Marion and Prince Edward Islands

Dec 28, 2003
Author: Terry Hutson

The name of Marion Island is familiar to most South Africans, but few are likely to have gone anywhere near the place. From time to time the name appears in the newspapers or on television, usually in connection with a visit to that inhospitable place by the supply vessel SA Agulhas. Sometimes the news is that one of the scientists manning its weather station needs medical care and a navy ship has been despatched to the southern Indian Ocean to perform a rescue.

More recently Marion was again in the news with the arrest of a Uruguayan fishing vessel named Viarsa 1. The Spanish-crewed ship had fled the length of the Southern Ocean, hotly pursued (if one can be forgiven for using such an expression about such a cold place) by an Australian sea fishery patrol boat named Southern Supporter. During this weeks-long saga the supply ship SA Agulhas, which was on her way to Marion Island with building material for a new weather station, was brought into the chase.

Apart from these isolated reports and stories, the small group of islands that form South Africa’s only dependency remain a mystery to most, with few knowing the history or background of this inhospitable place, or how they came to be a part of South Africa so late in the history of exploration.

The Prince Edward Island group consists of Prince Edward and Marion Islands and is South Africa’s only dependency. This in itself is quite remarkable given South Africa’s turbulent history since 1652, which includes having taken part in the invasion of several other countries during the course of two world wars – German South West Africa (now Namibia), German East Africa (now Tanzania), Ethiopia, Madagascar and subsequent to World War II, Angola.

The first explorers to see Marion Island were probably the Dutch - there is a record of the ship Maerseveen under the command of Barent Barentszoon Lam, which sailed past the islands in 1663 on the way to the Dutch East Indies. Due to an error in reporting the position of the two islands neither could be found again by subsequent Dutch sailors.

Lam was followed more than a hundred years later by the French explorer Marion du Fresne on board his ship Le Mascarin, who called on 13 January 1772. It was in honour of this man that the main island was eventually named. Du Fresne continued with his voyage, discovering the Crozet islands some 500 nautical miles further east before continuing on to his untimely end in New Zealand.

Four years after du Fresne came Captain James Cook, who left his indelible mark by naming the group of islands in honour of King George’s fourth son, Prince Edward, but who, like his predecessors, failed to land.

The first recorded landing was as late as 1803 when a number of sealers made their way ashore. Here they uncovered evidence that others, most likely other sealers, had indeed been there before, although no written record had been left of their visit. Which is how things remained with both islands remaining uninhabited, apart from occasional visits by sealers or whalers and the odd explorer, until Britain began assuming ownership in 1908 when it granted one of its citizens a 21-year lease to gather guano deposits. The British government later issued licences to the Kerguelen Sealing & Whaling Company to exploit whales, seals, guano and minerals on several Southern Ocean islands from the mid 1920s.

The aftermath of World War II was to bring about the end to isolation for the Prince Edward Group of islands, and is said to have come about through a realisation by the major powers that long-range warfare encompassing the entire globe was now a distinct possibility. With the encouragement of the British government, Field Marshall Jan C Smuts, then prime minister of South Africa, commissioned an enquiry that led to a decision to send a South African warship to the islands to annex and take formal occupation of both in the name of South Africa.

The ship chosen for this lonely task was the Loch class frigate HMSAS Transvaal, under command of Lt-Commander John Fairburn. He had among the ships company a specialist from the SA Engineering Corps and another specialist from the South African Air Force, whose task it was to assess the possibility of building an airstrip on the island.

The highly secret operation was dubbed Operation Snoektown, and began on 12 December 1947 with the departure of the ship from Cape Town under a cloak of secrecy. HMSAS Transvaal set off eastward along the coast as far as Mossel Bay before turning south for the Southern Ocean. Four days later, in time for Christmas, the outline of Marion Island was visible on the horison.

After a thorough reconnoitre of the island, made necessary by the inaccuracy of the charts, a landing place was identified on the north-east coast on which Lt-Cmdr Fairburn and Petty Officer Steward Schott were able to go ashore and place a metal South African flag and brass plate inscribed:

‘HMSAS TRANSVAAL – date 29:12:47.

The ship’s commander then read a memorandum previously prepared in Pretoria:

This flag has been raised on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the Union of South Africa on the fourth day of January 1948, preparatory to the permanent occupation by the Government of the Union of South Africa of this territory, known as Marion Island. This occupation will take place within the course of the next few weeks.
John Fairburn
Lieutenant Commander, SANF
Captain, HMSAS Transvaal

The occasion was filmed for posterity by Petty Officer Schott, a photographic enthusiast, who recorded the document being signed and placed in a brass cylinder made from a Bofors cartridge, which was then buried in a penguin hole. The news was then transmitted by radio to Defence Headquarters in Pretoria.

