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A 'weird arrival in the moonlight' was described by Commander Frank Wild, C. B. E., skipper of RYS Quest. The steamer approached the tall dark island before dawn on May 20, 1922, with the members of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (during which Sir Ernest had died off South Georgia). The yacht brought mail and supplies including a gramophone from King George V.
As Mrs Rogers wrote, 'the island is sadly desolate-looking at any time', the Quest drew near in a gloomy downpour, but her whistle brought out the jabbering, importuning boatmen none the less. Among their varied garb, Dr Macklin noted one man wearing an evening dress jacket, striped cotton shirt, dungaree trousers and an officer's peaked cap.
'Say, mister, you ain't got an old pair of boots, is you?'
'Mister, I's building a boat — can you spare a few nails?'
'Mister, can I have a piece of salt beef?'
Reported the annoyed Commander Wild: 'They proved to be a great nuisance, so I sent them all ashore, retaining only one man (to barter), Robert Glass, who seemed to be the most intelligent.'
During the several days' visit of the Quest party, many photographs and moving pictures were taken of the families and scenes — usually including the ship's big dog, Query. He made friends with the Tristan children and even the local mongrels — who, according to Dr Macklin, conducted a perpetual feud with the runty pigs, infuriating them with p185 their barking. (Later the children grieved to learn that Query had been washed overboard and drowned on the way to Gough.)
The new Boy Scouts paraded in front of the school, and received the Troop flag from hefty young Scout Marr, who was a member of the Expedition. His scout uniform included a Highland kilt, the first ever seen by the wondering inhabitants.
On Empire Day, May 24, the Troop marched around the Settlement, halted before the oldest flagstaff, hoisted the Union Jack, listened to a patriotic address, and gave three cheers for the King. This approximated to the pattern of Empire or Commonwealth Day ceremonies ever since.
The Expedition's scientists scoured the terrain, the geologist ascending the Peak itself with a colleague and two local guides. Other members surveyed and corrected the charts made by the Challenger expedition in 1873.
They praised John Glass and Henry Green as guides. They admired Henry's simple practical outlook, his pride in climbing and in finding a way, and in 'his own hearth'.
On Ascension Day, May 25, the sea started 'making up', and the captain fired a detonator to hurry his men back. Its loud bang echoed from the gulches and precipices, and the people, animals and poultry cried out and scrambled about in 'wildest confusion'.
The boatmen crowded aboard the Quest in dozens. One man asked for a mouth-organ, a pipe and a suit of clothes. Another was ready to barter a whole sheep for a pipe of tobacco. They shouted to Bob Glass, 'What's they goin' to give us?' and 'Can't you git nothin' more out of them, Bob?' When told of the skipper's generosity, they burst into gleeful snatches of song.
But Commander Wild frowned upon their lack of unity and co‑operation. They had to be reminded to bring aboard their promised produce, 'miserable skinny sheep, small marble-like potatoes, and some poor geese and poultry.' Without permission or adequate addresses, they dumped aboard six bags of mail, six bales of feathers and nine bags of potatoes for friends in Cape Town. They had left these on deck in the rain, and when asked to help move them into shelter, no one would lend a hand for the common good. 'We were all thoroughly disgusted.'
Commander Wild had heard that the people greatly needed copper nails for their boats, and he offered them a •seven-pound bag, 'our all, which we could ill spare'. However, no one man would burden himself with the bag on behalf of the community. It was finally left on board.
'All the islanders,' grumbled the Commander, 'seemed to think we p186 had a bottomless supply of pipes, tobacco, foodstuffs, etc., in exchange for valueless trash.'
However, the Quest had brought parcels in gratitude from a sailor who had been shipwrecked on Tristan and very kindly treated. The skipper marvelled at the skilled improvization of the island boats from driftwood, scrubby apple branches, canvas and paint. And several of the older men remembered to thank him before they left. So, 'on more mature consideration', he softened his judgement of the Tristanians. He allowed for their ignorance and isolation. In the end he conceded that he was 'surprised they were not more wild and uncivilized'. And he summed them up as 'a lot of grown‑up children'.
Dr Macklin stayed ashore a week to observe the community while the Quest went to Gough. He was put up by Bob Glass and his second wife, the buxom and docile Charlotte.
He wrote, 'I could not sleep at night on account of an army of small marauders.' In examining patients, he found 'all extensively flea-bitten, but some seemed to have escaped their ravages.' There were no other body parasites. As for the notorious rats, he grumbled that he 'preferred the company of the rats to that of the cats, which are most unpleasant brutes and more than half-wild'.
He had many long talks with wise old Betty Cotton about island ways. And he saw a number of patients with minor ailments: sprains, old fractures or 'brocks' knitted with deformity, rheumatism and asthma (or 'ashmere'), the most prevalent complaint.
On the whole he found the people healthy, not decadent, of medium height, wiry, hardy and 'tireless'. As a group they were genial and humorous. They were of average intelligence, but 'most had absolutely no interest in the Outside World'. He noted a vagueness regarding ages and even surnames; 'some men even appealed to bystanders'.
He marvelled at the lightness with which they carried their age. Many normally old people were still bright and active, appearing middle-aged; while many middle-aged people looked young, especially the men. 'Few,' he said, 'seem to die under ninety.' He attributed this to the simple life. People got up and went to bed by the sun — partly because of the scarcity of candles or other artificial light.
The doctor deplored the neglect of sanitation, 'Closets do not exist, and the present clergyman had great difficulty in getting one built for p187 his own house.' Animals were slaughtered close to the cottages, and the entrails left for dogs. Nothing protected the water supply, which was fouled.
Some visitors, Dr Macklin observed, saw the islanders living in a golden age of innocent simplicity. Others regarded them as 'a greedy lot of beggars and thieves', as he had been warned by the captain of a steamer. He remarked that Father Rogers was having an 'uphill fight' because the previous missionary, Mr Barrow, had prejudiced the people by opposing their going out to trade with passing ships on Sunday. This had given them the feeling that 'observance means things may not be done'.
He considered the island over-populated. He noticed unrest among the young men, and many of the younger people told him that they would leave if they could find a decent living elsewhere. As usual, the older folk were opposed to any mass move. Collectively the settlers were not good workers.
More prophetic than he realized, he wrote, 'I doubt very much whether these islanders would ever settle down to a daily routine of work, having all their lives been more or less their own masters and able to decide when they shall or shall not work.'
Morals he pronounced very good. There was occasionally petty thieving, but in so small a community any stolen article was quickly spotted. Sheep were sometimes missed, being skinned and cut up at night.
'Promiscuity,' he reported, 'is not common.'
Shipwrecked sailors had sometimes left babies to be born after their departure, the children taking their mothers' names. Paradoxically, this did not seem to be too greatly frowned upon, particularly if the sailor were fair-skinned. It brought new blood to the island, and was deemed a factor in lessening the inbreeding. Moreover, children were considered an asset, since they could drive sheep and geese, carry water, and fetch the animals.
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Tristan da Cunha
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Page updated: 13 Nov 16