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Bill Thayer

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Part I (c)
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 (e)

Part I
Glimpses of Tristan da Cunha's Past

 p48  (d) The Grand Old Man of Tristan da Cunha,

Remembrances of a notable character with the recollections of an American woman who was wrecked on the island in her childhood

One of the most interesting characters on the island of Tristan da Cunha in former days was Peter  p49 Green, the headman who succeeded William Glass, the founder of the Settlement, and retained the position until he died some fifty years later. He had been wrecked here, presumably in the schooner Emily, which dragged on a reef near the shore and soon went to pieces, and so kindly was he received by Mr. Glass and "his worthy family" that it was not long before he resolved to remain as one of the permanent residents. As already stated, I met him when I called at the island in July 1884, for he came out to the ship in charge of the two island boats that visited us and remained on board several hours.

Peter Green became "the grand old man" in every sense of the phrase. He had married a native of St. Helena, who had throughout his life proved a brave and in every way suitable helpmate. Such was his fairness and impartiality in settling questions on the island that he acquired a great influence there, for he had a philosophic way with him that was most convincing. When speaking of the trading they did with passing ships, he said they traded with a good many ships, all of them English, and the benefit was on both sides — the inhabitants got what they wanted, and the ship got what she wanted. And he added, "We have not everything we want, but is it not the same in England? So we must take the good times and the bad times." And with reference to the stores sent from home and the practice of addressing the parcels to the inhabitants  p50 instead of to the islanders individually, he said: "Suppose I was to direct a box to the inhabitants of England, what would become of that box? They may as well direct it to Jericho or the Philistines, for we have good, bad, and boobies. Some of our men will go to a ship as long as a boat will live, others will hang back, and when the boat comes back from the ship they get the same share as those who went off in the boats. It was so till lately, but they now begin to alter that cowardly plan. Now it is pump or be drowned." No family is allowed to participate now unless the father goes out to the ship if he is able. Clearly Green was not a Communist at heart, but he had a strict sense of right and wrong.

From the report which he wrote in 1884 for the Government on the condition of the island, he is shown as a man of education, with a gifted pen and a buoyant and irresistible humour, and it is seldom that our Blue Books are lit with such a patch of sunshine. He seems to have captivated the Duke of Edinburgh, who visited the island in the Galatea in 1867, the occasion on which the Settlement was named Edinburgh by the permission which Green sought, and when afterwards he was conveying two bullocks, some potatoes, and other things for the ship's use, he took with him some presents to send to his daughters. When he got on board, the Duke said, "What is Mr. Green going to do with his  p51 bundle?" and he replied, "I am looking for some gentleman to take charge of it for my daughters," and His Royal Highness answered, "I will be the gentleman."

It was, however, as a preserver of life from shipwreck that Peter Green's record is unique. There were hundreds of lives he had saved and they were people of all nationalities, and he possessed acknowledgments from the British and American Governments and from the King of Italy. A memorable instance in his work in this connection was afforded when the Sir Ralph Abercrombie foundered off the island in 1868 and the officers and crew were rescued under the leader­ship of Mr. Green, who was then in the prime of life, and were hospitably treated and taken care of until relief came. Later on the islanders' intrepidity and skill in the management of their boats was remarked by Captain H. E. Tipstaft, in command of the Cutty Sark, which called at the island in 1876, driven out of her course by successive gales. There was a heavy sea running at the time, and the approach of the island was described as a grand sight from the way the boatmen handled it, with old Peter Green standing up at the helm with the spray dashing over him. And when they came alongside and were hauled on deck they were found to be about as rough and weather-beaten a boat's crew as you could see, all dressed in sheep or goatskins untanned.

 p52  A few years before his death Mr. Green received from Her Majesty Queen Victoria a signed copy of her portrait, given in express recognition of his "self-denying efforts in saving life from shipwreck during the last 60 years." And in acknowledgment he wrote the following letter to a friend whose relatives he had saved from drowning years before:

Dear Old Friend Newman,

This letter comes in a different style from all my other letters. I don't suppose you know about the handsome present received from Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Such a picture never came to Tristan before. The height of the frame is 4 ft., the breadth is 3 ft., and the Crown is on the top all beautifully carved and gilded. The address on the outside was Peter Green, Esq., Tristan da Cunha, Care of Commander H. M. S. Magpie, St. Helena. To wait Customs Office, St. Helena. From the Queen.

As I have to thank Her Majesty for the Royal present that I received, will my old friend Newman be kind enough to do it for me? You are the right man in the right place and would be only as a kind man speaking to a very kind Queen.

The letter was duly forwarded by Mr. Newman for the Queen's perusal, and Sir Arthur Bigge replied that Her Majesty was much interested to hear of Mr. Green's history and of the meritorious work done by him and his brother islanders in rescuing from time to time shipwrecked sailors.

Shortly after I saw him Peter Green's life became clouded through the boating disaster which occurred  p53 there, with a heavy death-toll, as already stated, among the lost being many of his own relatives.

Whether the preservation of the Settlement at this crisis was due to the influence of Peter Green I do not know, but this at least can be said, he was deeply opposed to any idea of migration and he much resented any endeavour to bring it about.

Among the recollections of Peter Green which have come to my knowledge, none are more interesting than those contained in two letters received by Mrs. Rose Rogers from Miss Nina Sheldon, of Ocean Park, California, giving her remembrances of the days when, as a child of ten, she was wrecked on Tristan da Cunha in the Mabel Clark, of which her father was captain, and by permission I now quote from them.

