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In the relief of the shipwrecked, Tristan da Cunha holds a unique position. Where else can be found a community seldom numbering more than thirty or forty adults, who, in a period of eighty years, have been the saviours in seventeen shipwrecks, and who have not only performed the work of rescue, but have housed, fed, and clothed the shipwrecked, often for months at a time, without recompense and in spite of their privations?
The Island of Ushant has a memorable record, too, and in some respects serves by way of a parallel. But its services are not the comprehensive ones of Tristan da Cunha. For Ushant has carried out the work of rescue, but it has not had the burden cast upon it of the maintenance of those it has saved. Moreover, Ushant is within the organization of the lifeboat service, and is properly equipped for the work. Tristan, on the other hand, has only the boats of its own manufacture, made as they are of driftwood and scraps of timber pieced together and then covered with canvas, and they carry their own risks of disaster in the heavy seas in which they are employed when wrecks occur. And when it is remembered that several of the more notable shipwrecks have taken place on the neighbouring island of Inaccessible, •twenty miles away, p72 and the island boats have had to make the passage to and fro several times to complete their work, it will be seen what a special place Tristan holds in the saving of life at sea.
[By courtesy of the Canadian Pacific Steamships, Limited
Boat-building on Tristan da Cunha
The island's record of service begins in 1821 with the wreck of the Indiaman, the Blenden Hall, on Inaccessible Island, one of the Tristan group, and the circumstances of the heroic rescue by Tristan islanders and their treatment of the survivors are told by one of them.
According to this account, the ship had sailed from England for Bombay on May 9, 1821, and on the 23rd of July following the wreck occurred, and crew and passengers numbering fifty‑two were cast on the desolate island of Inaccessible, and there they would have remained in distress and anxiety but for the rescue by the people of Tristan. The ship's carpenter and boatswain constructed a boat out of the wreck — the ship's boats having been lost when the ship struck — and on the 8th of November they themselves, and a few more of the crew, crossed over to Tristan. Six others of the crew had previously made the attempt, but never returned, but the carpenter, boatswain, and their companions reached the island safely, and had the good fortune to find there a "man named W. Glass, formerly a corporal in the Royal Artillery, who had been on the island since the year 1817." This man, the story continues, "with laudable zeal which p73 must ever reflect the utmost credit on himself, and a few people that are with him on the island, immediately proceeded to Inaccessible taking with him all manner of refreshments for the relief of the unhappy sufferers, part of whom he took back with him the next day to Tristan, where all experienced such marked attention from himself, his wife, and people, as soon made us appear new beings altogether. They not only gave up their houses and beds for our accommodation, but likewise gave us all manner of wearing apparel that they possessed, though putting themselves to the greatest inconvenience to do so, particularly Mrs. Glass — she being far advanced in pregnancy. Such kind treatment has made a great impression on our minds, such as neither distance nor time can obliterate; this especially being strengthened by the thought of their having hazarded their lives for us so often — three times crossing a dangerous and uncertain sea, a distance of •twenty-five miles, in an open boat, to get off all hands from the scene of our misfortune." The people remained on the island for about two months, and, it is said, made fearful inroads on the slender stock of provisions the settlement contained.
The wreck next recorded was that of the English brig, Nassau, homeward bound from Australia in 1825. It was cast ashore on the far side of the island, and the shipwrecked crew were fetched by p74 Glass and his companions after twelve days of unsuccessful attempts owing to the weather. According to the account of the chief mate, they were most kindly received, and they remained with the islanders about two months.
Ten years later the schooner Emily was wrecked on the island. She dragged on to a reef near the shore and soon went to pieces. No lives were lost, but the men saved nothing except their clothes, some provisions and a few seal skins. A few days later they made their way around to the inhabited side of the island, where, their account says, "we were kindly received and entertained by Mr. Glass and his worthy family, notwithstanding that that family was at the time very large, and much crowded owing to the same gale of wind having just blown down the house of his son-in‑law." So kindly were the crew treated, it is stated, that three of the number decided to remain there.
Between the time of the wreck of the Emily and the year 1877, six wrecks occurred, five on Tristan and one on Inaccessible. Amongst these is recorded the loss of the British ship Joseph Somes in 1856. It caught fire and was burnt near the anchorage facing the Settlement, and the passengers and crew, numbering fifty-three, were landed and received food and shelter until taken away to Cape Colony by a whaling vessel that called at the island. With regard to the other five wrecks during this period, p75 no particulars are at the moment at hand, but it may well be that the same undenying service was rendered in these cases as those in regard to which detail is given. This is the more likely because Peter Green, the headman at the time, speaking of this period, said that the number of distressed persons who had landed on the island amounted to about two hundred, and all wrecked crews were billeted upon each house and were maintained at the public expense until some vessel conveyed them way.
