Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Part I (b)
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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Part I (c)

Part I
Glimpses of Tristan da Cunha's Past

 p28  (b) Marooned on the Island

A Graphic Record of an Early Diary

The lonely island of the South Atlantic, with its one hundred and sixty inhabitants, has recently had a great experience, for a warship visited it early in January last from Simons Town — the first for nine years — and, as a passenger, on it, the new Bishop of St. Helena visited this outlying part of his ocean diocese to make acquaintance with the people and study their conditions. From the following description of the early settlers and the "characters" among them, an idea is obtained of the charm of disposition of the people that is still theirs.

The diary of the artist, Augustus Earle, which gives a description of the time he spent on Tristan da Cunha in 1824 in the early days of the Settlement, is the work of a cultured and graphic writer. It was published by Longmans in 1832 as an annexe to the author's work (now a rare book), entitled Nine Months' Residence in New Zealand in 1827. He had left Rio de Janeiro on board the sloop Duke of Gloucester, bound for the Cape of Good Hope, and on calling at Tristan da Cunha he ventured ashore, and, whether from stress of weather which overtook the vessel or not, he was left behind and remained marooned on the island  p29 for nearly a year. The weather had been very tempestuous and it was a question in Mr. Earle's mind whether the ship left voluntarily or had been overwhelmed by gales.

Though he saw that he might have met with a providential escape, he realized that he was face to face with a desperate situation, for he had come entirely unprepared and winter was approaching. But there were compensations for his fate and he was not long before he began to realize them. For almost the next entry in his diary is to say — when speaking of William Glass, the Scotsman whom he described as the chief person of this little community (commonly called the Governor) — that he certainly behaved to him with every possible kindness and nothing within his power was spared to make him comfortable. "I experienced from him," the entry says, "attention and hospitality such as are rarely found in higher situations in life, and indeed, every individual seemed equally disposed to serve me and make me reconciled to my present situation." And he speaks of the village, with its half a dozen cottages thatched with tussock grass, and he says that when he reached it he found two women and a number of children, who seemed all equally delighted to see a stranger among them. And the houses, he went on, and all around them, had an air of comfort, cleanliness and plenty, truly English, and which was highly gratifying to his  p30 feelings from the contrast it formed to those he had lately seen in South America.

It is, however, when he came to describe the islanders individually and the "characters" among them that he is the more fascinating. He tells us that their Governor, Glass, who was the original founder and first settler of the little society,​a was born at Roxburgh, and he continues: "In the course of the long conversations I had with him, seated in his chimney corner, I learned that, in early life, he had been a gentleman's servant in his native town; and that he had an old aunt settled there, an eminent snuff and tobacco vendor; but whether she claimed descent from, or affinity with, the celebrated lady of the same name and occupation whom Sir Walter Scott mentions in The Heart of Midlothian, as being so great a favourite of the then Duke of Argyle, I could not discover. Glass 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, and where he, with fifty Hottentots, formed part of the garrison. Glass always spoke in the highest terms of corps of Hottentots he served with, as men peculiarly adapted for artillery drivers, from their firm and perfect seat on horseback, and their fearless (helter-skelter) sort of character, since they  p31 would dash with their horses and guns over roads and precipices that would make a white man tremble to look at, and he highly praised their invariable good humour, but stated the great, indeed almost only drawback to their merit to be their proneness to drunkenness, which no punishment nor disgrace could eradicate.

Not only was William Glass born in Scotland, but he was a Scotsman, body and soul, and he and his sixteen children, of whom the greater number remained on the island, served to establish the Scottish leaven there and to make Scottish ways permanent. The story of how his national feeling was put to the test during the visit of Augustus Earle is worth recording, for it goes far to show his exceptional character. The young artist tells how his clothes completely wore out. He had a tartan cloak, and, as Glass had become an experienced tailor, he asked him to make a suit of it. This Glass agreed to do. But nothing came of the promise, and one evening, on Earle's return from a day's hunting, Glass came to him with a melancholy face and said: "It is no use holding out any longer, Mr. Earle; I really cannot cut up that bonnie tartan. I have had it out several times, and have had the scissors in my hands, but I cannot do it, sir. It is the first tartan that was ever landed on Tristan da Cunha, and the first I have seen since I left Scotland."

Earle replied that Glass must keep the cloak for  p32 his own use as it was, and that, as he could not make his appearance, even at Tristan da Cunha, quite in a state of nature, Glass must contrive to make him a pair of trousers out of anything he might happen to have among his stores. His face brightened up immediately and Earle was soon afterwards equipped with a costume which, even there, excited some curiosity. The front of these "cossacks," as he called them, consisted of sail-cloth, and the back of dried goatskin with the hair outside, which the inhabitants assured him he would find convenient in descending the mountain. He laughed heartily, the story goes, when he first wore his "Robinson Crusoe" outfit. "Never mind how you look, sir," said Glass. "His Majesty himself, God bless him, if he had been left here as you were, could have done no better."

