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The 1914 White Island/Whakaari mining disaster

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The 1914 White Island/Whakaari mining disaster

Sulphur mining - a risky occupation

White Island, Matareka and Uenuku off landing place, 27 December 1913.

Winkelmann, Henry. (1913).Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-2189.

In September 1914, a crater wall collapse caused a lahar (volcanic mudflow) on the active marine volcano White Island/Whakaari, killing 10 sulphur miners. The only survivor was Peter the Great, one of the cats that lived at the mining camp.

About White Island/Whakaari

White Island/Whakaari, New Zealand’s most active volcano, is 48 kilometres offshore from Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty. It is an andesite stratovolcano with an important place in Māori legend and has a European record of continuous activity since James Cook first saw it in 1769 (although he doesn't seem to have realised it was a volcano).

What we see at the surface is the peak of a much larger submarine mountain which rises 1600 metres from the seafloor. For comparison, Mount Taranaki has a 'prominence' of 2300 metres from the land.

Mining on White Island/Whakaari 1840s-1930s

White Island/Whakaari is a source of native sulphur and the mineral gypsum. Sulphur is an important component of many minerals, but often occurs as pure or 'native' sulphur where there is geothermal or hydrothermal activity. Auckland Museum has some fine specimens of both these minerals from the volcano in its collections.

A large block of gypsum, weighing several kilograms, composed of two layers of radiating crystal intergrowths separated by a layer of volcanic ash. (White Island, GE9876). It was probably deposited on the margins of the crater lake.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. (White Island, GE9876).

Sulphur has many uses, including the vulcanisation of rubber and manufacture of gunpowder, matches, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, dyes, fungicides, pesticides and bactericides.

Gypsum also has many uses. Plaster of Paris is dehydrated gypsum, which when re-hydrated becomes "rock" solid again. Other uses include gib board (plaster wall board), cement additives, fertilisers and soil conditioners to list a few.

Sulphur mining on White Island/Whakaari began in the 1840s when small quantities were exported to Europe. It was a hazardous environment for miners - there was a constant threat of volcanic eruption, as well as toxic gases and unstable ground. Between 1885 and 1900, more than 5,000 tonnes of sulphur was shipped to the mainland from White Island/Whakaari.

The 1914 mining disaster

On 10 September 1914, disaster struck a group of 10 miners working on White Island/Whakaari. The crater wall collapsed and the miners were engulfed by the resulting lahar (mudflow). The only survivor was Peter the Great, a camp cat, who was found hungry but uninjured three weeks later. The bodies of the men and other camp cats were never found.

After the disaster

The last mining phase at White Island/Whakaari was between 1923 and 1933. In 1936 the island was purchased by George R. Buttle. Some of the specimens of native sulphur in Auckland Museum’s collection were donated by Geoff Buttle in 1947. In 1953 the island was declared a private scenic reserve and is still owned by the Buttle family.

Cite this article

Grenfell, Hugh. The 1914 White Island/Whakaari mining disaster. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 May 2015. Updated: 16 June 2015.

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