Background to the Ugly Islands


How the Ugly Islands were discovered

By Hyacinth O'Donnell, B. A.

The Ugly Islands were discovered in 1765 by Captain James Ugly R.N. He named our islands after his ship, the HMS Ugly, a small 28-gun frigate which was then exploring the Pacific Ocean. While it may seem strange that a captain should carry the same name as his ship, this apparent coincidence of names between the commander and the vessel was no coincidence. Instead, it was a cruel joke.

When he was appointed to command his ship by the First Lord of the Admiralty, James Ugly was just a junior lieutenant in Britain's Royal Navy, somebody who could properly expect to wait many years before being promoted to captain. His early promotion came just after the First Lord had been told by mad King George III, in a moment of sanity, that he, the First Lord, had no sense of humour.

Stung by this criticism, the First Lord of the Admiralty did something silly. The First Lord was, in fact, a silly man, and given to silly ideas, but this was probably the silliest and cruelest thing that he ever did in a long, silly, cruel life. HMS Ugly was a prize, a frigate captured from the French, and taken into the British navy, after being renamed to fit her appearance. Most French frigates looked beautiful and sailed sweetly, but this vessel was an experiment that failed. To be honest, HMS Ugly was blunt in all the wrong places.

The First Lord of the Admiralty arranged to have the ship crewed entirely with sailors who either had the name Ugly, or who came from the small English coastal village of Ugly, or who personally were extremely ugly. There were eleven on board with the surname Ugly, five more with the given name Ugly, nineteen from the village of Ugly, and the other 183 were just plain ugly.

There were several men on board who qualified more than once to be there, like the new captain. who came from a family famous for their ability to stop clocks just by smiling at them . Better still, James Ugly had been born on a farm not far from the village of Ugly. In fact, most historians believe that the village itself was named after the captain's family.

James Ugly was a hopeless navigator, and promoting him to captain made no difference to his skills . Still, he fitted the specifications, and so he was advanced to the rank of captain, and ordered to take up his command. Just as the frigate was ready to set sail, the First Lord of the Admiralty learned that King George had gone back to talking to trees. There was no way out of the situation, so the lumbering ship and its hideous crew were sent off to explore the world, to find new naval bases for Great Britain. There was no point, The First Lord said, in keeping a joke like that around the coasts of Britain when there was serious exploring in need of doing.

But poor navigators are bad explorers and most of HMS Ugly's ports of call were found by sense of smell. Shipping ports back in the 18th century always stank, and the frigate's sailing master had a remarkable sense of smell which allowed him to detect an upwind port, even if it was five days' sailing from where they were. Of course, in a sailing ship, any port that was upwind could be hard to reach, but at least the sailing master could make an educated guess at the best way to sail if he wanted to find a harbour.

The ship's bottom became fouled with weeds, and badly needed scraping, and it was while they were seeking a place to anchor that they found the Ugly Islands. They later discovered that the smell came in fact from a dead whale, beached on the shore, but looking more closely while holding their noses, they realised they had found an island paradise. That is, they had found what would be a paradise, once the whale carcase had been eaten by the local animals. All of the place names with "Dead Whale" in them derive from this incident.

There were no local inhabitants, which was probably just as well, given the way in which most of the crew had qualified to be there. They stayed for three months, catching food animals and salting them down, exploring the islands and taking biological specimens for the ship's surgeon, an amateur naturalist called Nehemiah Grue.

The explorers found the two main islands, which they named Big Ugly and Little Ugly. They called the channel between the islands The Plughole. These islands were volcanic in origin, and covered in a rich and fertile soil. The shores of these islands were mostly protected by a coral reef. To the north, a string of coral islands and volcanic bits and pieces stretched away for 70 km, and these were named the Uglets. But although he drew some reasonably accurate charts of the local waters, James Ugly seriously miscalculated the latitude and longitude, placing the islands close to the presently accepted position of Woomera in central Australia, and this made it hard for later explorers to find the islands again.

