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Bill Thayer

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Part III
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 V (a)

 p118  Part IV
The Question of Communications

In the earlier days of the Settlement and up to the middle of last century, the seas surrounding Tristan were alive with American whalers sent south from New Bedford. As many as sixty or seventy ships could be seen in the offing at the time, and the people used to supply them with refreshment and stores, including potatoes, and a brisk trade was carried on. At times as many as eighteen or twenty captains of these vessels would be ashore at the same time. Then, from constant chasing, the whales disappeared, and the whalers sought other fields. But there were still the clippers. In the journey south their course was dictated by the prevalence of the south-east trade winds which met them when they were nearing the Equator and compelled a near approach to the Brazilian coast. Then they took a direction southward to about 28 or 30 degrees south, and from this they bore towards the south-east, with a view to rounding the Cape, and passed Tristan da Cunha on the way. Though in the case of the clipper there was seldom any landing, still there was intercourse with the vessels when they touched there, for the  p119 islanders came off in their boats and an exchange of commodities was effected.

The table on the following page, copied from notes which the writer has preserved, is typical of the course taken by the clippers rounding the Cape, and shows how inevitable their approach to Tristan da Cunha was. The record is begun at the passing of [a map marker] Madeira and ends on reaching [a map marker] Tristan.

(p120) Days
on Course
in Knots
 8 160 33° 35′ N 17° 24′ W N.E. to N.N.E.
 9 195 30° 33′ N 18° 51′ W N.E.
10 134 28° 38′ N 20° 12′ W E.N.E. to N.E.
11 155 26° 26′ N 21° 44′ W E. to E.N.E.
12 160 24° 16′ N 23° 24′ W E.N.E.
13 167 21° 56′ N 25°  3′ W E. to E.N.E.
14 189 18° 58′ N 26° 12′ W E.N.E. to E.
15 164 16° 14′ N 26° 13′ W E.S.E. to E.N.E.
16 143 13° 52′ N 26° 17′ W N.E.
17 178 10° 54′ N 26° 17′ W E.N.E. to E.
18 132  8° 42′ N 25° 59′ W E.N.E. to S.
19  79  7° 43′ N 25°  6′ W S.W. to S.S.E.
20 100  6°  9′ N 23° 39′ W S.E.
21  86  4° 44′ N 25° 38′ W S.E.
22 117  4° 50′ N 23° 31′ W S. E. to S. by E.
23  97  3° 14′ N 23° 20′ W E. by E. to S. S. E.
24 208  0° 12′ N 25°  0′ W S. S. E. to S. E.
25 217  3° 23′ S 25° 23′ W E.S.E.
26 212  6° 35′ S 26° 12′ W E.S.E. to S.S.E.
27 205  9° 42′ S 28° 14′ W S.E. by S.
28 218 13° 14′ S 29°  4′ W S.S.E. to E.S.E.
29 249 17° 23′ S 29°  4′ W S.S.W. to S.E. by S.
30 202 20° 45′ S 29°  0′ W E.S.E. to E. by S.
31 189 23° 53′ S 28° 39′ W E. by S. to E.S.E.
32 165 26° 36′ S 28° 16′ W E.S.E.
33  61 27° 37′ S 28° 14′ W E. to E.S.E.
34  94 29°  9′ S 27° 54′ W E.S.E. to E.N.E.
35 150 31°  0′ S 26°  0′ W E.N.E. to N.E.
36 143 32° 46′ S 24°  8′ W E.N.E.
37 157 34° 16′ S 21° 37′ W N.E.
38 187 35° 41′ S 18° 14′ W N.E. to N.
39 182 36° 36′ S 14° 41′ W N.N.W. to S.W.
40 118 36° 53′ S 12° 14′ W S.S.W. to W.S.W.
41 174 37° 37′ S  8° 43′ W N.N.W. to N.

The clippers also have gone now, for in Lloyd's list, amongst many hundreds of ship owners, there are now few who are owners of sailing ships. And, as the whalers have not come back, the island is sunk in greater isolation than ever. Of course, no steamship that requires to round either the Cape or the Horn goes within many hundreds of miles of the island. The only ships (apart from an occasional whaler on its way from [a map marker] Durban to [a map marker] South Georgia) which traverse its waters are those which trade between Asia and South America, and which, in passing from the Cape to the Plate, go very near to Tristan. But they never call there voluntarily. They are ships with valuable cargoes, and are under risks to shippers and underwriters if they made a deviation of course and anything goes wrong.

