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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 10
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 III
Chapter 1

Part Two
Sail and Whale

 p90  11 The First Royal Visit

After the American Civil War, whaling was resumed on a much smaller scale. Most of the depleted schools of whales, seals and sea‑elephants had fled far away into the Antarctic. The whale-ships stopped at Tristan only occasionally.

There was hope in the fact that clippers had begun to ford the seas, bringing more trans-oceanic communications than ever before. Many of these swift and beautiful vessels were bound for Australia. Soon after sailing from Britain, they were carried by the south-east trade winds down along the Brazilian coast, then south, and then south-east to round the Cape, which brought them near Tristan da Cunha. They sometimes touched the island, and though there was seldom a landing, the settlers' boats were able to go out and barter. However, for the islanders this was not nearly as satisfactory as trading with the whaling masters, who knew their wants and even did their errands in the ports. The merchantmen might need fresh water, meat and vegetables, but they bartered only such stores as they could spare.

The colony was changing too. Thomas Swain, the oldest inhabitant, died in 1862, but not from decrepitude. His death was caused by the after-effects of a splinter which flew into his eye while he was chopping wood with an axe. He was 102, as carved on his tombstone.

Old Alexander Taylor Cotton also died in about 1865, and his good daughter Betty reluctantly returned from the Cape to take care of her widowed mother. Most of the family lived to a remarkable old age.

Cotton's passing left open the position of headman. It was tacit­ly filled by Peter Green through sheer merits. But he was not officially appointed, and was never secure from Andrew Hagan's rivalry.

Beyond the semi-occasional visit of a warship, the British Government had still taken no steps to emphasize its sovereignty in Tristan.  p91 And indeed, the islanders — like most colonists — seemed to want protection without control. But in August, 1867, a gala event occurred which made them feel more patriotic than ever before.

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria and the late Prince Consort, was on a world tour in HMS Galatea. On hearing that he was to pass near Tristan, he announced that he wanted to call.

The Galatea was about fifty-five miles from Tristan. 'High up and above where we had been looking for it was observed what appeared to be merely a white spot of cloud,' wrote Chaplain John Milner, 'but which in fact was the snow-covered summit . . . the lower part lost in a light haze that seemed to be the sky.'

While the Prince and his entourage leaned on the rail, the sunset turned the snow to bright pink, the lower slopes to red. Later a young moon hung over the mountain. The vessel hove to for the night.​a

Soon after 7 A.M., a boat was seen approaching. It contained eight men — the helmsman was Peter Green — and a load of produce for barter, including 'a couple of lively young pigs'.

(Incidentally, this was the islanders' only boat at the time. It had been the gig of a man-of‑war which had foundered a hundred miles off St Helena. The crew of seventeen had groped their way in the open gig over some eleven hundred miles of rough water, and managed to land on Tristan. After fifteen days, a brig took them off to the Cape.)

Most of the island boatmen boarded the royal vessel. The Duke of Edinburgh received Peter Green, who was described as 'venerable', with his long beard; he modestly informed His Royal Highness, 'I am only the spokesman, in no way superior to the others. We are all equal. I merely arrange the barter and transact business.'

Prince Alfred took a liking to him, and invited him to join him at breakfast. The fare was sumptuous, but Green could take only a cup of tea. Though the islanders were used to the most vicious shaking in their cockle-shells, when they went aboard a big ship they often became seasick from the swell.

The Duke asked his guest what the colonists most needed. He himself wrote down the answers and gave orders for the list to be supplied: 34 yards blue cloth, 80 yards flannel, 40 yards serge, 15 pounds tobacco, 9 gallons rum, 9 gallons vinegar, 50 pounds sugar, 50 pounds tea,  p92 330 pounds flour, and 240 pounds chocolate. The whole lot was worth a generous £110.

Then, in two cutters, the Duke, his suite and several naval officers started for the shore. Green acted as pilot through the breakers and the belt of kelp. When they reached the crowded beach, 'everyone was carried or vaulted out'.

