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In July, 1884, an idealistic young Englishman named Douglas Gane, en route to Australia in the clipper Ellora, was enchanted by his brief glimpse of the hardy solitude of Tristan da Cunha.
'On rising early,' he wrote in a pamphlet, 'we saw the island •some forty miles distant, towering to the sky like a great cloud on the horizon.'
Young Gane and the other passengers had almost given up hope of any contact, when all at once they saw two boats with sails approaching several miles away. Everyone crowded to the rail to watch them appearing and disappearing against the great troughs of the southwesterly swell.
When the boatmen got within hailing distance, they lowered their sails and rowed toward the Ellora. The ship's company greeted them with a big cheer as they climbed up the channel boards to the deck. There were eighteen or twenty men of fine stature, some handsome. The spokesman was Joseph Beetham, a jovial of about sixty, who said he had lived on the island for thirty-five years.1 All the men were dressed in blue dungarees and bullock-hide slippers, with a variety of hats and caps.
p117 The captain gave them permission to bring up their stock of fresh foods and curiosities for barter. The former included small merino sheep and 'spare and raw‑looking pigs, fed, we understood, on fish and grass', geese, bluefish, crayfish and potatoes. For all this the captain gave them a good bargain in provisions. The curiosities offered to the passengers were the dried skins and wings of albatrosses and other seabirds, and wild cat skins.
Money was of no use to the islanders, nor any books. 'Of these they had, they said, far too many already, few of the inhabitants being able to read.' They took several, however, for Father Dodgson. They were anxious to barter for warm clothing, and the passengers 'ransacked their wardrobes'. The men also hoped for tobacco — though without much luck, since the clipper had been six weeks from port; and they were anxious for presents for their wives. 'They made any sacrifice for a bottle of scent or a cake of scented soap.' Most in request by the passengers were their oxhide slippers, which they gladly slipped off their own feet to trade.
Mr Gane recorded that he had secured many of the curiosities and natural history specimens which afterwards formed the Tristan da Cunha exhibit at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886.
The islanders also plied the doctor with queries on behalf of their health or their families'.
'One of the settlers,' wrote Mr Gane, 'had a faint hope that have might be able to find a wife among our passengers as, questioned whether he were married, he said in a desponding voice, "he should very much like to be, only there were no women on the island he could have".'
With his boyish imagination thus vividly caught, Douglas Gane never forgot the people. Throughout his long lifetime, he did more than any other individual to help the colony with constructive publicity and with subscriptions, and his work is being carried on to this day by his son.
Meanwhile, a quiet sort of Montagu-Capulet feud for supremacy was always smouldering between the families of Andrew Hagan and Peter Green. The Romeo and Juliet theme was doubled by the fact that Jacob Green had married Lucy Hagan while William Hagan had p118 married Matilda Green. Old Hagan apparently felt that he had inherited the Glass authority along with the Glass property. Old Green thought that this one‑sided economic power was too heavy for the common good which had been the founding principle of Hagan's father-in‑law, William Glass. And it was inevitably the Greens' home, not the Hagans', which was the centre of civic and 'cultural' activity.
A third corner made the island discord a triangle: the growing disagreement between Peter Green and Father Dodgson as to the future, indeed the very existence, of the community. As before and after, it was Green's faith in the colony's survival which helped to hold it together against all odds of nature, of missionaries and of officialdom.
A break was probably averted by the unforeseen arrival of HMS Opal after Christmas — on December 27, 1884. Captain Arthur T. Brooke brought gifts from the British government in token of the islanders caring for the crew of the fog‑wrecked Shakespeare.
He came ashore and talked to Dodgson, Peter Green and others. He wrote that Green, 'though over seventy-seven, was most intelligent'. The old Dutchman was stocky but still moved easily. His photographs show a well-shaped head with soft silvery hair curling over his ears, and a full white beard and moustaches. His deep‑set blue eyes were serene and humorous.
Captain Brooke reported that about twenty vessels had been sighted off the island during the year, but only one whaler. Thus the people badly needed flour, clothing, gunpowder, nails and rat poison. As ships became fewer, the skilful boatmen would sometimes go •more than twenty miles out to sea to try to intercept them.
