South-African National Antarctic Programme
Home > Stations > Gough Island > History

Gough Island - History

History          Life at the base          Teams          Newsletters          Weather          Gallery

Discovery and history

Gough Island was discovered by a Portuguese seaman and named Goncalo Alvarez after him, probably in 1505 or 1506. Alvarez later became Pilot General on the Portuguese sea route to the Indies, which passed across the central south Atlantic before rounding the Cape. Maps of the period were never very accurate, especially since longitude could not readily be determined until ships chronometers were perfected in the late 18th century. Consequently the "Ilha de Goncalo Alvarez" varies somewhat in its plotted position on different old maps, but is consistently placed well southward of the "Ilhas de Tristan de'Acunha" discovered by another Portuguese seaman in 1506.

Science Team
Scientific Survey Team

Apart from devastating the populations of fur seal and elephant seal, sealers may well have introduced some of the weeds now found on the island, and perhaps also the only Gough Island pest - the house mouse. On the credit side, G. Comer, mate of a sealer, made the first bird collections and kept a diary which gives the earliest detailed account of life on the island.

There were few visitors to Gough Island between 1900 and 1955. In 1904 the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition called in their ship Scotia, homeward bound from the Antarctic, and made the first botanical and geological collections.

In 1914 a party of diamond prospectors from Cape Town lived for three months in The Glen (named by nostalgic Scots a decade earlier) and panned the volcanic debris in the vain belief that it was "yellow ground". No diamonds were found.

In 1922 the Quest brought the men of Sir Ernest Shackleton's last expedition inland at The Glen and made a chart and further collections.

In 1935 Lars Christenson brought a Norwegian scientific expedition.   Only in 1939 was the island formally annexed by Britain the flag being raised above the beach in The Glen by a bedraggled party scrambling ashore from one of H.M.S. Milford's boats, swamped in the surf.

Historical marker
Historical Marker at The Glen

The old base in the Glen, while ideal for access to the central mountains of the island and adjoining the best landing beach, proved too shut in by the steep walls of the valley to be ideal for meteorological observations and in 1963 a new station was constructed at Transvaal Bay on the south coast.  Here, 150 feet above the sea, on a rolling lowland covered with bush and ferns, with wide views over the sea and to the inland hills, "Gough House" now shelters a 6 person team and its equipment.

Hut at The Glen
Hut at The Glen

Captain Gough of the British ship Richmond was probably misled by these problems of position fixing and charting into thinking that he had discovered a new island in 1731. For many years "Gough's Island" and "I. de Go. Alvaroz" (often misspelled "I. Diego Avarez") appeared side-by-side on the charts. Then (was it a symptom of British expansion and Portuguese decline?) the older name was dropped and Gough Island obtained its present title.

Nobody took much notice of the islands until, around 1790, sealers discovered that good money could be made from the skins of the fur seals then abundant on the islands of the Southern Ocean. Captain Patten of Nantucket, U.S.A., made a sealing voyage to Tristan in that year while in 1811 a British warship calling at Gough Island found a sealing gang ashore "filthy, ragged and dressed mainly in skins" awaiting the return of their ship for themselves and their catch. Sealers lived ashore on the islands for spells of a few months during the height of the industry in the thirty years up to 1820, during which time almost all the seal were destroyed, and came back again for a while between 1869 and 1890 when the stocks of the animal had somewhat recovered, but their efforts at Gough never led to permanent settlement.

Sealers' cave
Sealer Cave

In 1946 commerce came to Gough Island when an exploratory fishing investigation from Cape Town proved the inshore waters to be rich in crawfish; from 19 ships of a company, now Tristan Investments (Pty.) Ltd., have exploited this resource in the shallow seas about all four islands.

On 13 November, 1955, a scientific expedition, The Gough Island Scientific Survey, landed at The Glen. This party consisted of eight young scientists, most of them from Cambridge University in England, together with a South African meteorologist, Mr. J.J. van der Merwe, and two Tristan Islanders. A base was established in The Glen and in the six months prior to the expedition's departure on 13 May 1956 the island was mapped and detailed studies of rocks, vegetation and animal life completed.

This expedition also demonstrated the suitability of Gough Island for a weather station and from May 1956 the hut in the Glen became the property of the South African Department of Transport. Mr. Van der Merwe remained as Officer-in-Charge (in which capacity he welcomed Gough Island's only Royal visitor, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1957) and from that time the island has been continually manned by South Africa. 

Historical marker
First Gough Island Team