They found fifty-three inhabitants in eleven cottages. A few marigolds shone in flower against the jungly yards of tussock. Two houses were lying in heaps of stones after a hurricane which had blown them down three months earlier.

The distinguished party made their way to Green's cottage, high on the slope, with the red ensign waving. He presented his wife, 'a buxom, merry-looking mulatto woman, about forty-five years of age'. In the parlour the chaplain baptized sixteen children who had been born since Father Taylor left. He described the pious little congregation of mothers as 'all very neatly and respectably dressed', wearing straw hats trimmed with with ribbons and veils, well-made spring-sided boots, short jackets, wide skirts, 'and crinolines, which have mysteriously penetrated to this remote corner of the world'.

By chance the colony had exactly seven eligible bachelors and seven unmarried girls, 'one remarkably pretty'. The jolly parson volunteered to stay another two hours to perform seven wedding ceremonies. 'But the maidens were coy, and the swains were slow, and no advantage was taken of the offer.'

Some of the young men, he said, were fine handsome fellows, 'with only just a perceptible mulatto shade, combined with a healthy red tinge on the cheeks'.

Of the women, two were black, several olive-skinned, some with woolly and others with straight black hair, 'and a few showed no black blood at all'.

Some of the children were very fair, with light hair and blue eyes. These included Peter Green's little grandson, then and there christened Alfred in honour of His Royal Highness, who stood up as godfather.

To the older children the Rev. Milner distributed school-books, slates and catechisms, deploring the fact that they had no teacher. Green himself was the only man qualified to teach them, though many of the women were what the community called 'well educated', meaning that they could read and write.

Until dinner was ready, the royal party rambled about the plateau, calling at various cottages. They visited the cemetery, its walled half- p93 acre containing a score of graves, but only two with headstones, Glass's and Swain's. Then they watched the men catching the animals promised in barter. They were told that the different families had a total of about 500 cattle and 200 sheep. The owners took turns in killing an animal, and shared the meat among the various households, being paid either in kind, in money or barter. Recently, to improve the breed, they had got two fine English sheep from a merchant vessel; but these proved to be infected with scab, and half of the old stock died.

The visitors saw two bullocks being shot down — 'one by a mere boy' — and butchered for the Galatea's galley. The islanders were able to estimate the size of the oxen so accurately that later, when the beef was put on the scales aboard ship, the weight was almost exactly 1,250 lb — the amount ordered.

The feast was then served in the house of Peter Green: roast mutton, roast chickens, parsnips, potatoes and bread. 'After our long ramble, no one did more ample justice than HRH.' Green presided, the only colonist to sit down at table. He proposed the royal health in his one remaining bottle of Cape wine, 'which might have been port or sherry, or a mixture of both, or neither one nor the other'.

The Duke did not know that while he was having dinner, the children were competing for turns in trying on his hat.

On hearing that the Settlement had no name, one of the entourage suggested calling it Edinburgh. Peter Green asked permission of the Duke, who graciously consented. Edinburgh Settlement it has remained to this day — on the maps, at least, though the islanders have always said merely 'the Settlement' or 'the houses'.

In the early afternoon the weather began to play its usual tricks, so the party embarked in a hurry. Green and seven other men came out in the boat to see them off. As they took their leave, the little crew stood up and gave three cheers in the English fashion — a Tristan custom too, for generations.

Before Peter Green left the Galatea, the Duke of Edinburgh noticed him standing with a bundle in his hand, looking around the deck.

'What is Mr Green going to do with his bundle?' he asked.

'Sir, I am looking for some gentleman to take charge of it for my daughters in Cape Town.'

'I will be the gentleman,' said his Royal Highness.

Thayer's Note:

a It was the evening of August 4th, and the moon was indeed young and low in the sky, and "hung" over the mountain because she was of course setting, not rising: an unusually accurate piece of writing; authors most often get the moon wrong. (Data from the U. S. Naval Observatory)

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20