The Kerguelen Islands are islands in the Antarctic, establishing one of the two exhibited parts of the Kerguelen Plateau, a large volcanic region mostly swamped by the southern Indian Ocean. They are among the most remote places on Earth, located more than 2,100 mi (3,300 km) from Madagascar. The islands, along with the Crozet Islands, Adélie Land, Saint Paul Islands, and Amsterdam, and France’s Scattered Islands in the isolated Indian Ocean, are part of the French Antarctic and Southern lands and are controlled as a different district.
Kerguelen Islands History
Before being formally recognized in 1772, the Kerguelen Islands emerge as the “Ile de Nachtegal” on Philippe Buache’s 1754 map.
On the Buache map, “Ile de Nachtegal” is located at 43°S, 72°E, about 2° east and 6° north of the held location of Grande Terre.
The islands were formally discovered by the French navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec on 12 February 1772. The next day, Charles de Boisguehenneuc arrived and claimed the island for the French crown. Yves de Kerguelen funded a second expedition in 1773 and landed at the “Baie de l’Oiseau” by December 1773. On 6 January of the next year, he ordered his officer, Henri Pascal de Rochegude, to leave a message stating any passers-by of the two passages and the islands’ French right.
After that, several expeditions briefly visited the islands, including the third journey of Captain James Cook in December 1776. Cook verified and confirmed de Kerguelen’s passage by identifying and interpreting the French navigator’s message.
Soon after its discovery, the archipelago was frequently visited by sealers and whalers (mostly American, British, and Norwegian) who hunted the local populations of seals and whales to the point of near extinction, including fur seals in the mid-18th century and elephant seals in the mid-19th century. The sealing era lasted from 1771 to 1922, during which time 284 sealing visits are reported, nine of which concluded when the vessel was wrecked.
Modern industrial sealing, linked with whaling stations, occurred between 1900 and 1956. Since the end of the sealing and whaling era, most of the islands’ species have increased their population again. Relics of the sealing period include hut ruins, try pots, inscriptions, and graves.
In 1800, the Hillsborough spent eight months whaling and sealing around the islands. During this period, Captain Robert Rhodes, her master, prepared a map of the islands. That vessel returned to London in the mid April 1801 with nearlhy 500d tons of sea elephant oil.
In 1825, the British sealer John Nunn and 3 crew members were shipwrecked on Kerguelen until they were recovered in 1827 by Captain Alexander Distant during his hunt campaign.
Illustration from John Nunn’s book about the 3 years he and his marooned crew persisted on the island in the 1820s. The islands were not totally surveyed until the Ross party of 1840.
The Australian James Kerguelen Robinson (1859–1914) was the 1st human born south of the Antarctic Convergence, onboard the sealing ship Offley in Gulf of Morbihan (Royal Sound then), Kerguelen Island on 11 March 1859.
In 1874–1875, German, British, and U.S. expeditions explore Kerguelen to witness Venus’s transit. For the 1874 transit, George Biddell Airy of the U.K. Royal Observatory organized and equipped five trips to different parts of the world. Three of these were assigned to the Kerguelen Islands and led by Stephen Joseph Perry, who set up his central observation station at Observatory Bay and two backup stations, one at Thumb Peak led by Sommerville Goodridge, and the second at Supply Bay, directed by Cyril Corbet. Observatory Bay was also used by the German Antarctic Expedition, directed by Erich Dagobert von Drygalski in 1902–1903. In January 2007, archaeological mining was carried out at this site.
In 1877 the French started a coal mining operation but soon abandoned it.
In 1892, due to German operations in the area, France sent the aviso Eure, under Commander Lieutard, to reassert its claim over the Kerguelen Islands, the islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul, and the Crozet archipelago. In 1924, it was decided to administer these regions (in addition to that portion of Antarctica claimed by France and known as Adélie Land) from Madagascar; as with all Antarctic regional claims, France’s ownership on the continent is held in abeyance until a new international treaty is ratified that defines each claimant’s obligations and rights.
In 1908, the French explorer Raymond Rallier du Baty made an individually funded expedition to the island. His biographical account of the adventure (1917 – 15,000 Miles in a Ketch. Thomas Nelson and Sons: London) covers the months he spent surveying the island and hunting seals to fund his expedition.
The German subsidiary cruiser Atlantis called at Kerguelen during December 1940. During their stay, the crew completed maintenance and replaced their water supplies. This ship’s first fatality of the war occurred when Bernhard Herrmann fell while painting the funnel. He is buried in what is sometimes regarded to as “the southernmost German war grave” of World War II.
Kerguelen has been continuously occupied since 1950 by scientific research teams, with a population of 50 to 100 personnel.
Until 1955, the Kerguelen Islands were a part of the French Colony of Madagascar and Dependencies. They collectively became known as Les Terres australes et antarctiques françaises (French Southern and Antarctic Lands) and were administratively part of the French Département d’outre-mer de la Réunion. In 2004 they were completely transformed into their own entity (keeping the same name) but having acquired another group of five very remote tropical islands, Les îles Éparses, which are also ruled by France and are scattered widely throughout the southern Indian Ocean.