White Island: A place of hope and despair
Te Puia o Whakaari, or White Island as James Cook called it, is a submerged stratovolcano 48 km off the Bay of Plenty coast. It has been active for at least 150,000 years. Its first recorded Pakeha visitors came ashore from the mission schooner Herald in 1826: the Rev. Henry Williams was accompanied by the botanist Allan Cunningham, who made detailed notes in his diary about the brief visit.
Aerial view, Photo gcc-8315
In the 1870s there were high hopes in the Bay of Plenty that White Island would prove more than just a spectacle for excursionists. The island’s hostile environment makes it rich in sulphur deposits, which could possibly be made to turn a profit. Sulphur and sulphuric acid had many uses in the nineteenth century including the manufacture of gunpowder and fertiliser. The sulphur used in New Zealand at the time was all imported from Sicily, so finding a domestic source would potentially provide a big economic advantage.
When in 1884 the sulphur works built to take advantage of the White Island deposits were formally opened on Sulphur Point, Tauranga, at least some of the locals must have been delighted. The Bay of Plenty Times had given its enthusiastic endorsement to the scheme from the outset, assuring its readers as early as 1878 that ‘no offensive smell of any description whatever will be perceptible’.
Tauranga sulphur works in the 1880s, with Mauao in the distance. Photo 04-606
Judge J. A. Wilson
John Alexander Wilson (1829-1909) was the son of a missionary, and he had been a soldier, a government servant, and a judge of the Native Land Court. He and a partner purchased White Island in 1874. Throughout his career Wilson had a habit of antagonising people, and he was not the ideal man to head an undercapitalised business during a recession. His firm’s prospectus promised wealth, but in fact the investors suffered big losses and the company went into liquidation in 1886. The Bay of Plenty Times was no longer on his side. Nor were the people of Tauranga who had invested their money in his scheme. Making their feelings abundantly clear, some enraged citizens built a bonfire on the beach in early 1887 and burned Wilson in effigy.
Ups and downs
After the debacle with Judge Wilson’s company, the works at Sulphur Point were revived in 1890, using sulphur from Matata or Te Teko or Rotorua. But by 1897 the industry was struggling again. In 1900 the Tauranga works were closed and dismantled.
Ruins of the Tauranga sulphur works, c. 1901. Photo 00-662
A triumph of hope over experience: brochure from 1908. Photo 12-188
Triumph and disaster
In 1912 the island was purchased by the White Island Sulphur Company Ltd, which was registered in Vancouver and had ₤100,000 of capital behind it to work the sulphur deposits. By 26 July more than 30 men were at work on the island, earning on average 14 shillings a day. Prosperity looked imminent.
But even for a company with big resources, the environment on White Island was extremely challenging. All the water had to be transported there by boat. A large eruption which alarmed the workers was reported in June 1913. No one was hurt and the alarm subsided, though the island continued to grumble – ominously, as it turned out.
Office of the White Island Sulphur Company, c. 1913. From Bernard Sladden’s album
The 1914 disaster
‘DISASTER AT WHITE ISLAND. PLANT AND MEN OVERWHELMED.’
This headline appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times of 21 September 1914. A huge landslide, most likely the result of an eruption, had entirely demolished the camp and buried all ten of the workers under a deep layer of hot mud. In the weeks after the disaster, wreckage from the plant was washed up on Tauranga beaches, but no trace of the men was ever found.
Wreckage from the White Island disaster washed up on Tauranga beach, 1914. From Bernard Sladden’s album
The only survivor was ‘Peter the Great’, one of five camp cats, pictured here with his rescuer. He recovered from his ordeal to live to a ripe old age in Opotiki and is said to have fathered many kittens in the town.
Peter the Great in later years. From Bernard Sladden’s album. Photo 12-187
Another try at making money
In 1923 the White Island (NZ) Sulphur and Fertiliser Company was formed; White Island Products Ltd was formed in 1926. Two years later it was to ‘morph’ into the New Zealand Sulphur Co. Ltd.
By the 1920s memories had faded of the 1914 disaster. This time instead of trying to extract pure sulphur the company intended to provide fertiliser for the New Zealand market by mining the crater walls. Guano deposits from the bird colonies were also to be exploited, though it was discovered that the high rainfall in the area meant that their nutrients had been leached out. This turned out to be good news for the gannet colonies, which continued to flourish.
Gannet colony on White Island, circa 1930s. Bernard Sladden photo. Photo 00-444
White Island Products brochure, c. 1927. Photo 12-190
Workers in front of their quarters on White Island, c. 1928. Photo 08-056
A new campsite was chosen for the workmen, well away from the dangerous interior of the crater. There was a radio link with the mainland, a recreation room, a kitchen and cook’s quarters, and even a post office. Over at least one of the summer holidays the young family of engineer Gatland Gilbert stayed on the island, so in spite of the shortages of water and difficulties of access, it was possible to live there in precarious comfort.
Workers on White Island, c1928. Photo 08-055
Heavy machinery at White Island, c1928
The fertiliser enterprise worked reasonably well, though shortage of capital was a constant bugbear. Eventually this proved the downfall of the New Zealand Sulphur Company, which was wound up in 1941.
White Island became a private scenic reserve on 3 December 1953.
Daily boat trips to White Island leave from Whakatane for tourists to view its volcanic activity and the relics of its industrial past. Visitors are advised to wear stout shoes and clothes that don’t matter (to avoid the fate of the early 20th century photographer Mary Humphreys, whose silk blouse was damaged by acid droplets). Safety equipment is supplied. You can also fly over the island in a small plane, or land from a helicopter flight.
Industrial relics, White Island, 2011. Photo: Lee Switzer. Photo 13-020
Other resources at the Tauranga City Libraries
White Island Albums, 1927-1929
297/1 Laser print copy of two albums compiled by Gatland Gilberd (1886-1970), engineer on White Island 1927-1929, and his daughters Mabel (mother of donor Mr Rosser) and Doris.
297/2 “White Island Treasury”: Albums and writings from 1927-1929, by Gatland Gilberd, engineer on White Island 1927-1929, and his daughter Mabel, who with her siblings holidayed on White Island. Album has been digitally copied, altered, arranged and added to by Mr Rosser to tell the complete story of his family”s stay on the island. Includes explanatory note and copyright statement on title page.
297/3 Collection of newspaper clippings about White Island, cut by members of the Gilberd family from a variety of publications, some unidentified and undated; 1920s-1980s