More by luck than good sailing, HMS Ugly had made it back to Britain again in 1767. The ship's hull was more holes than timber, and she sank in Portsmouth Harbour, losing her log and all the records they had made. James Ugly re-drew some maps from memory, but these records were not enough evidence for Britain to claim these islands, given the faulty location that James Ugly had calculated.

The First Lord who had loosed this team on the world was dead, and the surviving members were scattered through the navy once more, with nothing to show for their seven-year voyage except their memories. James Ugly went on half-pay, joined the Portuguese navy, and his ship was lost at sea the next year, apparently while setting out to sail back to the Pacific Ocean and the Ugly Islands. Legend has it that Captain Ugly was asleep in his cabin, and had to be called on deck when a squall came up.

Sailors the world over have always told yarns. In many Royal Navy ships over the next fifty years, young sailors heard tell of the Ugly Islands, their strange animals and plants, and what a paradise the place was. But without any original or reliable records, the British government took no official notice, and only the sailors remembered the story . In time, the tales spread to the merchant fleet, and to foreign ships as well. The Ugly Islands became a much-sought place to mariners of many lands.

James Cook actually discovered Australia by accident, while trying to find the Ugly Islands again. Cook had one of the former crew of HMS Ugly on board Endeavour, and each of Cook's trips to the Pacific also included a secret Admiralty order to find the islands if it was at all possible. When the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied in 1787, they planned to find the Ugly Islands and settle on them -- William Bligh had sailed with Cook on one of his voyages, and apparently had told what he knew. They only settled on Pitcairn Island when they became tired of searching.

Ocean currents and winds in the area made it almost impossible to sail to the Ugly Islands for most of each year, so only a few rare sightings were made during the late 18th and early 19th century, just enough to keep the dream alive in sailors' hearts.

Slowly though, people found the islands, and a few of them settled there. They were survivors of shipwrecks, deserters from American whaling vessels, a few deliberate settlers, and a handful of people from other islands, out sailing in frail canoes, were blown by huge storms over 1000 km or more, to be thrown on the islands' shore. The turmoil in Europe in 1848 sent a wave of European revolutionaries there.

The Ugly Islands became a free settlement, with people mingling and intermarrying freely. English was the common language, and remains so today, with about 300 words of "Ugly" dialect, derived from the world's languages, and local names for most of the biological and geological features.

By the time Britain's Royal Navy managed to find the islands again, they had already been claimed by the islanders for themselves, although they were mainly living on Big Ugly at that time. They all had large families, and the population increased fast in the fertile islands where food was plentiful, where there were no diseases. But now the islands were accurately located on the world's maps, and that meant more visitors in the future. Disaster was close at hand.

New arrivals during the rest of the 19th century often brought unfamiliar diseases to the islands. Diseases like measles, influenza and smallpox killed many people. Some of the survivors moved out to the safety of the remoter Uglets, but others stayed where they were. The islands' population halved between 1850 and 1880, but soon bounced back again.

Over time, the survivors had more children, then grandchildren. More people found their way onto the islands. Paths on the larger islands grew into tracks, which became roads. Single houses grew into small villages which grew into larger villages, and in two cases, into small towns with sixty houses or more.

Today, the Ugly Islands is a small independent nation. There are around 6500 people on Big Ugly, 1200 more on Little Ugly, and another 450 people living among the small coral atolls of the Uglets, although most of these spend a good part of each year on Little Ugly. The fishing in the seas around the islands is good, the soil is rich, and there is rain on most days of the year, up in the mountains of the two bigger islands.

Those who live on the main islands have no trouble growing enough food in small farm plots. The people of the Uglets live mainly on tropical fruits and crops, and what they can catch from the sea. They all live according to their own traditions and customs. Nobody has to work too hard, the islanders take only those bits of modern society that they feel like using, and they get a lot of pleasure out of telling tall stories to outsiders. Unless you have just come from having your leg pulled by an Ugly Islander, most people would agree that the Ugly Islands are close to Paradise.

