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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 5
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 7

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p70  6 The Heyday of the Yankee Whalers

From 1828 until the 1850's, Tristan knew the only prosperous period in its history apart from the last few years before the eruption of 1961. The Yankees were starting their great whale fisheries in the South Atlantic. They came largely from New England seaports.

 p71  The whaling vessels were not large, but they were served by open whale-boats which needed a comparative large crew. They made cruises of several months in the South Atlantic, and called at Tristan and St Helena for supplies.

The first skipper who visited Tristan was a Captain Sampson of New Bedford, in 1828. He became a good friend of the islanders. He took the place of Captain Amm in helping the isolated Tristanians with their shopping, and with other American whaling captains was responsible for reinforcing the vital contact which Amm had established between Tristan da Cunha and St Helena, until the 1880's or later. The Tristanians bartered their sea‑elephant oil, potatoes, and cattle in St Helena, for food, clothing, tools, tobacco, even liquor. In the heyday those amenities — so scarce before and after — were to be had on the island in ample quantities.

The ill‑fated crew of the beautiful American schooner Antarctic called Tristan 'a land flowing with milk and honey', when they feebly lay at anchor there in 1829. They had sailed from New York with what some of the seamen — American and British — considered a hoodoo: Captain Benjamin Morrell's young wife had wept so much that he had finally allowed her to accompany him, despite pirates, savages, disease and shipwreck.

When they crossed the equator, some of the crew fell ill with 'intermittent fever'. Eleven men and the captain's wife all seemed to be dying — as indeed one or two did. When they left the tropics the fever abated. But the weakness of the invalids made it urgent to touch at some port for fresh food.

Arriving on a fine spring Sunday in mid‑November, he embarked abundant supplies 'which,' he wrote, 'can be had at short notice, on moderate terms and in any quantities'.

The friendly inhabitants showed great sympathy for the convalescent crew and lady, and 'pressed upon me many little palatable dainties, with a disinterestedness and delicacy which did them honor'.

Hoodoo or no hoodoo — some months later thirteen of the crew were ambushed, slaughtered and eaten by cannibals in the Massacre Islands en route to Manila.​a

A strange character named Benjamin Pankhurst arrived on Tristan in 1830. He came from the West Indies, and was well educated, but he had led a 'very irregular' life and was in disgrace. An American whaling skipper persuaded him to go to Tristan and try to reform.

His manners and appearance were gloomy and eccentric. His clothes  p72 were unkempt, his long hair dirty. Nevertheless Glass made him welcome as a much-needed schoolmaster. There were half a dozen little Glasses of school age, plus Rileys, Cottons, Swains and Petersens. Whatever his 'larnin' — in the island phrase — he was a stern teacher. 'No poor child dared take its eye off the book.'

He did not mingle with the other adults, except for his silent meals at the Glass table. He seldom spoke. In the windy nights his hosts often heard him marching distractedly up and down his room.

He stayed for two years, then returned to try to make peace with his parents. He failed, and was back in Tristan within a year, to remain for only a few months.

The British Government's interest in Tristan was usually dormant. But in January, 1832, it sent the vessel Borneo with a shipment of stores to be divided equally among the colonists. The supplies included thirty blankets, some garden tools, seeds, cooking-pots, and a medicine chest.

The next year marked the death of Peter Petersen, the Danish settler from the wrecked Nassau. He died from an internal injury suffered while hunting on the slippery mountain — one of only two adult deaths in the colony during Glass's thirty‑six years of governor­ship.

Soon there arrived the first of several American whaling men to settle — Samuel Johnson. When he came ashore, he met the Glasses' eldest daughter, Mary — the first child born on the island. She was then aged 16, and had returned the previous year with her elder brother William from school at the Cape. Samuel Johnson fell in love with her and there followed the colony's first real wedding festivities.

Then there was the arrival in 1835 of an East Indiaman full of passengers: the Wellington. Captain Liddell wrote that since the inhabitants were wholly dependent on ships for supplies of clothing and other personal articles, the visit gave them much joy. 'On this, as on former occasions, my passengers, especially the ladies, were exceedingly liberal in presents of clothing, blankets, books, etc.'

Thus it happened then (and later) that the dark-skinned belles of Tristan da Cunha sported modish London bonnets and gowns.

The weather was good, so all the passengers went ashore — 'except, of course, the ladies'. The gentlemen included the Reverend J. Applegate, the first clergyman ever to visit the colony, which now numbered forty‑one inhabitants. He baptized twenty-nine young persons whose ages ranged from a few months to seventeen years, and left a baptismal register with Governor Glass.

 p73  The wreck of the American schooner Emily washed up a young Dutchman who was eventually to succeed Glass for fifty years as 'The Grand Old Man of Tristan da Cunha'.

It was later confirmed that the Emily was trying to steal the islanders' cache of oil. On October 5 she moved too close to Tristan, and grounded on a reef in a sudden hurricane. The wreck was quickly battered into driftwood. Luckily no one was drowned. The crew scrambled on to the rocks with only their wet clothes, some food and a few sealskins.

A couple of days later they managed to climb overland to the hamlet. Governor Glass received them more kindly than they deserved. His own family had grown and at present his home was doubly overcrowded, since the same hurricane had blown down his son-in‑law's cottage.

When a passing vessel took the castaway crew aboard, three men decided to 'swallow the anchor', in the seafaring phrase, and settle down on shore. They soon married island girls. One was a Dutchman, Pieter Willem Groen, who married a St Helenian girl who had come with the widowed Negress, nine years before.

Pieter Groen became Peter Green. Aged 28, he had been born in Katwijk, the pretty herring-fishing village on the dune coast of the North Sea. He was well educated, well read, and taught himself to read and write in English also.

Intelligent, articulate, modest, hard-working and with various skills, he was superior to all his colleagues except Glass. But he did not put himself forward. No one ever thought of challenging the founding father, who continued every evening to assign each man his share of the next day's work for the common good.

Green's coloured wife, Mary, proved 'a brave and suitable helpmate'. They were to have 'only' eight children, fewer than most of their contemporaries; but many descendants of the same name represent them in the modern community.

There were now nine families on the island, five 'old' and four 'new', with young Johnson and the three Emily men. The Tristanians, even to the present, have always been inclined to reckon more by households than by persons.

A few months after the wreck of the Emily, they acquired another settler, an American whaler named Rogers. He soon married the Glass's fourth daughter, Jane, the 'small dark bundle' who had been christened during the sojourn of the Blenden Hall castaways. About two  p74 years after his arrival, a ship left a sailor who was very ill. Rogers took the sick man's place, saying that he would earn some money, and come back to his pregnant wife and their child.

He never returned, though Jane watched and waited for years. His name has survived in the first four of the community's seven existing surnames: Glass, Swain, Green, and Rogers.

Thayer's Note:

a The stories of Captain Morrell's wife and of the massacre of his crew members are told by Foster Rhea Dulles in The Old China Trade, pp101‑103, which in turn is based on the captain's book, A Narrative of Four Voyages to the South Seas, 1822‑31.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20