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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 4
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 6

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p108  5 Cats, Donkeys and Alice in Wonderland's Uncle

In mid‑October, 1878, HMS Emerald called, and the captain went ashore and delivered to Peter Green 'some packages and some cats'. The former were very welcome, the latter not at all.

As far back as Augustus Earle's marooning in 1824, there had been too many cats. The very first settlers had brought a few. Some had escaped into the bush and increased rapidly. So had some imported  p109 rabbits and poultry which had also run away. But the wild cats soon put an end to the wild fowls. The former had long been a nuisance to the settlement, sneaking in and stealing domestic poultry.

Augustus Earle had told of watching a group of dogs catching one of the wild cats on the beach. It was greatly changed from the soft pussies of its ancestry. Big and fierce, it 'stood battle for some time against four good dogs before it was killed'.

Now, when the Emerald's master tried to hand over his cats, he was told that the islanders made parties to hunt them down with guns and dogs. The skins, thoroughly cured, were bartered as Tristan souvenirs.

Even the tame domestic cats were not of much use in combating the infestation of imported field-mice, inside as well as outside the houses. Young birds were so abundant and so easily caught that the cats preferred them. As a matter of fact, throughout the generations, visitors have remarked that even the house-cats, often called 'Tibby', have not on the whole been very tame. Most Tristanians have never been sentimental about animals, even pets, as in the habit of Europe and America. They have been impersonal, more in the way of Asia and Africa: leading a harsh life themselves, it has seemed logical to them that their non‑human creatures should share it. However, island mothers have often been heard scolding their children, 'Don't cruelize the cat!'

The little mousy-brown donkeys, long conspicuous in the Tristan scene, had arrived a few years earlier when the small schooner Edward Vittery brought a cargo of them from St Helena in exchange for cattle.

To all subsequent observers, Tristan would never have been Tristan without the windy competition of braying, roused like a chain of echoes over the plateau. Most of the donkeys were named Neddy or Jenny. They conveyed bags of potatoes from the Patches, driftwood from the beaches, fish or cargoes from the shore. They almost disappeared under the great bristling loads of 'island tree' which they brought down the mountain for fuel. Women sat sideways, knitting, on the sack-saddle on their sharp backs en route to the Patches, though on the return trip the husbands rode in state. When the men were working at a distance from the Settlement, little boys galloped madly on donkeyback with only a rope halter, to summon their fathers home if a sail were sighted. The long-nosed asses snooped into the cottage yards, or lay asleep on the crisscrossing paths, refusing to budge. Visitors reported being sent sprawling when they stumbled over them in the dark.

 p110  The Edward Vittery, which imported them, was well known as a trading vessel in the South Atlantic. The Tristanians called her the 'Edward Victory'. They recognized her at once when she reappeared in March, 1881. This time they were excited to see that she was dressed with flags, which meant that someone important was on board.

She had, in fact, been chartered for forty pounds by the Bishop of St Helena on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He had been informed that they would provide £100 a year for a missionary and teacher. He had no assurance that a rare whaler or warship would turn up for a long time to come. So when the incumbent arrived at St Helena, the only possible means of transport was the Edward Vittery.

The new chaplain was the Reverend Edwin H. Dodgson, a bearded man with dark, intense eyes. He was the brother of the Reverend Charles Dodgson — 'Lewis Carroll', author of Alice in Wonderland.

He got ashore promptly, bringing only a little of his personal luggage. All his joyful parishioners escorted him up to the common.

The captain of the Edward Vittery was so over-cautious about the notorious Tristan swells that he let three fine days slip by before he got ready to land the priest's baggage and the rest of the cargo. Then the schooner came into Falmouth Bay and anchored just in time to be met by a change to a north wind — the wind most dreaded by visiting mariners, though the plateau is more sheltered from its force. The captain himself was ashore. The wind freshened and whooped up into a sudden gale. The islanders were able to launch a boat from the beach with the skipper as a hasty passenger. However, while they gazed in alarm over the tossing waves, they saw that the schooner's anchor would not hold. She was jerked forward, with sails straining. Very soon she lurched aground between Anthony's Cave and High Rock, near Hottentot Point and the Settlement.

A Tristan boat tried to tow her out to sea, but it was impossible to budge her. There was nothing more to be done except to rescue the crew. They were taken off safely. But as the boat was rowed near the shore, a vast wave chased it, and struck it a mighty blow which smashed its bow. All the men were flung into the breakers. By great luck they managed to splash on to the beach.

The Edward Vittery was soon a total wreck. Nearly all personal possessions and cargo were lost. Father Dodgson was bringing out a quantity of church furnishings, at least half of which were swept off to sea as the schooner disintegrated on the rocks. A few of his  p111 cases were washed ashore, but they were considerably broken and most of the contents were ruined. The Tristanians managed to drag up a large stone slab for the altar, which is still in its intended place. So is a tiny stone font which appeared a few days after the wreck, and at which generations of infant islanders have been christened.

Oddly, many of the clergyman's clothes gradually drifted within reach, only a little torn by being swept over the sharp lava. He lost nearly all the books which he had chosen and packed with so much care and forethought. Thus he started his mission with a minimum of equipment.

