The SS Makambo’s fateful life

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  26. 11. 2022

I originally ordered this stamp to use it as an illustration in the book The Red-haired Librarian. But it only just arrived from England and the book has been on sale for several weeks.

The stamp was issued in 1988 by the Solomon Islands Post Office as a series commemorating the bicentenary of the colonisation of Australia. It depicts the SS Makambo, a single screw steam ship, however, I’m not sure if those that issued the stamp had the same interests in the vessel as I did.

The SS Makambo had her maiden voyage in 1907 and for many years carried cargo and passengers on routes between Australia and the Melanesian islands. This may well have earnt her a place in the history books of Australia and Oceania, but it’s not particularly relevant to Europe. However, what does make her special is when she ran aground on Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia. That was on June 14, 1918, and it sent shockwaves that are felt to this day.

When the SS Makambo hit a submerged rock, the crew threw a cargo of bananas overboard in an effort to lighten her. However, amongst the bananas were rats, which came ashore. It was a tragedy for Lord Howe Island. The rats damaged the island’s economy and wiped-out native species. They played a major role in the extinction of five endemic bird species and at least thirteen invertebrate species. Other species also disappeared from the island, but there were populations of them elsewhere, so they didn’t become completely and irreversibly extinct. One example is the Lord Howe Island stick insect, or tree lobster, which was discovered decades later by sheer chance on a small islet called Ball’s Pyramid, and which we are now trying to breed in Prague Zoo.

The Australians didn’t simply leave Lord Howe Island to the rats; between 1922 and 1930 they tried to solve the problem by releasing Tasmanian masked owls. However, this did not help with the rats, quite the opposite, it further contributed to the disappearance of native species. It wasn’t until the rodent eradication project that any real success was achieved. It began in 2019, more than a century after the SS Makambo foundered. Since then, the news from Lord Howe Island has been mostly encouraging. For example, there have been frequent reports of an increase in the population of the common Lord Howe woodhen. No less important is the news about invertebrates. This spring, Australian malacologists excitedly reported on the rediscovery of snails (one was found after a hundred-year hiatus and one was found for the first time), and just a few weeks ago an article was published about how biology student Maxim Adams came across the Lord Howe Island cockroach Panesthia lata, which hadn’t been seen on the island for eighty years.

This is all great news. Unfortunately, the endemic species that were wiped out when the SS Makambo ran aground are lost forever. Even the story of this vessel was not particularly happy. In 1939, the SS Makambo was sold to a Japanese businessman, who began sailing it under the name Kainan Maru. Five years later, HMS Stoic, a British submarine, torpedoed her and she sank off Phuket, Thailand.