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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 1
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 3

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p97  2 Two Hermits on Inaccessible Island

Early in 1875 a young German sailor named Gustav Stoltenhoff had experienced eighteen days of Tristanian kindness as a castaway from the burned coal ship Beacon Light.

When he got home he found that his family, dyers in Aix-la‑Chapelle, had been ruined in the Franco-Prussian War. Gustav persuaded his elder brother Friedrich to go back with him to settle on Tristan for seal-hunting and barter.

At St Helena they spent their savings on equipment: an old whaleboat; two rifles, shot and powder; food, wine and tobacco; tools, seeds, and barrels for seal oil. They also brought two empty bed‑ticks to stuff with seabirds' down: cosy German feather beds on a desert island. For company they had a bitch with her two puppies, and eight books — mostly classics, for they were well educated. They spoke fluent English; and they took something of a naturalist's interest in the changing scenes and seasons.

They booked passage for Tristan in the Java, an American whaler, but her captain, Mander, persuaded them to go to Inaccessible Island instead. He said that he had seen wild goats and pigs on the heights, and fertile land. He was probably not sure they would be welcomed on Tristan, which had inhabitants enough, now numbering about eighty.

On November 27, 1871, they were alone among the reefs, cliffs and screaming birds of Blenden Hall Beach. It was littered with driftwood and with 'sea beans' which had floated all the way from West Africa and South America.

Captain Mander went on to Tristan and told the colonists about the new arrivals. Four days after a sealing party came from the larger island, and treated the Stoltenhoffs with friendliness. They told them that the north side was better and moved all their belongings. They helped them to build and thatch a stone hut. They also promised that at Christmas they would come back and bring them a cow, a heifer and a young bull. But though the lonely brothers watched eagerly, they did not turn up.

The hut stood near a waterfall at the base of a tussocky precipice. The beach was about a mile long, with a strip of level earth in which they planted their seed potatoes. At either end they were hemmed in  p98 by the sheer cliffs. Above was a grassy plateau on which the wild goats and pigs lived. To reach it, they had either to row around the cliffs by boat, or to climb straight up like mountaineers with hand-holds of the tussocks.

They slaved, but it took them every waking minute to keep alive from their meagre crops and hunting. Soon their boat was damaged on the rocks, beyond use.

In April, when they lit a fire to clear a gully of tussock grass, the whole precipice blazed up and was burnt bare. So now it was impossible to scale the cliff, with nothing to hold on to. Thus they were doubly marooned on the beach, unable to get up to the plateau either by land or by water.

Ingeniously they sawed the wrecked boat in two and nailed a flat stern to the open edge of one half, making a sort of clumsy dinghy. They called it a 'sea‑cart'. But in June a storm washed it off the beach and smashed it.

The winter was grim. Their rations dwindled until both men were skin and bones. They would have died if August had not brought the thousands of squawking, bobbing penguins to nest and lay the blue eggs. They signalled to a few passing ships, but the surf kept most of them off, though in September a French barque shipped their sealskins and they bartered penguin eggs for sixty pounds of biscuits and some tobacco. In October a Cape whaling schooner made a brief landing with some men from Tristan.

By November the last musty penguin eggs were gone. They must reach the plateau or starve. It was very dangerous to try to swim around the cliff, but Friedrich did. He towed a rifle and a sealed cask of powder. With no other belongings, he climbed to the heights and stayed till mid‑December. He shot pigs and goats, and dumped the carcasses over the precipice to his famished brother below. Then an American whaling schooner stopped and mercifully left them a little food.

One day in December they were startled to hear gunshots and shouting. A group of Tristanians had landed, and caught forty seals. There is conflicting evidence: some say that the colonists invited the Stoltenhoffs to come to their island, but the proud brothers declined any reluctant charity. The Tristanians also scaled the heights and shot most of the remaining goats.

When the brothers were alone again, they resolved to spare few goats left, in order to let them breed and increase. But in January, 1873, hunger forced Friedrich to swim around the cliffs for another  p99 foray on the plateau. He again threw down meat to the beach, where Gustave melted and stored the fat.

In February another boat landed from Tristan. The colonists killed the four goats remaining, and sailed home without visiting the Germans.

For some months the brothers continued this strange life, with Friedrich alternately risking drowning first to reach the hunting grounds and then to rejoin Gustav. The second winter was even more hopeless; no ships, no grudging Tristanians, no food. They had only some Epsom salts left. The dogs were starving too. When the penguins returned to lay, the animals ran wild, tearing a savage and bloody trail through the tumultuous rookery. The brothers had to shoot their pets.

Spring arrived at last, and there were cabbages and radishes. But now, after nearly two years of the epic hardship, the hermits were rescued in mid‑October, 1873, by the famous exploring ship, HMS Challenger. Her captain found them 'overjoyed' when he agreed to take them to the Cape.

Just as they left the beach, there was a puff of smoke and flames besides the waterfall. The hut had blazed up, until soon it was only a grey mass of ashes on the stones. 'It is not known whether it was by accident or design,' wrote Sir C. Wyville Thomson of the expedition, 'but the brothers showed no regret.'

The Germans spoke bitterly against their neighbors, whom they believed had killed the goats and failed to bring the promised cattle, in order to drive them away.

Sir Wyville declared in his journal that he had not formed a favourable impression of the Tristanians.

They are by no means ill off, very shrewd and sufficiently greedy; and their conduct to the Stoltenhoffs . . . in landing surreptitiously and killing the last of the flock of goats on Inaccessible, if not actually criminal, is at least questionable.

As for the colonists, they in turn accused the Stoltenhoffs of poaching the goats and seals on what they considered a necessary adjunct of their own island.1

 p100  Peter Green is believed to have feared that the presence of two German settlers might make the Kaiser's government lay claim to Inaccessible.

At any rate, all that marks the hermits' grim feat of endurance is their name on one of the islets near Nightingale: Stoltenhoff Island.

The Author's Note:

1 There were no more goats on Tristan. Those abundant animals, mentioned in flocks of hundreds by many mariners, had disappeared suddenly and mysteriously in the mid 1860's, without a trace — not even skeletons. Dr Macklin of the Quest later attributed their loss to the heavy cloudbursts flooding down the hills and gulches.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20