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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 8
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 10

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p80  9 The Great Exodus

It was a sad sign when Governor Glass did not go out in the whale-boat to meet HMS Herald. She called on November 11, 1852, bound for the South Pacific on a voyage of exploration, and Captain Denham and his staff went ashore to make naval observations.

The whale-boat crew, reported the captain, consisted of two Englishmen, one Dutchman and one American. 'The fine, healthy and robust fellows, clad and speaking as Englishmen, gave the impression that they were from the islands of Great Britain; even the Dutchman had become English.'

Of the smiling population on the shore, headed by Governor Glass and Father Taylor, 'the young women were of the mulatto cast, but among the children, the second generation were handsome brunettes of a strikingly fine figure'.

It was the island springtime, and a few scrawny apple and peach trees were in bloom near 'the quaint houses with their huge rectangular blocks of soft red tufa'. Escorted up to the common by the whole crowd, the captain presented all the wide-eyed children with handkerchiefs printed with commandments, prayers and arithmetical tables;​a combs; knives; 'housewives' for sewing; penny whistles and Jews'-harps. For a long time the plateau, used only to the sounds of wind, waves, birds and animals, tooted and twanged with the new noises of civilization.

On inquiring Captain Denham was assured by Mr Taylor that there were no vices, and there had been only one 'crime'.

The parents of a bride had prepared a pig for the wedding-feast and left it hanging from the eave overnight in the usual way. On the great  p81 morning it had disappeared. Suspicion at once fell on a certain young man. When he was accused, he promptly confessed, but insisted that the deed was a joke. The council of elders decreed that, joke or no joke, he should fetch the carcass and return it in the presence of the whole community 'with shame to the offender and a warning to others'.

The one worry was the condition of Governor Glass, which cast a gloom over the whole visit. He had cancer of the lower lip and chin. It had started in 1853 as a small speck which he assumed to be a wart, but which had spread slowly, and then faster.

The ship's surgeon gave such advice and medicines as he could to provide to ease the pain. But there was little that he could do. Glass bore his cross with his lifelong courage and fortitude.

Captain Denham told the people that his vessel's tender, the Torch, was likely to touch in a few days. It was a monster of a new sort of which the Tristanians had incredulously heard but never seen — a steamer.

At the first mist-blue dawn on November 16, the village was awakened by a cry of 'Sail ho!' Then, as everyone scrambled about, black smoke streaked the glimmering horizon.

'It's the steamer!'

The Tristan boatmen, even including the ailing Governor Glass, were soon aboard. Lieutenant Chimmo, the commander, indulgently let them inspect the marvels of the engine-room. When the massive machinery began to move one or two were 'ready to rush out in fright'. But gradually they gained confidence, and grinned with glee. 'Glass was as delighted as a boy.'

Two patriarchal occasions were annually observed by 'Grandfather Glass.' One was his birthday, the other Christmas. Both were celebrated by a gathering of the whole Glass clan and a feast under the parental roof.

At the final Christmas dinner in 1852, thirty-four persons, counting the missionary, sat down to the traditional stuffed roast mutton. The party included two sons, five daughters, three sons-in‑law, two prospective daughters-in‑law and nineteen grandchildren.

It was a particularly happy time because on Christmas day itself, just before evening service, James Glass reached home from a long whaling voyage. More than that, he had come to marry Mary Riley, the young  p82 school-teacher, to whom he had long been engaged. The wedding, on December 27, was the first big event in the new Church House. The Tristanians have never been strong on flower-growing — climate, time and lack of interest limiting even their planting of vegetables. But the Settlement's one garden was stripped of its roses which were strewn before the bride by some of her small pupils. 'All the island' were guests at the feast, with crockery and utensils borrowed from every house.

The honeymoon — inevitably a rather communal and jocose occasion in the hamlet — could last for only a few days. On January 31 the groom had to rejoin his whale-ship for another three years.

After that, the island mood was muted, for Grandfather Glass was stoically dying before everyone's eyes.

Often on bright days he used to make his way beyond the Settlement to the cliff‑top overlooking Big Beach and the great shining ocean. He sat there for hours on a rock in the shape of an arm‑chair, still called 'Glass's Arm‑chair'. (The point where it stood was in the focus of the 1961 eruption.)

The cruel cancer had gnawed away one side of his face and laid open his neck from windpipe to ear. Though it was horrible to see, in the later stages the pain was less excruciating. At length he was unable to swallow any solid food, and at last not even liquid.