And now, with the passing of the whaler and the clipper, the Admiralty has brought its yearly visits to an end. From the time of the boat disaster in 1886 the Admiralty were accustomed to send a warship annually to the island, but since the Boer  p120 War they have not done so. Even before the war endeavours were made to discontinue the service.  p121 In 1896 a communication was sent home from the Cape Station by Rear-Admiral Bedford suggesting that arrangements should be come to for maintaining regular communications with the island other than by the visit of a man-of‑war, and he proposed that certain whalers which cruised occasionally in the neighbourhood of Tristan da Cunha, and repaired twice a year to St. Helena to discharge their cargoes, should be utilized for the purpose. A minute to this effect was transmitted to the Colonial Office, and the Marquess of Ripon replied that, though he was anxious to relieve the Admiralty of the duty of calling at Tristan da Cunha, he deprecated a total cessation of their visits, and suggested a visit once in four years instead.

It then transpired that the whalers in contemplation, which were to take over the duties of maintaining communication with the island, were American whalers, and the Board of Trade, addressing itself to the Colonial Office, raised the point whether an annual visit from an American whaler would be as satisfactory to the inhabitants of "this English settlement" as a visit from an English man-of‑war, and this view the Marquess of Ripon shared. In the minute thereupon sent by the Colonial Office to the Admiralty, it was stated that his Lordship had been anxious to meet the wishes of the Lord Commissioners, but he could not avoid expressing his concurrence in the view taken by the  p122 Board of Trade that no satisfactory substitute could be devised for the annual visit of a British man-of‑war. And he observed that the islanders were British subjects, they had often rendered good service to British ships in distress, and it seemed undesirable, except for strong reason, to deprive them of the benefit of a visit once a year by one of Her Majesty's ships, and he hoped that the matter would be reconsidered and the present arrangement in substance maintained.

The reply of the Admiralty was a ready acceptance of this view. It ran: —

I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you, for the information of the Marquess of Ripon, that they concur in the undesirability of giving up the annual visits of a man-of‑war to Tristan da Cunha, and they have so informed the Commander-in‑Chief.

The annual visits were accordingly continued until the Boer War, but since then a different ordering of events has ruled. To judge from the Blue Books, the Admiralty's point of view has changed. Originally, rather than it should fail, the warship's visit to the island was made the real objective. Afterwards it was only regarded as incidental. If a ship were passing the neighbourhood of Tristan da Cunha, then a call at the island could be made, but ships were no longer sent periodically, and, according to the strict letter, they were not to be  p123 sent specially. If the strict letter prevailed, this would indicate a clear alteration of intention on the part of the Admiralty, but the sending of the Dublin in 1923 and the Carlisle now is proof of the fact that there is does not prevail, and that the Admiralty are sensitive to appeal.

Such visits serve as a reminder to the islanders of their Imperial connection, and what the discontinuance of them means in the way of loss of incentive and encouragement was shown by Mrs. Barrow in her book when she describes the preparation made for an expected arrival of a warship. She says "houses are being whitewashed, painted, and scrubbed. The Repettos finished theirs some time ago, and the large sitting-room is not allowed to be used, that it may be kept 'quite clean' for the great event, should it come off." And she adds, "The minds of the inhabitants are centred on the arrival of a warship: it is the great event in their lives, and they cannot yet believe one is not coming."

The difficulty of reaching the island has prevailed throughout. Even in 1851 it was made apparent in the case of the Rev. W. F. Taylor. In consequence of the mists, the captain of the ship he went in was engaged in searching for it upwards of a week, and it was only when he had given up the search in despair and had headed for the Cape that it was sighted accidentally. Both the Rev. E. H. Dodgson and the Rev. J. G. Barrow had to make  p124 their own arrangements for passage after long delay and at considerable cost, and Mr. Dodgson had the additional misfortune of losing all his equipment in the heavy seas on landing. And when later Mr. and Mrs. Borrow went to South America and afterwards to South Africa, and went at their own expense, with a view to finding a vessel to take them to the island on a second term of service, their journey was on each occasion a fruitless one and they had to return. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers had to wait nearly twelve months for a ship, and, just as the letters and parcels sent in 1916 and the stores in 1918 were taken by foreign vessels — Norwegian whalers — so Mr. and Mrs. Rogers had to look to a foreign vessel for means of access. They were taken by a Japanese liner in the course of its passage from the Cape to Rio — the first Japanese ship to call at the island, and the first ship of any kind to call there for nearly eighteen months.