The next in rank on the island (for even there they must have distinctions made, Mr. Earle observes) was Alexander Cotton — commonly known by his nom de guerre John Taylor, described as a thorough man-of‑war's man, and he being the oldest sailor, steered the whale-boat; and, as was usual among all gangs of men engaged either in fishing, sealing, or any boating work of that description, those who are at the helm assume a superiority over their comrades. The circumstance (the diary tells us) that induced this man to settle there is very curious, and shows, in strong colours, the peculiarities  p33 of seamen, and the very original notions they sometimes get into their heads. During the time the garrison occupied this island, it reads, it was occasionally visited by the squadron stationed at the Cape, and Taylor and a comrade of his — John Mooney — belonged to a schooner acting as tender to the Admiral. They sometimes served on shore, and once paid Glass a visit after the soldiers had abandoned the Settlement. It then struck them that it would be a most admirable plan to go home; and, after being paid‑off, to purchase a collection of things which would be useful to the farm, and come out again to join Glass. They went home and were paid‑off, and no doubt fully intended laying out their money in the laudable way they had planned at Tristan da Cunha; but, alas, the temptations of shore were too strong for their resistance.

When all was gone they determined to put their resolutions into practice, and accordingly these two men marched off to the Admiralty to consult "the Lords" on the subject. When they arrived there they requested to be introduced, and, as the Board was then sitting, they were formally ushered into their presence. They immediately informed their Lordships that they had each served upwards of twenty years in the Navy, and were entitled, by length of service, and by their wounds, to a pension, and that they would willingly waive that right and had come to them to beg a passage to the island of  p34 Tristan da Cunha. Taylor used to describe the interview with the Lords of the Admiralty with a great deal of humour, and the mirth they excited and the numerous questions put to him by Sir George Cockburn, whom to Taylor's infinite delight, addressed him by the title of shipmate, for he had served under him some years before. They told their Lordships all the particulars of Glass's establishment, the wish they had to retire from the world, and the comfortable prospect that the island offered them of independence; and that at a time of peace when it was almost impossible for the prudent and industrious to gain their bread. So humble, so just a request was instantly granted, and all the gentlemen composing the Board cordially wished them success, and assured them that the first man-of‑war bound round the Cape should land them and all their worldly goods on this island. Accordingly they were put on board the Satellite, bound to India, and thus added to Glass's company. Taylor and his partner built themselves a decent dwelling and, being single men, dignified their abode with the appellation of "Bachelors' Hall."

At the time Mr. Earle became a member of the society, Taylor's companion had left and a dapper little fellow had taken his place. Taylor used to say he was "part sailor, part waterman, and part fisherman; born at Wapping, served his time in a Billingsgate boat, and occasionally vended sprats"; while,  p35 as a proof that he was no pretender, he sometimes delighted his hearers by going over the whole of those melodies which the fisherwomen of the streets of London made familiar to one's ear. The name of this worthy was Richard, but he was always called "old Dick." He prided himself on being a "man-of‑war's man," having at the close of the war entered the service, and was on board a ten‑gun brig, but every attempt he made at a nautical yarn was always instantly put stop to by old Taylor, with such epithets of contempt that he was obliged to desist, but his local knowledge of Deptford, Bugsby's Hole, the Pool, etc., was truly extraordinary, and was his stronghold, from which his old hickory-faced companion never could dislodge him. But Dick had another equally strong position, which formed a part of his history quite incomprehensible to his companions and which he usually resorted to when driven from the field in attempting to relate his adventures while in the Royal Navy; and that was, his having actually served as a dragoon in the Army of Buenos Aires; but here Glass always "came athwart his hawse"; and the contempt he had for his dragoon­ship was equally as strong as that of Taylor for his seaman­ship. However, Dick described an army such as Glass could form no idea of; the half-naked, wild warrior of South America being so totally a different kind of soldier to what he had been accustomed to see.

 p36  Poor Dick's story was a true and a melancholy one; and the cause of his being on the island was his being wrecked there. He sailed from London in a small sloop going on a sealing trip, and obtained his old berth of cook. After cruising for some time on the great Pacific Ocean, without obtaining a single skin, they touched at Tristan da Cunha in the hope of being more successful; but got on shore, and the vessel was totally wrecked. Dick, referring the sort of life there to that he had been accustomed to, and tired of "seeking the bubble reputation," joined Glass's party; and on all their boating excursions he resumed his old occupation of cook.

