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Bill Thayer

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Part I (d)
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 (f)

Part I
Glimpses of Tristan da Cunha's Past

 p58  (e) The "Pandora's" Visit to Tristan da Cunha

Its Sensational Sequel

Mrs. Rose Rogers, when describing in The Lonely Island her husband's wanderings there during their mission, mentioned a spot projecting right over the sea by way of Ankerstock Gulch, where a sad accident befell a young visitor who had come ashore from the steam yacht Pandora, that called at Tristan da Cunha early in 1905. It cost him his life and he is buried in the little island cemetery, and a small wooden cross pathetically marks the place — "Ronald McCann, aged nineteen."​a "At the request of his mother in England (Mrs. Rogers adds) we planted fresh flowers on the grave each Christmas and Easter."

The circumstances of the accident afford another item in the island's romantic story, and I am able to give them on the authority of the youth's companion, now in New Zealand, who was with him at the time, Walter Lawis by name, the son of the Rev. F. W. Lawis, of Beverley. Both were taking  p59 the voyage for the benefit of their health, and, while McCann was already on board when the vessel reached Las Palmas, Lawis joined it there. Captain Thomas Caradoc Kerry, in command, had arranged with the Government the terms of a concession for working the guano deposits of the Tristan Islands, and he was on his way to inspect them. On reaching Tristan he left the young men on shore and, with islanders to assist him, he went across to Inaccessible Island to proceed with his work, expecting to return, as he said, in about a month. As a matter of fact he came back in a week, in consequence of an injury to the boat's rudder, and he signalled to McCann and Lawis to go out to him. Meantime the tragedy had occurred, and, on this being made known to him, he went ashore. The body of the unfortunate youth had not then been found, but a search party was out, and eventually it was discovered.

What had happened was this — McCann had proposed that they should go out and try their hands at shooting penguins, and on reaching the place selected it was arranged that, as Lawis felt unequal to it, McCann should push on alone and Lawis wait for him, and this he did. There was a massive headland in the distance jutting out into the sea, and McCann made for it, determined to get round it if he could. He strolled away laughingly and Lawis watched him till he reached it, when he saw him stride up a winding path till he got to the  p60 top. And then he disappeared. Lawis waited, but there was no sign of him, and he became stricken with anxiety and went in search. He hurried along the beach and scaled the face of the bluff, and then looked down into a seething cauldron where the waves beat high on the shore, but there was nothing of McCann to be seen. He shouted for his companion, but his voice was drowned by the roar of the waters, and he at length gave up the search in despair.

Lawis then hurried back to the Settlement, and every man joined in the search party and he went with them. But darkness set in and nothing could be done, and it was resolved to return the next morning. But Lawis himself was not to be found, and the search was begun for him. Apparently, exhausted with fatigue, he had lagged behind and had missed the beaten track. In groping his way he then fell into a ravine and lay stunned at the bottom. On regaining consciousness a horrible nightmare seized him, and he awoke with groans and sighs. In each direction he chanced to look a pair of gleaming eyes met his. Rats ran over his body and squealed as they did so, and he lay there bruised and bleeding in an agony of pain.

Five attempts he made to ascend the rocks, and, failing, the fear of death gripped him and he gave up in despair. At that instant, however, he caught the gleam of a lighted match and a new hope revived  p61 him, and he struggled on and the search party came in sight and gave him a rousing cheer. The homeward journey was then begun, and for the first few miles he was helped by sturdy islanders, while others had hurried on to fetch a bullock-cart, which then met them. Some days elapsed before his strength returned, and meantime the search party had made repeated efforts to find McCann. Footprints convinced them that he had been swept into the sea by the gale, and at length they found his mangled body washed high on the beach by the tide. It was without a shred of clothing on it, and the people put it into a duck suit belonging to his companion, and a rough coffin was made of the packing-cases they had taken out. And in the final scene the bullock-cart again played a part, for it carried the coffin, and in that distant island graveyard now stands a cross that bears his name.

This is the end of Walter Lawis's account of his friend's death, but it is not the sole event of romantic interest that occurred in connection with the Pandora's visit with which he was connected. It was a condition of the granting to Captain Kerry of the licence he applied for to remove guano from Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands that he should call at Tristan da Cunha on the way out and deliver mails and parcels there free of charge. Accordingly, before sailing he offered, through the newspapers,  p62 to take out a limited quantity of gifts for the islanders, and the result was that, when he was about to sail, he found his decks covered with packing-cases that made it impossible for him to navigate the vessel. There was no hold in which to store them, and he had to fill the bath and every available corner of the ship before he could proceed. It was alleged against him that, even before leaving Gravesend, he had two cases of books and magazines disposed of, declaring that he was not going to have such rubbish on board, and on nearing Las Palmas and finding themselves tormented with bugs, other packages were thrown overboard. Apparently among them was a collection of Bibles sent by a society, and this was resented, and on the Pandora's return the captain was charged at Bow Street with theft and committed for trial, and he was afterwards tried at the Old Bailey.

It was a Crown prosecution undertaken by order of the Attorney-General at the instance of the Colonial Office, and Mr. C. F. Gill, K. C., Mr. R. D. Muir, and Mr. Bodkin conducted it, and the case was heard by Mr. Justice Grantham. It began on December 10, 1905, and lasted three days. During the voyage home, it seems, Captain Kerry had considerable trouble with his crew, until one of them was put in irons, and, on reaching Sierra Leone, was charged and sent to prison. In consequence of this, it was said, they avowed their  p63 intention of "taking it out of" the captain, and when the charge of theft was made they ranged themselves in support of it. They said he did not deliver any of the presents to the islanders, but kept them in the vessel and afterwards sold them at different ports. The judge, however stopped the case and the defendant and his witnesses were not called upon to deny the allegations. Amongst them was young Walter Lawis, and he was prepared to say that a boatload of packages was taken ashore and he was in the boat, facts which were established by a photograph of the boat loaded in the manner stated. And this testimony received support from a gentleman who, having seen the report of the first day's proceedings in the newspapers, came to the court voluntarily, prepared to say that the packing-case he had sent to the island had arrived, as he had received a letter of thanks for it from the island, and he felt it his duty to come and say so.

Captain Kerry himself apparently, on reaching England, had written letters of thanks to the donors expressing the islanders' gratitude, and to the donor of the tools which he was alleged to have sold at Sierra Leone he had sent the money he had received for them, and had explained the non‑delivery. And furthermore, he had called at the Colonial Office to complain of the quantity of rubbish sent, much of which, he said, had to be thrown overboard for sanitary reasons.

 p64  In his closing speech Mr. Gill argued that the captain had a trust reposed in him in the care of these gifts, being under a licence from the Colonial Office and so practically in the position of a public servant, but the judge replied with some contemptuous comment, saying that it might be fairly assumed that, under the circumstances, he did not anticipate being asked to carry such things as one thousand five hundred books for a few uneducated islanders, and it could hardly be said that hundreds of Bibles and Prayer Books were needed for such a community. The trial aroused considerable interest at the time, and not a little owing to the well-known people there were among the donors of the goods sent and the evidence they were in consequence called upon to give.

Thayer's Note:

a His name appears not to have been McCann, and he was only 17 or 18: see my note to Mackay, Angry Island, p138.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20