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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
Tristan da Cunha

by Douglas M. Gane

published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd,

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 (b)

 p21  Part I
Glimpses of Tristan da Cunha's Past

Tristan da Cunha is the largest in a group of three islands situated in the very centre of the South Atlantic Ocean in lat. 37° 5′ 50″ south and long. 12° 16′ 40″ west, midway between South Africa and South America, and 1,320 miles from St. Helena, the nearest inhabited land. It is an extinct volcano, rising to a height of nearly 8,000 feet, with a circumference at its base of twenty‑one miles. At its summit is a crater now filled with water and forming a small lake. The other islands, distant twenty miles from Tristan and ten miles from each other, are smaller, Inaccessible being about about four square miles in area, with steep cliffs and a height of nearly 2,000 feet; while Nightingale is irregular in shape and about a mile across, with two peaks of about 1,000 feet each. Only Tristan da Cunha is occupied, and the Settlement is to the north-west of the island, on a plateau about nine miles in length and one and a half in depth, at the foot of the mountain and standing about 100 feet above sea‑level.

 p22  (a) A Passing Acquaintance

The clippers for passenger service have now gone, but the memory of seventy days at sea in one of them with barely a sight of land and without a foot ashore is not easily lost.

On the old Ellora, a barque of 1,700 tons, we did the passage from Start Point to Cape Leeuwin​a in that time, and it was good running. Our captain, known on board by acknowledged custom as "the Old Man," was of the old sort. He would allow nothing that carried canvas to pass him, and he would pile on his own canvas to the uttermost to get through first.

More than once I saw him manoeuvre to windward to take the wind out of the sails of a rival and forge ahead. It was owing to this fine spirit on Captain Clayton's part that, in taking the course — whether of necessity or by design — followed by the famous navigator, Tristan da Cunha, he not only rediscovered for us the two Atlantic islands which stand to the Portuguese navigator's credit, but short of an actual landing, he made the most of this rediscovery for our diversion.

South Trinidad, 20 degrees south of the Equator, was the one island, and the island that bears the navigator's name, 37 degrees south, was the other — neither much regarded at that time.

 p23  After leaving the South‑West monsoon, which seven hundred miles from the coast of Brazil is felt between the Equator and 10 degrees north, we caught the South-East trades, and soon came in sight of South Trinidad and the Martin Vas rocks near by, and then passed between them and got a good sight of both.

They are an assemblage of volcanic peaks surrounded by sharp rugged rocks with an almost continual surge breaking over them and rendering landing precarious, while the shore on one side of Trinidad is strewn with the wreckage of past generations of shipping.

They are uninhabited, and the desolation of them, with their volcanic debris, dead trees and savage birds and land crabs is graphically described by Mr. E. F. Knight, who visited them shortly before, in the Cruise of the Falcon.​b

And another twelve days brought us to Tristan da Cunha, a fleeting visit ever memorable in my thoughts. On rising early, we saw the island some forty miles distant towering to the sky like a great cloud on the horizon. There was a heavy sea on, with huge rollers, and, therefore, small promise of our getting in touch with the inhabitants, as the Captain at such a season did not dare risk close contact.

In fact, we got within ten miles of the Settlement only, and then began to wear ship abreast of  p24 it, wondering what was going to happen. We had almost given up hope when suddenly we sighted a couple of boats with sails coming towards us several miles distant and we all crowded to the ship's side to watch their movements, lost as they were from time to time in the trough of the sea.

They soon got within hail, however, and proceeded to lower their sails and row towards us, and amid great cheering the men clambered up the channel boards and got on deck.

They were a fine looking set of fellows, some eighteen or twenty in all, several of them English in appearance, others with a foreign look and a few with an unmistakable dash of the tar‑brush due to the early admixture of St. Helena blood.

They were all dressed in blue dungaree with a variety of hats and caps, and shoes like slippers made of bullock hide. They spoke the mother tongue fluently, and as they had a large stock of provisions and curiosities with them it was not long before bargaining began and familiarity grew.

