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Bill Thayer

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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!


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Part I (d)

Part I
Glimpses of Tristan da Cunha's Past

 p41  (c) Landing Hazards at Tristan da Cunha

A Noted Australian's Vivid Experience

In arranging for the dispatch of mails and stores to Tristan da Cunha, advantage is always taken of the easier weather conditions of the southern summer — the first three or four months of the year. When the efforts to effect a return to the ship from the island or a return to the island from the ship may mean is matter of early record amongst the inhabitants, for Mrs. Glass once went off to pay a visit on a calling ship, and, while there, a gale sprang up, the vessel had to stand off and it was ten days before she could get back. And on another occasion an island woman, Mrs. White, had a similar misfortune, for the ship she visited was driven off for three weeks and very nearly lost. But the story is told in more graphic terms in the unpublished log of a notable Australian. It is the log of Mr. Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, who was born at Bolton, Lancashire, in 1816, and who went to Australia in the S. S. Superb in 1837 and settled in Sydney.  p42 There he became leading figure in the industry of the country, being the first to start wool sales, dairy farming, and other things, and, what is still more to his credit, he was the originator of the freezing industry, of which unfortunately he did not live to see the splendid results, as he died in 1878, soon after its initiation.

The original log, a 17,000‑word manuscript of considerable historical interest, will shortly be published in its entirety by Mr. Trevor Smith, in conjunction with the deceased's son and daughter the Reverend Ernest Mort, of Frensham, Surrey, and Lady Atkinson-Willes,​a and permission is kindly given by them to the publication of this account of the visit to Tristan da Cunha which the diary contains.

Mr. Mort described his experiences at Tristan da Cunha with the same vigour that marked his subsequent career, and as the natural conditions of the island have not changed, what he went through is of interest still. On reaching the island, to his disappointment, he was not taken ashore among the first to land and he feared his chance of a landing was gone. But those who were left on board went to the captain and asked him to allow them the use of the other boat, which, "with his usual kindness but not his usual judgment," he did. There were fourteen in all of them, and when within a mile of  p43 the shore they met one of the whale-boats belonging to the island and were strongly recommended not to go any farther as they would not be able to land; but go ashore they would, and they fortunately met with a smooth run in. Upon arriving at the Governor's house they were greeted by Mrs. Glass and her family and sundry others, and were invited to sit down and partake of a meal of "biscuit, new butter, and delightful milk," of which they all ate heartily. They then divided into two parties and scoured the island for curiosities and objects of interest, and later Mr. Mort's party returned to the beach in the expectation of finding the others there, but they were not to be found.

Patiently they waited, watching with great uneasiness the rapidly increasing surf, and when, just as they were beginning to give vent to their impatience, the others made their appearance and they at once set to work launching the boat, which by means of their united force they succeeded in doing, at least they got to the water's edge. Each then stood to the seat he intended to take, awaiting a smooth wave on which they hoped to set out, and at last took advantage of what they considered a favourable moment. "Now, my lads, altogether"; and altogether they pushed the boat until they were above their waists in the water; then jumped in, and the cry to "give way, my lads," had scarcely been uttered before a heavy sea came thundering  p44 along, rushed right over them, and washed them high and dry, or rather high and wet, on the beach. As soon as they could take their breath, they looked round and saw all the oars, pigs, poultry, etc., swimming about and the boat drifting out to sea. They hauled the boat on shore with great difficulty and were fortunate in securing it, and they then turned their ships most disconsolately to the place from whence they had just come. "What would we poor shipwrecked mariners not have given for the veriest pot‑house you have in England," he wrote, "on that cold, comfortless night. How welcome, too, would some of our old worn‑out but dry garments have been, when we were dripping with wet, our teeth chattering and our limbs aching with cold."

Upon making known their situation to Mrs. Glass (for the Governor had not yet returned from their vessel) she offered them the parlour to live in, the only room she could offer, which they at once took advantage of, glad to lay hold of any place, however mean, rather than sleep on the turf, for the night looked awfully wild. The room was about 9 or 10 feet square, moderately furnished with chairs, clock, and an old organ, etc. The floor was wood, covered with a bass matting. A fireplace large enough for a feudal castle was right opposite the door in which without delay they kindled a large fire and sat round it in order to restore to their shivering  p45 limbs something like their wonted animation. About eight o'clock the Governor returned from the ship, and by that time the gale had very much increased, obliging the ship to put out to sea, and the marooned visitors to return to their temporary lodgings, where they found the Governor doing his best to make them comfortable.

