History & Heritage - New Island Conservation Trust
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HISTORY & HERITAGE

For a relatively small and isolated island, New Island has a rich and fascinating history…

Whaling and Sealing

The natural wealth of the area, its sheltered harbours and its remoteness attracted the secretive early sealing and whaling operations.  The first American whaling vessels probably anchored at New Island around 1774.  The majority commenced their voyages from New Bedford, New York, Nantucket and other whaling ports of New England.

The island became a self-styled home of these Americans, hence its name “New”.  Coffin’s Harbour and nearby Coffin Island are both named after the Coffin family, whose members captained many of the whale ships from Nantucket.  The Coffins were some of the earliest pioneers of these waters and may even have named New Island.

The islands of Quaker, Penn, Fox and Barclay, lying close to New Island, are all named after Quaker families which operated whale oil businesses and sent whaling ships to the southern oceans.  Neighbouring Beaver Island was named after the whaling vessel “Beaver”, which was recorded as being the first whale ship to double Cape Horn.

New Island, like many others, suffered from the depredations of these early exploiters.  The colonies of penguins and albatross on the island offered a source of food in the form of eggs.  Wildfowl, especially geese, were in abundance and records left by these whalers confirm that large numbers were taken for food.  Captain James Weddell anchored at New Island in 1823 and recorded the excellence of its harbours and its value for supplies of wildfowl and fresh water.  The damage continued with the introduction of pigs and American cottontail rabbits.  The island’s fur seal colonies were exploited, although probably only in small numbers.  The island also suffered deliberate burning by the whalers, who saw the thick growth of vegetation like tussock grass as a hindrance to their shore operations.

Marooned on New Island

Captain Charles H. Barnard was an American from Nantucket who, whilst engaged in a sealing venture around the Falklands in 1813, was marooned on New Island along with four of his men, at the time of the war between America and the UK in 1812.  After rescuing survivors of the wreck of the British ship Isabella, which had gone aground on Speedwell Island, Barnard and his men were left on New Island by the very men they had saved.  With his own vessel Nanina stolen, Barnard and his companions were left with only a few personal items, his dog and an open boat.  They were eventually rescued after two years.  Barnard describes his exploits in a book published in 1829.

During their time on the Island, Barnard and his men constructed a rough stone building.  Its exact position on the Island was however unclear, but after a lot of patient research a copy of Barnard’s original narrative and map was found, and it has been possible to establish that the position of his stone shelter was at the head of what is now called Settlement Harbour, where the current Captain Barnard Museum now stands.

Guano Industry and Penguin Oiling

During the 1850’s, when a large nitrate industry developed off the Peruvian coast, interest was shown in the guano deposits of the New Island seabird colonies.  The industry was however short lived, the deposits being difficult to access and of low value.

For a short period between 1851 and 1860 New Island was the site of a penguin oiling industry, involving the capture and rendering down of Rockhopper penguins for their oil. The remains of stone corrals are still evident on one of the Rockhopper colonies where birds were caught and killed.

Farming

Following the issue of the first Crown lease for New Island in 1860, the first of a succession of settlers engaged in sheep and cattle farming on the island, an industry which continued unabated for the following hundred years. From the records it appears that New Island was the first area of land to be settled and stocked on West Falkland, by a succession of owners.  In September 1949 the property was passed to John J. “Cracker Jack” Davis, whose family eventually sold to Roddy Napier and Ian Strange in 1972. It was at this stage that the island was finally given some relief from its long history of over-grazing.

The New Island Whaling Station

In 1908 a new era of whaling commenced around the Falklands.  The location of New Island and its excellent harbours proved attractive, and a lease was granted to Salvesen & Co. of Leith, Scotland, for the operation of the first and only land based whaling station in the Falkland Islands.  Erected in South Harbour, it was a fairly large set up, employing some eighty men. The facilities included Government buildings for a resident customs officer and a post office. However, whale catches were comparatively small and in 1916 the station closed and moved to South Georgia, which offered more lucrative whaling grounds. Much of the machinery and evidence of the station’s infrastructure remains at the site today.