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On Friday the thirteenth of May, 1821, the tall, elegant schooner Blenden Hall1 sailed from Deal, Kent for Bombay, commanded by the part-owner, Captain Alexander Greig. She was destined for one of the most famous shipwrecks in history. A pseudonymous account was written by the captain's 17-year‑old son in penguin's blood on margins of old copies of The Times which drifted ashore among the flotsam in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.
There was not a full complement of passengers: all the refined ladies had canceled their bookings when they found that they would have to travel out with an Indian woman. She was called Mrs Lock, the fat, truculent wife of an English commodore in the Bombay Marine. She was accompanied by her two children, her 14-year‑old niece, and a young Portuguese half-caste maid named Peggy.
Mrs Lock was to become one of the two most conspicuous figures among the passengers. The other was the buxom bride of little Lieutenant Pepper of the East India Company's Marine Service. (He also handed down a report of the disaster.)a Mrs Pepper was a Deal boatman's raucous daughter whom the lieutenant had married at the last moment, almost delaying the sailing.
The passengers were first seasick, then sluggishly becalmed for weeks in equatorial heat. The life of the party was the florid Lieutenant Gormby, a promoted ranker in the Quartermaster branch. As the gossip staled, everyone got on each other's nerves. Gentlemen sent p54 polite notes challenging each other to duels when they reached Cape Town. The alternating intimacy and loudly snobbish quarrels of Mrs Lock and Mrs Pepper were the principal distraction.
A welcome glimpse of land was promised on Monday, July 23, when Captain Greig steered the schooner westward near Tristan da Cunha to sight the islands and check his reckoning. After breakfast he invited the twenty-four passengers to gather on the quarterdeck for a view of the peak.
The morning was misty. No one saw anything but a mass of kelp. Critics agreed later that an experienced skipper should never have reconnoitred such a notorious archipelago, flanked by reefs which rose abruptly like mountain ranges from the ocean bed.
Suddenly a sailor from the mizzen top sang out, 'Breakers on the starboard bow!'
At once the captain tried to bring the schooner to the wind, but her helm had become stuck in the kelp. The breeze dropped. The cutter and jolly-boat were manned to tow the vessel around, but they only bobbed on the white current which was sweeping the ship forward. The boat crews panicked, deserted, and made for shore.
Then the Blenden Hall crashed on a reef. The impact hurled the helmsman down the after-hatch. The schooner keeled. The masts toppled away, the poop fell in, and the hull filled with water. Captain Greig shook hands with all his passengers enjoining them to die bravely. But he ordered everyone forward to the fo'c'sle — a wise thought, for the next moment the ship broke in two.
For many hours the people clung to the wreckage, washed to and fro by the racking waves. In the early afternoon the mist lifted a little, the sun bore through, and they were surprised to see a high cliff looming, with the boat crews standing below on the beach.
The second officer, Thomas Symmers, and his brother George, the ship's doctor — heroes of the whole saga — tried to swim ashore with a line, but both failed. Most of the people shed their wet binding clothes. The seamen lashed the women and children in the forechains to help them hold on.
A tough old sailor managed to build a raft out of wreckage and rope, with space for nine. Burly Lieutenant Gormby begged the last seat for his young wife and baby. Purporting to hand them down, he hopped in himself and pushed off. Everyone howled with fury.
Somehow the raft was flung ashore, upside down. One young seaman was drowned.
p55 Meanwhile the main group clung to the dwindling fo'c'sle, often up to their necks in water. Suddenly a large part was torn loose. There was not standing-room for all. Several men jumped off to swim ashore. One sailor drowned. The others were hauled out of the breakers by their mates on the beach.
The captain had refused to leave the fragment of his ship. He and his son Alexander and their companions felt the planks coming apart under their feet.
Then — like a miracle — a great wave rushed in, lifted the wreck, and began to shove it over the reef. Back and forth it teetered with a grinding splash. The battered survivors were half dead. A last great wave knocked it into the shingle. The sailors on shore helped the people to scramble down from their perch. The last man had barely set foot on the rocks when another big wave jerked the wreck back into deep water — and sank it.
It was five o'clock and the swift winter twilight was falling. The company had been washed ashore on the one part of the island where it was possible to land.
Mercifully, they did not yet realize that this was not Tristan but Inaccessible.
On the beach the captain called the roll. Eighty‑two voices answered; only the two sailors had been drowned.
The castaways were penned on the narrow shore by the •two‑thousand-foot cliff. Night fell without food, shelter or fresh water. Many were naked. There was the incessant turf, the screeching of seabirds, and the smell of dead seals.
At dawn the Greigs led a foraging party along the strip of beach to look for food. The only life was the penguins — 'in tens of thousands, until the shore shimmered black and white'. The ravenous men devoured them raw. They also found a stream of water which was drinkable, though fouled by the birds.
Blessedly, the wreckage of the Blenden Hall was starting to wash ashore. The beach was littered with planks, casks, cases and bales.
