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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 2
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 4

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p100  3 Family Rule

With Charles Darwin on board, HMS Challenger had been commissioned by the Royal Society for a cruise of oceanic exploration from 1872 to 1876. In October, 1873, her staff made the first accurate hydrographic survey of the Tristan archipelago.

Mr Darwin and the other learned visitors split up into parties to reconnoitre on shore. They were led by Peter Green and a few other men. Mention was made of Thomas Glass, 'a very intelligent and handsome man who had been at Kerguelen and several other whaling stations in the South'. They watched the dark-eyed young women hurrying about to collect and pack the provisions for barter with the paymaster. Each brought to Green a tally of her contribution, which he jotted down and valued.

Unfortunately the notorious weather had made Captain Nares rule that no one was to go for more than half an hour out of sight of the ship, nor farther than an hour's walk from the Settlement.

'The Tristan da Cunha group has a terrible climate,' reported Mr H. N. Moseley, the naturalist. 'For nine months in the year there is constant storm and rain, with snow.'

Some of the naturalists spent a busy morning botanizing under the cliffs on the plateau. In the afternoon they made the stiff climb up the slopes into the damp belt of low tree-fern. Then, with the suddenness of which they had been warned, a dark squall pounced down and pelted them with icy hailstones. Wrote Mr Moseley:

My guide, a small boy, born and bred on the island, crouched down instantly under the tall grass and ferns, lying on his side,  p101 drawing up his legs, tucking in his head, and screwing himself down into the grass like a hare into her form. We followed his example, and found that the perfection of a shelter thus obtained from such scanty herbage was astonishing.

Meanwhile the squall was swirling at the anchorage. Mr Moseley, peeping from his shelter, saw the recall flag flying on the Challenger. As soon as the hail stopped bouncing off the ferns, the group hurried downhill.

Of his small guide, he remarked:

The boy was peculiarly taciturn, and like all the islanders, extremely curt in his language, and very independent. Like most of the others, he showed a strong Yankee twang in the little I got him to say, and he seemed to have considerable difficulty in understanding ordinary English.

Several Tristan boatmen accompanied the party back to the Challenger to receive the money for the provisions, for which they 'charged full well — they are all sharp at a bargain'. They stayed as long as they could, until the ship was well under way, begging for various things such as matches and copy-books, 'and putting down all the drink they could get', primly added Mr Moseley. 'They never have any store of strong drinks on shore, because when any spirits are landed the liquor is cleared out at once in a single bout.'

The Challenger moved on to Inaccessible, and relieved the legendary Stoltenhoffs. (The Tristanians had said that they doubted whether the brothers were still alive.)

Then the vessel continued to Nightingale, and again disembarked surveying and exploring parties, including Mr Darwin.

It was nesting time for the penguins, and the birds were 'leaping and splashing out of the water like dolphins or porpoises'. On the small island with its castellated crags, the men landed on a beach below what had appeared from a distance to be a gently sloping meadow. They had brought ashore two fine old spaniels, who always enjoyed sniffing and rooting among the fresh earth scents after the salty bareness of the deck.

The peaceful meadow, however, turned out to be a thick jungle of  p102 tall tussock grass which was in use as a penguin rookery. It teemed with tens of thousands of the black and white birds with their odd streamer head-dresses. Having started through the mass, the several exploring parties found that there seemed to be no end. The spiky tussock stuck up above their heads, and they could not see where they were going. The rookery was a maze of streets and turnings, with nests everywhere. At each step the men trod on eggs, birds, chicks or guano. 'The penguins yelled, groaned, scrambled, bit our legs and pecked us with their strong sharp beaks until the blood came.' For a long time the travellers wandered blindly in the impenetrable tangle. They were deafened and bleeding, their nerves shattered. Unable to see each other, they were separated from their leaders and joined anyone they could find in the thicket. Several scientists lost their apparatus.

All the men succeeded in battling their way out, as did one of the spaniels, but not the other. Kindly old 'Boss' was lost in the rookery. Yelping, cringing, he had fled hither and yon, and vanished into some unknown hiding-place. Before the men left the beach they called and whistled until their throats were dry. But they had to board the boat and leave him behind, where he would probably be a victim of the vicious skua gulls.

