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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 4
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

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 I
Chapter 6

Part One
Early Adventures

 p30  5 The Pirate King of a Treasure Island

In the early nineteenth century French privateers and warships were roaming the South Atlantic in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain had its East India Company base at St Helena, and from 1806 it occupied the Cape of Good Hope. But raiders often lay in wait and attacked the merchant shipping between these havens.

Some of the privateers were pirate vessels — including American pirates, who were pleased to pounce on King George III's merchantmen. Buccaneers, like honest seamen, were threatened by scurvy, and glad to get water and fresh vegetables even from bleak Tristan da Cunha. Obviously there was a tempting profit to be made by someone able to start the long-planned revictualling enterprise.

Captain Jonathan Lambert, from Salem, Massachusetts, was reputed to be a fugitive from justice after a violent career on the high seas, and a pirate. He had once touched at Tristan, and seen its possibilities.

In 1810 he sailed from Rio de Janeiro in the small lugger Baltic of Boston. He was accompanied by two shipmates, presumably fellow-pirates. One was an American called Andrew Millet. The other and older was half Irish, half Italian, from Livorno, or Leghorn, in Italy. His name was sometimes given as Thomas Currie, sometimes as Tomaso Corri, and he spelt it at Thomasso Currie or Corrie. The three seem to have been a truly Stevensonian trio of rogues.

The Baltic disembarked them on Tristan on December 27, 1810. Lambert had brought from Rio a large assortment of vegetable plants, young fruit-trees, grains and seeds, and a lot of noisy livestock: geese, chickens, ducks and pigs. They also landed, 'a big iron chest of loot, the plunder doubtless of many wild affrays upon the Spanish Main.'

 p31  First, no doubt, they buried the chest.

On February 4, 1811, a few weeks after disembarking, Captain Lambert drafted an extraordinary proclamation which he sent back to Massachusetts by the next available vessel. Five months later the residents of Boston read it with astonishment in the Gazette for July 18:

Know all men by these presents that I, Jonathan Lambert, late of Salem, in the State of Massachusetts, United States of America, and citizen thereof, have this 4th day of February in the year of Our Lord Eighteen hundred and eleven, taken absolute possession of the Islands of Tristan da Cunha, so called, viz. the great island and the other two known by the names of Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands, solely for myself and my heirs, forever . . . grounding my right and claim on the rational and sure principles of absolute occupancy, and as such, holding and possessing all the rights, titles and immunities properly belonging to proprietors by the usage of nations.

In consequence of this right and title by me thus assumed and established, I do further declare, that the said Islands shall for the future be denominated the Islands of Refreshment, the great Island bearing that name in particular, and the landing-place on the north side a little to the east of the Cascade be called Reception, which shall be my place of residence. . .

I do hereby invite all those who may want refreshments to call at Reception, where by laying by, opposite the Cascade, they will be immediately visited by a boat from the shore, and speedily supplied with such things as the Islands may produce, at a reasonable price. . . .

The monarch of the Islands of Refreshment did not deign to hoist the Yankee Stars and Stripes; he designed a flag of blue and red diamonds on a white ground, which was reproduced in the Boston Gazette. He also sent a copy of his bombastic proclamation of sovereignty to every government in Europe.

The British Governor of the Cape of Good Hope was annoyed by this toy king on his desert island. It seemed an outrage that enemy privateers and other raiders should have a possible base so close to the trade route to India. His Excellency urged His Majesty's Government to send a garrison to occupy the upstart empire.

But there was a severe shortage of troops and ships, with the  p32 far‑flung Napoleonic Wars reaching a climax. Britain could not respond. So Lambert continued to reign, unhampered.

In its pristine state the narrow lava plain was thickly matted with tall tussock grass and the scrub phylica, while rocks and boulders dotted the terrain. The three squatters must have found the gouging out the tough roots and piling up the stones for a hut and a garden were far more back-breaking than any number of daring robberies at sea. They managed to grub out a piece of land, and planted their vegetable seeds in the freshly turned lava mould. The young plants flourished in the virgin richness — most of all, the potatoes.

The hardships and privations of the first year were intense. The men lacked adequate clothing and provisions. And they began to quarrel. Lambert could not pay Andrew Millet and Thomas Currie their promised wages.

Gradually the first crops began to make them known among the passing ships. Nevertheless the 'refreshment station' was too arduous for three men to develop alone. The cash profits did not materialize.

So the dauntless Lambert produced another grandiose project, which he suggested in a letter to an American crony, Captain John Briggs, dated 'Great Island, Tristan da Cunha, 21st December, 1811'. This was to be a trade in sealskins and oil for the Rio market. Captain Briggs was asked to be his companion — and to finance the venture. They would build a cistern for the oil and get a schooner to transport their produce. He estimated that they might take about twelve hundred sealskins in some eighteen months. Sea‑elephants were abundant and they came ashore each August and September to 'pup'. He had counted a thousand pups on Tristan and as many more on the other two islands. The party had killed eighty since they landed. They had boiled down a thousand gallons of oil from the blubber.

However, after only a year ashore, the King of the Islands of Refreshment was losing faith in his international state. He was never to succeed in bringing out his family to a residence at his capital of Reception.

In January, 1812, he was visited by Captain Seaver of the British merchantman Charles. Lambert volunteered to Seaver that — if the necessary assistance were forthcoming — he would declare himself a subject and ally of His Britannic Majesty.

But the British Government was more interested in the Emperor Napoleon than in the pirate king of Tristan da Cunha. The sands were running out.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20