In due course they retired to bed, or rather said they would, and the diarist's reflections on what this meant are given in the following paragraph:

"Now, when in the unthinkingness of our hearts we said we would go to bed," he observed, "the thought never struck us we had no bed to go to, and we began to ask one another what was to be done. 'Go to the Governor, and ask him,' said one. 'See his wife,' said another, and at last we thought of the daughters, the very beings I think of first, and to them we pleaded our case, and we did not plead in vain. Annie, the youngest and the sweetest (these Annies are all sweet girls), told us that we could have two beds laid on the floor and a couple of blankets to cover us, and joyfully did we accept her offer, and soon after we lay down, as we hoped, to sleep. I have told you before that this room was 10 feet square, and in this 10 feet were sundry chairs, boxes, etc., and a sofa, so I leave you to fancy how closely we were stowed, for there were twelve of us to sleep there. On one side, with their heads to the window, were Messrs. Hay, Kerr, Stafford,  p46 Morris, and Locker; they were all the short ones. On the other side, with our feet to their breasts and theirs to ours, were myself, Messrs. Lowe, Mackenzie, Grey, and Moore; we were the tallest and we had schemed it in this way so that two long ones should not come together. On the sofa lay Mr. Evans (how we envied him!) and on a box in the corner was our under-steward. Our wet clothes caused us to be very cold, notwithstanding we were tightly packed, and every inch of the stinking blanket was fought for as though it had been the warmest ermine. We slept, however, very well owing to our excessive fatigue, making good the words of Shakespeare:

Weariness can snore upon the flint,

When restiveness sloth finds the down pillow hard."

They all awoke at six o'clock next morning, and sallied out to look for their ship, but there was no ship to be seen. A heavy gale had been blowing all night, and in it, as they afterwards learnt, she had been blown a long way to the north-west. She was obliged to keep to the windward of the island, for if she had once got to the leeward she could never have weathered it again, and they might, as the writer said, have been inhabitants of Tristan for God knows how long. At any rate, they had another day there, and at six o'clock next morning, when they arose and went in search of the Superb, the cry  p47 met them, "A sail in the nor'west!" and almost breathless with haste they gained an eminence from whence with feelings of delight they beheld what was pointed out, and sure enough it was a sail. She came nearer, and they saw her lower a boat and that undeceived them. They saw the boat's stern to find it black when all theirs were lead-colour. They then saw the boat hauled up alongside, the topsails furled, the yards squared, and the vessel rattle away to leeward.

The vessel they had seen was not the Superb, but it had scarcely got away when they saw another sail and when this came within a couple of miles they all knew it was their own vessel. The Governor offered to take five of them in one of his own boats and lend them four hands in their own gig, which they at once accepted, and without further delay they set to work. A description of the launching of the boat is not given, but it shared the same fate as the other, and it was a wonder to all of them that they escaped drowning.

Again they tried as a desperate resolve to get the boat off, but in doing so they broke its back and left it to its fate. They then told Glass and his men that they would give them any sum they chose to demand to put them on board, but this they refused as they considered it was more than their lives were worth. But at last they consented to take the visitors at three times, and instantly launched a whale-boat  p48 with five of them on board, promising to see to their getting off in some way or other. It was indeed a pretty sight, we read, to see them launch their boat, every man standing to his oar till a smooth wave came and the "all together, boys," sent them into the water some twenty yards, when they each jumped into their seats and rowed for their lives, asking the boat to top the water like a feather, as though it did defiance to the waves. But it was all chance their getting off and all that can be said is they were lucky in doing so, for it was ten to one against them. It was with very anxious hearts that those who were left on shore waited the boat's return, but their turn came, and after an hour's good pulling they set foot again on the planks of the Superb, amid the congratulations of every person on board, and after being absent from Tuesday at two o'clock to eight o'clock Thursday night, nearly three days instead of the two or three hours intended.

Thayer's Note:

a Many's the slip 'twixt the cup and the lips: Thomas Mort's log does not seem ever to have been published after all.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20