The tour of the Challenger brought a wave of publicity about Tristan in Britain and around the world. Captain Digby of HMS Sappho was ordered to call in January, 1875, on his way to Australia.

In the slow tide of matters dealing with the remote island, there was still the unsettled backwash of complaints about the United States cruiser's challenge to the possession of Tristan during the Civil War, more than a decade earlier. Captain Digby was asked to confer with the colonists as to their status and wishes.

Peter Green had maintained that Tristan must be under the jurisdiction of the Cape Colony, since Bishop Grey of Cape Town, on his visit in 1857, had got the parishioners to sign a document acknowledging themselves as being in his diocese. In 1859 the parish had been transferred to the Diocese of St Helena. But in the prolonged correspondence, the British Colonial Secretary had asked the Governor of the Cape Colony for information about the document, to find out whether the paper really established the archipelago as being British.

 p103  If so, it was proposed that an administrator might be appointed as ex‑officio governor — logically he would be the naval commander of the Cape Station — with a Tristanian, presumably Green, to act under him as magistrate.

The islanders, however, were unenthusiastic, even alarmed. Though equality was still important, the family had become a more dominant social unit than the community. As mentioned, they wanted subsidy without supervision.

The Government finally let the idea slide. However, an Order in Council was drafted and submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown. They decided that the Tristan da Cunha archipelago was a part of the British Empire.

A new Union Jack was included among the gifts of supplies and books sent from Britain in the Sappho. Peter Green thereafter headed his letters with the address, 'The House with the Flag, Tristan d'Acunha.'

Captain Digby reported finding fourteen families with eighty-five persons. The American whalers had seldom called since the Civil War; there were now only eight or ten a year. Without them, the lack of flour was the islanders' most troublesome want, though they had also relied on them for odd needs such as the roof-timbers for their houses. However, an annual average of twenty ships had been calling for provisioning, thus maintaining the island as the 'refreshment station' of which Jonathan Lambert had dreamed.

The Sappho's doctor vaccinated thirty-nine young people. He pronounced the children very healthy, the men vigorous and athletic, the women 'tending to corpulency'.

In the following year the medical officer of HMS Wolverine reported, 'The people boast that there are no diseases, the only cause of death being old age and accident.'

His opinion has been widely echoed by experts in our own time. Nevertheless, then as later, Tristan shared the susceptibility of isolated communities to diseases brought by ships. There had been rare, lone epidemics of measles, whooping cough and mumps. But from the start of the colony to the present, the visits of vessels arriving from the Cape or St Helena have virtually always been followed by a round of colds or influenza, called in local dialect a 'tissick'. Ships coming from more remote regions like South America or the Antarctic have not seemed to carry the contagion. The American whalers used to bring colds to Tristan when they were southbound from St Helena,  p104 but on the return voyage after the long chilly period of fresh air and isolation in the whaling grounds, they carried no germs ashore.

Captain Digby's report described the settlers' method of distributing any common property or communal gifts which might be received — a pattern lasting through many generations. Someone blew a blast on a polished ox‑horn, and a representative of each home came hurrying to collect the family's share. Every household received the same quantity or value as every other, no matter how few or how many members there might be. This apparent inequality was evened up by the fact that each family would have to take its turn in furnishing the provisions for the sequence of ships calling. So every household, large or small, gave as well as received the same. If there was a dispute, it was arbitrated by Peter Green.

Mrs Andrew Hagan — Selina Glass, the heiress — had died in about 1870. She was only in her forties, young for death on the island. By Tristan custom she left her property to her husband. This seemed a little hard on her brother, Thomas Glass, since he had returned and produced a family; especially when Captain Hagan later remarried. Nevertheless the Yankee was now 'the cattle king', the rich man of Tristan da Cunha. He always headed a small group in stubborn opposition to Green's leader­ship.

The famous Cutty Sark was a picturesque visitor in 1875. She was driven off course by a series of hurricanes, but luckily not wrecked. She stood off Tristan with a heavy sea running and the island boat bucking the waves to reach her. Captain Tipstaft described the boatmen's skilled and intrepid handling as 'a grand sight, with old Peter Green standing up at the helm with the spray dashing over him'. When they finally managed to pull alongside, and were hauled on deck, they proved to be 'about as rough and weatherbeaten a boat's crew as you could see'. All were dressed in sheepskins or goatskins, untanned.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20