in a scandalously unseaworthy condition. It started taking in water massively after leaving South Africa and just managed to get to Saint-Paul where it foundered on the reef at the entrance to the crater.

To the surprise of two French fishermen living there at the time, the 300 men set up a veritable town out of the wreck, and after managing to send word out after one month, were rescued two months after that. There are still surviving stone buildings from this and earlier settlements on this tiny lump in the ocean.

Postage stamp depicting lobster canning factory on St-Paul
L'usine langoustière de Saint-Paul, 1931
(Lobster canning factory
on Saint-Paul, 1931)
Engraving by M. Bequet
41 Euro-cent postage stamp
for the TAAF

Numerous scientific expeditions have also visited the two islands. From November 19 to December 6, 1857, the Austrian frigate Novara disembarked a team on Saint-Paul to study the flora, fauna, and geology. Between September 23, 1874 and January 4, 1875, a team of French astronomers on the sailing vessel La Dive landed on Saint-Paul to observe the passing of Venus in front of the sun.

During the 19th century, several attempts had been made to establish settlements on these islands. Martin Dupeyrat, the captain of the ship L'Olympe, acting at the behest of the Governor of Réunion, disembarked at Amsterdam Island on July 1, 1843, and then on Saint-Paul two days later — in order to install a French fishing station on the latter island.

However, all fishing operations were abandoned in 1853, when the French government renounced possession of the two islands. Then, on December 18, 1870, a peasant by the name of Heurtin from the island of Réunion, sailing on La Sarcelle, disembarked on Amsterdam with his family and a few friends to start a sheep and cattle breeding business. Alas, their enterprise failed and the group was forced to leave the island on August 19, 1871 — leaving their herds behind.

It was not until 1892 that the crew of the sloop Bourdonnais, followed by L'Eure in 1893, would take definitive possession of the two islands in the name of the French government.

  Phone card depicting TAAF coat-of-arms
Télécarte (phone card) depicting TAAF coat-of-arms, with elephant seals and rockhopper penguins on the shoreline.
(click on image to see full collection of phone cards spanning 4 years)

In 1928, the Compagnie Générale des Îles Kerguelen recruited René Bossière to establish a canning facility on Saint-Paul — La Langouste Française ("the French Lobster") — employing Bretons and Madagascans. When the company went bankrupt in 1931, it left 7 of its workers stranded on the island; three years later, only 2 survivors were rescued. This tragedy has come to be known as Les Oubliés de Saint-Paul ("the forgotten ones of Saint-Paul). Ruins of the old factory and some rusted machinery are still visible today.

On December 31, 1949, a team of French scientists — directed by the meteorologist Paul Martin de Viviès — were brought to Amsterdam Island by Captain Verdadaine (Vendavaine?) of the lobster-fishing boat Sapmer. This expedition, consisting of 23 people, was to remain for eight months — after having installed the first permanent scientific base of the Territoire des Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF).

Every year since 1949, new expeditions have taken their turns here — both to continue the scientific studies and to ensure that France maintains possession and control of these islands. Amsterdam Island provides an ideal location to study the global impact of atmospheric contaminants — such as radioactivity from Tchernobyl, increases in CO2 concentration, radon, sulphur, etc. — and to measure the greenhouse effect of these and other elements. In addition to atmospheric phenomena, scientists on Amsterdam monitor global electromagnetic energy, seismic events, weather, and the effects of ecology on animal reproduction and bird migrations.

Editor: Ian C. Mills
Sources: Amsterdam Island, a web site created by Jean-Yves Georges. The South Atlantic & Subantarctic Islands, a web site produced by Paul Carroll. 45th Mission to Île Amsterdam, a web site conceived by Cyril Szakolczai. Dante's Purgatory, an article by Andrew McIntyre, published in Quadrant, July 1999 (pg. 79). Harbors and High Seas, Third Edition, by Dean King with John B. Hattendorf, publ. by Henry Holt and Co., New York (2000). All Rights Reserved.
Other recommended reading: Les Oubliés de l'Ile Saint Paul, by Daniel Floch (language: French; publisher: Ouest-France; pub. April 2003). The Arch of Kerguelen, Voyage to the Islands of Desolation, by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, publ. by Four Walls Eight Windows, New York (1993).
Images: Maps of Ile Amsterdam and Ile St-Paul, from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas in Austin. Falaises d'Entrecasteaux (cliffs) on Amsterdam Island, from Photos des TAAF, a web site produced by Cyril Szakolczaï. Picture frame of Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni, Chevalier d'Entrecasteaux, designed by Ian C. Mills, from Discover France! Spectacular caldera (crater lake) on Saint-Paul Island, from Amsterdam/St. Paul Recent History, a web site hosted by Paul Carroll. Assorted postage stamps and télécartes (phone cards), from the official site of the TAAF. Fur seal and Rockhopper penguins of Amsterdam Island, from Récits de Voyages — les Mers Australes, a web site maintained by Edouard Fromentel. Stamps and envelopes of Amsterdam and Saint-Paul Islands, from Bienvenue sur l'île Amsterdam, a web site created by Jean-Luc Bourrian, and from Philatélie des TAAF, a web site assembled by Loïc Guérin. Stamps of Phylica nitida tree and aerial view of Saint-Paul Island, from Albany Stamp Co. A sooty albatross guards its nest and chick, from L'Album Photos de l'Ile Amsterdam, a web site published by Jean-Luc Bourrian. Phylica tree, and Amsterdam albatross with chick, from Amsterdam Island, a web site created by Jean-Yves Georges. All Rights Reserved.

Next page >> Saint-Paul & Amsterdam Islands Today


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