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Bill Thayer

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Part II
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 II
Chapter 8

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p74  7 Refugees and Runaways

Since the colony had been founded as an equal partner­ship it was important that its members should be decent, co‑operative and hard working. The longer-established colonists naturally wanted a choice as to any new partners.

From the early days various hangers‑on had tried to join the community, and expected at the very least to be fed and housed as parasites.

After the Yankee whalers began to call often, Governor Glass and his colleagues determined to hold to a strict rule: 'No runaways' — under any circumstances.

In 1839 an American deserter named Jack Anderson was secretly persuaded by one settler to stay on Tristan, and to take as his wife Jenny, another of the Negress's daughters from St Helena.

Anderson settled down for eleven years. But Glass and the others made an example of Jack Anderson.

They let him have a small patch of land with a mean hut. But they would not permit him to share in their trading. And being forbidden a place in a boat, he had to fish from the rocks, as it was impossible for one man to handle a boat alone.

He existed in great destitution. The good-for‑nothing Jenny made him miserable, and his ostracism has become a grim and fearful legend. He suffered and brooded until his mind was unhinged.

On the morning of Good Friday, 1850, one of his little scarecrow children came running and reported that he was missing. The villagers made a long search. At last some gruesome fragments were found on  p75 the beach. In the night he had thrown himself into the sea, where he had been almost wholly eaten by sharks.

Jenny and her children later left in a whaler for Tasmania. But for a while she stayed alone as a widow in the isolated hut, scratching a living. Near by is a small stream called Jenny's Waterin' and on the beach there is Jenny's Rock, where her solitary figure used to be seen from afar, fishing, her tattered skirts blown in the spray.

Tristan's most stylish tourist so far was Mr B. Boyd of the Royal Yacht Club Squadron. In March, 1842, he turned up in his smart schooner Wanderer.

He stayed off and on the island for three days, with much exchange of civilities. He entrusted Governor Glass with a sum of money to have a tablet made in memory of the crew of the brig-of‑war Julia, whose weathered grave was still a mound above Big Beach.

Before the yacht's departure a testimonial was presented, decorated with a drawing of the Wanderer.

Later, in the Solomon Islands, Boyd went off into the jungle to shoot, and was never heard of again, but his name was still honoured on Tristan second only to that of the new young Queen. The Glasses' sixteenth child was called Victoria B. Boyd Nelson Anne Burran Caroline Glass. She was the last of the Glass children.

Though most of the inhabitants were extraordinarily hardy, there were a few child tragedies. Two small sons were lost by Alexander Taylor Cotton and his wife — the latter the only happy one of the five St Helenian brides. She claimed to have second sight.

The elder boy perished in one of the giant cloudbursts which occurred about every fifteen years and always flooded the island with uncanny suddenness. The deep gulches which radiate from the peak have been worn by these torrents washing down the gravel and boulders of the ancient lava flows. Their sides are precipitous. They streak straight down to the coast and drop off from steep cliffs into the sea.

One day Cotton and his 7‑year‑old son were gathering firewood on the mountain. At a sudden chill they looked up and found dark clouds dimming the peak in a weird light. Rain fell, such as even an island child had never seen before. They had no chance to find shelter. Hardly had the downpour stopped pounding them when they heard a mighty  p76 roar. The gulch had filled with an avalanche of water which was crashing down towards them from the heights above.

They fled for their lives along the ridge towards the sea, and lowered themselves precariously down the cliff. Cotton hoped that the water would have spread out more shallowly along the beaches, and tried to ford his way home with the boy on his back.

However, every beach was pounded from the heights by an overpowering cascade.

As the man staggered beyond his depth, the torrent snatched the boy off his back, swept him away into the surf and drowned him before his father's eyes.

Cotton managed to thrash his way to the rocks. Exhausted, he plodded back to the Settlement, hardly able to face the dread of telling his wife why the boy was not with him.

He found the villagers meeting him, not with questions but with gloomy pity. Mrs Cotton had had a vision of her son being swept out of his father's arms and drowned.

The other settlers did not think of making light of her fears. Instead, they tried to comfort her, and the whole settlement joined in her lamentation, with the keening which was — and still is — a custom at any death.

('People at Tristan,' the missionary Mrs Rogers wrote later, 'believe very much in dreams and visions.')

The climax of American whaling in the South Atlantic was reached in about 1840. American vessels could usually be identified far off on the horizon because, from a cotton-growing country, their sails were a bright white; while the hempen sails of the British and most others were greyish.

Father Taylor later recorded that in the best decades 'as many as sixty or seventy ships could be seen in the offing at the time'. Trade was brisk, and sometimes eighteen or twenty captains swaggered simultaneously around the hamlet with their jaunty hats, their brass buttons and their sea‑boots.

As the second generation grew up, most of the island youths went into whaling — some for a few months, others for a few years, still others leaving home for good and migrating to New Bedford. The island population grew and fluctuated with comings and goings, though  p77 the number of households remained the same. Some of the girls married Yankee whalers and went to live in New England. On the other hand, a few more Americans from the whale-ships 'swallowed the anchor' on Tristan.

The first who had done so, Samuel Johnson, returned to America in 1847, taking his wife, Mary Glass, and their children.

Two years later there came an American whaling captain named Andrew Hagan — who gave the community the fifth of its seven existing surnames. A couple of times in his voyages he had stopped at the island, and had met Selina, a younger daughter of the Glasses. In 1849 he was in South Georgia to hunt whales but he found none. Disappointed, he sent his ship back to the United States in charge of the mate, stayed on Tristan and married Selina. He had made a very good match, by Tristan standards, and he remained until his death.

Not only at South Georgia, but already in local waters, the much-chased whales were becoming fewer as they moved farther away to escape the harpoons.

Despite the trade with the whaling crews, life was getting harder as virility and fertility meant mouths to feed. Supplies of gifts or bartered goods from passing ships had to be split into smaller portions. Farm crops were not large, with the stormy climate and the shortage of land for cultivation and grazing. And many of the children had been growing up without schooling.

Always devout, the ageing Governor kept praying, year after year, for a teacher.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20