All at once a startling group of people appeared: shipmates who had draped themselves in scarlet cloth with turbans of white muslin, salvaged from two big bales. The others hurried to robe themselves similarly. The captain commandeered the rest of the cotton to make p56 tents for the women and children — though these soon collapsed during the continual rain.
Day by day, other stores were cast up: cases of food, tools, an old desk, canvas, chests of clothing, metal to shape into cook-pots, and a surgical kit with a flint which enabled the drenched party at last to light a fire. ('Made some soup with penguins and wild celery,' Lieutenant Pepper wrote in his journal.) Even the schooner's figurehead turned up, a painted Highland chief — later transferred as a gaudy souvenir for succeeding generations on Tristan.
From time to time the tide also delivered various casks of drinks. Some of the men found kennel-like shelters inside the casks — which were all too soon emptied. A nightmare of those many weeks was the carousal and threats of the crew, whose discipline traditionally lapsed with shipwreck. They soon fell to insulting the passengers, especially the overbearing Indian woman, Mrs Lock, who called them 'common sailors'. Many times she was heard screaming as they vowed they would eat her children. The rowdy bride, Mrs Pepper, was almost equally snobbish in her new role of officer's lady. Soon the crew and passengers parted into two hostile camps. Several times blows were exchanged. The passengers slept with cudgels at their sides.
On a rare fine day, young Alexander Greig and some others managed to scale the tussocky cliff. From the heights, they gazed at the snow-headed peak of Tristan across the water — and brought back the shocking news that they were on Inaccessible.
By September the food supplies had gradually dwindled. The cast‑up provisions were consumed. For a while there had been sea‑elephants ashore for breeding. The party had killed some and eaten their tongues, hearts and liver, and used the oil; but now the great beasts had gone. So had the penguins, having laid their eggs. The only food left was the eggs, which soon started to taste musty.
The ship's cutter and jolly-boat had early been smashed and lost, which meant there could be almost no fishing. And at last, with empty stomachs, the castaways bestirred themselves to start building boats from the wreckage, in which to reach Tristan. The coloured cook, a faithful old retainer of Captain Greig, devised a clumsy punt. In a lull in the rains, he and five others of the best men bravely set off in the wilderness of water.
The survivors waited and waited. But no one ever heard of the punt again.
The ship's carpenter was more skilfully building a boat to hold p57 fourteen persons. It was ready in time for a spell of fine weather — which he wasted because he enjoyed his power of (for once) keeping everyone in suspense. Then a long cycle of storms returned.
The people were subsisting on a few stale fish, with wild celery and an occasional albatross from the mountain. On some days there was nothing. As among the passengers the two quarrelsome women were the worst troublemakers, among the crew there were three ringleaders. The head was a deep-dyed rebel named Joseph Fowler, with his henchmen, James Smith, and a defiant young man called Stephen White. White, however, was gradually seen to be taking a solicitous and protective interest in Peggy, Mrs Lock's young half-caste maid.
Fowler started a false alarm of 'Sail ho!' and heartlessly used the ensuing scramble to steal from some empty tents. Afterwards, during the captain's investigations, several shameless pilferers and hoarders were discovered, notably the once-genial Lieutenant Gormby.
One day the crew converged darkly on the passengers' tents. They swore that they would turn them out and make soup of Mrs Lock's children. But Captain Greig stood firm with his small but cudgel-armed group, the two courageous Symmers brothers in the fore. He insisted that the boatswain should lash the ringleaders for threatening the children. Grudgingly, the order was carried out.
Alexander Greig recorded that his father had become an ill old man; his beard was snow-white. They had been more than three months on the island.
Then, in the morning of November 9, the sea was smooth at last. The skinny survivors tottered down to the beach to see the carpenter and his crew sail towards Tristan.
On the main island, late in the same afternoon, the American, Fotheringham, was chopping driftwood on the beach. He heard a chorus of shouts. Looking up, he saw a boat full of bizarre strangers, red‑robed, white-turbaned and long-bearded. He dropped his axe and ran.
When he dared to look around, he noticed the British ensign on the stern; it was upside down, in the distress signal. He ventured back and gestured the boat to a safe landing. Then he invited the new‑comers to his hut, and was joined by 'Governor' Glass (as he was now called) and the others.
They were a colony of eight men on the island, Glass said: five other p58 British and two Americans — castaways or deserters — with Mrs Glass and her two young children.
It was too late to do more than to provision the two boats, but they started early next morning for Inaccessible. There they were greeted with tears and cheers by the feeble survivors, who had been without help for three months and eighteen days.
With the ups and downs of the weather, the transfer to Tristan was managed in three relays. The Greigs were in the first party. So were Mrs Pepper and Mrs Lock, who now refused to be separated, and even set up housekeeping together.
Tristan was said to be 'an earthly paradise'. The rude cottages seemed luxurious. The Glasses entertained the first group to a fine dinner, at a real table, with a noble joint of beef.
