Captain Sir Donald Edmundson and a crew aboard HMS Eldridge were part of a flotilla of three ships dispatched as part of the Imperial Antarctic Mapping Expedition in 1899. Edmundson and the Eldridge, alongside HMS Muir and HMS Sutton, was tasked with mapping the Antarctic coastline south of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa with an eye toward registering an official territorial claim. Indeed, the map data returned by Muir and Sutton was instrumental in the territorial claims Britain advanced in 1908 under J. E. B. Seely.

Edmundson, a 20-year veteran of the Royal Navy, was in nominal overall command of the expedition, but in practice each of the ships operated independently in an assigned sector of ocean. The Eldridge departed from Cape Town in March 1899 and was seen by whalers operating out of Grytviken on South Georgia amid ice floes near the Prince Edward Islands in May. Edmundson told the whalers that he was waiting for a break in the weather to attempt a thorough exploration of what is now known as Queen Maude Land, and paid the whalers for some provisions and taking a sack of outgoing mail.

While Muir returned to Perth in September and Sutton put into Christchurch on Halloween 1899, there was no sign of Eldridge. Based on the whalers’ accounts and the mail they delivered, nothing was untoward on the ship’s outgoing voyage, but Admiralty records showed that the ship’s coal and provisions would last no longer than December. A search was eventually launched, with the two remaining ships joining a motley group of vessels from the dominions in the area, but nothing was found until a clipper stumbled across the drifting hulk of the Eldridge.

The ship’s engine had been damaged beyond repair, its sails were missing, and virtually all provisions were missing. Papers found onboard indicated that the ship had become icebound in May and slowly drifted north. Low on supplies and fearful of being crushed, Edmundson had ordered the crew to take to their boats in order to reach the nearest land from their position: Highcliff Island. The captain was under the mistaken impression that Highcliff was supplied with castaway huts and a wireless station (he was in fact confusing it with Kerguelen nearly 1000 miles to the east). A final message carved into the ship’s timbers read TO HIGHCLIFF.

A search of Highcliff uncovered two of the ship’s four boats on the narrow beaches below its sheer cliffs, as well as some personal effects, but no further messages and no bodies. Unable to scale the cliffs, the searchers were forced to give up, but six subsequent attempts were made to breach the interior of the island at the instigation of Lady Lara Edmundson, who was convinced that her husband and his men had reached the island’s unknown interior. An attempt to blast an opening in the cliffs with dynamite and the ship’s guns from a reserve cruiser failed.

In the century afterwards, amateur adventurers attempted to breach the interior of Highcliff many times, fueled in part by rumors of a sizable amount of gold bullion carried by the lost crew.

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