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Augustus Earle has already been quoted. He was an English artist and in Rio his friends shook their heads when he insisted on taking passage in February, 1824, in a decrepit little sloop, the Duke of Gloucester, bound for Cape Town with a top‑heavy cargo of potatoes.
For several years the sloop traded occasionally among the islands of the South Atlantic, including Tristan da Cunha. The skipper's name always appears as Captain Amm, in fact Ham, and altered by the Tristan dialect. (Though the islanders usually add an h rather than subtract it.)
The Gloucester arrived off Tristan only to be caught in one of the sudden squalls called 'willies' by sailors frequenting the archipelago. The shabby little craft was nearly wrecked.
At last on March 26 the following wind made it safe to anchor. A boat of islanders came out to make a deal for a few tons of potatoes, and Augustus Earle seized a chance to go ashore where no professional artist had ever landed. He took his dog, gun, tartan boat-cloak and sketch-book.
His painter's eye was impressed by the great black peak, rocks and sand, white spray, and vivid green ribbon of land with its half-dozen thatched cottages, one flying a British flag. Mrs Glass and Mrs White greeted him with shy curtsies and a bowl of new milk. The Glasses entertained him to dinner, and presently he went off sketching.
Meanwhile, the dreaded north wind started to blow. 'The surf along the beach exceeded everything I ever before witnessed, or could have imagined; and the noise was almost deafening.' It was impossible for the islanders to launch the boat. While the passenger watched from shore, 'the sloop tacked, and stood out to sea'.
He trusted anxiously that she was only keeping a safe distance until the gale ceased. He awaited the Gloucester's appearance for days, but 'never beheld her more'. He was always uncertain as to whether he had been callously abandoned or whether the sloop had indeed been driven too far to return.
His diary is warm with praise of the generosity of Governor Glass and the others. He lived with the Glasses, and was able to act as schoolmaster for the older children. This was a much-needed return, for p64 Glass had advertised fruitlessly for a teacher. Earle also filled the role of chaplain, regularly taken by Glass, who went through the whole Church of England service every Sunday for the congregation in his parlour, and read morning and evening prayers daily.
The artist tried to augment his hosts' larder by hunting with his gun on the mountain almost every day, and met with some rousing sport. The climb was dangerous with slippery rocks falling and sudden holes underfoot. The wild goats tasted of celery, the wild pigs of kelp, the tasselled 'macaroni' penguins and their eggs tasted of fish. Only the young downy mollymauks, or albatrosses, were as succulent as baby lamb, fried in their own white fat.
He described a goat hunt with the islanders and their skilful dogs. They climbed high among the steep lava on the peak, surprised a flock, and shot two big animals. The men stoically carried the heavy carcasses across the plateau of the Base, gouged out the insides, stuffed them with ferns, and flung them over the precipice, where they were later retrieved several hundred feet below.
The last time a group had been goat-shooting, one of the hunters had himself fallen over the cliff. He was a lawless young runaway named Thomas Brown, only 17 years old. One foggy day he had run down alone before his companions, missed the precarious path, and fallen to his death. They had found his mangled body the next morning, and buried it in the near‑by Potato Patches with a warning that the accident had happened on a Sunday.
'Since then,' reported Earle, 'they never again go up the mountain on Sunday.'
Several times the artist risked making sketches while the men hunted sea‑elephants — the mainstay of the economy for many decades. Once he went along when the inhabitants needed shoe-leather from the bull-elephant hide for moccasins. (Caps were wrought from the skin of the pups.) The slow shapeless monsters, 'like overgrown maggots', stayed ashore each winter to breed, lying on a stormy beach for months, consuming their own fat — the valuable blubber which alone weighed three-quarters of a ton. They did not attack human beings but battled each other desperately with their vast sharp teeth, for the privilege of heading the harem.
The hunters landed their boat through a high surf, picked out a giant and attacked it with lances until it died in a fountain of blood. The men were covered with gore and grease. Earle marvelled at the 'incredible labour, difficulty and danger' of manoeuvring the huge mass into the p65 boat, and their skill in getting off through the strong surf. Boats and men were continually lost, but they went on risking their lives for the oil.
