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Part V (b)
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 V
The Health Perfections of the People

 p163  (c) Their Moral Health

It would seem, too, that the moral and spiritual condition of the people corresponds with their physical condition. It has been repeatedly stated that there is no crime or immorality on the island. The reports of the Dublin testify to the character of the Settlement. They say that the standard of morals is high and compares favourably with that of villages in England. Only two cases of children born out of wedlock have occurred in the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and in the more recent case the parents have since married. On the occasion of H. M. S. Dublin's visit in 1923 the women gave the impression of being gifted with good looks and they appeared extremely healthy and well-dressed, and the cleanliness and tidiness of the homes and the healthy appearance of the children afforded clear proof that the women fulfilled their duties. The clothing of the men, too, was in good order, and they were all properly shaved though  p164 they had no warning of the warship's coming, and they looked as healthy as the women. And this high standard is reached in spite of the fact that the Mother Country exercises no authority over them and they are left under the rule of their own customs. The advantages of the small community from this example receive further illustration. In the case of Pitcairn, social purification developed from a source apparently less propitious, and the conditions there so faithfully portrayed by Mr. Whiteing in The Island may be accepted as depicting those which, in all essentials of character and way of life, obtain on Tristan da Cunha to‑day. The subject warrants the fuller consideration now given it.

Pitcairn in the South Pacific, and Tristan da Cunha, in the South Atlantic, are associated in the minds of many, and in some respects they afford a striking parallel. But there is a distinguishing feature. For, unlike the good beginnings on Tristan, the fine qualities of the people of Pitcairn evolved from a dark and unpropitious source. The original settlers were the mutineers of the Bounty, and their early history was a record of strife and bloodshed. After taking possession of the ship and setting Captain Bligh adrift, they called at Tahiti, where some of them remained. Nine, however, left and took with them native women as their wives, and six Tahitan men with the wives of three of them. With one child in their company they numbered  p165 twenty-eight, and that was the original Pitcairn settlement.

They had not been long on the island before it became a stage for the display of every evil passion. Four of the mutineers were murdered by the Tahitan men, and they, in their turn, were killed by way of reprisal. The conditions thereupon became so intolerable that the women sought escape secretly in a boat, but it was swamped and they were brought back. They returned, however, only to plan the destruction of the four white men left amongst them. Of these two committed suicide, and a third was murdered, leaving John Adams as the only surviving man on the island, and with him, in addition to the women, were twenty children, offspring of the original settlers.

This culmination was reached in the year 1800, eleven years from the date of the mutiny. It was not until 1814 that the landing on Pitcairn became known. It was discovered by Captain Sir Thomas Staines and Captain Pipon when in pursuit of an American ship-of‑war. And they found on the island a community which could hardly have been within their expectations, having in mind the sinister events which gave rise to it. A complete moral and spiritual transformation had supervened, and in the letter which Captain Staines wrote describing his visit he referred to the change in the following words: "A venerable old man named John Adams," he  p166 said, "is the only surviving Englishman of those who last quitted Otaheite in her (the Bounty) and whose exemplary conduct and fatherly care of the whole little colony could not but command admiration. The pious manner in which all those born on the island have been reared, the correct sense of religion which has been instilled into their young minds by this old man, has given him the pre‑eminence over them, to whom they look up as the father of the whole and one family."

The change, too, was a permanent one. The Rev. T. B. Murray, writing nearly fifty years later in his work on the island, said that there had been no variation in this character of the people. They were the same contented, kind, and God‑fearing race. Captain Worth, who visited them in March 1848 in H. M. S. Calypso, wrote that he and was so gratified by such a visit, and would rather have gone there than to any part of the world. "They are the most interesting, contented, moral, and happy people that can be conceived," he wrote. As is well known, they won the heart of Sir Fairfax Moresby, the Admiral of the Station. He delighted in visiting them, and in a letter which he wrote in August 1852 he gave expression to his feelings in the following words: "Of all the eventful periods which have chequered my life," he said, "none have surpassed in interest, and (I trust and hope) in future good, our visit to Pitcairn, and surely the  p167 hand of God has been in all this, for, by chances the most unexpected, and by favourable winds out of the usual course of the trades, we were carried in eleven days to Pitcairn's from Borabora. It is impossible to describe the charm that the society of the islanders throws around them, under the providence of God." As will be remembered, the character of these people has received a memorable setting in Richard Whiteing's story of The Island, and this without any "painting of the lily."