That a British settlement should be left dependent on foreign vessels for its means of communication was singularly unfortunate, and but for the war and the difficulties to which it gave rise, it was the more to be regretted in the light of the Marquess of Ripon's declaration to which reference has been made. But the acceptance of foreign aid for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers's passage was unavoidable. No effort had been spared to obtain the means of  p125 access required from British sources, and when the Admiralty was approached, the request met with no response, and a further four or five months were then occupied in endeavours to find the means of passage required amongst merchant vessels, whalers, and yachts, but without result. Thus the prospect of getting them out gradually darkened, and it was only when hope was almost abandoned and they were on the point of withdrawal of the offer of service that help came, and it came from Japan. The Osaka Shosen Kaisha line promised to detail one of its vessels in its passage across the South Atlantic and break the journey at the island, and it made the offer for a purely nominal consideration and with the promise of a two‑days' sojourn at the island if the ship was met with weather conditions that prevented a landing. This offer was made by cablegram from Japan early in February 1922, and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers were taken on board at Cape Town and reached the island on the 1st of April following.

Towards the end of the year the appeal to the Admiralty for the visit of a warship was renewed, and on this occasion it was made through Mr. Amery, who was then First Lord. A very considerable quantity of stores and provisions had been collected by means of gifts from merchants and purchases with donations, and there was no means of forwarding them. In the result, H. M. S. Dublin  p126 was sent from the Cape station, and it reached the island on the 26th March "in the nick of time," as Mr. Rogers afterwards wrote, for the potato harvest had proved a complete failure. But he and his wife now had the prospect of a further two years on the island, and no ship visited it during that time. Every endeavour was made to find one, but without success, and when they left the island early in 1925 they came by a ship that had chanced to call there, the Ramon de Larrinaga. Great anxiety was felt here owing to the inability to communicate with the island over so long a period, and there were ample grounds for it as it proved, as the supplies had become all but exhausted. Their meals had been reduced to a few boiled potatoes, with a cup of butter and about a pint of milk daily between the three of them (themselves and their child), for it so happened that their last six or eight months on the island had been the hardest experienced there during their visit.

The termination of Mr. and Mrs. Rogers's service on the island seemed to mark the beginning of an era of less severity in the matter of communication with it, for they brought away with them a petition to the Government, signed by Mr. Rogers himself and forty‑one of the islanders, in which an appeal was made for an annual mail, and the visit of a warship when an ordinary ship could not be found to carry it. The reply to this was an expression of  p127 sympathy with the people and the holding out of an expectation of a visit by one of His Majesty's ships every three or four years. And apart from this was the assurance that every opportunity would be taken to make use of such means of communication with the island as might present itself.

With this, it now became apparent that, though the renewal of periodical intercourse with the island in the form of an annual mail was not yet reached, it had been demonstrated beyond all question that the means of more frequent communication was attainable if only it were sought. The visit of the Royal Research Ship Discovery took place in January 1926 as the first response to the islanders' petition, and, following this, the Government provided a yearly means of shipment to the Island. Apart from this, in the consignment of stores and provisions, the Crown Agents for the Colonies have always rendered valuable help; the Union Castle Steamship Company has throughout generously taken them to South Africa without charge for freight, and, on arrival there, they have been transhipped to vessels crossing the South Atlantic with which the Government's arrangements have been made for delivery at the island.

These visits have been annual ones, made in the height of the southern summer, when adverse weather conditions for landing were least likely. Beginning in 1927, early in that year the vessel chosen was  p128 Messrs. Andrew Weir & Co.'s steamship Suveric, in February 1928 it was Messrs. Harrison's vessel Author, and in 1929 it was the Halesius, owned by Messrs. R. P. Houston & Co. In the following year Messrs. Andrew Weir & Co. again provided the means of shipment, this time by their vessel Tymeric, which called at the island on the 12th of February, and in 1931 the Seringa, one of the steam whalers of Messrs. Salvesen & Co., failing a British vessel, took the stores and landed them on the 6th of March on her way to South Georgia. This year has been signalized by the visit of the warship H. M. S. Carlisle, sent specially on the occasion of the appointment of the new Bishop of St. Helena, who travelled to the island as a passenger in her to make acquaintance with this outlying part of his diocese.

