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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 3
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 5

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p105  4 The Cowardly Captain, his Wife and Daughter

May, 1878, saw the maiden voyage of the Mabel Clark, a new American barque, sleek and immaculate with fresh white sails and glossy paint on her hull. Captain Sheldon ('Skelding', the Tristanians rendered it) was accompanied by his wife and 10-year‑old daughter Nina, and a crew of twenty‑two.

Strong currents and high winds dragged the barque off course in the South Atlantic, but there was no inkling of danger. Then one dark night at 2 A.M., she suddenly grounded with a terrible shudder. People and gear were knocked about; the mate's arm was injured. No one could see anything but white foam. All hands huddled in the spray on the creaking deck until dawn, which was delayed by the giant shadow of the unseen mountain. Then they discovered a rugged island looming sky‑high only a few hundred yards away. They were on the rocks opposite the pastures of the Tristan plateau.

Two young apprentice seamen volunteered to try to swim ashore. With ropes tied around their waists, they were lowered into the vast troughs of the breakers. Everyone watched the heads appearing and disappearing in the swirling surf. They both managed to struggle to within a few yards of the beach. But the tide kept dragging them back; and at last the men on board felt the ropes slacken. The limp bodies were pulled to the deck. They were rubbed and chafed, but both boys were dead.

Now the survivors kept desperately watching the bleak shore for some human sign. The deck was sinking fast, with the waves crashing over the rail.

In the early morning, the youthful Alfred Green, godson of Prince Alfred, had trudged out from the Settlement to the pastures to round up the oxen for the day's work (a chore carried on by modern Tristanian schoolboys). As he climbed above Molly Gulch, he jumped. There was the big vessel, with little more than her sails showing above the water.

He ran the two miles home, faster than he had ever run in his life. At once the whole colony dashed to Molly Gulch, bringing tea, coffee and brandy. They found the vessel's deck awash.

William Green and Cornelius Cotton threw themselves into the  p106 surf and started to swim towards the barque. A Swedish sailor named Olson leapt from the deck and swam towards them. As he neared shore they helped him to flounder on to the beach.

The wreck kept sinking lower and lower under the watchers' eyes. The sailors climbed the masts, looking like battered birds in a bare tree. The small bundled figures of the captain's wife and daughter were lashed to the rigging.

The second man to get himself rescued was none other than Captain Sheldon himself. Leaving his ship, his crew, his wife and daughter, he hopped off the poop and paddled frantically toward safety. Will Green, with a rope tied around his waist, again swam out and brought him in.

The mate tried next, and succeeded, even with his injured arm. Cornelius Cotton dragged him ashore.

Several other sailors took a chance, and young Green and Cotton rescued each in turn. Then the luck changed. The sailmaker and another man were drowned before they could reach the land. This frightened the rest of the crew. They decided to hang on to the rigging overnight, hoping the sea would calm down by morning.

The captain — according to the Tristanians, who still tell the story — was one of the first to make his way back to the Settlement. He ate well and slept soundly all night in Peter Green's house, leaving the villagers to watch and worry over his wife and child in the icy rigging. There was 'no love lost', the people said, between him and his family.

Fortunately the morning brought queer seas. The islanders maneuvered their whale-boat close to the Mabel Clark, with the 70-year‑old Peter Green at the helm. A jolly-boat was used to rescue the survivors who plunged across from the wreck with the help of a rope line. One by one they were plucked out of the masts — all but the six members of the crew who had been drowned. The half-frozen wife and daughter of the captain were treated with even more than the usual kindness by the sympathetic inhabitants. They were plied with hot tea and wrapped in blankets, and taken to join their rested lord and master as house-guests of the Peter Greens for the seven weeks of their stay.

The ill wind at least blew the islanders a wealth of salvage from the Mabel Clark. Some of it is still to be seen. The sails were dragged ashore, as was a great deal of valuable wood, to be used in boats and houses. The ship's two bells were hung up at either end of the Settlement; one was transferred to the church when it was finally built. The Greens' cottage, best on the island, has relics of the vessel even in our own time:  p107 the name-board Mabel Clark over the sitting-room fireplace, and the neatly painted sea‑chests used as seats around the room.

Several cases of ham were among the flotsam. However, the Tristanians were too superstitious to touch the treat when it had been in the waters where six men were drowned.

They patrolled the beach to watch for everything useful that was cast up. Within a few days, the bruised corpses floated ashore. Once a man picked up a tangle of human hair, and respectfully buried it. But when all the bodies had been accounted for, and were found intact — including hair — the finder of the scalp was puzzled. He dug it up. It turned out to be Mrs Sheldon's 'switch' of false hair.

The Sheldons' jewellery was also unearthed from the wreckage. But though the captain had said that the islanders could keep anything that they salvaged, the honourable Peter Green insisted that the finder return it to the owners.

Vivid memories of that stay were recalled by the captain's daughter in California more than fifty‑one years later, in a letter to the missionary wife, Mrs Rose Rogers, after the latter's book on Tristan was published in the 1920's.

'The medicine chest in Peter Green's house had not been replenished for about twenty years,' Miss Sheldon wrote, 'so he said the people could not afford the luxury of being ill.'

There was a funeral in the island during the castaways' visit. Captain Sheldon read the service, squeezed into Peter Green's black suit, which was tied together with rope yarns. The deceased was a very old lady, 'who had just died naturally', like most Tristanians. (This must have been Mrs Thomas Swain, the Negress from St Helena.) The islanders said they knew she was at least a hundred years old, but they did not know how much older. So they tolled the two Mabel Clark bells alternately a hundred times.

When the Washington authorities ordered the USS Essex to detour from Buenos Aires and pick up the refugee crew in October, two of the sailors decided to 'swallow the anchor'.

One was a Swede named Johnson, who married a granddaughter of Peter Green while the American warship was at anchor. He stayed on the island for some years, and then emigrated with his wife and three daughters to St Helena. There he eventually abandoned his family and sailed for America — as the early Rogers had deserted Jane Glass. Mrs Johnson and the three girls later returned to Tristan.

Little Nina Sheldon bade an emotional farewell to the kind friends  p108 whom she could never repay. She had been especially fond of a small girl named Louisa. 'When I said good‑bye to her and asked what I should bring her when I came back to Tristan, she said, "A diamond ring and a waterproof cloak." ' But the two never met again.

In conclusion, Miss Sheldon told Mrs Rogers:

My only souvenirs of Tristan are a few pebbles that my mother picked up. There is a great fascination about lonely places. I think that is the reason that we love our deserts as we do. The unlimited miles of sand and mountains somehow make one feel close to God. I can understand why you should like to return to Tristan.

The United States Government felt indebted to the Tristanians for their services to the Mabel Clark's crew. In December, 1879, it sent an acknowledgment via a British warship. There was a gift of a gold chronometer to Peter Green personally, and to the colony as a whole, a binocular glass and 'forty pounds sterling in gold'.

The British government presented a medal to William Green for his gallantry in life-saving.

Green père's chronometer was handsome, but it would not work. Four years later, with great misgivings, he let the new missionary send it to England for repair, though from long experience of South Atlantic transport he feared that he would never see it again. 'As its value is fifty pounds, I would not like to lose it.'

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20