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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 10
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 II
Chapter 2

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p49  1 Betrayals and Disappointments

Even before the ill‑fated HMS Julia had been expected at Tristan, three men had asked Lieutenant Aitchison's permission to stay behind, and make a permanent home on the island.

They included Corporal William Glass, with his young Cape half-caste wife, Maria, his son William, aged two and a half, and his daughter Mary, six months old — the first baby born on the island.

The others were two Englishmen from Plymouth, Samuel Burnell and John Nankivel. Stone-masons, they had been employed in the fortification works.

Lieutenant Aitchison granted permission in writing, subject to confirmation by the Governor, and with the provision that the men were to care for the remaining stores for which the Eurydice had not had space, until another warship could remove them.

The garrison property proved a windfall for the pioneers. During the next five years the conscientious Glass wrote three times to the Cape headquarters, respectfully asking what to do about it. But no one bothered to answer. Nor was there ever any official recognition of the application to colonize. Forgotten, the little settlement took root in the rock as a fait accompli, tough as a seedling of tussock grass, and grew.

In the scramble before Lieutenant Aitchison finally embarked with his contingent in November, 1817, he helped to draw up and witness a partner­ship agreement signed by Glass, Nankivel and Burnell. This  p50 small constitution was in fact the germ from which the whole island democracy has grown. It provided for equal sharing of status, labour, property and profits.

Everyone writing from Tristan during Glass's lifetime has commended him. He was so deeply Scottish — as some island customs still show — that many visitors have speculated on his motives for self-exile. He had been born in 1786 of respectable people at Kelso in Roxburghshire. While still very young he was crossed in love, and joined the army. He enlisted as an artillery driver because he was an expert rider and handler of horses. His unit was sent to the Cape Colony.

For many years he was detailed as an officer's servant. Being honest and good-humoured, as well as a skilful shot and fine horseman, he was taken everywhere by his master, who wrote a letter which Corporal Glass showed with emotion to Augustus Earle — 'giving his servant such an excellent character as any man might be proud of receiving, and bequeathing him the whole of his property'.

In 1814 Glass married a young Cape coloured girl, half Dutch, named Maria Magdalena Leenders. She was only 13, while he was 30. Two years later she accompanied him and their son William to Tristan — being bravely pregnant with the island-born Mary, a touching little figure in her starched white 'kappie', or Cape Dutch sunbonnet — whisked from the lively market-place to the lonely shore. She followed her husband's example in hard work and hospitality.

Perhaps Corporal Glass stayed behind because he was loath to face his prim Scots Presbyterian circle with a brown wife and two coffee-coloured children. Others surmised that he lingered on in the hope of discovering Currie's treasure. But his own answer was quoted by Augustus Earle:

'Why, you know, sir,' he said to me, 'what could I possibly do, when I reached my own country, after being disbanded? I have no trade, and am now too old to learn one. I have a young wife, and a chance of a numerous family; what could I do better for them than remain?"

The Glasses were to produce sixteen children — eight boys and eight girls. The clan remains conspicuous among the present generation of Tristanians, and virtually everyone born on the island has Glass blood.

 p51  The snug stone cottages built by Glass and his companions have set the prototype for Tristan homes ever since, resembling the Scottish crofts of the windswept Hebrides.

They were set back on the rolling rocky plateau, away from the seaside cliff, though they faced the ocean, and got the northern sun and the western sunset. The big stones were hewn by the masons from the brownish lava rock and fitted in jigsaw pattern. The two ends were constructed first, with stones four feet thick, and the 'principals' — rafters and beams — erected from wreckage or driftwood. Then the sides were filled in, leaving a few small apertures for the deep-sunk windows, and for a half-and‑half door as in a stable. Each house had an enormous fireplace, with two iron cross-bars as a grate for cooking. The steep roof was thatched with tussock grass and sealed with turf. Standing east-west, the gable end of the cottage breasted the west wind — the most prevalent and the most dangerous. The little dwellings crouched long and low so that the ravaging gales would pass over them — though some have been blown down, even so.

From the start, the uncertainty of communications was a worry. For buying and selling they had to depend on the promises of ships' captains.

In June, 1820, the skipper of the sloop Ceres offered to convey some of their produce to Cape Town. Samuel Burnell was commissioned by Glass and Nankivel to go along to sell a shipment of 119 sealskins, over two tons of sea‑elephant oil and a large quantity of potatoes. With the proceeds he was to buy various equipment and domestic articles which they badly needed, and bring them back as soon as he could find passage.

At the Cape he sold all his stock. But the taverns and talk of a big town were a temptation to a man from Tristan. He fell in with bad company and spent all the partners' profits on drink. He was ashamed to go back and made his way to England instead.

There were only two adult males left on the island. Mrs Glass had borne two more little daughters, Elizabeth in 1818 and Ann in 1820.

Then, half a year after Samuel Burnell vanished, three new settlers came by way of the first of many shipwrecks.

A crew of five had been vainly sealing in a small sloop, the Sarah. In December, 1820, they came to try their luck at Tristan, but the sloop ran ashore. They saved themselves in a boat with nothing but some clothing and a little food. The captain and mate were able to get away soon when the sealer King George called. The three men remaining were  p52 a couple of American seamen, Thomas Fotheringham and John Turnbull, and the cook, Richard Riley, a little Cockney always known as 'Old Dick'.

Old Dick now acted as cook on the Tristanians' fishing expeditions. And around the hearth in the evenings he entertained the company with his large repertoire of the fishwives' songs from the Billingsgate market where he once sold sprats.

The King George acquired two tiny passengers from Tristan: the two eldest Glass children, William and Mary, now aged about six and four. Captain James Todridge persuaded their parents to let him take them to his home in Plymouth, where they would get a good education. The Glasses consented, but after a year Captain Todridge had a streak of bad luck, could not afford to keep them, and sent them back to Tristan.

In June, 1821, arrived another founding father whose blood still runs in Tristanian veins, though the name has disappeared. This was Alexander Cotton, who also used the nom de guerre of John Taylor, under which he had fought against Napoleon; his descendants sometimes spoke of him as 'Taylor Cotton'. He had served under Nelson and claimed to have been one of the guard over the ex‑Emperor at St Helena.

He arrived with éclat, with an old naval comrade named John Mooney. They had twice visited Tristan in the Cape squadron during the sojourn of the garrison, and again after it left. The virile pioneer life appealed to them. They planned to go home to England and be paid off. With the money, they would buy necessities for farming in the wilds and return to join Glass.

In England they collected their back pay. But it was the old story. Their savings vanished in the taverns.

They were chastened but undaunted. Tidying up their uniforms, they rolled to the Admiralty, and, like a pair of Gilbert and Sullivan characters, boldly asked to see 'The Lords'.

The Board was sitting, and the two old tars were ushered in. Taylor Cotton informed their Lordships that they had each served more than twenty years in the Royal Navy, and their service and wounds entitled them to a pension. They would willingly waive this right if they might be granted a passage to Tristan da Cunha.

The Sea Lords were amused, addressed them as 'shipmates,' wished them success, and promised that the next man‑o'‑war bound for the Cape should land them and their goods on the island.

They thus turned up at Tristan aboard the brig Satellite. A seaman  p53 named Kenith McIntosh ran away from the warship and joined them. This brought the male population up to ten.

'Old hickory-faced' Taylor Cotton, being the oldest sailor, steered the Tristan whale-boat, and though illiterate, he became next in rank to Glass. 'For even here,' wrote Augustus Earle not long afterwards, 'we have distinctions . . . and as usual, those who are at the helm assume a superiority.'

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20