The attractions of the home life on the island seem to have weighed with Mr. Earle, and more particularly owing to the severity of the weather conditions outside at the time. For he says that, looking out from his abode, no spot in the world could be more desolate, particularly on a blowing night. Yet, set in contrast with this, he tells us that their house was (and all the houses were built nearly after the same model) a complete proof of the nationality of an Englishman (and of a Scotsman, too, he would necessarily intend) and his partiality for a comfort fireside. Though the latitude was temperate, each room was furnished with a noble fireplace, and in what they called "The Government House" they met every night and sat round a large and cheerful blaze, each telling his story  p37 of adventures or singing his song, and they managed to pass the time pleasantly enough. And he added that he never saw a sad or discontented-looking face among his companions, and, though they had no wine, grog, or other strong drink, there was no lack of jovial mirth in any of the company. Their visitor left them when a passing vessel at length called and took him off, and he did so, as he wrote, "With sincere gratitude for their unremitting kindness notwithstanding all the trouble I had given them, and now feeling that I was about to part with them for ever without its being in my power to show my gratitude except in words."

In this connection it is interesting to note that the ascendancy of William Glass in the leader­ship of the community, and after him of Peter Green, covered little short of a century. He died in 1853, and, before his death, so numerous had his family become that Christmas Day was a patriarchal event on the island, for it was his custom to bring all who were of his family together to dine with him. The year before his death the company included himself and his wife, two sons, five daughters, three sons-in‑law, two daughters-in‑law, the future wives of two other sons, nineteen grandchildren, and the clergyman of the island, the Rev. W. F. Taylor, who records the event — thirty-four souls in all. Glass died of cancer — the only case on the island — and he was buried in the island graveyard.  p38 His sons in America, on hearing of his death, provided and took to Tristan, to mark his grave, a plain white marble stone, with the following inscription on it:

In memory of

William Glass,

Born at Kelso, Scotland,
the Founder of this Settlement of
Tristan d'Acunha,
in which he resided 37 years and
fell asleep in Jesus,
November 24th, 1853, aged 67 years.

Asleep in Jesus, far from Thee

Thy kindred and their graves may be,

But thine is still a blessed sleep,

From which none ever wakes to weep.

Apart from this somewhat premature end of William Glass, Tristan da Cunha seems to develop the most extraordinary vitality. Cotton's union was productive of the most vigorous offspring. Five of them, if not more, when I last heard, were still living. Mrs. Thomas Swain, Mrs. Benjamin Green, Mrs. Martha Green, and Mrs. Jeremiah Green, and their brother, William Cotton, four of whom are now settled in Simons Town, and they were then respectively ninety‑one, ninety, eighty‑six, seventy-eight, and eighty-eight years of age, and,  p39 moreover, were one and all in full possession of their faculties. But Betty Cotton, the eldest, who remained on the island, died at the age of ninety-four. In what is quite a memoir, the Rev. H. M. Rogers, who was on the island at the time, wrote:

A few lines more with an item that may arouse your interest. Dear old Betty Cotton, the oldest inhabitant, in her 94th year, passed away after a few days' illness and was buried in our cemetery in sound of the waves of the broad Atlantic. She was a kindly, pious, cheery old soul and had a most prodigious memory, and was a living link with the old, old times of the Great Napoleon, her father, Alexander Cotton, an old British Navy tar, having served under Nelson and formed one of the guard over Napoleon at Longwood. She said he used to relate to us tales of the "villain Bony" as an exile at St. Helena, a sad enough sight from sickness and chagrin with his few friends and fellow-exiles.

Her mother was one of the five St. Helena wives of the first settlers. One of her brothers was drowned in a cloud burst flood at Tristan. Her mother saw his death in a vision before it happened (curious that!) and told several persons. Old Betty served in the house of Bishop Gray at the Cape, and was a person of some education and a most interesting talker, but her heart was more at the Cape than Tristan, where she returned to help her widowed mother.

She remembered and sat under all four clergy here, and especially loved the Rev. E. H. Dodgson. She never missed church until the last two Sundays of her life, and came to early Communion when she was 93. — R. I. P.

Other families of note in this community are the Swains and the Hagans. Tradition has it that  p40 Swain, the original settler of that name, who began life at thirteen in a cutter named the Fox, which served as a tender to Nelson while captain of the Agamemnon and afterwards when commodore in the Captain, was one of the sailors on the Victory who caught the great admiral in his arms when he fell mortally wounded. Following Trafalgar, he went to Lisbon, and there ran away after a service of eighteen years, only to be taken prisoner by the French. Under compulsion, he served three years with them, and was eventually captured by the English and remained nine years as a French prisoner in England. On his release he went in a merchant ship to the Cape, and eventually found his way to Tristan, and was one of the five single men who sought wives from St. Helena. His marriage was the source of another large island family, and he died in old age, and was buried on the island, and the inscription on his grave is as follows:

Thomas Swain,

Born at Hastings, England,

Died on 26th of April, 1862,

Aged 102 years.

Hagan, who was an Irishman, was a later arrival. He did not reach the island until 1849, but he is the progenitor of one of the chief Tristan families.  p41 He had been sent to command a vessel bound to South Georgia in search of whales, but, finding none and being disappointed, he sent the vessel home by the mate and went to Tristan, and married one of William Glass's daughters and stayed there.

Thayer's Note:

a But on p145, Gane will tell us that there was at least one person living on Tristan before Glass arrived.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 13 Dec 20