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Part III
Chapter 5
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 III
Chapter 7

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam
(continued)

 p114  6 The Fateful Arrival of the Rats

In 1882 there were hopeful prospects of a cattle trade with St Helena — a vestige of the regular dealings with the outside world of which William Glass had dreamed.

An American flat-bottomed schooner called the Henry B. Paul arrived to pick up the cattle. The Swede Johnson, who had married — and was later to desert — Peter Green's granddaughter, became friendly with the captain. Johnson confided that he longed for the salt and tar of seafaring. So while the cattle were being rounded up, the skipper took him for a couple of days' sail around the island.

The cattle stood ready for shipping in the stone pens behind the cottages. But no cry of 'Sail ho!' betokened the return of the Paul. The weather was not bad, and no one could understand why she had not reappeared.

Then somebody saw the captain and Johnson plodding down over the mean from east'ard, lugging a heavy box. It turned out to be full of gold sovereigns.

As for the schooner, she had run aground — apparently through carelessness — on Sandy Beach, on the opposite side of the island. Being flat-bottomed, she had been washed up on the shore, where she stood high and dry.

The captain did not tell the colonists that she was teeming with rats. He had not lost hope of saving his ship, and he was afraid that if they knew, they might set her afire.

In the village that evening, settlers and crew fraternized merrily, relieved at the close escape. The captain's box of golden sovereigns was stored under Willie Green's bed. The house was unlocked — like all houses before and since in honest Tristan da Cunha.

Meanwhile, the agile rats lots no time in hopping down from the deck on to dry land. They were noticed the next day when the islanders went around to see what they could salvage from the stranded schooner — which had to be abandoned. Father Dodgson begged them to make haste and kill every rat in sight. But the men, with the usual Tristanian myopia about conserving their resources, shrugged off his advice. The creatures, they thought, were too few and far away to matter.

 p115  Before many months, the prolific rodents had multiplied by several generations. Soon hundreds became tens of thousands. They began the conquest of the island like an army. Scouts appeared at the Potato Patches and munched the tubers. Advancing cohorts cleared out the wheatfield, already nibbled by the comparatively innocuous field mice; since then, no wheat has been successfully grown in any worth-while quantity on Tristan. The fieldmice themselves were eaten. The rats gobbled up the rabbits, which had run wild in abundance. Worse, they devoured legions of the small birds native to the island. These were more than normally helpless against them, having never built up any evolutionary instincts of self-protection against beasts of prey, in a place with no indigenous mammals. The tall bristles of the tussock grass began to wilt and die, because the rats' sharp teeth were gnawing the stalks away at the heart. They ate the apples off the dwarfish trees in the orchard across the island.

Soon they whisked into the Settlement itself. They scampered over the stone walls into the cottage yards, the stockpens, the storage sheds. They crept into the very houses, eating the food off the shelves and tables, lapping milk out of jugs. They seemed to have no fear of the inhabitants — who in turn were panic-stricken by the invasion.

One night when Dodgson was about to retire, he saw what he thought was his black kitten on the bed. He leaned over to caress it — and found he had touched a hairy, beady-eyed rat.

More cats, disdained a few years before, were imported afresh to help combat the infestation. But the strong well‑fed rats were so much more numerous that they are said to have killed many of the cats.

'When I left the island in December, 1884,' Dodgson wrote to the Admiralty after his return to England, 'the rats were beginning to do such serious damage to the potatoes, the main support of the inhabitants, that it seemed to me that unless some means could be devised for transporting the people to some other place, they must inevitably, sooner or later, be reduced to starvation.'

For a time even the islanders shared his fear. Regular rat‑hunting by men, boys, dogs and cats reduced the numbers among the houses and in the Potato Patches. However, though formerly potatoes could be grown on any fertile bit of land, they were thereafter limited to the walled and controlled Patches. It became a race to eat any sort of crop, even unripe, before the rats got it. Everywhere the mountain slopes are traced with rat‑tracks and burrowed with rat‑holes.

 p116  The loss of the Henry B. Paul had meant that the rounded‑up stock had to be turned loose again, and there was another long wait.

Later, two cargoes of cattle were sent to St Helena. But by an unlucky chance the next two ships were also wrecked on Tristan. This gave it a bad name, and the rates of freight and insurance rose so high that no profit could be expected. Thus the whole plan for the cattle trade with St Helena fell through.

Ever since the early days of Governor Glass — and even of 'King' Jonathan Lambert — there seemed to be a jinx on any regular trading with the 'Houtside Warl’'.


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