The geology of the Ugly Islands

So near as anybody can tell, the Ugly Islands have been in the same place (more or less) for about thirty million years. They are the remnants of old volcanoes, filled in with coral sand and limestone that has formed from coral limestone. Most of the limestone shows signs of being windblown, and contains a certain amount of other sediment, as you would expect in that sort of deposit.

At some times, the area of the islands was much bigger. Volcanic lava is like that -- it erodes easily when the waves chip away at it, but then the volcanoes would start again and feed more rock out over the surface, restoring the lost landmass. No doubt a lot of life forms have died out over the years, but some parts of the islands must always have survived, leaving time for evolution to weave its magic.

The biology of the Ugly Islands

Volcanic islands are difficult places to live and evolve on. Eruptions are hard to live through, and erosion destroys useful habitats very quickly. For this reason, if for no other, evolution has played some strange tricks on the Ugly Islands, producing animals and plants like no others on earth.

Even without those stresses, isolated islands like the Ugly Islands are hard to get to, but once animals and plants get there, they are able to evolve into specialised forms, almost free from competition.

Recent scientific work suggests that, while ocean currents now flow only away from the Ugly Islands, there may have been times in the past when surface ocean currents flowed towards the Ugly Islands from all sorts of directions, carrying living things to the islands, regularly increasing the diversity of the life forms found on the islands. One interesting point of view links this reversal to the polar reversals of the earth's magnetic fields.


There is no clear evidence that there were any humans living on the islands until the middle of the 19th century. But if there were no people there before then, there are some serious problems to explain, particularly the stone remains on some of the reefs, which appear to have been placed there by humans.

Several people living on the Ugly islands today are convinced that there were humans there for many hundreds of years, and that if they look long enough, they will find that evidence.

When (if?) the archaeological evidence is found, you will be able to get to it by clicking on the prehistory evidence link to read all about it.


Clickable map of the islands You can click on the various parts of this map to find out more about them. From
Big Ugly in the south, the main island, we travel over the
Plughole , past
Green Island , and on across the 2 km-wide Plughole, to
Little Ugly , and then on out into the
Uglets .

Big and Little Ugly, like Green Island, are mainly volcanic, but all of them have coral reefs around some part off them, and all of these islands have at least some deposits of limey rock, at least around the coastline, although in some places, lime deposits have been lifted to heights of several hundred metres by earth movements which accompanied volcanoes.

Most of the population lives on Big Ugly, which has 6500 people, while another 1200 live on Little Ugly, and up to 300 people may be found in the Uglets at peak times, though most of these have permanent homes on one of the two main islands. Nobody lives on Green Island, except the rabbits. There are usually about a hundred visitors scattered around the islands.

Big Ugly

Big Ugly is a volcanic island, about 25 km from east to west and 35 km from north to south. There are four mountain ranges: the Big Ugly range in the east, and the southern, western and northern ranges.

Where the Big Ugly Range disappears into the sea, the peaks of old volcanoes provide the bases for the coral islands which are the Uglets. This is the only really serious mountain range, with a few peaks like Cloudmaker reaching 3600 metres above sea level, although the other ranges have peaks close to 2000 metres high.

There are a number of major rivers on the main island, but the largest is the Dead Whale River, taking water from most of the south-eastern and central parts of the island, before running into the sea at Dead Whale Harbour. The area feeding this river gets nearly eight metres of rain each year, so there are no dams on the Dead Whale river system, although there are small water reservoirs on most of the other rivers,

The most impressive feature on Big Ugly is the mist-shrouded mountain known as Cloudmaker. In the centre, there is a circular volcanic plug of tough rhyolite, which rears 300 metres above the surrounding plateau, and about 500 metres across. The plateau itself is about 2 km from east to west, and 3 km from north to south. Cloudmaker traps the moist sea breezes, forcing them far up into the sky, and wringing a constant supply of rain out of the clouds, most of which feeds into the Dead Whale River.

