Historical Capsules

The foolish dream of Kerguelen Islands

King penguins in Larose Bay
King penguins in Larose Bay, in the southern part of the main island, in Kerguelen Islands, with Mount Ross in the background (photo Fabrice Le Bouard, TAAF Communication)

Within the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (overseas territories since 1995), the French Austral Lands and Seas have been classified as a national nature reserve listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since July 5, 2019. Composed mainly of the Crozet Archipelago, the Kerguelen, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam Islands, far from the centres of human activity, they are home to one of the highest concentrations of birds and marine mammals in the world, but completely without permanent human inhabitants. However, they have scientific and technical bases permanently occupied. Now let’s take a look at the Kerguelen Islands. They were discovered on February 12, 1772, by Captain Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Tremarec…

That day, Captain Kerguelen, who commanded the expedition responsible for discovering the alleged austral continent, south of Isle of France (now Mauritius) where he made a stopover, thought he found the continent and named it “Southern France”. After his return to France, he reported that he did discover the central landmass of the Antarctic continent, whose wealth in marine animals and mineral deposits seemed very promising. He even thought that new settlers could live in such an environment and grow the crop production for the metropolis (i.e., Paris, France). According to him, what was needed was simply to recruit Acadians, then refugees in France and very poor, but capable of transforming this new colony into a breadbasket of French territories in the Indian Ocean. Alas, this foolishness of Captain Kerguelen, hardly convincing, never saw the light of day…

Isle of Desolation

Detailed map of Kerguelen Islands (cartographer Rémi Kaupp, license CC BY-SA 4.0)

In fact, on February 12, 1772, Captain Kerguelen had discovered the main island of the Kerguelen Islands, but his vessel, La Fortune, could not dock because of bad weather. It was only the next day that one of his lieutenants, an officer aboard the Gros Ventre, the expedition’s second ship, took possession of the island, in the name of the King of France, by disembarking at the southwestern tip of the main island. He docked in the now aptly named “Gros-Ventre cove”, where the Vallée des Sables opens out. On December 14, 1773, during his second expedition to the southern lands, Captain Kerguelen sighted the main island but was still unable to get ashore. Three weeks later, it was one of his lieutenants, an officer aboard L’Oiseau, the other ship of the expedition, who landed at the most northern tip of the island, in what is now the famous “Baie de l’Oiseau” (Bird Bay). Why is it famous? It was there that he left in a bottle a parchment certifying the possession of the territories for France…

If these details must be mentioned here, it is because British Captain James Cook docked in the same bay on Christmas Day 1776 and found the bottle and its parchment. It rightly became indisputable that the French went ashore, and took possession. Captain Cook completed the parchment and put it back in the bottle which he placed where he found it. Then, while hoisting the British flag, he named the place “Port-Christmas”. After a few days of scouting the northern coastlines of the main island, he found that it was decidedly barren and desolate and named it “Isle of Desolation”. Captain Cook did confirm what Captain Kerguelen was unable to verify. The main island, now known as Grande Terre, is not very large, is certainly not a continent, and offers no chances of survival to any settlers. As for most of the Acadian refugees in France, in January 1773 they were travelling toward Poitou. In Poitou, the agricultural project of the Marquis de Pérusse des Cars was just being accepted by the government, far removed from the penguins and elephant seals of Captain Kerguelen (see FRANCE).

References: see SOUTH SEAS