There was a horse on board, ordered from St Helena by Johnson, the Swedish ex‑castaway from the Mabel Clark. The stricken beast was drowned when the schooner was battered to pieces. It would have been the first horse ever seen by most of the islanders.

'The island is much more beautiful than I had any idea of,' wrote Mr Dodgson in one of his first letters home.

More than most of the practical folk who came there, he had an eye for the strange lens-like changes in the focus of mountain and sea, near or far and ever varied, always moving, with the moods of light, the night sky spanned by the Southern Cross, and the wonderful clouds of the South Atlantic.

He lodged and boarded at the home of old Mrs Cotton. He had a good and intelligent housekeeper in her middle-aged daughter Betty. She was a spinster, a rarity on Tristan. She had been one of the girls whom Father Taylor had shepherded to the Cape in the 1850's to work as servants. There she had been employed in the home of Bishop Gray. Unlike most of the others, she would have preferred to stay in Cape Town if her filial sense of duty had not recalled her to the limited life of the island. Living to be 94, she appeared as a respected character in several memoirs, and was apparently an entertaining raconteuse, with an extraordinary memory for Tristan lore.

Mr Dodgson found the Settlement at its largest so far: 107 souls in sixteen families. Two years later, however, the number dropped to ninety-three, with the lure of 'a more stirring life elsewhere' taking many of the young men off on the occasional American whalers. Benjamin Green, youngest son of Peter, never came back; he was drowned in a boat accident near St Helena.

 p112  Father Dodgson reported that there was no infant mortality. Mrs Peter Green — a bright-faced, dwarfish woman — served skilfully as midwife. There was only one deformity. A mentally retarded boy named Ben Swain had ten‑inch arms hanging jointless from his shoulders. The islanders said that one night while his mother was pregnant, she had been frightened by a tiny man who came waddling down from the mountain in similar guise. To outside hearers the apparition seemed like a penguin, but this was denied.

'I like these people very much,' Mr Dodgson wrote home. 'They very rarely quarrel or use any bad language. Drunkenness, I am sorry to say, has a hold of the men when they get their chance. They are decidedly a religious people in their simple way, and I have not the least difficulty in getting them to church.'

There was no church building and no school, but he was not disheartened. Jacob Green lent his home temporarily. Dodgson begged some explosive from a sea captain to blast the big stones from the mountainside to build a church. The men, in the first enthusiasm over the new arrival, volunteered their work. But their labour was so slow and scant that even the indefatigable priest gave up hope. The great stones lay on the ground — some to be blown about, like other Tristan boulders, by the force of the hurricanes. (Dodgson himself had ample experience of such gales. Once, he had to crawl the whole way to church on his hands and knees.)

Before he left, he told the congregation that they could use the stones as a wall for the cemetery. Such an enclosure was much-needed, since the graves were disturbed by strolling cattle, donkeys, sheep and poultry. It did not, however, keep out the small boys. Bob Glass later gleefully recalled how he and other urchins had prised the lead from the carved lettering on Grandfather Glass's American tombstone, to melt for shot pellets.

Though the new priest started teaching at once, school was hard to keep without the books and supplies which he had lost. It was two years before more arrived in HMS Sapphire. However, he improvised as best he could. His pupils were 'of course very backward compared with those in English schools, but they were naturally bright and intelligent, and very anxious to learn'. The young scholars apparently had no alternative. He was a stern taskmaster, and governed his classes — boys and girls — with a cane. They dared not peep up from the lesson.

His favour pupil, and with reason, was Frances Green, granddaughter of Peter. A brilliant child of strong character, she was to grow  p113 up into one of the several outstanding figures in the history of the island.

Dodgson gave pleasure to the community in the singing which was so important in their simple life. He was very musical and 'could sing any parts' He added new hymns to the repertoire. This included many sea chanties and old sailors' songs of vigorous seafaring or of sentimental repining for loves lost in the deep. There were also folk songs — English, Scottish, American, Boer, and Negro slave melodies by way of the southern United States and St Helena. Some have been remembered and sung by the older generation even in recent years.

Hopes of a new enterprise were raised when an American schooner called and hired twelve men to spade up a load of guano on Nightingale. They got 360 bagsful, 'strong and rank as yellow soap'. The captain promised to come back in a year and repeat the job. However, the schooner was wrecked in some distant place, and no more was heard of the project.

Dodgson shared the pessimism of his predecessor, Mr Taylor, about the future possibilities of making a living for the community on the barren island. His views led to strong disagreements between himself and Peter Green. And in his first four years on Tristan certain events were to confirm his alarm.

Meanwhile, he was describing the life and hardships of the inhabitants in many letters home to his brother Charles. 'Lewis Carroll' followed their fortunes with intense imagination and sympathy. In 1883 he wrote to Edwin to propose that Tristanians should be moved to the Cape or to Australia. In London he called on a series of officials to recommend the plan. When Edwin came back to England, he took him to meet Lord Salisbury, the Foreign Secretary. Though on the whole the brothers were disappointed, the personal campaign of 'Lewis Carroll' helped to stimulate public interest in the midocean hamlet, where in many ways the life was almost as strange as anything in Alice in Wonderland.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20