Emerging from these advances in re‑establishing intercourse with the island, a new chapter opened up, temporarily though it may be, in the shape of voluntary visits of big liners in their passage with tourists across the South Atlantic on world tours. The example was set by the R. M. S. P. Orca, which reached the island on 26th of February, 1926. Unfortunately, however, the weather conditions were such that a landing could not be effected, and the men did not come out, because, as it afterwards proved, they were all away at Inaccessible Island. But a raft with supplies was set afloat in the hope  p129 that it would reach the island, but it never did as, unknown on the ship, the normal current has an outward direction. Captain le Brecht, who was in command, however, was not discouraged by this ineffectual visit, and in the course of his tour the following year in R. M. S. P. Asturias, to which he had been transferred, he made another attempt — a successful one — which proved memorable alike to his passengers and the islanders. Later in the year, namely, the beginning of May, the Cunard liner Franconia, chartered by Messrs. Thomas Cook & Son, was due to call with three hundred and fifty tourists, but severe gales unfortunately prevented the visit. The disappointment was as great on the ship as it was on the island, for some £200 had been collected amongst the passengers and spent on gifts for the people, and the women on board had been busy knitting garments for the children. The means, however, was found of conveying these things to the people the following year. The great event of 1928 was the visit of the Canadian Pacific Steamships liner, the Empress of France, which called at the island on the 25th of February, and it was the more interesting because it marked the first occasion in which the women and children had been received on board as guests of the ship and fêted. And such was the success of the event that another visit was paid the following year, this time by the Canadian Pacific Steamships liner, the  p130 Duchess of Atholl, which called at the island on the 24th of February, 1929, but on this occasion the weather conditions were less favourable and intercourse with the ship was more difficult.

With the arrangements now made by the Colonial Office for an annual mail and conveyance of stores to the island, no desire for better things should be allowed to disturb the sure foundations in the matter of intercourse with the island which the Government's help provides. Still, much as these arrangements are valued, they afford a partial solution only of the problem of communications. What is necessary in its development is the means of passage to and fro, and it is difficult to see how the work of the new Welfare Committee in South Africa is to prove effective unless this means is attained. The island's problem centres in its growing over-population and the want of an outlet for its younger members, and yet the means of communication now afforded promises no solution of this; for while it ensures the carriage of stores and provisions and the delivery of an annual mail, the ships that convey them do not return to the Cape, but continue their passage to South America, and when they do return they do not approach the island on the routes taken. Even in the early days of the Settlement, an attempt was made to meet this want of means of communication to and fro, when William Glass, the founder of the Settlement, made  p131 his one and only visit to the Cape, where he arranged the terms of purchase of a small vessel for the island's use. The price of the vessel was fixed at £700, and she was to be paid for by means of the first cargoes sent in her to the Cape. She reached the island and was in due course sent back loaded, and she soon afterwards returned and took another cargo, which in its turn was landed, and altogether things looked promising. But the inhabitants saw nothing further of her, for she then went on a short cruise along the coast of Africa and on her return to the Cape was lost in Table Bay.

Only a few years ago a scheme originated at Cape Town, under the stimulus of Mr. Percy Snell, now the Hon. Secretary of the new Tristan Welfare Committee, for the purchase by means of Home and South African Government grants, supplemented by private donations, of a small vessel to be managed by a local board and manned as far as possible by islanders. The scheme was laid before Mr. Amery on his Empire tour, and a definite offer of a suitable vessel was subsequently made and submitted to the Dominions Office for consideration, but as it implied an expenditure of some £6,500, financial questions have blocked the way. Possibly at such cost the scheme is too ambitious for the resources available, or likely to be, and it may be that success is more likely of achievement in providing this means of passage to and fro if one were  p132 sought more the equivalent of the one adopted by the Government in 1907, when, to meet an emergency, they chartered the S. V. Greyhound, through Messrs. Stephan Brothers, of Cape Town. This vessel had a registered tonnage of 191 tons, with a carrying capacity of 320 tons, and the charge at that time was £6 per day, with a minimum charge of £180 and a tariff for the island passengers, who might return with the vessel, of 2s. 6d. a day each, as many as eighty being regarded as a possibility on the occasion. Though the postwar charges would be considerably higher, they might yet be within the limits of an outlay that could be met. No doubt the question of communications in the fuller sense will be explored by the Welfare Committee, and it suffices to state as an incontrovertible fact that, apart from the warship's visits, the present means of communication furnish no facilities for the passage of emigrants to the Cape and so the means of outlet so much required for the island's surplus members. Thus the problem of communications remains the island's most pressing one.

