It was awkward for the Cape Government to spare any troops to occupy Tristan da Cunha for the Crown. Its own garrison was not enough for the widespread Colony's needs. Moreover the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, was off on a tour of the Eastern Province.
During his absence, Lord Charles Somerset had appointed a deputy. He was a widower with several pretty daughters, whom he wanted to marry off to the best advantage.
One seemed fond of a suitor whom her father did not welcome. This was Captain Abraham Josias Cloete, aged 22, the Governor's favourite staff officer and aide-de‑camp, who had remained at Cape Town while Lord Charles was on his tour. He seemed very eligible, and his military conduct was exemplary. Perhaps the deputy-governor objected because young Cloete, however wealthy, was still a Colonial of an old Dutch pioneer family.
Josias Cloete was provoked into fighting a duel (which proved bloodless), and the deputy-governor seized the excuse to banish him.
. . . I beg further to state to your Lordship that I have selected for this desolate though confidential command, Captain Cloete of the 21st Light Dragoons, a young officer of considerable talent and acquirements (including training as an engineer), and in every respect trustworthy. He speaks the French, German, Dutch and Portuguese languages. . . .
Josias Cloete was ordered to leave for Tristan da Cunha on the first available warship — the Falmouth, with Captain Festing.
The party numbered seventy‑two. For the first time in the history p39 of the island, some of the men were accompanied by their families: ten wives and twelve children. The senior NCO, Corporal William Glass, a Scotsman in the Royal Artillery, and his family, were to become leading figures in the island's story. Of Glass, as Augustus Earle, the marooned artist, was to write in the next decade, 'He considered himself particularly fortunate in his military career and it was in consequence of the general good character he bore at the Cape that he was chosen to accompany the expedition sent from there to Tristan d'Acunha when it was occupied.'
The detachment included six Hottentots for whom Hottentot Point, near the Settlement, was named. Glass later praised them to Mr Earle as skilful and fearless artillery drivers, who would 'dash with their horses and guns over roads and precipices that would make a white man tremble to look at'. He said they were always good-humoured, but that 'the great, indeed almost the only drawback was their proneness to drunkenness'.
The Falmouth with livestock and equipment had a stormy voyage to Tristan with nearly everyone seasick. On November 25 the island was sighted, with the cone under cloud. The party had to wait several days to anchor and then (Captain Cloete apologized to Government House) seized a lull to land the stores even on a Sunday.
All the oxen and most of the pigs and poultry had died en route. 'I cannot enough lament the loss of the bullocks,' the captain wrote in his official report, 'as with their assistance sufficient land might have been cultivated this season to have supplied the detachment with all their wants.' Most of the grain for seed had also been destroyed in the storm. And many of the stores were damaged when several boats were swamped in landing.
The young commander asked and got from Captain Festing a boat's crew to augment his detachment. 'To have trusted boats in these seas to men incapable of managing them would have been attended with such great risk as could not have justified ever sending a boat to sea.'
He also requisitioned from the Falmouth as large a quantity of provisions and clothing as she could spare.
'I feel the more anxious about the men,' he added, 'as they have been most indefatigable in their exertions in landing the stores.' Everything had to be dragged up a perpendicular cliff •about a hundred feet high, and each day they were soaked with rain.
The new arrivals were welcomed by the relieved Lieutenant Rice and his sailors and by the two solitary civilian inhabitants. It was the p40 first time Thomas Currie had been host to women and children in his six years on the island.
He and Bastiano had meanwhile quarrelled and parted company, though the Spaniard's two years of service were not yet complete. Captain Cloete persuaded the boy to remain on Tristan in return for his rations and permission to till a piece of ground, as he seemed 'very intelligent' and would be a useful guide around the island.
The captain carefully respected the property of Italian Thomas, who claimed to have had •about five and a half acres under cultivation. But as part of this ground was needed in order to erect Fort Malcolm, Captain Cloete measured out •seven acres for his use, 'with which he is perfectly contented'.
