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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 6
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 8

Part One
Early Adventures

 p35  7 'Tristan Luck' and a Modest Hero

In 1814, the Netherlands officially ceded to Great Britain the Cape of Good Hope, which the British had been occupying for eight years. The confirmation was vitally to affect little Tristan.

The next year Lord Charles Somerset, first British Governor of the new Cape Colony, complained to Earl Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies, that during the recent war with America numerous cruisers of that power had 'infested' the area and captured many homebound British ships — which they could not have done for so long in 'these tempestuous seas' without a place of refreshment — Tristan da Cunha.

He pointed out also that the French government had become strongly interested in occupying the archipelago, and he urged His Lordship to take possession. Its 'favourable situation for the Whale Fishery' would induce many persons to emigrate from the Cape; and part of the Colony's garrison might be used to defend it.

After several months Earl Bathurst replied coolly that Lord Charles might do as he proposed, 'consistent with the strictest economy'.

It was more directly the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte which was to influence the fortunes of Tristan da Cunha.

Most people had scarcely heard of St Helena, the delectable little island, 1,200 miles west of the African continent, but now it became famous. For the six years of Bonaparte's detention (until his death) the British Government took over its administration from the East India  p36 Company. The great explorer, Captain James Cook, had visited in 1775, and reported that he found 'the people living in delightful little houses amongst pleasant surroundings'. (He had, incidentally, presented to Government House the ton‑weight giant tortoise, Jonathan, which is still living.)​a

In October, 1815, Napoleon and his small, faithful party were at Longwood, an attractive Georgian colonial manor house set in sub‑tropic gardens, across the island from Jamestown, the capital port.

Much later Mrs Rogers, the missionary wife on Tristan, remembered what she had been told by old Betty Cotton, who died at the age of 94, the daughter of a St Helenian woman and an early Tristanian settler:

Old Betty's mother had seen Napoleon in the flesh at St Helena scowling from the deck of HMS Bellerophon at his island prison. The ex‑Emperor was dressed in tight duck trousers, a green coat and a black waistcoat, and wore a cocked hat with a huge feather. When he landed a guard of soldiers marched beside him. The people said his favourite dish was roasted bullock's heart, and he was to be seen often enjoying his chief amusement of riding on horseback.

The first admiral in command of the island prison had stationed a garrison on Ascension, seven hundred miles north of St Helena. His successor, even more cautious, feared that supporters of the ex‑Emperor might launch a rescue attempt from the next nearest base — Tristan da Cunha, 1,200 miles south.

Repercussions of his prudence echoed in London and in Cape Town.

In the roaring height of the midwinter storms when even the seabirds took shelter, Rear-Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, Britain's Commander-in‑Chief of the (African) West Coast and Cape Station, received orders to take possession of Tristan da Cunha. He speedily directed Captain Festing of HMS Falmouth to proceed, with instructions to leave an officer and a party of men to garrison the island until a detachment of troops could be sent from the Cape to relieve them.​b

As so often, Tristan bared its teeth at the new arrivals. Captain Festing and his shivering crew touched at the island on August 15, 1816, but they had to keep far off shore for a few days before the tossing breakers would permit them to set foot on the ledge. Then  p37 the small boats landed eighteen seamen under Lieutenant Rice. Captain Festing claimed the archipelago in the name of King George III and hoisted the British flag.

The detachment was met on the beach by Thomas Currie and his young Spanish servant, Bastiano. Currie was secretive about himself and his past, saying only that he was known as Italian Thomas and had lived alone on the island for several years. When questioned, he took great pains to explain once again how Lambert, Millet and Williams had been drowned while fishing. At any rate, it was useful for the new‑comers to find 'locals' on the spot. Currie and the boy bustled about while the sailors unloaded equipment for a stay of three months. Tents were put up as temporary shelters from the wind.

Captain Festing promptly set out in a gig around the island, taking soundings. He tested the anchorage off the plateau, and named it after his ship, Falmouth Bay.

'Tristan luck' befell him, however. At first the morning had been calm and sunny, with the great peak rising shrub-green and lava-dark between a blue sky and a lucid sea. But later the wind began to bluster and the surf to rise. He had to turn back and head for the ship. The gig was constantly threatened with capsizing. The crew were worn out from rowing and bailing. After several hours, the captain saw that their only chance was to try to land.

They succeeded — but at the last moment the boat overturned and was smashed against the rocks. All the men were badly bruised by the big lava boulders before they could crawl out of the surf.

Drenched and cold, sore and hungry, they had to huddle on the rocks on a narrow margin between the spray and the cliff. It was two days before they could be rescued, for the Falmouth was obliged to weigh anchor and move out to sea to avoid being bashed against the shore. Their only food was the raw flesh of the top‑knotted penguins.

On August 17, Captain Festing was able to set sail for Cape Town. The modest officer wrote his Commander-in‑Chief a letter which is a model of naval courtesy, apologizing for the loss of a boat, and saying not a word about the dangers and hardships.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Rice and his eighteen seamen settled down to their wind-blown tents to gather wood and catch fish, to kill seals and sea‑elephants and to boil their oil. The lieutenant tried to climb  p38 to the top of the Tristan cone. But like the French naturalist, he had to give up.

Three months must have seemed a long time to wait for the relief troops from the Cape. These were delayed by preparations, weather — and intrigue.

Thayer's Notes:

a Jonathan is still living as I input this book (2016). He is featured on a current coin of St. Helena; see among others, the page at Saint Helena Island Info.

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b There were many plots, most of them based in the United States or Brazil, to free Napoleon. Details of the particular plot which led to Adm. Malcolm's orders are given in Macartney and Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, pp259‑260.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20