As possibilities emerge, as a development of the future, of communications with Tristan da Cunha by air, it is interesting to look back at the day when they were first brought about by steam. Though the beginning of steam navigation did not come till  p133 the commencement of the nineteenth century and the Atlantic was not crossed by steam until 1819, the first visit of a steamship to Tristan da Cunha did not take place until 1852 — thirty-three years later — when H. M. S. Torch called there.

It was on Tuesday, the 16th of November, that the ship appeared. H. M. S. Herald, bound on an exploring voyage to the South Pacific, had visited the island, and her commander, Captain Denham, had spent the day ashore taking observations. This caused some excitement amongst the inhabitants, but nothing to be compared with that created by his announcement that H. M. Steamer Torch, acting as tender to his ship, was on her way and was expected to touch there. All began eagerly to watch for her coming, for all had heard of the mighty monster steam, but only one or two had seen it in actual operation.

On the Monday following, the steamer not appearing, the men determined to row round the island, and the Rev. W. F. Taylor, the missionary there, who describes the event, accompanied them. They started late, having decided to spend the night in a large cave to the south and return the next morning. With the break of dawn they were moving, when suddenly there was a cry of "Sail ho!" and a few minutes after a further cry of "It's the steamer," as a long column of smoke was seen issuing from the vessel. At first she seemed to be  p134 making for them, and the men were inclined to make for her and go on board. But they soon realized that she was steering in an opposite direction, towards the other islands, and they had nothing then to do but to hasten home in the hope that she would afterwards come round to them, a hope which was not disappointed.

The men had just time to get back when the steamer was seen gliding round the east point of the island, and the people were soon on board of her. Her commander, Lieutenant Chimmo, received them kindly and presently came himself on shore. He then gave everyone permission to go on board, to see the wonder, and every man and boy upon the island availed himself. Mr. Taylor returned with him, and was much amused at the wonder-stricken faces with which the boys beheld the ponderous masses of the engine-works as they first began to move. One or two were ready to rush out of the engine-room in affright, but in a few minutes they gained confidence and were much delighted. Some of the oldest amongst the men had never seen such a thing and, including Governor Glass, were as much delighted as any of the boys. Lieutenant Chimmo, too, seemed quite as pleased to exhibit the wonders of his vessel to such novices as they were to see them. Then, having dined with him on board, they bade him farewell and returned on shore, grateful for a most pleasant day's enjoyment,  p135 and soon afterwards they saw the departure of the first and only steamer that up to then had visited Tristan.

The day cannot be far distant when the inhabitants of "the lonely island" will experience the surprise of a visit by air in much the same way as in those earlier days they had the surprise of a visit by steamship. Though the difficulties are great, there are definite advantages on the island. While there is no harbour that could be used by a seaplane, there is a plateau, which in point of area at least, with its length of nine miles and depth of a mile and a half,​a would serve for the landing of the large machine that would be required. There is a British community resident on the island with whom all necessaries for a continuance of the flight could be stored. The paramount difficulty with ships lies in locating the island; but this is due to the limited horizon. From above, the island might be more conspicuous.

With the progress that is now being made in aviation, and in face of the fact that the Atlantic has been flown and the North Pole reached, it is not too much to expect that the South Atlantic will in due time be crossed, and that Tristan da Cunha will be utilized as a stopping-place midway. From the Cape to Buenos Aires the island lies on the direct route, and whereas the journey direct means a crossing of about four thousand miles, the  p136 utilization of Tristan would enable it to be made in a double effort, each within the measure of existing possibilities.

The subject of communications with the island by air was raised by the author in an article in The Times of the 19th of October, 1931, and on his suggestion it has since been made matter of official investigation by H. M. S. Carlisle on its recent visit. The report presented is regarded as confidential, but the publication of it in due course will be looked forward to with interest, small though the prospect may be of its offering any encouragement under present conditions.

Thayer's Note:

a Something is wrong here. The maximum distance across Tristan is only about 7.6 miles (12.2 km), from 1 the shore at the Settlement to 2 the opposite side of the island. I suspect an uncorrected typographical error for five miles (8 km), since the east side of the island does appear to include a relatively flat area five miles by maybe a mile and a half across, from 3 the vicinity of Snell's Beach to 4 some rugged terrain in the south:

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