" The Lonely Island is on the table beside me," Miss Sheldon writes."I have just read it and it carried me back in memory to the time when I was a child ten years of age and an enforced visitor on the island of Tristan da Cunha for seven weeks.

"Possibly while you were on the island you were told of the wreck of the American ship Mabel Clark in 1878 and how her captain, his wife, and daughter were so kindly taken care of by Peter Green and his family, and how one of the crew of that ship chose to stay on the island and was married to Miss Green, a granddaughter of Peter Green, I think.  p54 He was a Swede — Johnson by name — but I do not see any Johnsons among the names in your book. Could he have been one of the ill‑fated boat's crew that went off to a ship and never returned? The ceremony was performed while the W. S. S. Essex was at the island. The Essex had come from Buenos Aires by order from Washington, D. C., to pick up our crew, but we had been gone about two weeks when she arrived. Several vessels had stopped at the island for fresh meat and water, but none could take us until the British ship Cambrian Monarch came, and she took a part of the crew. A whale-boat carried us to the ship and we were stowed in with a whole beef carcase, potatoes, and pelts of birds. It was a "miscellaneous cargo" that weighed the boat down to a few inches of the water and had a cross‑sea struck us we would most certainly have been swamped. We were landed in Singapore, and in course reached New York.

"I have enjoyed your book more than I can possibly say. It is a pleasure to know that the bells that now call the congregation together are the ones that were salvaged from the Mabel Clark.​a The islanders brought them to the Settlement and placed them at each end of the little cluster of houses and just before the oldest inhabitant died — they knew she was a hundred years old, they said, but did not know how much older — so they tolled the bells alternately one hundred times, and my father, clad  p55 in Peter Green's black suit that was much too small and tied together with rope yarns, read the funeral service.

"Evidently conditions on the island have changed since we were there. There were no fleas and no sickness — the old lady just died naturally. The medicine-chest in Peter Green's home had not been replenished for about twenty years, he said, so the people could not afford the luxury of being ill. Also the sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens seem to have become scarce. There was no scarcity of meat while we were on the island, and when potatoes became scarce the islanders went (rowed) over to Inaccessible Island for a boat load — the potatoes and wild hogs thrived over there.

"At the time of our stay there, there was no missionary, there was no church, but Sunday was observed as a day of rest. Peter Green was a thoroughly good and upright man, absolutely honest, for when he heard that our jewellery had been found in the wreckage he made the finder return it to us in spite of the fact that my father had told them to keep all they found. The portrait of Peter Green in the little book that came to‑day took me back in memory to my childhood days, for I so well remembered him, and I wish we could have stopped at the island again, for a few hours only, to let those people know we had not forgotten their kindness to us. But it was always stormy, and my  p56 father, mindful of his bitter experience, did not tarry in its neighbourhood, much as we would have liked to see the natives and make some thank-offerings for their kindness to us.

"There is another little incident in connection with our wreck which began in tragedy and ended nearly in comedy. Six members of our crew were drowned, and it was several days before all the bodies washed ashore — in the meantime the beach was patrolled by the islanders on the lookout for everything that washed in. One of the men picked up a bunch of human hair, very much matted, and, of course, thought it was a piece of a man's scalp and very carefully buried it. But when the last of the six bodies came ashore, and beyond various bruises all were intact, no heads broken, the man who had found the supposed bit of scalp began to wonder whose it was he had found and so reverently buried, so he dug it up and it proved to be my mother's "switch" of false hair that had become matted with various bits of wreckage.

"There was one little girl, slightly older than I was, that I was very fond of; her name was Louisa. I do not remember her last name, but when I said good‑bye to her and asked her what I should bring her when I came back to Tristan, she said, "a diamond ring and a waterproof cloak."

"Several years ago I read an item in one of our American papers that a missionary and his young  p57 wife were going to Tristan da Cunha, and they called it "a glad adventure," if I remember correctly, and as I read it I felt homesick for you, for chances to communicate with the outside world are not so good now since sailing vessels and whalers are practically in the discard. It seems that England should send a vessel about once in six months at least to look after the people there. I can imagine that existence there will be more difficult as time goes on unless there is help from outside countries.

"You and Mr. Rogers had splendid courage to go to that lonely spot. I can imagine what it meant to those people to have you there to teach them, not that they were immoral or vicious. We were surprised to find out how well informed they were considering their advantage or lack of them.

"My only souvenirs of Tristan are a few pebbles that my mother picked up. It seems strange to be writing at the age of sixty‑one of the events of that shipwreck. I seldom speak of it, for I am rarely in the company of sea‑faring people and Tristan is an unheard‑of island in this country, but I dare say if England removes the inhabitants from there some other country would swoop down on it and make some sort of a rendezvous of it, and there are many people who would be glad to get away from the strenuous life for a season of quiet, away from telephones and automobiles and all the hurry and confusion  p58 of life. There is a great fascination about lonely places. I think that is the reason that we love our deserts as we do. The unlimited miles of sand and mountains somehow make one feel close to God. I can understand why you should like to return to Tristan."

Thayer's Note:

a The best photograph of the bell I've been able to find is pretty small; it's on Murray & Candace's "Churches and Cemeteries of Tristan" page; their blog runs to over a dozen pages on their visit of the island with more than a hundred photos.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20