Before the Falmouth sailed on December 8, Currie made the following sworn declaration, witnessed by Captain Cloete and Captain Festing:
I, Thomasso Currie, resident on the island of Tristan D'Acunha, do solemnly swear that I have never seen any Colours hoisted or displayed on the Island but those of His Britannic Majesty from the time of my landing the 27th December, 1810.
Then the Falmouth trimmed her sails, and Josias Cloete and the other diminutive figures waved their last from the ledge under the mountain which was intended to be their home for — how many years?
Little could Captain Cloete have dreamed that his inevitable choice as the most defensible and habitable site for the fort was the very spot which was to be pin‑pointed by the volcanic eruption, a hundred and forty-five years later.
But he was worried about Napoleon, not volcanoes. He agreed with his predecessors (and his successors) in finding that Falmouth Bay was the most suitable — or rather, the least unsuitable — landing-place in the whole •twenty‑one mile circuit of the coast. (The so‑called bay was described by artist Augustus Earle as 'a dangerous rocky inlet'.) It was logical to build the fort on top of the •fifty-foot cliffs which jutted out in a small spit of land later known as Little Beach Point, between Little Beach and Big Beach (directly below the future crater).
His men spaded up an earthwork and mounted the two six‑pounder guns. The name, Fort Malcolm, was in honour of the commanding admiral, and the old pirate capital of Reception was rechristened p41 Somerset Camp to compliment the Governor. Captain Cloete apologized to Government House because it had been impossible to find a situation where the barracks would be quite out of range of hostile fire, but 'an enemy would be forced to destroy Fort Malcolm before they could materially injure the town'.
The grass-grown remains of the fort have been visible ever since. Later generations of visitors have wondered about them, and about the old cannon — remounted, as if still standing guard, under a flagpole. From the pole, ever since 1816, the Union Jack has been run up on holidays, or for the rare treat of a sighted ship, until the evacuation of the whole colony in 1961.
The 22‑year‑old officer put his whole heart and head into developing the tiny military post, and accomplished wonders. His one piece of good luck was the summer before him.
He built a slanting road up the cliffs from the landing-place to the camp on the plateau. This was a toilsome feat with no miners or tools for blasting, and without even bullocks to help drag away the boulders. (The same rough track was in use until 1961, when the lava obliterated it.) He also started to extend the lane •two miles along the ledge to what he called the Government Farm — known to later generations as the Potato Patches.
The Potato Patches, with ancient extinct craters in right foreground
In 1922, an officer of the Quest expedition wrote that the original garrison had achieved 'quite a piece of engineering'. They built a canal (later called the 'Big Waterin') which in some places passed through tunnels in the hillocks on its way across the plain to the seaside cascade. The of this arduous piece of work is in use to this day.
Captain Cloete also cleared •ten acres of the tough, rocky bush, intending to grow wheat, to supply his own garrison and to sell the surplus to passing ships.
By April 23, 1817, he was able to report that a large store-house and coaching-house for the men had been finished, and all of them were well housed in stone huts. He had therefore started the quarters for the officers, who were still under canvas, 'which at no time afforded great protection against the constant heavy rains and winds of these latitudes', and was now worn and leaking.
It gave him 'the greatest satisfaction' to be able to report to His Lordship that with the exception of 'accidental hurts', no one had p42 been ill. This phenomenon, under such rugged conditions and with a diet mainly of salt food, he attributed to 'the even state of the atmosphere and the habit of constant employment'.
His enthusiasm led him to propose an adoption of 'King' Jonathan Lambert's old dream of making Tristan an 'Island of Refreshment'. After only four months, he felt certain of its success from the fact that nearly a score of ships had already called, quite by chance.
However, he admitted that there was one serious drawback, the unsafe anchorage. He hoped that permanent moorings could be laid down — perhaps anchors with chain cables; but the big undertaking was never carried out.
Captain Dugald Carmichael, the naturalist officer, was keeping detailed records, published in London in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society for 1817 as Some Account of the Island of Tristan d'Acunha and Its Natural Productions.