So strong was his physique that for nearly three days he lived without nourishment. He seemed not to suffer, but all through the last night he lay unconscious. And on the morning of November 24, 1853, he died quickly in the hospitable room where he had welcomed some many friends and strangers. Father Taylor read the burial service the next day, in the far corner of the small graveyard where the Governor had intoned the same words for his few predecessors.

When his sons in America heard of his death, they brought to the island a plain white marble stone, as requested, carved with a Masonic emblem (he had joined the lodge at the Cape) above the factual inscription, and below, a pious verse which he himself had chosen.

Sixty-seven was comparatively young by island records of health and longevity. His is the only case of cancer ever known on Tristan. In the forty-year period from 1817 to 1856, when the Rev. Taylor left, the prolific families had produced 115 births, fifty-eight males and fifty-seven females. Excluding the drowned crew of HMS Julia, there had been only twenty deaths on the island, fourteen of members of the colony. Nine came to a violent end by drowning or accidents on the  p83 mountain. The outsiders were either runaways or sick seamen who had been sent ashore to die.

In four decades only five Tristanians died a natural death.

Young James Glass returned for Christmas, 1855, on the completion of his long contract on the whaler, to rejoin his schoolmistress wife and their two children. He was just in time to be one of a party of twenty-five members of the Glass clan to emigrate to New England. Several of the older sons had already settled there, as had four daughters married to Yankee whalers.

Old Mother Glass was game to go and start a new life, after so many years and so many children on the tiny island of which she had been queen. She was accompanied by her sons and daughters; the deserted Jane with her two children, and Elizabeth with her husband, Charles Taylor, and their ten children.

They all shipped on an American whaler bound for New Bedford. The twenty-five passages were paid in cattle, pigs, sheep and potatoes. Some of them later moved to several other New England towns, in which they formed the nuclei of colonies of Tristanians.1

For about ten years the surname of Glass disappeared from the island, as the only child remaining was Selina, who had married Andrew Hagan, the former American whaling captain. She apparently took over her father's property. Before 1866, Thomas Glass returned from whaling, married a daughter of old Thomas Swain and the negro woman, and re‑established the family name in the colony. Their several sons all left the island to see the world, but three eventually came home and settled.

 p84  The over-population was eased by the exodus of the twenty-five Glasses. Before, there had been ninety‑six residents in twelve families — three newly married couples added to the long-standing nine households. Four of these households had now gone. But Father Taylor still feared that the ebb of whaling might mean the end of the Settlement. It was he who had encouraged the islanders to go.

Even before the mass evacuation, many of the boys had been leaving on whalers to seek their fortunes; they dreamed and spoke of the Cape as if it were in the neighbourhood. Skippers welcomed youths with the Tristanian skill in handling boats. For the girls, however, there was no escape from the domestic rock. In rueful contrast to the early famine in females, by 1856 there were more than a dozen young women with no visible prospects of finding a husband.

Fuel was decreasing as nearly all the 'island trees' on the lower slopes had been cut down; it was necessary for the men and boys to climb the mountain and bring back loads of wood on their backs. No shelters had been built for livestock or crops against the heavy gales which swept the bare hillsides all the year round. Few except the Glasses — now represented by Selina Hagan — owned many sheep, though the others occasionally killed a pig or a bullock. (The stock bore the owners' brands.) The scant wheat was nibbled by field-mice which had somehow been brought ashore. In the 'bad months' the inhabitants lived mostly on seabirds' eggs. For though potatoes were the one crop which had a good chance of thriving, sometimes the people ran short before the new harvest. They tried to trade potatoes for flour from the whale-ships. But though some of these vessels called in the summer, they rarely ventured to stop between March and November.

The decrease in ships meant that clothes and other 'bought' goods were growing scarce again. The men, for decades, were supplied with blue dungaree cloth by the whalers, and their Sunday clothes usually were given by generous passengers. The women's dresses, more incongruous, were presented by female passengers, or made to island patterns from bolts of cotton which the whaling skippers were commissioned to bring from St Helena. But now the years of plenty were waning. In 1851, thirty-five ships had called; the next year, twenty‑six.

In March, 1856, Bishop Gray of Cape Town, in whose diocese the strange little parish lay, paid a four‑day visit in a brig‑of‑war with the unepiscopal name of Frolic. He confirmed thirty‑two of the seventy‑one residents, and examined the school children, whom he found well versed in the catechism and the three R's.

 p85  He reported that he considered the island 'unsuitable for human habitation, owing to the poverty of its natural resources'. Forty‑two persons told him that they were eager to go to the Cape, even though it meant abandoning their property. The Dutch-born Peter Green was the only one who was seriously doubtful.