There are very few species of animal or plant able to survive on top of the central plug, but the larger plateau below is a riot of unusual species, still being discovered. There is a gliding frog found only on top of Cloudmaker (although some people still say it is the same species as the gliding frog found in the inwit ), and a huge range of unusual insects.

Until recently, people believed that there was no way to scale the 450 metre pipestone cliffs which surround the plateau, cutting it off from the area below, but when a goat was spotted on top of the plateau by a passing aeroplane two years ago, people checked the cliffs more carefully, and discovered a negotiable way to the top. The first thing they did, having got up there, was to shoot the goat, to stop it doing any more damage to the fragile plants on the Cloudmaker plateau.

Cloudmaker features a number of spectacular waterfalls, although most of them are on the western side, as the rock surface slopes in that direction. The rock is continually washed by water, making life very hard for the plants of the plateau .

To the east of Cloudmaker, the water coming off the mountain is slowed down in the ironwood forests, and it nearly all soaks into the ground, although some of it bobs up again in Finnegans Lake, where the water temperature is 38 degrees, all the year around, even though the lake is at an altitude of 1800 metres. So somewhere close to the surface, there is hot volcanic rock in this area.

The warm water trickles out of Finnegans Lake, and runs down a number of fine channels, warming and supporting the forest through a large area of luxuriant vegetation, called the Riverrun. By the time the waters of the Riverrun reach the sea, they are quite cold, but they have done their job in supporting the forests. About half of the water evaporates, and falls again as rain, and most of the rest soaks into the rich volcanic soil which is held on the steep slopes by the roots of the trees. (Note, the present map does not show the Riverrun, but a new survey of the area has just been commissioned by the Islands' Council for release in early 2000.)

The Gorgeland coast Along the south coast of Big Ugly, we find Gorgeland, named after the gorges which have been cut into the cliffs, averaging out to one gorge every half a kilometre or so. The gorges were formed when volcanic dykes were weathered out, leaving the basalt walls on either side.

The water to the south of Big Ugly is very deep, and the sea has cut deep into these gorges near the cliff line, but each gorge ends up in a small beach of pebbles and shingle. If the wind and waves are in the right direction, the islanders can take boats into the gorges, and land them on the beaches.

Gorgeland is very hard to get to from the land, but the picture above shows one of the similar gorges on the northern end of Big Ugly, and there are more gorges of the same type on the northern side of Little Ugly as well.

The people of Big Ugly are mainly involved in farming, forestry and commerce. They are generally in favour of developing the tourist potential of the islands, especially the attractions of Little Ugly and the Uglets, although the people of those areas do not always see it in quite the same way.

Settlements on Big Ugly

There is only one town on Big Ugly, and that is Dead Whale. Along the southern shore of Dead Whale Harbour, at the end of Dead Whale Bay, at the mouth of the Dead Whale River, there seemed to be only one possible name to give to the town.

Dead Whale has the only hospital for the islands, most of the shops, the bank, the council chamber (which doubles as a cinema), and it is also the port for the Ugly Islands.

There are also three villages with fifteen to twenty houses: North Harbour and South Harbour on the west coast, and Top End, on the shores of the Plughole. Each of these centres has a general store which supplies the needs of people living in that area. The rest of the people live more or less where they work, on farms, or along the shores.

Little Ugly

Map of Little Ugly Depending on who is doing the measuring, Little Ugly is about 6 km by 9 km, and its "mountain range" only rarely gets to higher than 1000 metres.

There are quite a few streams which run, all the year around, but there are no real rivers of the sort that you find on Big Ugly. A number of the streams are dammed to provide water in dry periods, but most of the time, people rely on tank water for most of their needs, although a number of people also have wells that they can draw on.

The people of Little Ugly earn their money either by providing services to tourists, or by farming (most families grow most of their own food) or by fishing, especially when the bender fish are running.

