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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 9
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 11

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p88  10 The American Civil War in the South Atlantic

Though the Tristan archipelago was assumed to be British, its status had not in fact been definitely established since the last of the garrison had been taken off in November, 1817. No other power had bothered to put the claim to the test. In 1859 the Church of England transferred the Tristan flock from the Cape diocese to that of St Helena. British warships called in 1858, 1860 and 1861 — the second, the Sphinx, with three gunboats which she was conveying to serve in the Taiping Rebellion in China. But then the islands' possession was challenged in the American Civil War in the early 1860's.

During that conflict, Confederate cruisers knocked the whole New England whaling fleet out of the South Atlantic. For a while the Tristanians were very nearly cut off from the world.

One day in 1862, the cruisers Alabama and Shenandoah appeared on the horizon. The former was flying the flag of the new Confederate government. The Shenandoah had been carried off as a prize won from the federal navy. Captain Semmesº of the Alabama was encumbered with twenty-seven prisoners from the captured crew. He prepared to  p89 dump them on Tristan, making no provision or reimbursement for their keep.

The colonists protested. Peter Green assured him that the archipelago was a British possession and part of the Cape Colony. He demanded verification, but no document could be shown. So the Southerner disembarked his prisoners.

Luckily the twenty-seven mouths had to be fed for only a few days. Then the federal gunboat Iroquois hove into sight, and relieved the islanders of the Shenandoah's crew. The Northern skipper employed Peter Green as pilot, and paid him well.

The settlers later complained to the Cape Government about the imposition of prisoners. But there is no evidence that Britain protested to the Confederates or demanded compensation. Communication took long in time and distance, and presently the Civil War was over. The islanders were permanently out of pocket — or stores.1

The last had not been heard of the American Civil War. In 1864 the brig Lark was caught in a hurricane and foundered off the coast of the main island.​a She was then a smuggler. Earlier she had grown famous as a privateer, with such success that Captain Summers and his crew had become rich.

The captain had kept his fortune of about £35,000 in gold and notes in a heavy sea‑chest in his cabin. By great luck, he and the first mate, Henderson, were able to land the chest from the wreck. They hid it on the shore.

For the second time, Tristan became a Treasure Island.

When the castaway crew were picked up by a passing vessel, the two adventurers were forced to leave the chest behind. During the voyage home Captain Summers caught smallpox, and died. Henderson was now in sole possession of the secret and the hoard.

In the United States he tried desperately to find the funds necessary to fit out a ship and go to Tristan to retrieve his fortune. For years he toiled, scrimped and schemed. He failed again and again. But at last he  p90 managed to set forth in the Rover. He reached the island, unearthed his buried chest, and got it back safely to his own country, where he lived in luxury to the end of his days.

The Author's Note:

1 Twenty‑six years later, when the colony was going through the worst time in its history, Green recalled the incident wistfully in a letter to his friend George Newman, the English poet. He said he had written to the Admiralty about the Shenandoah affair. '. . . the U. S. owe to us a little bill for keeping twenty-seven prisoners . . . we have kept several ships' crews at Tristan . . . likewise deserters from American whale-ships.'

However, the 'little bill' was never paid.

Thayer's Note:

a The convoluted details of the tale, some of them definitely garbled, were reported by newspapers thruout the English-speaking world in 1899 when a lawsuit made the facts of current interest once again. Here is the version printed by the New York Journal and Advertiser, a Hearst paper, in September of that year.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20