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For a century mariners seem to have ignored the unpropitious isle of Tristan. Then the Dutch began to reconnoitre it.
Its next record appears in the log‑book of the captain of the ship Bruinvis, outward bound from Amsterdam to the East Indies in September, 1601. At night the officers sighted the looming silhouette of an island they had not seen in the day‑time. They cautiously stood off until dawn, and then approached the coast. It was a high island and round, covered on top with snow. They searched for a landing-place, but could find none because of the steep cliffs on all sides, so they moved away again.
'Then,' says the log‑book, 'they felt a great whirlwind rapidly coming down from the heights of the land.'
The first British sight of the island was reported nine years later, in p21 May, 1610, by the East Indiaman Globe outbound from London. The ship's log states that the captain had hulled, fearing to come near the shore in the 'strong Wynde'. The crew saw 'dyvers foules' which followed them from Tristan to the Cape of Good Hope.
Many other vessels of the British East India Company must have glimpsed the aloof peak throughout the rest of the seventeenth century as they carried their cargoes of spices, silks and porcelain.
The first verified attempt to go ashore was made on a winter day in June, 1628, by a Dutch fleet en route to the Indies. A ship's mate wrote that they lowered a boat to try to find an anchorage near the shore, but again the men found nothing but a high, snow-capped mountain with barren cliffs.
Summer weather brought better luck in mid‑February, 1643, when the Dutch captain of the Heemstede stayed for eight days. They 'took in very good fresh water, while the crew was refreshed with vegetables, sea‑mews, penguins, seals, and very good fish, in surprising abundance.'
This report encouraged the directors of the Dutch East India Company. They were founding the colony of the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, and they thought an outlying naval base might be useful. In 1654 they wrote to Jan van Riebeeck, the famous first Governor of the Cape Colony, to send a 'convenient vessel to examine the islands of Tristan da Cunha to find out what means they possess for being made a revictualling station'.
The next April, Governor van Riebeeck replied, '. . . they lie right in the course of the ships, and coming in December, January and February, do not require the circuit of a mile to get there. These ships, however, which arrive later would find it impossible to call in consequence of fogs and storms.'
When the southern summer came, he reported the exploratory voyage of the galliot 't Nachtglas. Her officers were instructed to observe the winds and currents, harbours and bays, anchorages and shelters, fresh water, soil, vegetables (edible plants), trees, fishes, animals, etc. They were to bring back samples and specimens, 'in order that we may ascertain whether some profit for the Honourable Company may be won'.
p22 Ironically, the Governor was especially anxious for wood and timber and for 'sandalwood, other odorous or finely coloured woods . . . in case nothing better is to be obtained, the galliot must be loaded with firewood and timber'.1
The zealous Dutch officers, in their Rembrandt-period dress, arrived on January 5, 1656, near the small island now called Inaccessible, which they named after their carved vessel, 't Nachtglas. They found boulders, reeds and sea‑lions; no 'vegetables', and scanty drinking water. The mate, Jacob Gommersbach, must have been something of a poet, for he wrote:
This island is so full of sea‑mews that when the evening sets in and they come up from the sea they are like the snowflakes which in winter float in the skies of Holland. . . .
The colour of the water is that of Spanish wine and just as red. When we reached the shore with the boat we could hardly land because of the sea‑lions. We had first to beat a number to death with handspikes.
The water is still wine‑red, because of the seaweed. As for the 'sea‑mews', gulls were by no means the only birds which the good mate meant. They would also have included the fulmar, the mollymauk and other petrels, the tern, the great shearwater, the sooty albatross and even the great albatross — which traditionally harbours the soul of a dead seaman.
Four days later they set the course ENE for Tristan. Now at last they saw the 'flat point of land' which had eluded their predecessors. But they could find 'no anchorage at the distance of a gunshot from the shore, nor any bottom, but seeing a stream falling into the sea, and finding that we were on a lee shore, we resolved to stand off once more owing to the great danger'.
Nevertheless, to satisfy their chiefs, they lowered a boat and approached gingerly. They found that the craft could pass between two small reefs on which the surf was very heavy; but between the p23 two, and near the shore, the water was slack. (This has been, until the eruption in 1961, the one precariously suitable approach to the habitable plateau.)
They found only clumps of tall tussock reeds under which thousands of penguins made their nests. Again there were no trees; merely high and naked rocks, sea‑lions and seals. However, good water tumbled over the cliffs from the waterfall, and was not hard to load into casks.
At the watering-place they discovered a small board nailed to the rocks. On it was inscribed the year 1643, and underneath, 'de fluit Heemstede, 17 Februari'. They in turn attached another board, on which was cut, ''de galjoot 't Nachtglas, Jan Jacobszoon, skipper, 10 Januari, 1656'.
The next morning they made similar investigations on what they named Gebroocken Island — Broken Island, now called Nightingale, formed by one large and two smaller rocks. 'With its peaks more like the ruins of a castle than an island,' wrote the literary mate. There too they found no useful anchorage — only harsh rocks and heavy surf. They decided to return to the Cape, 'as there is nothing profitable for the Company on these islands'.