Settlements on Little Ugly

Home Bay is the nearest thing there is to a town on Little Ugly, with almost a hundred houses stretched along the shores of Home Bay, over a distance of some 2 kilometres. Apart from Hirohito's Bar and Grill, there are two other stores which sell almost everything, a library, and a generator house -- while Big Ugly gets its power from the waterfalls below Cloudmaker, Little Ugly has to use diesel generators, which are noisy, smelly, and expensive.

The Plughole

The Plughole is a fairly shallow channel, with fairly calm water in it, unless a north-westerly gale is blowing as the tide is rising. A fairly unpleasant chop can set up when the wind is from the east and the tide is falling or at dead low.

Map of the Plughole area The Plughole was once extremely deep, according to some drilling work that has been carried out, but now it is mostly filled with coral debris and bits of weathered volcanic rock and mud. In most places, the water is about fifteen to twenty metres deep. It seems that the currents rushing through there will maintain this depth.

Green Island

Green Island is a 2 km by 0.5 km block of volcanic rock, up to 300 metres high in two places. It has long since been stripped almost bare by rabbits, but plans are under way to do something about getting rid of them. Because of its position in the Plughole, the islanders often refer to it as "The Plug". There is no permanent water on Green Island, although there are a number of regular trickles that the rabbits seem to survive on.

The remaining plants are mostly on rock faces, where the rabbits cannot reach them, but where they are able to drop seeds to keep up a small food supply for the rabbits. A recent experiment created an exclosure -- a fenced-off area that rabbits could not get into, and within a year, there was a dense thicket of plants growing inside the exclosure. If the rabbits could be destroyed, Green island might justify its name again.

One of the strangest features of the Plughole around Green island is that there is always a strong current on one side or the other, or both, depending on the state of the tide. At the right time, a strong swimmer can get around the island in less than half an hour, being swept along by the currents in both directions.

The Uglets

The Uglets are coral cays, small coral islands, never more than 2 - 3 metres high, except for a few of the islands which still have a small volcanic core. There is some disagreement about the count, but Peg Wilkins (who ought to know) says that there are 107 Uglets at high tide, and either 99 or 103 at low tide, depending on just how low the low tide is, as some of the islands become joined at low tide. This does not count a number of classic "desert islands", where a single coconut palm has taken root on a reef, and gathered a small amount of sand around it.

Water is always a problem on coral cays. You cannot sink wells, and the low islands get much less rain. This has encouraged a peculiar style of architecture in the Uglets, with large and sprawling iron-roofed buildings, all linked up to water tanks.

The Surrounding Seas

There is a wide band of shallow seas around the islands, showing us that there was once a much larger land mass here. Within ten kilometres of the coast there is no water that is more than 500 metres deep, and much of it is less than 200 metres deep. There is a cold current which surfaces along the southern shore of Big Ugly, while warm currents sweep in from the north-east and the north-west. The main effect of this is that there is no coral along the south of Big Ugly, and the water level plunges to 400 metres within a few hundred metres of the coast.

The water between the main islands and the Uglets is generally less than 100 metres, allowing superb diving throughout the area. The shores are usually low, except along the southern coast of Big Ugly, and along part of the northern coast of each of the two main islands. There are very few safe landing spots on Green Island ("The Plug"), and people can only go ashore when the weather is extremely calm -- about 5 to 10 days in any year.


Mad King George III

This was early in his reign, when the king was often lucid for several days at a time. To be fair, King George III had a disease called porphyria, which made him appear and behave in peculiar ways. He is supposed to have spent a lot of time arguing with trees. Most of the time, he lost. There is no available record to say what the trees thought of all this.

An experiment that failed

In fact, HMS Ugly looked like a large brick, and sailed about as well as a small brick. While there have been several recorded cases of people sailing around the world in bricks, most of them had to use their motors at certain points in the voyage, and this luxury was unavailable at that early date.

The captain's family

This may be an exaggeration, but on the other hand, there are no working public clocks in any place within ten miles of Ugly, even today. This explains why the village of Ugly retains its timeless quality.