He was the first person known to succeed in reaching the summit. On January 4, 1817, he made the ascent with Dr Evers, the hospital assistant, and three men. After three hours of struggling amid tall tussock grass, sliding lava, and dense phylica, they reached the base of the dome. Then they crossed a swamp of reeds and tee‑ferns, and climbed above the harsh timber line to the main crater, with its cold blue lake and two snowfields even in midsummer.
This mountain, he wrote, was the domain of the great marine birds of the Atlantic. At certain places he found the soil riddled with innumerable holes where the petrels nested. Another part was the province of the albatross. The black albatross built its nest of earth, •about a foot high. The birds, perching each on its mound, were comic to see. They did not budge, but waited like statues. When anyone approached, they made an odd noise by clapping their beaks, and if one tried to touch them they squirted him with a fetid liquid.
In only one enterprise were the efforts of Captain Cloete and his assistant engineer officer, Lieutenant R. S. Aitchison, a failure. Due to 'insurmountable obstacles' they had not been able to achieve the intended survey of the island. Twice they had attempted to sail or row around it, but because of sudden storms, both times the boats were forced 'with considerable danger' to be run on shore.1
p43 A tribute was paid to the thriving camp by a Lieutenant D. H. Kolff when the Dutch ship Venus touched at Tristan in April en route from Holland to Batavia, Java. The crew had been surprised to see a number of cottages lying on the green mountain slope. The vessel stood in and came to anchor.
The little colony was in a state of increasing prosperity already; agriculture was carefully encouraged and practiced. We were very glad to find an abundance of excellent potatoes. . .
Respecting their orderly behaviour, industry and courtesy to foreigners . . . we ought to award all praise to the colonists.
Since the Dutchman's account was written only four months after the detachment had landed, it is a surprising change to picture the bucolic scene.
While Captain Cloete slaved to develop a new British colony, the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, returned to Cape Town from his long tour. His staff were reputedly glad to see him back — for his deputy was unpopular. But he was surprised and disappointed to find that his favourite staff officer was not there.
When he heard of the way the young man had been manoeuvered into banishment, he swore roundly, blasted the deputy, and annulled the sentence of the court martial. He then ordered a frigate to be sent to Tristan to recall Captain Cloete to his post.
In London, a year had lessened the fear that Napoleon's magic could spirit him across •1,200 miles of ocean to a gaunt volcano.
On May 15, HMS Conqueror anchored in Falmouth Bay — conveying Rear-Admiral Plampin, commander of the St Helena and Ascension Station. Captain Cloete rushed down to the shore to salute his unexpected visitors and he was handed a letter with an imposing seal.
'It not being expedient,' wrote Earl Bathurst, 'to retain possession of the Islands of Tristan da Cunha, I have to desire that you will return to the Cape of Good Hope together with the Detachment placed under your Command.'
All hands joined in a hasty scramble to load the ship's boats and put p44 as many as possible of the people and supplies aboard the Conqueror. There was not room for all. Until another vessel could be sent, Captain Cloete left Lieutenant Aitchison behind to guard the stores, with Dr Evers and some artillerymen, including Corporal William Glass and his family.
Thus after only five months, Josias Cloete found himself watching the Tristan peak slowly dissolve over the tilting rail of the warship. True, he was returning to his pretty sweetheart and the balls of Government House. But one can imagine how he felt to realize that his fort and works were about to return to the brushwood and the petrels.
Both the Governor and Admiral Plampin were concerned to find that such impressive endeavours were to be wasted, perhaps for the benefit of other nations. Lord Charles said so to Earl Bathurst. But the latter was adamant.
As for Captain Cloete, he was to have a distinguished and heroic military career. He was knighted, and died in 1886 at the age of 92, as Lieutenant-General Sir Abraham Josias Cloete, KH, KCB.
1 This problem was to thwart explorers for another 120 years, until finally Tristan was thoroughly surveyed, with great difficulty, by Lieutenant Allan B. Crawford, FRGS, who was a member of the Norwegian scientific expedition of 1937‑38. He drew the most effective map of the island, and wrote a very informative book.
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