In Search of Disappointment Island

Disappointment Island Cook Byron Pacific New Zealand
The map included in the first published journal of Cook’s second voyage (1775), showing Disappointment Island top right.

A friend and I were speaking recently about some of the Pacific’s remote islands, a topic which, since spending the first three conscious years of my life living on Rarotonga, has long interested me. Chris spoke about Disappointment Island, which he had previously written about:

“Disappointment Island, in true New Zealand fashion, is a terrific understatement. Much like the Pitcairn Islands, the story begins with a ship navigating the southern oceans. A week after leaving setting sail from Australia with 2,576 ounces of gold (about 73 kilograms, worth $3.2 million, in today’s US dollars), the ship collided with the Auckland Islands, which is disappointing at the least. Fifteen of the 83 on board made it out alive, and rowed for what is now Disappointment Island. They eventually settled on Auckland Island, where they found a habitable hut. After 9 months, four of the crew sailed to New Zealand, and were never seen again. The rest waited a further nine months, when they flagged down another ship. Despite numerous attempts, some deadly, the gold has never been found.

Chris’ Disappointment Island is south of New Zealand, in the Auckland Islands group. But while reading the first published account of Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand, I was surprised to find the map above, which showed a clearly marked Disappointment Island north of New Zealand, in the middle of the Pacific.

My first thought was that the map might be wrong, since, clearly, news hadn’t quite reached London that Stewart Island was, in fact, an island, and not a phallic protrusion off the end of the South Island. (That eventual news would cause the South Island to long be called the “Middle Island”). But of course, Disappointment Island is marked so definitively that it had to exist—on Google Maps it won’t show up until you’ve zoomed right in, yet here it is more than visible.

I did find the Wikipedia page for the northern Disappointment Islands (now part of French Polynesia), which notes simply that “These islands are arid, and are not especially conducive to human habitation,” and that “British explorer John Byron named Napuka and Tepoto “Disappointment Islands” because he found the natives to be of a hostile disposition toward him.” But in this case, Wikipedia didn’t offer a rabbit hole to go down, so I had to turn elsewhere.

By coincidence I had also requested to the library John Hawkesworth’s 1773 volumes of (and this is a very abbreviated version of the title) “An account of the Voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere…” (Aside: Boswell apparently said to Cook, who disliked Hawkesworth’s volumes, that “He has used your narrative as a London tavern keeper does wine. He has brewed it.” Hawkesworth himself was so embarrassed by the negative reception to his volumes, which had made him rich, that he apparently “died by the vilification he suffered.”)

John Hawkesworth Byron Cook, An Account of the Voyages for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, 1773
Hawkesworth South Sea Voyages, Disappointment Islands

The first volume of Hawkesworth’s series includes, as the eighth chapter, Vice-Admiral John Byron’s (that’s Lord Byron’s grandfather) account of “The run from the Western Entrance of the Streight [sic] of Magellan, to the Islands of Disappointment.” The actual story is a lot more interesting and ironic (if cringe-inducing today) than the Wikipedia entry makes out.

For a start, the islands appeared anything but arid and inhospitable. On the 31st of May 1765, Byron records that,

The wind shifted from N. by W. to N.W. by W. and the number of birds that were now about the ship was very great; from these circumstances, and our having lost the great south west swell, I imagined some land to be near, and we looked out for it with great diligence, for our people began now to fall down with the scurvy very fast.

I stood for the small island, which as we drew near it had a most beautiful appearance; it was surrounded by a beach of the finest white sand, and within, it was covered with tall trees, which extended their shade to a great distance, and formed the most delightful groves that can be imagined… We soon perceived that it was inhabited; for many of the natives appeared upon the beach, with spears in their hands… I sent the boat with an officer to look for an anchoring-place, who, to our great regret and disappointment, returned with an account that he had been all round the island, and that no bottom could be found within less than a cable’s length of the shore, which was surrounded close to the beach with a deep coral rock.

Scurvy is the key to the Disappointment Islands. Byron’s account was so painful to read that after reading the rest of it I went outside the Weston Library to eat some oranges I had in my bag, almost just to relieve some of the crews’ suffering.

The scurvy by this time had made dreadful havoc among us, many of my best men being now confined to their hammocks; the poor wretches who were able to crawl upon the deck stood gazing at this little paradise which Nature had forbidden them to enter, with sensations which cannot be easily conceived; they saw cocoa-nuts in great abundance, the milk of which is perhaps the most powerful antiscorbutic in the world: they had reason to suppose that there were limes and bananas, and other fruits which are generally found between the tropics; and to increase their mortification they saw the shells of many turtle scattered about the shore. These refreshments [love this euphemism for turtles], indeed, for want of which they were anguishing to death, were as effectually beyond their reach as if there had been half the circumference of the world between them; yet their being in sight was no inconsiderable increase of the distress which they suffered by the want of them.

For two days Byron’s ship and smaller boats circle the islands, trying to find a place to anchor or a way to land some men on the islands, but with no luck. The islanders, more than understandably, did not seem to want to welcome the Englishmen to their island paradise. At this point in Byron’s narrative you can read him trying to weigh up the possibilities: keep trying to get ashore while his men (and himself, without doubt) sink deeper into their scurvy, or hurry away in the hope that other more friendly paradises lie not far away.

Eventually, on Saturday the 8th of June, they give up. Byron “fires a nine pound shot from the ship over their [the islanders’] heads, upon which they ran into the woods with great precipitation.” A most petulant farewell.

At ten o’clock the boats returned, but could get no soundings close in with the surf, which broke very high upon the shore… At half an hour after ten, we bore away and made sail to the westward, finding it impossible to procure at these islands any refreshment for our sick, whose situation was becoming more deplorable every hour, and I therefore called them the ISLANDS OF DISAPPOINTMENT. [emphasis original]

Surreally, just after I finished writing these notes the BBC published an account of someone visiting the Disappointment Islands. The journalist found them not so disappointing, though his account is on the quaint, romantic side (“Night fell fast and the stars blew me away. I gawked upwards from the empty beach as if catching the night sky for the first time, the Milky Way scrawled like a diagonal swath of pink gauze”, etc).