A hopeless navigator

In fact, there was a legend in the Royal Navy, claiming that James Ugly had the words ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ embroidered on the cuffs of his shirts, so he could remember which was which.

Nehemiah Grue

Portrait of Nehemiah It was Nehemiah's ancestor at the court of Henry VIII, Jebediah Grue, who was the origin of the word ‘gruesome’. It seems that Jebediah's descendants resembled their founder. Nehemiah was a favourite of King George III, who felt that he was better looking than a tree. In fact, George may have thought that Nehemiah was a tree, as the King was in the habit of making ponderous jokes about Nehemiah's bark being worse than his bite.

Many of the Grue family lost their lives in the pursuit of science, and Nehemiah was no exception. He died of a cold which he caught after stuffing a dead rabbit with snow to see if the carcase would keep longer by being kept "on ice". Regrettably, a similar fate had befallen Francis Bacon, many years earlier, but he was experimenting on a chicken, so nobody bothers to recall Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is seen wearing his special head-cooling hat in this engraving, which shows him enjoying himself at his birthday party, with James Ugly on his left, and an unknown member of the crew in the lower left corner: this is all that remains of what was probably a much larger work, and the attribution is uncertain.

. . .miscalculated the latitude and longitude . . .

Ships which tried to visit this location found the sailing very slow. Interestingly, Jonathan Swift placed Lilliput in much the same place. It is possible that James Ugly had been reading Gulliver's Travels, and mixed up his notes.

. . . sank in Portsmouth Harbour . . .

James Ugly believed that he was actually sailing up the Thames.

. . . the captain had to be called on deck . . .

In his rush to dress, he apparently put his shirt on back to front, reversing the sleeves marked ‘port’ and ‘starboard’. The result was exactly what any clever reader would expect.

. . . no official notice . . .

There are several reasons to believe that this lack of interest was intended to fool others who might also have been tempted to seek out the Ugly Islands. The British government probably still hoped to claim the islands for themselves.


Jonathan Swift writes as follows:
". . . we were driven by a violent storm to the northwest of Van Diemen's Land. By an observation, we found ourselves in the latitude of 30 degrees 2 minutes south.
If we draw a line to the northwest from the centre of Tasmania's north coast, it reaches this latitude close to the northern end of Lake Torrens.

Unless you are having your leg pulled

The art of telling tall tales is highly developed in the Ugly Islands, and most of the tales are about the strange animals and plants of the remoter parts of the islands. There are many strange things found in the islands that people can see easily, so the islanders can always find willing victims to believe their yarns.

Hairyoddity Remember: the real animals and plants of the Ugly Islands are all highly improbable, while the islanders are so good at making stories up that their "inventions" seem completely natural. So the more peculiar an animal or plant sounds to be, the more likely it is to be genuine.

In particular, the wombah and the African Shouting Spider may both be found in the scientific literature, and are completely genuine. I have the absolute assurance of several islanders about that.

Getting rid of the rabbits from The Plug

The nature of the problem

Here is part of a recent letter from Hyacinth O'Donnell: The Plug is very difficult to land on from boats. We may be able to swim onto the rocks, though this is fairly risky, but the only other way is to drop baits in by helicopter or from aeroplanes. This would be extremely expensive.

We could try myxomatosis or calicivirus, but these diseases need to be spread by fleas, which would not live very long on the hot dry soil that is the surface of The Plug today.

We could try shooting the rabbits -- there are about 500, as near as we can guess -- but the problem is getting people over there with rifles. We could also use traps, but once again, we have to get the traps over there, and we need people to set and lay the traps. We would also need somebody to go around, checking the traps.

Another problem is that parts of The Plug are extremely steep, so that people who climb to the higher points would be at risk of falling.

It looks as though we are going to have to use several methods at once, and just hope that we can get the rabbits under control. Does anybody have any suggestions?

And in particular, can anybody suggest a way of spreading the myxomatosis, to get it near rabbits on inaccessible parts of the island?

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Last revised March 6, 2007.

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The Riverrun