The officers had obeyed the order to make workable charts of the group. But later Governor van Riebeeck reported to the directors of the Dutch East India Company:
The skipper and mates of the aforesaid galliot are of the opinion that out of ten voyages perhaps only one will be successful in enabling the seamen to touch there, in consequence of the stormy and variable winds and cloudy sky.
Meanwhile the island of St Helena — •1,200 miles north — had been found so pleasant that its first colonizers kept it a secret.
It was discovered in 1502, four years before Tristan, by one João de Novo Castelo, returning to Portugal from India. He named it St Helena. It was only •10½ × 6½ miles in size, and uninhabited. But it was well wooded, with a ridge of mountains, and fertile green valleys rising as a refreshing surprise from a steep coastline rust-brown and arid with prickly pear. 'An emerald in a ring of bronze,' it has often been described. The climate was delightful. The Portuguese imported p24 livestock and planted fruit trees and vegetables. They built a chapel and a few houses, and left their sick seamen there to convalesce until the next ship called.
The Dutch annexed St Helena in 1613, and made a weak gesture towards occupying it, planting vineyards. However, they gave it up in 1651, the year before the founding of Cape Town, which provided them with a better alternative.
Seeing the island unclaimed, the British East India Company annexed it in 1659. The Dutch recaptured it briefly in 1673, but were driven out a few months later. By this time it had a thousand inhabitants, half of them Negro slaves.
The British, in the flush of Restoration enterprise under Charles II, thought it would be convenient to turn gaunt Tristan da Cunha into an imitation of pretty St Helena. In 1684 the directors of the British East India Company gave orders similar to those issued by their Dutch counterparts thirty years earlier, to three of their captains. They were to reconnoitre the winds and waters, flora and fauna, and 'make any settlement which would save the lives of many men in any of our ships bound for the South Seas . . . or Madagascar . . . or any part of India. . . .' If they liked the islands, they were to leave two sows and one boar pig, and a letter in a glass bottle fixed upon a stanchion on the shore, 'that any of our commanders touching there may know your opinion'.
They were then to put on board Captain Robert Knox's ship 'some intelligent person to be Governor at the salary of thirty pounds per annum, five soldiers at the salary of fourteen shillings per month, besides their diet at the Company's charge, and three or four of the Company's old Negroes that speak English with their wives'. Provisions, utensils, animals, plants and seeds were to be shipped for a stay of twelve or eighteen months. A small fort was to be built, and residence for the Governor, with quarters for 'our soldiers and blacks' as well.
The experiment failed. 'Tristan luck' as one reads further into the perverse history of that island implacably obstructed human invasion through the centuries. On a June evening Captain Knox was ashore on St Helena, in the port of Jamestown, preparing his vessel, the Tonquin Merchant, to leave for the voyage to Tristan. The crew apparently lacked enthusiasm for a sojourn on the windy mountain. Under the nose of their keeper, they cut the cables, manned the sails and made off with the vessel. Mutiny!
p25 After this setback, the Honourable Company did not pursue its plan for colonizing Tristan da Cunha.
In 1696 the persevering Dutch again sent three ships to scout the terrain, and the first painting of Tristan was by a ship's surgeon, Victor Victorszoon. (His picture is rather childish, but the forbidding look is there.) All three captains found the prospects so poor that the Dutch finally gave up hope.
A long gap occurred for the next sixty-four years, during which there may have been the eruption which the recent Royal Society expedition estimated as having taken place around that time. But no mariners wrote of seeing smoke rising from 'ye island'.
In 1760 a British naval officer, Captain Gamaliel Nightingale, visited Gebroocken Island. The little island was thereupon named after him — and not the songbird so incongruous among the albatrosses and the sharks.
The first Frenchman known to land on Tristan da Cunha was Capitaine d'Etcheverry, of the royal corvette Étoile du Matin, who disembarked on it and then on the two smaller islands. Nightingale — or Rossignol, as he translated it — looked from a distance like 'an old demolished fort'. He sent a boat to the rocky beach, which was hard to approach because of the tangle of kelp off shore. Covered with reeds, the island was inhabited by thousands of penguins, whose eggs were so close together that the men did not know where to put a foot in order to walk without breaking them.
Capitane d'Etcheverry next touched at 't Nachtglas and changed its name to Inaccessible. Small wonder! For on the shore nearest Tristan there is not a break in the precipitous cliff which rises to •about two thousand feet.
In 1775 Capitane d'Après de Mannevillette warned other French skippers of danger from currents, winds and 'big trees which grow under the water' — the kelp, no doubt. He is the only mariner to have recorded finding on Tristan 'a quantity of tortoises, many the size of a sea‑calf'. As they made no residence, they were easily taken alive, or knocked out with the blow of a hatchet. Being edible, the giant tortoises were a prized source of portable fresh meat for sailing-ship crews. The species must have become extinct on the island soon afterwards.
1 Every later generation on the island could have told him of the hardships caused by its treeless state. The only native wood is an abundance of phylica nitida on the lower slopes of the mountain. This is a shrub similar to juniper or buckthorn, usually growing •between five and ten feet high. It has no English name, though the eventual settlers were to call it euphemistically the 'island tree'. It burns well, even when green, and a kind of soap can be made from its sap. The wood famine has influenced the lives of the inhabitants from first to last. Even driftwood has been something to dream about.
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Tristan da Cunha
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Page updated: 13 Dec 20