The beginnings on Tristan da Cunha were different, for William Glass, the founder of the Settlement, as already shown, was a man of fine character, and he exercised a beneficial influence from the outset and maintained it throughout the thirty-seven years he spent on the island until his death in 1853. His wife was a Cape creole, and the later arrivals who became his companions married native women from St. Helena, but, all the same, the character of the community quickly established itself, and it has ever since been marked by the high qualities it so early assumed. What Mr. Hammond Tooke, the Minister for Agriculture of the South African Government, said of the people on the occasion of his official visit in 1904, is what has been said of them throughout their history by all who have lived amongst them or come in contact with them.

Looking back, we find the same tribute paid by Mr. Augustus Earle, the artist and naturalist, who  p168 spent eight months on the island in 1827. The Rev. W. F. Taylor, the first missionary to serve there, held them in equal esteem, and his regard was shared by his successors, the Rev. E. H. Dodgson, in the 'eighties; the Rev. J. G. Barrow, who, with his wife, spent three years at Tristan, ending in 1909; and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, who were there from 1922 to 1925. In the reports of every warship which has visited the island since 1875, justification for Mr. Tooke's praises is to be found, and not least in the reports of H. M. S. Dublin, which was sent to the island in 1923. Well might Mr. Barrow write of them, as he did, that they had many virtues, that they were truthful and honest, brave and generous, well-mannered and industrious, and were worthy of all that could be done for them.

Pitcairn and Tristan da Cunha are standing examples of the social purification that operates amidst small communities left to themselves. The lesson of Pitcairn has never been sufficiently taken to heart, chiefly because, standing alone, as it has done, as an isolated instance and lacking in corroboration, it has been regarded as accidental and as enunciating no principle. Brought into conjunction, however, with what in some respects is the parallel case of Tristan da Cunha, it has a deeper significance. Its outstanding importance lies in the proof it affords of the power of environment over heredity. It might well be thought, in the case of  p169 Pitcairn, that the crimes and excesses of the original settlers would have tainted their offspring. Yet, in the course of one generation, a community of mutineers and murderers became, in the words of Admiral Moresby, "a people raised to a state of the highest moral conduct and feeling."

The thing which strikes the inquirer at the outset is the few laws which meet the needs of a community of the kind. We are concerned here more especially with the island of Tristan da Cunha, but, in the case of Pitcairn, it is interesting to note that, so fully aware were the islanders of the undesirability of framing a code of laws, that it was amongst their early decisions to pass no laws until they were actually needed. Sir Matthew Hale, in his day, commented strongly on the undesirability of new laws except under pressing circumstances; and what justification is to be found in the primary instincts of these islanders for our own delays in legislation and the postponement of it until thought is ripe and the demand unanswerable!

In Pitcairn, the rudiments of administrative control appeared at an early date. A magistrate was elected from amongst the inhabitants, and it became his duty to convene public meetings on all complaints arising, and to see all public works executed. But on Tristan da Cunha it has been otherwise. As already stated, in 1876 an attempt was made to introduce a similar system there. One of  p170 the visiting warships made a report on the subject, and in this report it was suggested that the Commander of the Cape Station should be constituted ex‑officio Governor of the island, with a deputy appointed by the islanders from amongst themselves, and this was accepted by the Government in principle, and a simple constitution was actually drafted by the Colonial Office. It was not proceeded with, however, because the islanders took alarm at the prospect, and their preferences were respected.

