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Bill Thayer

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Part I (e)
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 (g)

Part I
Glimpses of Tristan da Cunha's Past

 p64  (f) A Sportsman on Tristan da Cunha

A Glance at its Wild Life

The young artist, Augustus Earle, who was marooned on Tristan da Cunha in the early days of the Settlement, had a gifted pen and a keen power of observation, and being an ardent sportsman the account he has left of his excursions among the wild life of the island is fascinating reading, and as the natural conditions there have changed very little, his descriptions of them are still relevant.

 p65  He has much to say about the sea‑elephant. He first made its acquaintance when he saw what the settlers call a "pod" of them. They were the bulls, and he found them strewn about the beach, where they lie inert for weeks, with the flies tormenting them, their eyes and nostrils stuffed with them, taking no food and living upon their own fat while it lasted, and then gradually wasting away. Their only period of activity was when the females came ashore to meet the bulls lying on the beach to receive them. A terrible snorting began, which was the signal for battle to determine which should be the champion of the strand. The monsters raised themselves on their flippers and threw themselves on each other, and as their mouths were wide and armed with formidable teeth, the wounds they gave and received were terrific. Thus the beach during the whole of the breeding season, as Mr. Earle says, was one scene of love and war.

In this connection the killing of a bull elephant is described, avowedly for the supply of the shoe-leather the settlers needed. They singled out a monstrous creature and boldly attacked him with lances, thrusting them repeatedly into his sides, while he threw himself about furiously and struggled and rolled towards the sea, and expired just as he reached the edge of it. He measured sixteen feet in circumference and twenty in length, his skin and blubber weighing three-quarters of a ton, and these  p66 with incredible labour the islanders got into their boat.

Another expedition is described, when Mr. Earle and his comrades visited a penguin rookery. The spot of ground occupied by the birds was bounded on each side by island bluffs, which extended far into the sea, and so to reach it and bring back the supply of eggs which was the purpose of the visit they went by boat. They heard the chattering of the penguins long before they reached them, and when they arrived, as they could find no landing-place, Earle and two of his companions swam ashore with bags tied round their necks to hold the eggs in. The rookery was at least a mile in circumference, covered with grasses and reeds higher than their heads, with the birds perched on large grey rocks emerging above the growth. As the writer said, the whole scene baffled description, thousands and hundreds of thousands of these creatures hopping around with voices very much resembling the human voice, and all speaking at once, and then the whole community so thickly clustered in groups that it was almost impossible to place the foot anywhere without despatching one of them. Like the sea‑elephants, they seemed to keep up a continual warfare with one another, and whenever one of them felt inclined to refresh herself by a plunge in the sea, she had to run the gauntlet of a whole street of penguins,  p67 every one pecking at her without mercy as she passed.

After raising a tremendous tumult in the colony, as Mr. Earle puts it, he and his companions came off victorious and captured about a thousand eggs. The birds clung to their nests as the marauders approached and had to be turned off, and this was not done without considerable resistance on their part. The season was not far advanced at the time and so all the eggs taken proved good, and they had a particularly fine and delicate flavour.

The hunting of the wild goats of the island (none of which are left) was another interest of Augustus Earle's, for later in his journal he writes that he went almost every day in pursuit of them. He would take the dogs with him, and after clambering up steep hills and catching sight of a flock, he would give chase, and if he succeeded in shooting one he would carry it back on his shoulders for home consumption. Two of these excursions he describes. Of the earlier one he said, the weather being apparently settled and all their potatoes planted, Glass determined to have a grand goat-hunt on the summit of the mountain and persuaded him to join the party. All their firearms, ammunition, and dogs were put in re­quisition, and at daybreak they started and about twelve o'clock had reached the top of the mountain. And then the unexpected happened. They had just gained a glimpse of three  p68 gangs of goats and were laying down their plan of attack, when suddenly a cloud came over them, which completely enveloped them, and they were at once "struck, like the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, blind and helpless, groping and stumbling like men in the dark." From the hour of the day they knew that there was no chance of its clearing off, and they were in a moment wet to the skin, and, moreover, left on the summit of a precipice. They had to feel their way, for they could not distinguish three yards around them, till they came to that part where they generally descended, and after wandering for several hours, cold, wet, and hungry, they reached the plain in safety, and the only thing they had obtained were some young albatrosses.

On the other occasion he described, Mr. Earle went on his own account with an Islander named White, one of the crew of the Blenden Hall, which long before had been wrecked on Inaccessible Island, and who had become a settler on Tristan. And again the unexpected happened. When they were about half‑way over the plain they discovered some fresh hog's dung, proof that one of these wild animals was in the neighbourhood, so Earle put a new flint in his gun and took charge of it himself. The dog soon took the scent, and followed the animal to its den, which was full of high grass, and they heard it rustling violently about and charging  p69 the dog. Not being able to see it, however, they were both uneasy, for they heard it champing its tusks close to hand. Then Earle sought a small eminence and obtained a sight of its back and bristles which stood up, and he took a steady aim and the animal fell. It proved to be a wild boar of enormous size and one that the settlers had often hunted without success. To get it home they had to return for assistance, as it weighed between three and four hundredweight.

Towards the end of the day Mr. Earle found every species of pastime and occupation exhausted. As an artist he found much enjoyment in the sketches he made, but his paper and pencils at last gave out. Both sides of the paper had been used and all that was left him was a "few blank leaves of some old tracts left here for the use of Glass and his comrades, dirty and sea‑stained." And then his gun ceased to be an amusement to him, for during the breeding season the birds came in multitudes, and, as he says, the principal pleasure in shooting is the excitement, the uncertainty, and the difficulty of following and bringing down your prize, and this is not to be found when you can take a waggon-load with your hands.

What is of particular interest is Mr. Earle's references to the bird life of the island and his mention of the flightless bird which then lived there, but which no doubt was afterwards  p70 exterminated by the cats which were introduced and soon ran wild. He describes them as small birds, about the size of our partridge, with a gait something like that of the penguin. The male was a glossy black, with a bright‑red, hard crest on the top of his head. The hen was brown. They stood erect and had long yellow legs, with which they ran very fast, and their wings were small and useless for flying, but they were armed with spears for defence, and, it was thought, for assisting them in climbing as they were generally found among the rocks. The name they gave this bird there was simply "cock," its only note being one much resembling that word, and his flesh was plump, fat, and excellent eating. In earlier days there were specimens of it in the Zoological Gardens, and the name given it was Porphyriornis nesiotis.

The mention of the bird is more especially interesting owing to the discovery, during this mission of 1922‑25, by the Rev. Henry Martyn Rogers on Inaccessible Island of a flightless rail — a similar bird of smaller dimensions — several specimens of which he sent home to me and which I afterwards exhibited on the Tristan da Cunha stall at the British Empire Exhibition. These are now at the National History Museum and they have been named after the finder, Atlantisia Rogersi.

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