In 1877 occurred the wreck of an American vessel already referred to, the Mabel Clark, and the islanders showed great gallantry in saving the crew and great humanity in supporting them for nearly a year afterwards. The United States Government rewarded the people for what it termed "their gallantry, heroism, and humanity," and sent for presentation to them a gold chronometer and chain for Peter Green, and a binocular glass and £40 in gold for distribution.
Six years later the Shakespeare was wrecked on Inaccessible Island, and the crew were transferred to Tristan, and the British Government wrote recognizing the hospitality shown by the people to the shipwrecked.
The next wreck took place in 1893 at Tristan. It was that of the sailing ship, the Allen Shaw, and the inhabitants supported the shipwrecked "most p76 hospitably," as the Board of Trade acknowledged, feeding, housing, and clothing them for ninety‑two days for nothing.
In 1897 the barque Helen S. Lea was wrecked on Inaccessible Island. It was bound for Fremantle, Australia, and mistook its bearings and ran on the rocks with terrific force and settled rapidly down by the stern. It was •a third of a mile from the shore, but the crew found it impossible to land, being unable to discover an opening in the great cliffs. They then made for Nightingale Island, •ten miles distant, and were unable to effect a landing there for the same reason, and eventually they made for Tristan, where, it is stated, "a most hospitable reception was given to the shipwrecked men."
The last recorded wreck is that of the Glen Huntly in 1898, when in this case too the islanders undertook the maintenance and support of the unfortunate crew. Captain R. R. Shaw, who was in command, writing afterwards to a friend regarding the event, stated that he and his crew were 154 days on the island, and when they left they were taken by the British warship Thrush and landed at Cape Town after many disappointments from passing vessels. The first ship that approached the island and was boarded by us, he said, "was the American vessel S. D. Carlton, on September 16th, from New York, on her way to Hong‑Kong. I wanted the captain to take us to the Cape of Good Hope, but he could p77 not. Our second mate, however, went on her. Three days afterwards we sighted a sail from the high land at the foot of the mountain, and that afternoon eight men and myself left in a small boat and got to her, sailing and rowing until about 10 P.M. She proved to be the four-masted barque, Strathgryfe, of Greenock, bound from New York to Melbourne. They also could not take us, but the captain gave us seventy pounds of bread, fifty pounds of flour, fourteen pounds of coffee, and some tobacco. That was the first substantial food and the first tobacco we got since we reached the island. As the population of the place, with our eleven, had been increased to eighty-three, the supplies did not last long. "And yet the islanders shared what they had," and this at a time of evident privation. For he says they divided their stock of eaglets and penguin flesh and eggs with them, and the Governor of the island gave him shelter, and the rest of the crew were quartered at the houses of the natives. "I never thought," he adds, "that there were white people so poor as the seventy‑two who made Tristan d'Acunha their home."
Yes, regardless of the fact that this South Atlantic Island affords the means of succour for the shipwrecked at a spot where means of succour is vital and where the shipwrecked must otherwise perish, the compulsory evacuation of it has, from time to time, been urged, and solely as an alternative to meeting p78 the cost of occasional communication with it. The island has had intervals of immunity from shipwrecks, and these have from time to time been used to justify the prediction that this immunity was permanent. On the occasion of the visit of H. M. S. Curaçao in 1889, the captain reported that "the want of a depot there for shipwrecked crews seemed to have passed away." The statement was made merely on the strength of the fact that there had been no ship lost since that Shakespeare was wrecked on Inaccessible six years before. Yet, within the nine years following this prediction, no fewer than four ships were lost, all at Tristan.
Of more recent times no record is to hand of any shipwreck at Tristan since the Glen Huntly was lost there in 1898. This is a long period, and it might easily again give encouragement to the view that the period of shipwreck at Tristan was over. But such confidence is not justified. For when, at an earlier period, in the middle of last century, there was a prolonged instance of shipwreck, immediately following it, four ships were lost in quick succession, the Ralph Abercrombie at Inaccessible in 1870, the Beacon Light at Tristan in 1871, and the Czarina and Olympia in 1872.
That such immunity as Tristan has to all appearance lately enjoyed does not spell the end of disaster is shown by the fact that there is still no lack of shipping on the surrounding seas. Vessels p79 will not willingly approach the island, owing to the risk of shipwreck which is known to exist there, but that many pass by is shown by the fact that the missionary, the Rev. H. M. Rogers, as he stated in The Times, saw as many as three in the distance on a single day. Nobody would say that the days of shipwreck at Ushant are over, nor can the same be said with regard to the days of shipwreck at Tristan. If we take the period dating from the loss of the Glen Huntly at Tristan in 1898, we find an absence of shipwreck at the French Island that very nearly corresponds with the absence of shipwreck at the South Atlantic Island. Excluding the four years of the war, when conditions at sea in home waters were abnormal, and during which six wrecks occurred on Ushant and the neighboring island of Molene, we find that there has been no notable wreck on Ushant since the Drummond Castle was lost there in 1896.
