The isolated group of rocky islands in New Zealand’s Cook Strait called the Brothers — actually two islands and a number of smaller rocks — are best known today as home to one of the world’s rarest reptiles, the Brothers Island tuatara. This remote outpost was also home to resident lightkeepers for well over a century. It was not considered a plum assignment. One long-suffering keeper
wrote on a workroom wall, “Providence brought me here.
It must have been in anger.”
The Brothers were known to the native Maoris as
Nga-Whatu, which means “the rocks.” Vessels crossing between Wellington on the North Island and Nelson or other points on the South Island often ran into trouble in the vicinity.
Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour was nearly wrecked there in 1770. The Maoris regarded Nga-Whatu with dread and believed that the rocks were under the influence of a deity or atua, who could be appeased by ceremonies and charms. When a Maori was making a first passage past the Nga-Whatu, he would be blindfolded so that the atua would not be affronted.
A lighthouse was established on the largest of the Brothers in 1877, replacing an earlier light on Mana Island that had often been confused with another light at Pencarrow Head. Rough weather caused a delay of 60 days before building supplies could be landed at the island. The workers couldn’t pitch tents because of the lack of soil, so they built huts instead.
The wooden lighthouse, made of native Kauri planks, was erected on the island’s highest point. It was so windy that the builders feared the 41-foot tower would be knocked down,
so stones and dirt were placed between the inner walls
and the exterior boards. Outer wooden supports and cables were later added for more support.
New Zealand lighthouse historian P. W. Shirley explains that wood was used in part because of the difficulty of landing materials in small boats on the island. “In the event that any of it being dropped in the sea,” Shirley points out, “it would float and could be recovered, whereas steel plates would be lost forever.” A crane and a tramway leading to the highest part of the island were later added, making the delivery of supplies to the station somewhat easier.
Only male keepers lived at the light station, as it was deemed dangerous and unsuitable for families. The authorities preferred the Brothers Islands keepers to be unmarried because of the long periods they’d be away from their families. The first principal keeper was James Nelson, and assistants lived on the island on a rotating basis.
Because there was no drinking water on the island and no soil to grow food, all supplies had to be shipped to the station. Bad weather and sea conditions frequently delayed deliveries. Sometimes, the supplies were useless when they finally arrived. One keeper complained, “The last cask of salt meat that was sent here on November 25, 1881 is quite unfit for use as it is tainted and none of us is particularly fond of stinking meat... the meat was bad before it came here, the smell of it is enough to drive a person from the table.”
At least, one man made the best out of the isolated location and its fascinating fauna. James Hamilton Farquharson was keeper for some years in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Farquharson’s granddaughter, Carole James, recalls stories of her grandfather’s love of wildlife. Seabirds would sometimes injure themselves by flying into the lighthouse. Farquharson would care for them, carefully carving little wooden splints for their wings and using bits of handkerchiefs to bind their wounds.
“I don’t know what his patient survival rate was,” says Carole, “but he would have treated them with enormous reverence and gentleness, as was his nature. I remember one time when my Nanna and one of my aunties were talking about a film called the Birdman of Alcatraz. My Nanna said very indignantly, ‘He must have got his ideas from Jim!’”
Farquharson found much to occupy his attention, including the island’s resident tuataras. These rare creatures (tuatara means “spiny back” in Maori) are the most ancient reptiles in the world, dating back over 200 million years. Tuataras, which live for a century or more, have been considered an endangered species since 1895 and all the world’s surviving tuataras live in New Zealand. The Brothers Island tuataras, with olive skin and yellow spots, are considered a separate species.
When he lived on the island, Farquharson had three or four pet tuataras. “He told Nanna they would take forever to eat an insect,” Carole recalls. “They remain still for such a long time, it was as if they’d forgotten they had it in their mouth!” Today, the tuatara is in danger of extinction. Victoria University of Wellington is engaged in a program designed to reintroduce the reptile to various areas in New Zealand. “The Brothers Island tuatara is hugely important in this,” says Dr. Nicola Nelson, a conservation biologist.
Keeper Farquharson also engaged in some songwriting during his Brothers Island stay. “He also began to write the words for Anchor Watch while out there,” says Carole, “but Granddad was never happy with the music, as another fellow had some input into it and changed Granddad’s idea of what it should have been!”
Farquharson eventually left Brothers Island to marry and settle down. A succession of keepers came and went, some adjusting better than others to life on the rock. The principal keeper wrote in 1973, “This is a place ruled by moods. I once had to lock a joker in his room for 24 hours because of the way he was acting — the isolation does it.” In July 1990, Brothers Island became one of the last light stations in New Zealand to be automated.
Carole James says that in later years, when her grandparents lived in Port Chalmers, Farquharson would often bring “all manner of fellows from the ships who had come into the Sailors’ Rest” to the family’s home for dinner. Carole remembers her mother describing the typical scene: “He would say with a huge smile, ‘Mother, just look who I’ve found!’ as though they were dear old friends who had returned from somewhere. After dinner, the whole family would sit around the piano and sing — they all had absolutely beautiful voices and would do six-part harmony without effort and Granddad and Nanna would encourage the overseas sailors to teach them a song or two from their own country.”
Some people in small towns might have been suspicious of strangers but Farquharson was known for treating everyone well. “Granddad shone out like a beacon,” says Carole, surely the best epitaph he could have wished for.
This story appeared in the
December 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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