The same was true of the great numbers of whales, which spouted opposite the Settlement all winter, leaping high out of the waves and plunging down again with a mighty ruffle of foam. Their white jets spurted up with 'a noise like the distant discharge of musketry'.
Blessedly, the artist was able to sketch a great deal, until his pencils and sketch-book and even the soiled paper provided by Glass's old missionary tracts were used up. He made a drawing of the Scotsman standing in front of his snug cottage, smoking a clay pipe and wearing a tartan Tam o' Shanter.
His three other companions — Alexander Taylor Cotton, 'Old Dick' Riley and Stephen White — he reported, 'all partake greatly of the honest toughness of British tars'. They grumbled, but any quarrels seldom went beyond swearing. As for the seaman marooned with Earle, he felt at home among them, while his pay piled up.
Stephen White, the ex‑rebel of the Blenden Hall, accompanied the artist as much as possible on his rambles. Mr Earle found him 'an excellent specimen of young English sailor', warm-hearted, droll, almost childishly simple, and desperately courageous. As to his marriage to Peggy — 'no two people can be happier'.
Of the two women Earle saw very little, since they were always busy in the cook-house. Children were 'in abundance', all healthy and robust and just one year older than another. One more was added in July, when Mrs White produced a fine daughter. In a few days the young mother was back at work, cooking and washing, and 'looking just as well as before'.
The winter evenings were spent yarning in the chimney corner before the huge fireplace in Government House, where Mr Earle heard his hosts' adventures on ship and shore. The roar of the sea, the wind rushing down the perpendicular mountain, and the mournful screaming of nocturnal birds mingled in a depressing tumult. But 'amongst my companions I never see a sad or discontented face; and though we have no wine, grog, or any other strong drink, there is no lack of jovial mirth in any of the company'.
After the artist had been on the island for some months, his clothes were utterly worn out. Glass had become a proficient tailor, and Earle handed him his tartan boat-cloak and asked him to make it into a suit. He consented, but the days passed and the cloak was untouched.
p66 One evening when the artist came home from hunting, Glass met him with a long face.
'It's no use holding out any longer, Mr Earle,' he said. 'I really cannot cut up that bonny tartan. I've had it out several times, and have had the scissors in me hands, but I can't do it, sir. It's the first tartan that was ever landed on Tristan da Cunha, and the first I've seen since I left Scotland.'
Touched and amused, his guest told him to keep the cloak for himself. But 'as I could not appear even on Tristan in a state of nature', Glass must somehow improvise a pair of trousers. The result made a stir even in that informal circle.
The 'cossacks' — Glass's old tailoring term — had a front of sailcloth and a back of dried goatskin with the hair outside. The inhabitants told Earle that he would find this handy in coming down the mountain. He led the laughter when he first appeared in his 'Robinson Crusoe outfit'.
In September he noted the first signs of the returning spring: the cacophonous mating of seabirds, the sun warming the seasonal mists and gales.
'From one week's end to another,' wrote the marooned man, 'I station myself upon the rocks, straining my eyes in search of a sail.' At least seven times in his last six months he was tantalized.
On June 26, after a week of tempests, a faraway vessel set the colonists rushing to light signal fires. The vessel tried to respond, but she was to leeward and the island boatmen dared not put off, though she was so close that they could see the decks crowded with people.
On August 16 a skipper even risked danger to manoeuvre his schooner near, and the boat put out; but then the wind changed, bringing the Settlement on the weather side and the captain had to turn away.
Another ship ignored the signals on October 1. So did a brig on November 8, but since it was a fine day, 'we tried to cross her bows'. A two‑hour squall forced the boatmen to pull back, with great difficulty; they might easily have been blown leeward and drifted until death.
Earle wrote that the men never tired of their exertions on his behalf, and all took the greatest interest in his rescue, though he could not foresee any way in which he could ever recompense them.
At last, at 8 A.M. on November 29 — after eight months and three days — another sail was seen. All hands lit fires and ran to launch the boat. They had a narrow escape in the heavy surf, but succeeded in p67 boarding the vessel at noon. She was the Admiral Cockburn, and the captain agreed to take Earle and his sailor companion along to Van Diemen's Land.
'My personal appearance,' concluded the diarist, 'was deplorable.'
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Tristan da Cunha
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Page updated: 13 Dec 20