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Bill Thayer

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Part II
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.
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Part IV

 p110  Part III
Administrative Prospects

For more than a hundred years the people of Tristan da Cunha have been self-supporting and seldom in their history has relief been given. Almost invariably it has been the other way, for many are the shipwrecked crews which have owed their existence to the island's courage and hospitality. The people are of the grit and substance of the rock they occupy, and if their independence would seem of late to have relaxed somewhat, it is due only to the difficult conditions under which they now live. The normal population is about eighty, and it now reaches one hundred and sixty-three. The writer some time ago received a letter from Robert Franklin Glass, the grandson of the founder. After saying that the means of subsistence was decreasing every year, while the population was increasing, he stated that a good living could be made on the island if only the islanders would join together like one man and start sowing on this or the neighbouring islands grain and more vegetables and going in for better stock, and if this were done, he calculated that, with six months' hard work, the islanders could make Tristan a prosperous little island. But it goes without saying that if the  p111 people were to work as one man, they required a lead.

The community of Tristan da Cunha may be defined as a simple republic bound by its customs enforced by common consent. It has been described as exactly fitting Herbert Spencer's definition of a simple society which forms a single working whole unsubjected to any other, and of which the parts co‑operate with or without (in this case without) any regulating centre. It exemplifies a civilized community in its elementary form, in which the father exercises rule over his own family, but can impose his will on no one but his wife and children. But though the father is by common consent head in his own household, there is no recognized head of the Settlement, and, when in the past — as in the case of William Glass, the founder, and after him, of Peter Green — circumstances created one, it had been solely due to the weight of personal ascendancy, and with the passing of personality equality in the community has revived.

Though the islanders render voluntary assistance as occasion requires, their independence is much cherished by them, and the drawbacks of this become manifest in the stifling of initiative and enterprise destined for the common good by way of public service, a striking instance of which was seen on the occasion of the visit of H. M. S. Dublin in 1923. The islanders are expert boatmen, and  p112 probably there is a little diversity of opinion amongst them as to the right thing to do on emergencies. But the want of an acknowledged head proved a source of embarrassment on this occasion, for, as the official report said, the members of the crew had many suggestions to offer, and it was only when all were agreed as to the course to be adopted or the moment to be chosen that the boats were well handled, and a strong beach party under a determined officer became necessary for the expeditious landing of the stores.

A lesson is to be learnt from this, for, under encouragement, the inhabitants have "joined together like one man" in the building of the church, and the work was achieved after nearly seventy years of fruitless effort. If they can do this, they can do the bigger thing of making Tristan "a prosperous little island," but, as encouragement was required for success in the one case, it is equally required for success in the other.

From this it may be doubted whether a community can long thrive that is not modelled on the constitution of the family with the discipline implicit in it. When Lycurgus was advised to establish a popular government in Lacedaemon, he said: "Go and first make a trial of it in thine own family,"​a and in these words the need for authority in the state, not less than in the family, was convincingly implied. For the maintenance of the community  p113 and the preservation of its independence it is necessary to overcome the inertia on Tristan da Cunha that marks the carrying out of the work necessary for the common good.

After successive attempts to solve the question of the island's future, the relations of the Mother Country have taken the form of a kindly indulgence towards the wish to people to live their own life in their own way. As far back as 1875 this disposition was shown, for, as already mentioned, it was then sought to introduce a rudimentary form of administration. The attempt was occasioned by an occurrence in the American Civil War, when the Shenandoah landed some forty prisoners on the island without providing for them, and when protest was made and the captain was told that the island was under the jurisdiction of Cape Town, he asked for production of some document to prove it.

The islanders sought protection against the repetition of an occurrence such as this. But the Government's scheme went farther. It proposed the appointment of a local magistrate as the medium through which all the public business of the island should be carried out and the vesting of a benevolent ultimate jurisdiction in the visiting warship. At this, however, the inhabitants took alarm and the scheme was dropped, the Authorities stating that in their opinion the actual social condition of the people seemed to be so satisfactory that it was very  p114 questionable whether any change made by authority would benefit them, that they were temperate and orderly, and their simple rules of conduct worked well.