A party of 12 from the ship including the SAEC engineer later volunteered to go ashore as the occupying party, which was accomplished on 4 January 1948 in spite of strong winds and huge swells battering the coastline.

Later that day Lt-Cmdr Fairburn undertook the occupation and annexation of the smaller and low-lying Prince Edward Island, 21 miles away, which was completed in short time in spite of Fairburn receiving a thorough soaking as he stepped mistakenly into what he thought was shallow water.

The only protection that the initial party on Marion Island had between them and the harsh winds and almost constant rain sweeping across the ocean from the direction of Antarctica was canvas tents. The intention was to remain on the island for one month while more permanent quarters were built for a following group. Despite the hardships the ship’s company succeeded in building a rudimentary landing stage from timbers set 2m above the sea and suspended from the cliff side by wire cables 23metres long. This precarious-looking structure not only proved suitable for the landing of stores and men but also remained in use for a lengthy period.

HMSAS Transvaal was replaced by another frigate, HMSAS Natal, which was under the command of Lt-Cmdr Paul Drymond. The new arrival was to have a narrow escape from disaster after a sudden storm hit the islands while the ship was at anchor and only quick action involving slipping the anchor and cable saved Natal from possible disaster.

Incidentally HMSAS Natal held the distinction of sinking a German U-boat during WWII within four hours of leaving the builders yard at Newcastle-on-Tyne. The ship under the command of Lt-Cmdr DA Hall was off St Abb’s Head in Scotland and heading for Scapa Flow when news was received that a German U-boat nearby had torpedoed a merchantman. Hastening to the scene to render assistance, HMSAS Natal established contact with the submerged enemy vessel and despatched Squid anti-submarine mortars in the supposed direction. A second attack brought oil to the surface and shortly afterwards contact was lost.

Following the recovery of oil and debris, the British Admiralty later confirmed the ‘kill’. At the conclusion of the war it was confirmed that U-714, under the command of Kapitan Leutnant Hans-Joachim Schwebke, had indeed been destroyed by Natal. There were no survivors.

HMSAS Natal also served in Far East waters in the Pacific Theatre. Although she sailed from Durban after VJ Day the ship was involved in escort work and relief convoys to Singapore shortly after the Japanese surrender of that port city. The ship took part in the allied occupation of Malaya and returned to Durban towards the end of 1945 to a huge welcome.

Returning to the tale about Marion Island, the third ship involved in the annexation of the group was the coaster Gamtoos (which later became the last coal-fired coaster remaining in service on the South African coast). Gamtoos was a former Smith’s Coasters ship but had been sold to the South African government shortly after the end of hostilities. The government used the little ship to move guano from the West Coast islands to Cape Town, so she was well placed for her unexpected and secret mission.

Under the command of Captain W Finlayson, Gamtoos took on stores and prefabricated huts in Cape Town, a deck full of sacks of coal for the return journey, as well as a number of ‘permanent’ settlers who included six islanders from Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. In charge of this group was a meteorologist, Allan Crawford, who had established a South African Air Force meteorological office on Tristan da Cunha during World War II, where South Africa continued to maintain a weather station.

Also among the overcrowded Gamtoos’ passengers was a detachment of South African Army Engineers who were tasked with erecting the permanent camp on Marion Island. The ship arrived off the Marion Island anchorage, now named Transvaal Cove, on the morning of 20 January 1948.

Among the party were two civilian journalists. They were the SA Newsreel’s cameraman Ken Sara, and John Marsh, who was then working as a journalist for the Star in Johannesburg. Marsh was a former Cape Town shipping journalist and the author of the best-selling book Skeleton Coast, which told of the rescue of crew and passengers from the Dunedin Star which sank off the South West African coast (now Namibia).

Until then Operation Snoektown had remained a top secret and no word of the event had been leaked, and it required special authority from Prime Minister Smuts for the two journalists to accompany the expedition. Typical of the frugality of the time was the accompanying message from Army Headquarters in Pretoria, “These gentlemen are to be supplied with suitable kit on loan, if required. Suggest army field dress and boots from Q stores most suitable.”

