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A slow ordeal led to the wreck of the brig Nassau off Tristan in 1825. She was homeward-bound from Sydney to London with a load of oil and sealskins. Captain George Carr, or Carss, recorded that on August 15 she sprang a leak.
There followed six days and nights of agonizing toil. More water was seeping in than the men could pump out. On the last night, high mountainous land was sighted. It was the south-east side of Tristan where the coast is very steep and rocky; but the wind was off shore and it was impossible for the brig to bear north to the Settlement. So on August 30, the captain headed his vessel aground 'in a sinking state' in the hope of saving her. In half an hour she struck close to the beach. The hull held for two days, then broke up.
With their last strength the battered crew struggled ashore. After two days' 'rest' among the harsh rocks and the loud seabirds, the second mate and two sailors plodded off in search of the inhabited part of the island. It took them two days to find their way across the high rough mountain.
Governor Glass made every preparation to aid the castaways, but it was twelve days before they could get the boats around.
The Nassau's crew were supported for three months. When they were taken off two sailors remained at their own request, and a Dane called Peter Petersen stayed until his accidental death in 1833.
Early in the next year, 1826, a man named George Pert or Perl escaped on to Tristan from an emigrant ship bound for New Zealand. The islanders did not know that he was saving himself from being put on trial at the end of the voyage for an offence which he had committed on board. They allowed him to join their community, much p68 to their later regret, for he was a trouble-maker. He stayed for ten years.
Soon after Pert arrived, Stephen White left Tristan, with Peggy and their children. He was tired of the limited life of the island and had had enough of some of his companions. Contrary to the unflattering reports by the Blenden Hall diarists, he had turned out to be one of the best settlers.
Mrs Glass thus became again the only woman on the island. She shared her husband's increasing worry about the education of their children, and the two or three eldest were sent to school at the Cape, where they stayed until 1832.
After the loss of their own short-lived schooner, the pioneers depended mostly for contact with the outside world upon Captain Amm of the Duke of Gloucester — the skipper who had been responsible for the marooning of Augustus Earle. During several years he made a number of trading visits to the island.
In November, 1826, he gave passage to two new settlers from the Cape. One, Thomas Swain, then aged a vigorous 66, stayed on the island until he died at 102 — according to his tombstone — although he seems to have claimed ten years less. His surname is the second earliest after Glass, among the seven family names still existing in the community.
Born in Hastings, he had been a sailor since he was 13. During the Napoleonic Wars he had served in a tender to Nelson. He was later to tell his children on Tristan that he had also fought aboard the flagship Victory at the battle of Trafalgar, and that he had caught the dying Admiral in his arms.
After Trafalgar he went to Lisbon, and then ran away after eighteen years' naval service. However, he was taken prisoner by the French, and forced to serve three years with them. Then by a perverse fate he was captured by the English. He dared not tell his countrymen that he was one of their own deserters, and for nine awkward years he was confined as a French prisoner in England.
After he was released at the end of the war in 1815, he worked his way in a merchantship to the Cape. For ten years he made a living by collecting seabirds' eggs along the coast. Captain Amm met him and persuaded him to join the Tristan community.
So in early 1827 there were fourteen people on the island: Mr and Mrs Glass with seven of their children; and five bachelors — 'Old Dick' p69 Riley, Alexander Taylor Cotton, Peter Petersen, George Pert and Thomas Swain.
The five single men lived in a communal cottage which they called Bachelors' Hall. But they envied William Glass the domestic comforts of his wife and family. They persuaded Captain Amm to try to bring them each a wife from St Helena.
As a reward for his offices, the matchmaker was promised — and received — twenty bushels of potatoes per head of women.
In March, when he was next anchored off the port of Jamestown in St Helena, Captain Amm gingerly prepared the way by writing a letter to the Governor's aide-de‑camp. He suggested sending the Tristanians some seeds and tools and warmly recommended the characters of William Glass and his colleagues. He cautiously intimated that he would be glad to embark 'four or five industrious families'. In the course of the correspondence the 'families' became 'females.'
The Governor obligingly asked for volunteers, and a number came forward. Five were chosen. Four were young mulatto women with African and Malayan blood from the slaves of the East India Company's early plantations. The fifth was a middle-aged Negress, a widow with four half-caste daughters.
One lone man, John Isaacs, also emigrated as a settler.
As Captain Amm neared the island he began to get cold feet about his reception. With the first dawn glimmering on top of the peak he lowered a boat and sent the party to the beach, before the Tristan boat could come out to confront him with a crew of protesting bridegrooms.
Meanwhile there had, of course, been eager and raucous speculation beside the nightly hearth fire in Bachelor's Hall. The grizzled old sea‑dog, Thomas Swain, loudly vowed that the first woman to set foot on the island would be the one he would have for his wife.
On April 12 the earliest riser stepped out in the sharp autumn dawn to milk his cows, and cried, 'Sail ho!', and there was a lively rush down to the beach to meet the boat.
The first woman to set foot on the black shingle was the Negro widow, with her brood of four.
Thomas Swain kept his word.
Later generations of Tristanians have wondered and giggled over the account of how the women were lined up on the beach and each of the other four bachelors chose his mate. Having made their bargain, they all felt bound to keep it, on the principle of 'not looking a gift horse in the mouth'.
p70 In a letter of April 27 to the Governor of St Helena, William Glass did not mention the new‑comers, whom he presumably did not consider a desirable addition.
In general the women were said to have been quarrelsome and slovenly. The first missionary, Father Taylor, wrote in the 1850's that some were 'really vicious'. Only one of the unions is understood to have turned out happily: that of Alexander Taylor Cotton. Many of his twelve children have left numerous descendants on the island.
All the couples helped to set the Tristan pattern of fertility. The old veteran Thomas Swain had eight children — besides his four coloured stepchildren.
At any rate, in 1829 the captain of the American schooner Antarctic reported that all the families seemed 'well and happy'. And another authority remarked philosophically that 'some of the women proved better than expected'.
Though on the male side the early husbands and fathers of the Tristan colony have been cosmopolitan, the original female ancestors were very few, however fertile. The Cape half-caste Mrs Glass, the coloured women from St Helena, whose descendants remained on the island, and two white English-born women who arrived from the Cape in 1908 are the only female progenitors of the modern community. Their daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters have married the later arrivals of sailors and castaways. Fresh blood has been mostly male.
Further, the only known coloured blood in the colony has come from those early female settlers. All the first-generation male ancestors were white.
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Tristan da Cunha
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Page updated: 12 Nov 16