All that the people wanted, in addition to the protection sought, was the presence of a resident minister, and, if one could be found with the intelligence and energy necessary to direct the inhabitants in the improvement of their land and the cultivation of their produce, they asked for nothing more.

It is felt that the question of administration lies not in the introduction of any cut-and‑dried scheme of official control, but in the vesting, as I have so long maintained, in the missionary for the time being of certain elementary administrative powers by way of trial and experiment. Judgment and tact, as much as intelligence and energy, are essential needs for the successful fulfilment of such an office, and they might not in every case be displayed, and, if only from such considerations, there is much to be said for the provision made in the Government's 1876 scheme of constituting the Commander of the Cape Station ex‑officio Governor of the island. Presumably he would hold the office with powers that could be delegated to the officer in command of the visiting warship, and it would be to such ex‑officio Governor that reports on the administrative side would be rendered by the missionary in charge.  p115 The occasional visit of a man-of‑war seems to be a necessary accompaniment of any conferment on the missionary of powers not within the conventional sphere of the mission, and a definition is required of what these are.

What these additional powers comprehend may be gathered in broad outline from the Government's scheme referred to, for no pains were spared by Captain Bosanquet when, in command of H. M. S. Diamond, he visited the island to study them. With the naval officer in charge of the Cape Station as Governor of the island and a member of the community as its magistrate, he defined the duties of the magistrate as those of seeing that the laws and regulations of the island were properly carried out; of carrying into effect the instructions received from the Governor with whom he would correspond and of acting as the medium through whom all the public business of the island would be conducted. For any change in the laws or regulations the people would be called together and their views sought and a vote taken, but no repeal would operate until confirmed by the Governor. The magistrate would have primary jurisdiction in all matters of dispute, whether between the inhabitants themselves or between them and such persons as might visit the island, but with the right reserved to the disputants of the submission of the issue for the decision of an island jury consisting of seven elders, all  p116 offences of a more serious character, however, being reserved for the consideration of the Governor, a full statement of the circumstances of which would be forwarded to him as opportunity offered. And as a final provision it was suggested that no person unconnected with the community should become a permanent resident on the island without the permission of the Governor, and a register of all the inhabitants should be left in which should be recorded all births, deaths, and marriages.

The proposal for constituting the Commander of the Cape Station ex‑officio Governor came about through the unwillingness of the Government of the Cape of Good Hope to undertake the supervision of the affairs of the island owing to their want of means of communication with it regularly except by one of His Majesty's ships. But there is no guarantee that under present conditions the Naval Commander would be prepared to accept the office, and in that event the course to be followed would be the one suggested by the Earl of Carnarvon that advantage be taken of the Statutory powers, and an Order in Council be obtained for the appointment of some person or persons on the island to be a magistrate and enacting a few regulations of a simple kind for the maintenance of good order, the encouragement of education, and the establishing of a public meeting of the inhabitants; and, it is hoped, for providing a stimulus for  p117 the welfare of the community and the ordering and development of its resources, for the preservation of its records of births, deaths, and marriages,​1 and, what might be of leading importance, the determination of questions of residence on the island of persons unconnected with it. In that event it is conjectured that while the missionary might be constituted H. M. Commissioner and Island Magistrate, reports would be rendered to the administrative authorities here, and the Governor's functions would be vested in them. At the suggestion of Bishop Watts this appointment the Rev. A. G. Partridge has now in fact received, and he will exercise its functions during the further term of service which he has now undertaken.

The Author's Note:

1 The earlier records were taken to the mainland when the Rev. W. F. Taylor and forty-five inhabitants left the island, and their whereabouts cannot now be traced.

Thayer's Note:

a Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 19.3.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20