The system which Tristan da Cunha employs has not been reduced to writing, and in this respect it is unlike that of Pitcairn. The inhabitants of Pitcairn soon came to discover that no system of government could be administered if ignorance of the law could be pleaded as an excuse for disobedience, and so, with the introduction of an administration, the more important of its customs were written down, and they became its laws, and it was made thenceforth the duty of the magistrate to keep them entered and periodically to read them publicly. Seeing that the British Constitution is rooted in both systems, the unwritten law to which we are accustomed to conform and the written law which we are compelled to obey, the study of Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn in conjunction are of interest as showing the initial steps by which such a development is reached.

What is the secret of this environment that  p171 effects such a permanent cleansing? Is it the detachment from the world that the inaccessibility of the two islands occasions? Both are out of the course of traffic and both have rock-bound coasts without natural harbours, and, in consequence, communications are hazardous and are as much as possible avoided. Is the explanation of the character of these people to be traced to this? In some measure no doubt it is, but not altogether. For, while the admission of strangers to Pitcairn was discouraged for fear of contamination, Tristan da Cunha has been throughout the home of the shipwrecked, and so frequently has it given succour to mariners in distress that a system of billetting developed among the inhabitants. There may be diversities of disposition in the people of the two islands, but the same high character prevails in each, and not the less in Tristan, because it has so often admitted strangers to shelter there.

Is the absence of strong drink at the root of this regeneration? In the case of Tristan, Mr. Hammond Tooke, in his report, thought that the conditions there were largely to be attributed to this. And we know that, on Pitcairn, the early days were marked by drunken excess, as one of the mutineers had acquired the art of distilling, and he exercised this art so freely for his own undoing, that in the end he committed suicide by throwing himself off the rocks into the sea in a fit of delirium tremens.

 p172  Has the want of money, too, its own share in the formation of the character of the people, for both communities are without it? If, as we are told, money is at the root of all evil, they must enjoy a singular immunity from evil. Certainly, the idealists have sought to eliminate money from their commonwealths. Sir Thomas More's Utopia was the conception of a State without it. The elimination of money, too, was the central idea in the laws of Lycurgus that went to the making of the greatness of Sparta, and it was only when money found its way to Sparta, in the reign of Agis, Plutarch says, that avarice and luxury grew, and the Spartan virtues declined.

Whatever may go to the making of the conditions in which the character of the peoples of Pitcairn and Tristan da Cunha thrives, the subject is one deserving of attention. The happiness, the contentment and the well-being which are the fruit of it — associated as they are with an absence of crime and immorality, and, in the case of Tristan more especially, with an almost entire absence of disease — may not admit of reproduction elsewhere without the sacrifices that are seen to accompany them. But if the present schemes of group settlement in the unoccupied regions of the Empire, and the promotion of emigration in families rather than as individuals, serve by way of approximation to such perfections, these schemes deserve a larger measure of encouragement and support than they  p173 have yet received. What constituted a practical experiment in this direction for home application was the movement introduced by the Quaker philanthropist, William Allen, early in the last century, under the name of "The Colonies at Home," and the founding by him of the settlement at Lingfield, in Sussex, to which he gave the name of "America." Under his superintendence the enterprise flourished, and the betterment of life it brought was demonstrated in a remarkable way.

Though Pitcairn and Tristan da Cunha are standing witnesses to the fact that few who have voluntarily adopted the life are willing to give it up, it may well be impracticable to found a scheme of emigration on what may appear to be a prospect of isolation, abstinence, and lack of money, whatever compensations or equivalents there be. It suffices that these two instances should serve as ideals that permeate the thought we give to social problems, that they are accepted as pointing the way to social regeneration, and that we know from them that, if we are unable to travel far in the direction they indicate, we are at least on the road they have taken. The movement from town to country, the growth of temperance and the mitigation of the extremes of wealth and poverty, are at least steps on the way, and all these are implicit in the great movement for the peopling of the Empire by means of the group-settlements proposed.

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