Their spokesman was old Peter Green,​c who at the time had been forty-eight years on the island, and, though seventy-seven years of age, was to live another eighteen years there.

He was a veritable fund of good humour, and he quickly sought out the Captain and made his own bargains on behalf of the community, giving livestock  p25 consisting of diminutive pigs and sheep, geese, blue-fish, crayfish and potatoes, which they had brought with them, in exchange for flour, peas, oatmeal, biscuits, cocoa, coffee and spirits, which the ship supplied.

Meantime the passengers had ransacked their wardrobes and many exchanges of suits and undergarments, tobacco, soap and the like were made for curiosities and natural history specimens. Many of these I secured, and they afterwards formed the Tristan da Cunha exhibit at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.

Money was not acceptable, and books were not in demand as few of them could read, but some were taken ashore as a gift to Mr. Dodgson, who was the missionary serving on the island at the time, as he had not come off in the boats. The islanders remained several hours with us and left apparently well content with their bargains.

Little more than a year later, after my return to England, the news came of a boating disaster at the island, with a heavy death-toll.

The men had gone out in bad weather to board a passing ship just as they had come out to us, but in one boat instead of two, and it capsized. Later particulars showed that the ship was the barque West Riding, bound from Bristol to Sydney, and the Captain reported what he described as an extraordinary incident on passing the island of sighting  p26 a sailing-boat steering for the ship amid strong squalls and a heavy sea and its disappearance when about a mile and a half distant.

Thinking that some accident had happened, he made sail for the spot and cruised in the vicinity for a couple of hours, but failed to discover any vestige.

Old Peter Green, who, fortunately, was not in the boat, told the story from the standpoint of the islanders. He spoke of their watching the movements of the boat from the shore and awaiting its return through the night, but it made no appearance and two parties went round the island by land, but without result.

It was a good new lifeboat received from H. M. S. Opal as a present from the Board of Trade, and when it was tried on its arrival, Mr. Green reported that it went through the breakers in grand style.

And he added that it would not be used except in bad weather or a heavy sea on the beach. On other occasions they would use their whale boats, but they were too long and too narrow, "for while they would go through the sea, the lifeboat would go over the sea."

Of the loss itself, Mr. Green said: "She had all our best boatmen in her, rather too many, fifteen in number, ten of them married. If the boat and crew is lost, it will make Tristan an island of widows."

 p27  As it proved, this was the fate of the women of Tristan da Cunha, and though the authorities offered them succour by means of their removal to the mainland, such were the ties of their associations and such their strength of character that they determined to remain, and in doing so they reared the new generation and restored the normal conditions of the Settlement.

And their services were not forgotten, for not only did a custom grow on the island, in the division of stores, of awarding each of the widows a family's share — a custom that still obtains amongst the three who survive — but a warship was sent to the island annually until the Boer War.

After then, however, official recognition of the needs of the people seemed to wane, and it was not until a letter appeared in The Times of August 22, 1916, written by Mr. B. R. Balfour, of Drogheda, stating that there had been no mail to the island from home for ten years, that the present working movement on its behalf began.

Since then the island owes much to the Press — both British and Empire, and to no small extent foreign — but it is only fair to state that The Times has been more intimately connected with it owing to the way in which it has fostered the movement throughout, a loyalty upon which any success it has met with has primarily turned.

Thayer's Notes:

a The Ellora is sailing from 
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	 Start Point in southwestern England, south thru the Atlantic, then around Cape Horn and thru the Indian Ocean to 
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	 Cape Leeuwin, the southwestern tip of Australia. Given the wind patterns in the South Atlantic, 
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	 Tristan da Cunha is naturally along the way, as are 
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	 South Trinidad and 
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	 the Martin Vaz Rocks (very close to the latter: zoom in a few levels to distinguish them).

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b Photostats of the book are online: Vol. I Vol. II.

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c But in his original pamphlet (according to Margaret Mackay, Angry Island, p116 n.), which Gane published in 1886 when his memory was fresh, he identified the spokesman as Joseph Beetham.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20