'They not only gave up their houses and beds for our accommodation,' wrote Alexander, 'but likewise gave us all manner of wearing apparel that they possessed, though putting themselves to the greatest inconvenience, particularly Mrs Glass, she being far advanced in pregnancy.'
Governor Glass formally turned over the island's authority to the captain. The whole assemblage gathered around 'Government House', while a Union Jack was run up on the flagpole. Even the mutineers were emotionally grateful and polite.
The days lengthened into weeks . . . months . . . without a rescuing sail. Animosity reawoke. The two women resumed their wrangling. Though there was plenty of food for the tiny colony itself, supplies became a problem when the numbers were increased tenfold. Strict rationing was necessary. For the one and only time in his whole story, Governor Glass became niggardly — doubtless worrying about the future. The 'Blenden Halls' were again getting thin on penguin. Then the passengers drafted a promissory note, agreeing to pay Glass at the rate one‑half a crown each per day for board and lodging, with a bonus at the highest ship's rate for livestock slaughtered. Thereafter the fare improved.
The arrangement did not, however, include the crew. The captain planned that they should work for their keep — digging potatoes, building rock walls, fishing in good weather. But they resented the idleness of their 'mortal enemies', as they called the passengers. The gentlemen shot game on the mountain, and in the evening re‑read Glass's few books by the fire. Everyone spent much time treasure-hunting. The islanders, described as 'moral, industrious and peace-loving folk', were soon sick of their guests.
p59 Led by Joseph Fowler, the crew struck. The captain, now returned to health, urged Governor Glass to stand firm and deny them food without work. At last Glass was driven to lock up the potato barns and refuse the use of the boats for fishing. The sailors swore that they would burn down the barns. They marched on 'Government House'. The two brave Symmers brothers led in seizing the three ringleaders, Fowler, Smith and White. The islanders faced the mutineers with four muskets, the passengers with cudgels.
Again the captain ordered the boatswain to tie the three ringleaders to a tree and flog them with three dozen lashes of the rope's end. Fowler continued to howl out 'horrid imprecations' and 'opprobrious epithets' until he had had a hundred and eight lashes, and finally begged for mercy.
He was sentenced to a week's solitary confinement in a barn, and then exiled from the settlement. So he disappeared in the bush, an outlaw.
A few nights later, just after dusk, there was a shout of 'Fire!' Flames lit the thatched roof of a barn in which some passengers were housed. All hands worked desperately to keep the blaze from jumping to the next barn, which was packed with the oil and furs of sea‑elephants.
Perhaps the fire had started from a chimney spark in the thatch. But everyone felt sure that this was Joseph Fowler's revenge.
One day at the end of December, Glass came up to Alexander Greig, carrying 'a small dark object like a monkey' — a new‑born daughter, Jane.
With full ceremony, she was christened by the captain, along with the other Glass children who, without a clergyman, had never been baptized. The flag flew, and Corporal Glass donned his old uniform. Passengers stood as grandparents. 'Mrs Lock stuck so many white feathers in her hair that she resembled a walking cauliflower.'
At last one day, with mellow sun on the mountain, a group of men came running down the slope, waving their caps, yelling and pointing seawards.
The company behaved like madmen. Signal fires were lighted from buckets of tar set at conspicuous points for the purpose.
The telescope showed a merchant brig, the Nerinae, standing towards the island, and flying the British colours.
p60 The skipper agreed to take off the stranded 'Blenden Halls'. Everyone rushed to get ready. The passengers' account with Governor Glass was totted up, and they found that they owed him £230.
'I never expected to be worth so much money in my life,' he said.
When the brig was ready to sail, it was found that six of the Blenden Hall's crew had stayed on the island, at least until the next vessel should appear. Some feared that they would be prosecuted for mutiny, on reaching the Cape.
Meanwhile, the all-too‑familiar voice of Mrs Lock rang through the Nerinae in a fresh wail. Where was Peggy, her young maid?
Peggy had slipped off the ship into an island boat at dawn, taking her few makeshift clothes. She had chosen to stay on Tristan with Stephen White — one of the three ringleaders who had twice been flogged for mutiny. Rebel though he was, they had fallen in love, and he had cared for her tenderly in the grimmest time on Inaccessible. They had been secretly promised by Governor Glass that he would marry them, in his capacity as headman, and the rest of the islanders had agreed that they might join the community.
So the castaways sailed from the loathed archipelago on January 10, 1822 — five months and eighteen days after they had been flung ashore.
When they arrived at Cape Town in their exotic rags, the door to George Hotel was at first slammed in their faces. The Blenden Hall had been given up for lost.
1 Named for the captain's Kentish home, later spelt Blendon Hall.
a Fairly substantial excerpts of Lt. Pepper's report, as well as background material on of him and his wife and contemporary portraits of them, are given in "Tristan d'Acunha" (Scottish Geographical Magazine 21:301‑309, June, 1905).
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Tristan da Cunha
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Page updated: 13 Dec 20