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Part I
Chapter 2
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco
1964

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Part I
Chapter 4

Part One
Early Adventures
(continued)

 p26  3 Swindlers, Sealers and Smugglers

Tristan da Cunha became part of the bait as real estate in an international swindle during the decade after 1775.

The Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa then granted a patent for the foundation of a trading company to one Guillaume Bolts of Amsterdam. Known as the Société Impériale Asiatique de Trieste, it was financed by Count Charles de Proli of the Antwerp banking family, and some of his rich friends.

Later the frigate Joseph et Thérèse, with Bolts in command, sailed from London for East Africa and India. On the way the looming Tristan was sighted. The party landed and claimed the island for the Habsburgs, naming it the Île de Brabant. Disaster was put off until 1785. Then all the capital was lost, with the ruin of many notable families who had been persuaded to share in developing the romantic isle. The Habsburg Emperor Joseph II still owned the Île de Brabant, but he took no interest in his godforsaken possession. Yet so vigorous had been its promotion that an eminent Belgian encyclopaedia still records a branch of the company on Tristan 'd'Acunha'.

In 1790, after nearly three centuries, came the first recorded inhabitants of Tristan — Americans. Captain John Patten and several men from the crew in the sealing ship Industry of Philadelphia spent nine months on the island from August to April — prudently leaving before the winter. They were hunting fur seals for the China trade.

The sealers' tents were pitched on a 'small plain'. This was the ledge which was to become so familiar to all subsequent settlers: the shelf of black lava-mould soil, a hundred feet and more above the sea on the north-west corner of the island.

They found vast quantities of marine birds, beasts and fish. In those  p27 days, until the later colonists had despoiled them on the main island, there were rookeries with thousands of penguins. The Tristan penguins are not the sleek-headed creatures familiar in Antarctic photographs. They are rockhopper penguins, with exotic head-dresses of black and yellow 'tassels' which give them a look of tipsy cocottes.

A herd of goats was then living wild among the crags and the high ravines, and the men could shoot one now and then for a change of diet from seal and fish. Captain Patten apparently did not associate them with the old Portuguese tradition.

After the success of the Industry's sealing foray, other sealers and whalers visited Tristan from time to time to hunt and take on fresh water. Sir John Barrow, FRS, a distinguished traveller, mentioned this boon after a voyage to Cochin-China in 1792‑93. The Lion had anchored off Tristan on New Year's Eve. In the morning a tour of the island was frustrated by a sudden gust of wind which drove the vessel from her anchorage. (These sinister squalls screeching down from the Peak, have haunted the tales of travellers and cost many lives.)

Later the Lion was able to send an officer in a small boat to reconnoitre the waterfall on the seaside cliff. He reported that it was 'a mountain-rill of excellent quality', and fell on to the beach in such a way that they could fill their casks without removing them from the boat.

Another grudging concession of the island was the strange belt of kelp. This rubbery, brownish seaweed grew up from fifteen to twenty fathoms to form a spongy reef around the island a quarter-mile off shore. Though its myriad tentacles made rowing difficult, it acted as a barrier to ease the force of the breakers which swept up to the beach. Probably it was the wilderness of kelp, some of it decaying, which gave the Tristan air a peculiar rank odour.

Sir John Barrow learned that a group of adventurers had once planned to form an establishment on the island to carry on a 'convenient smuggling trade' with the Spanish and other settlements in South America. They intended to 'furnish the natives with light Manchester and coarse Indian goods in exchange for specie'. At the same time, they meant to use their shipping in the southern whale fishery to procure oil and bone as a return cargo for Europe.

Sir John pointed out that a similar settlement, but 'under the immediate eye of government', might be made on Tristan for the East India Company's homebound vessels. A small defence-work with a few men would render the island impregnable. Especially if Britain should be  p28 excluded from 'the Brazils' and the Cape of Good Hope, 'this half‑way island to India would be found to possess many conveniences. Even those who contend that our colonial territories are already sufficiently extended must at least agree. . . .'

Inevitably, as the shipping grew with the end of the eighteenth century, more vessels were driven aground by the dangerous winds, currents, fogs, reefs and rocks. A number of shipwrecked crews and travellers had no choice but to linger on the islands until a passing vessel could pick them up. They could subsist on penguins (which are not hard to catch, since they cannot fly) though the flesh is oily, and the eggs taste rather fishy.


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