The importance of the maintenance of the Settlement on Tristan as a refuge for the seaman in distress has throughout been freely acknowledged, and the cost of sending a warship there annually, as in the past, should not weigh. In 1873 the Challenger testified to the immense advantage of the habitation to the sailor, and the same view was expressed by the Colonial Office in a minute addressed to the Admiralty on January 22, 1895, which said that the islanders were British subjects, that they had p80 often rendered good service to British ships in distress, and it seemed undesirable, except for strong reasons, to deprive them of the benefit of the visit once a year of one of Her Majesty's ships.
As Mr. Hammond Tooke, the South African Minister for Agriculture, who was sent officially to the island in 1904, stated in his report, and his words still hold good, we have not to undertake the cost of maintaining the islanders as they are self-supporting, and the only expense of sending a warship periodically would be the cost of the coal burned on the voyage from and to the Cape. Unless, he adds, "it is proposed to keep His Majesty's ships of war locked up in dockyards for the sake of economy, the ship that would otherwise have taken its annual trip to the island will be burning coal on the voyage somewhere else; and if our fleet is to continue to hold the proud privilege of being police of the seas, it hardly seems judicious to neglect such an important beat as the South Atlantic."
This is a long and noble record, and the question presents itself, What has the Empire done in return? The facts are these.
In 1876 is the first mention of a donation to the island. An appeal was made in that year to the Treasury to place £200 at the disposal of the Colonial Office for Tristan da Cunha "to make the islanders some useful present," but there is nothing p81 to show that the appeal was answered and the money found.
There is no further allusion to a gift until 1886, when the boating disaster occurred and fifteen of the men were drowned. Then £100 was provided and the money laid out in the purchase of stores.
On the occasion of the wreck of the Allen Shaw, stores of the value of £100 were sent, but they were sent "in recognition of services rendered." And similarly, on the wreck of the Glen Huntly in 1898, £120 was spent on stores, and they were sent "in acknowledgment of the kindness shown."
In 1907, when reports reached this country of the destitution of the people, the Government found £100, and stores were bought with it and sent out.
The periodical visits of the men-of‑war from 1886 until the Boer War demand reference, for they were a source of great satisfaction to the islanders, bringing them, as the visits did, within the family circle of the Mother Country and her children. But they have never increased the island's indebtedness by contributing gratuitously to its supplies. From the outset in 1886, an official Admiralty order was in operation that "as a rule, no provisions for stores be issued without repayment in money or kind, unless the officer visiting the island thinks it absolutely necessary on account of disaster, in which case he is to report amount."
p82 Two sums of £100 each represent the only moneys granted to the islanders on a purely compassionate basis of which there is proof, and the total is not much set against the provision they have made for the shipwrecked, to say nothing of the lives they have saved. Pitcairn, without such deserts in point of actual service rendered, experienced better treatment, and this shows how little justification there is for the suggestion that Tristan da Cunha's self-respect and independence are involved.
In the case of Pitcairn, in 1852 the Pitcairn Fund Committee was formed in London with a distinguished personnel, and the donations to it were so liberal that not only were the people's present wants satisfied, but £500 was carried to a reserve fund. And when, several years later, removal was decided on, the Government undertook it at an estimated cost of nearly £5,000. The Government gave each family •50 acres in fee of land in Norfolk Island, a great part of which was cleared, fenced, and cultivated. It transferred to the people all the buildings, furniture, tools, and implements which had served the disused prison settlement there; and, instead of realizing them, it gave the people all the stock, including two thousand sheep, three hundred cattle, and horses, pigs, and poultry, and with hay and straw in abundance. It victualled the settlement for six months with biscuits, flour, maize, rice, and groceries, and it watched over it while the newcomers p83 were settling in and sent fit and competent persons to assist them.
The later consignments to Tristan da Cunha come under a different category from the two already mentioned. They are the outcome of impulse entirely unofficial. Whether they create new obligations on the part of the islanders or serve by way of contra account may be matter of opinion. Certainly those who inspired them did so in no sense of charity. It may be held that the Empire's obligations have lapsed by operation of time, and that the generation of to‑day has no right to look for recompense for services rendered by the generation of yesterday. This may be so, but the Rev. J. G. Barrow, the late missionary, has given a better lead, and it would be well that we should follow it. His mother was one of those who, as a child, was wrecked on Inaccessible Island in the Blenden Hall, and eighty-four years later her son sought to discharge the obligation he felt to the people of Tristan da Cunha who rescued her by accepting service there as their missionary. Numerous other lives have in like manner been preserved by these people, and it is to be hoped that the time has come when, by means of some appropriate recognition, the obligation with regard to these will be met also. Tristan da Cunha remains an ocean refuge, and the inhabitants are its keepers and should be treated accordingly.
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