Book Review: Trial of Strength, by Shona Riddell

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_trial_of_strengthThe Auckland Islands are part of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, wild, desolate, uninhabited except for a few hardy plants and wildlife. Despite their isolation, these islands have seen many visitors including Māori, Moriori, whalers, optimistic colonists, and today, conservationists and nature enthusiasts.

The history of the islands is fascinating, sometimes cruel and brutal in the case of whalers and shipwrecked sailors, and sometimes unfathomable – stories of the attempted 19th century colonisation of these islands remain incredible to us today. At its peak, the Auckland Islands Hardwicke settlement had 30 buildings and 150 residents, but farming was impossible, the weather was constant cold, rain and fog, the people grew depressed, and the temperature rarely rose above 10 degrees Celsius. The settlement lasted less than three years.

History and tales of the remote Auckland Islands far south of New Zealand have long been a personal fascination, ever since I read Joan Druett’s brilliantly told true story of shipwrecked sailors in Island of the Lost.

Trial of Strength, by Shona Riddell, kept me glued to the pages from beginning to end with its collection of gritty tales of the people who attempted to live there, those that exploited its resources, and the unfortunate shipwrecks that landed there through no choice of their own. The author has thoroughly researched both human and natural history of the islands and unearthed some ripping good yarns of people and events which she shares throughout the book.

The book also delves into stories of Macquarie and Campbell Islands, and The Snares islands.  Four unfortunate men from a sealing ship were left on The Snares in 1810 by a sea captain who decided he didn’t have enough provisions on board the ship to go around. They were given a few handfuls of rice, some potatoes and an iron pot and abandoned. The men were stranded on the island for seven years, but survived on the planted potatoes, local birds and seals before being picked up by a passing whaling ship. Only three survived; the fourth having lost his mind in the isolation.

The author’s inspiration to write Trial of Strength was that her great great grandmother was born on on the Auckland Islands in 1851. This inspired a personal pilgrimage to the islands to discover more about a land that few people will experience in their lifetimes, and a land of unforgettable wild beauty and fascinating in its differences.

Each chapter follows a loose chronological period of the discovery and human imprint on the subantarctic islands and also touches on the tourism and conservation on the islands today. Full colour images accompany the stories, the historical portraits, documents, and maps are interesting and useful, and the beautiful shots of the rough and wild landscape are a treat.

This is a great book to take away on your Christmas holidays, to read inside on those rainy days or enjoy in the warmth of the sun as you imagine those early settlers making a life in the howling gales and tough conditions of New Zealand’s Auckland Islands.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Trial of Strength 
by Shona Riddell
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593560