The occupation and annexation of Prince Edward and Marion Islands was then repeated in a more formal and ceremonious fashion, before an armed party of 11 from HMSAS Natal that formed the honour guard as Lt-Cmdr Dymond read out the English and Afrikaans versions of the formal proclamation:


By His Excellency the Right Honourable Gideon Brand van Zyl, a member of His Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council, Governor-General of the Union of South Africa.


Whereas the National Flag of the Union of South Africa was hoisted by the commander of His Majesty’s South African frigate Transvaal on Marion Island, situated latitude 46.53 south, longitude 37.45 east, on December 29, 1947, and on Prince Edward Island, situated latitude 46.36 south, longitude 37.57 east, on January 4, 1948.

And whereas effective occupation and administration of the said Islands by His Majesty’s Government in the Union of South Africa were established as from the aforesaid dates and will continue permanently.

Now therefore, by virtue of the powers vested in me by Section Six of the Royal Executive Functions and Seals Act, 1934, I do hereby proclaim and declare that His Majesty’s sovereignty of Marion Island and Prince Edward Island is henceforth to be exercised by His Majesty’s Government in the Union of South Africa.


Given under my hand and the Great Seal at Cape Town this 12th Day of January, One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty Eight.

G. Brand van Zyl
By Command of His Excellency the Governor-General-in-Council
JC Smuts

The ceremony was duly filmed and recorded before the enterprising PO Schott then produced a case of champagne to salute the occasion less formally.

Over the coming months the three frigates, Transvaal, Natal and Good Hope paid repeated visits to the islands bringing supplies. Among these supplies was a quantity of high-octane aviation fuel, intended to refuel a Sunderland seaplane on a reconnaissance flight from South Africa.

Eventually another merchant ship, the 3,000 ton Norse Captain was chartered to deliver stores from Cape Town to Marion Island including those left behind by the overloaded Gamtoos. These included the generators for a power plant, and shortly afterwards electricity lit up the small base camp on the island for the first time. A power driven radio station also began broadcasting weather and other reports to Pretoria, a feature that continues to this day.

In 1950 a new naval chart of the islands was prepared, replacing an inaccurate chart dating back to the 1870s. In 1961 the South African Department of Transport placed an order for a supply ship to be named RSA with the shipyard in Osaka, Japan. The ice-strengthened and helicopter-carrying RSA would undertake future voyages to Marion Island, Gough Island, Tristan da Cunha and to the Antarctic.

In 1978 RSA was replaced by another Japanese-built supply vessel, the SA Agulhas, which continues her regular service between South Africa and her only dependency. In the next year or so SA Agulhas will be joined on this service by a new sea fisheries patrol vessel, undertaking guard duties around the important fishing grounds.

From time to time, such as for a medical emergency, a navy ship has returned to the island bringing help and assistance, thus maintaining the link formed by the frigates Transvaal, Natal and Good Hope.

The Island

Marion Island contains South Africa’s only active volcano, which last erupted in June 1980. The island reaches to a height of 1230m and has several lava flows that do not yet contain vegetation – suggesting they could be only a few hundred years old. Volcanic forces that built up the mountain from the ocean floor formed the island, and if measured from that depth the mountain would reach 5,000m in height. Marion Island lies 2,300km south east of Cape Town and is 290 square kilometres in extant. There are a number of small lakes with small hills formed from secondary craters dotted around.

Prince Edward Island is much smaller and lacks any large mountain, but does have a rocky coastline dominated by steep cliffs falling into the sea. Both islands are declared nature reserves and have extensive colonies of birdlife, including skuas, giant petrels, and various penguins and albatross species. Mice were inadvertently introduced on Marion Island by sealers in the 19th century and these have evolved into smaller than normal creatures as a result of the climate. The South Africans introduced a population of five cats – a male, a female and three kittens in 1949 in an attempt to control the mice. Although the male cat was castrated before being taken to the island, no account was taken of the sexual potential of three kittens. They quickly multiplied into thousands with a preference for birds instead of mice, but have since been totally eradicated.

An accidental introduction of the diamond-backed moth has severely damaged the Kerguelen cabbage, which is found on the island. Other vegetation consists of mosses, lichens and small ferns. There are no trees and sunshine is described as rare.

South Africa’s Fighting Ships by Allan du Toit (publisher Ashanti), South Africa’s Navy – the first fifty years, compiled by the SA Naval Authorities under the direction of Commander JC Goosen.
Several websites were also consulted including which includes a webcam. Other useful sites are found at and

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