Before the Frolic sailed, a new headman was named by Captain Nolloth on behalf of Governor Grey of the Cape Colony. The captain passed all the heads of the families in review, and appointed Alexander Taylor Cotton. Cotton, aged 66, was the second oldest resident, after the ancient Thomas Swain. He was the only remaining signatory of the amended 'constitution' drawn up in 1821. Further, he steered the whale-boat — that symbol of prestige among seafaring men. But though he was a good old salt, he was ignorant and illiterate. Father Taylor shook his head more pessimistically than ever.

In the last forty years the archipelago had had only four shipwrecks. This further scarcity of timber meant that most of the necessary wood had had to be bought from the whalers at high cost, and often it was worn or insect-eaten. In the next four decades, however, there were to be fifteen wrecks.

With a cargo mostly of gunpowder, the three-masted Joseph Somes set sail in 1856 from England for Australia. She steered a course along the coast of South America, and as usual in those days, crossed the South Atlantic on a line just north of Tristan to take advantage of the trade winds.

Near the island, the crew smelled smoke in the hold. They worked desperately to keep the flames from the gunpowder. But just beyond Big Point Captain Jones gave the order to abandon ship and lower the two lifeboats.

In the frantic haste the captain's boat was holed, and leaked badly. The crew rowed towards land with frantic speed, racing a double danger. Even if the ship did not explode the waterlogged boat might sink.

The Tristanians still tell of an elderly Jewish passenger, too old and fat to man an oar, who was given a bucket and told to bail. Captain Jones, exhorting all hands, kept shouting lustily, 'Bail, Moses, bail, or we sink!'

The sailors managed to land both boats without casualties, on the  p86 east side. Soon, while they watched with quivering awe, they saw their three-master light up from keel to crow's nest in a great thundering roar, blaze to the skies, and then sink in a cloud of black smoke off Halfway Beach.

The fifty-three castaways — crew and passengers — had to spend the night unfed, with what scrawny shelter they could eke out from rocks and scrub. The sites of their impromptu camps are shown on the maps with the lasting names given by the islanders: Jones's Gulch and Jew's Point.

The next day they trekked dismally into the Settlement and were given food and shelter until a whaler took them to Cape Town. They praised their hosts, though the catering for fifty-three unexpected guests was scanty.

The advice of missionary and bishop was heeded. In March, 1857, HMS Geyser arrived to take off the retiring Mr Taylor to the Cape. With him emigrated more than half of the remaining Tristanians: forty-five persons.

They included eight young women faced with spinsterhood on the island. The girls were placed in Father Taylor's care. Some took jobs as servants in Cape Town. Most of the immigrants settled at near‑by Riverdale and Mossel Bay, in which parishes in turn Mr Taylor served as clergyman. Many of the Tristanians made good at the Cape. But five of the girls returned the next year, and other emigrants much later.

There was now the problem of what to do with the Church House which had been purchased by the nine heads of families. It was put up for sale, and Peter Green bought it for his home.

There remained only four households, with twenty-eight persons: the Swains, the Cottons, the Greens and the Hagans. The property and livestock became less communal, now that the largest holders, the Glasses, were nearly all gone. It was by families acting for themselves that land was cleared and cattle raised.

A mission of gratitude was carried out on Boxing Day, December 26, 1857. HMS Cyclops arrived with a donation of supplies which Captain Pullen presented on behalf of the British Government, to thank the community for feeding and sheltering the castaways from the exploded Joseph Somes.

The gifts included a boat, which pleased the island crew more than  p87 anything else, 'as the one they came off in was not in a very serviceable condition'. Their own was a condemned boat which they had managed to buy only the day before from a whale-ship.

'As for the medicine,' wrote the captain, 'they all remarked that they did not want that — no one was ever sick there — but the chest containing it was a good one.'

He reported that the colonists appeared satisfied with their life, but Peter Green said that 'when the American whalers should cease to visit, they would all have to go'. Green had, in fact, just returned from a trip to the Cape, saying he was glad to come home. He had brought back the three Swain girls.

Captain Pullen added:

I cannot say that I have a favourable opinion of these islanders, for they do not seem so united as you would expect . . . The whalers' visits, in a moral point of view, are, I think, injurious . . . They certainly were, at the time of our departure, a little the worse for liquor, and I was sorry I had sent them the few bottles of wine the women had asked for in the morning. But perhaps this was because of Christmas, and their delight at the visit of a man-of‑war with such a present.

The Cyclops' report indicates that old Alexander Taylor Cotton did not appear in his appointed role of headman. Probably he was too unlettered and tongue-tied to represent his colleagues with the outside world. Captain Pullen several times quoted Peter Green as speaking for the community. Either he or Andrew Hagan would have been a much better choice as head.

Hagan was an energetic, virile and ambitious Yankee of forty, who had gained prestige by the fact that he had captained his whale-ship and that he was the husband of the affluent Selina Glass. But he and his family were not nearly as well educated as Green and his household, though the latter group were self-taught.

Green even knew some French, and he spoke, read and wrote English almost as fluently as Dutch. ('Since I brought myself to anchor at Tristan I have read nearly all of Scott's Waverly novels,' he later wrote to a friend in England, in his fine, distinguished, copper-plate hand.) He had an intelligent and tactful manner, and a sturdy, likable appearance, with a long beard which early turned white; he mixed well with people of various nationalities and ranks. He was calm and  p88 firm in handling arguments. He did not put himself forward, with old Cotton nominally at the head and Hagan watching with a jealous eye. But the visiting captains and others naturally turned to him.

None the less he was never officially appointed, and he had neither the backing nor the administrative initiative to replace Glass as Governor in deed or in name.

In the next year, the captain of HMS Sidon gave the community a Union Jack with permission to hoist the red ensign. The flagstaff rose high above the big stone chimney of Peter Green's house, set back against the mountain for ships to see from far off shore.

After ten years the flag became tattered and torn. But Green ingenuously begged a Hanoverian flag from a Dutch merchantman, cut out the horse, sewed the frayed Union Jack inside — and thus flew the red ensign again.​b

The Author's Note:

1 In the 1920's the island's great benefactor, the late Mr Douglas Gane, traced the party's descendants at New London, Connecticut. William Glass's granddaughter, Mrs Annie Lake, still had family papers and the Glass family Bible, which is now in the British Museum. A Boston edition of 1831, the Bible was probably a gift to the Governor from one of his whaler sons. It records the family births, marriages and deaths — complete up to the passing of the founder in 1853. Gravestones and records of the Cemetery Association identified a number of Glasses buried at New Bedford, New London, Groton and Danvers. Mrs Lake also had her grandfather's will in his own handwriting.

Thayer's Notes:

a The "moral handkerchiefs" Dickens so famously made fun of in the Pickwick Papers. Printed by the millions and sent all over the world, these cheap, flimsy, perishable cloths are exceedingly rare today, if indeed any still exist: they are reported to have been used as adornments in the hair of women in rural India (once torn into decorative strips), and as material for scoop-nets in the so‑called Cannibal Islands of the Pacific. I've been unable to find a photograph of one online; the nearest I get is this brief article in The Dickensian, 1910, by Charles Van Noorden, an expert on both Dickens and old prints, who was already finding them very rare. [Mr. Van Noorden died in 1930 and his text is therefore in the public domain.]

The Moral Pocket Handkerchief

by C. Van Noorden

"For many years past I have been searching for an example of the Moral Pocket Handkerchief referred to by Sam Weller "as hangs up in the linendrapers' shops," and although I have not quite succeeded, I have at last come across an example of the Moral Pocket Handkerchief of a little later period, which I feel will be of interest to readers of The Dickensian.

"It seems to me amazing that of all the hundreds of thousands of the handkerchiefs which must have been printed, only this one has yet been rescued from oblivion. Its preservation I attribute to its having been framed as a picture, and not having been put to the purpose for which it was originally intended.

"The present example, which I owe to the generosity of Mrs. Head, the well-known collector of samplers and needlework pictures, begins with moral reflections on the value of needlework as a highly virtuous occupation, "followed indeed by Royal Queens," which encloses in the centre a pastoral scene, wherein the lady of the manor — (or it may be the wife of the grey-haired rector, for the spire of the village church in the background may be intended for a clue) — accompanied by her patrician little daughter, is supervising the industry of two village maidens in the art of needlecraft outside their inconveniently picturesque cottage, which, with some nondescript foliage, completes a pleasing picture."

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b The red ensigns:

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of Hanover (1801‑1867)

of Great Britain (1800-present)

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20