Among the many gifts was a new lifeboat from the Board of Trade. The boatmen tried it out as soon as it was unloaded, and Peter Green, in his letter of thanks, wrote that it 'went through the breakers in grand style'. It was not, however, to be used except in bad weather or heavy surf. Ordinarily the men would use their whale-boats. These, Green added, were too long and narrow for rough waters, 'for while they would go through the sea, the lifeboat would go over the sea'.
This lifeboat, received with touching pleasure, was destined to play a heavy role in the history of the colony.
Father Dodgson had been nearly four years on the island, and he was very unwell from the harsh life and — especially for an outsider — the limited diet. So he took the opportunity of leaving in the Opal. p119 There was a sad farewell scene with his flock, and stoical tears filled the eyes of his cleverest little scholar, Frances Green.
As the warship sailed away, the settlers opened the containers of stores, mail and books which she had left. Among the books there happened to be a pamphlet which the Rev. Dodgson had written about the Tristanians, unknown to them. He stated that the island was unfit for further habitation, and predicted its swift economic and moral decline.
Everyone was shocked and hurt, but most of all, Peter Green. In the report which, by request, he wrote for the Admiralty after the New Year, he commented, 'This publication said that we are going to the devil . . . I never expected to hear such language come from Dodgson . . . He was the most godly, the most kind, the most unselfish.'
In his clear copperplate hand, with slight Germanic curlicues, old Green refuted the missionary's argument for 'breaking up our Settlement'. He mentioned that he had been on the island for over forty-eight years and his wife for more than fifty-seven. The colonists all had plenty of cattle and pasture. 'Can the Rev. E. H. Dodgson take our people away without the consent of the Government?'
He could not resist saying, however, 'If Mr Dodgson can get some of our people away from Tristan, I hope he will include the three whaling boys.' By this he meant Andrew Hagan and two of his sons. 'They have brought a very small stock of knowledge back to Tristan, and that is of a very vulgar kind.'
He added that Hagan, 'the cattle king', had, 'by his mean action, come in possession of nearly half the cattle and pasture . . . He found the pasture: the labour of the English pioneers . . . I had to clear my share. Now this man came after all the land was ready for cattle. . . .'
As for the islanders' trading, Green observed, it was mostly with English ships, to the benefit of both sides. The ships wanted it as much as the islanders. 'We have not got everything we want,' he wrote, 'but is it not the same in England? So we must take the good times and the bad times.'
He dropped a hint about the stores sent from Britain, with reference to the practice of addressing parcels to 'The Inhabitants' whether deserving or not, instead of to individuals.
. . . We too have good, bad, and boobies. Some of our men will go to a ship as long as a boat will live, others will hang back, and when the boat comes back from the ship they get the same share as p120 who went off in the boats. It was so till lately, but they now begin to alter that cowardly plan. Now it is pump or be drowned.
As a result of this change, no family was allowed to share in the stores unless the man went out to the vessel, if he were able.
Peter Green further pointed out the value of Tristan as an inhabited island for ships badly in need of fresh food for their sick, and above all, as a base for the rescue of wrecked crews and passengers.
Between 1869 and 1883 there had been nine shipwrecks. A community of some twenty adult men, at most, had saved and cared for more than 200 persons — almost without recompense, and despite their own privations. They had made dangerous rescues in heavy seas in frail boats, which were sometimes old and condemned, bought from whalers.
'But for this,' he added, 'it is necessary to have a good boat's crew at Tristan.'
He little realized that before the year was out, his remark was to have a fateful echo.
The year 1885 became a grim legend. The potato crop failed — partly because of a blight and partly the plague of rats. The stores were gone. Ships had never been so rare. Everyone was underfed, threadbare and depressed.
In the early morning of November 28, a relieved shout of 'Sail ho!" rang over the Settlement at last. A large signal fire was hastily lighted. The sky was clear but the south-west wind was squally and the seas were rough and tumbling. However, the need for supplies was too urgent to resist, and the settlers rushed to collect livestock and curiosities and a few potatoes which they could not really spare. Fifteen men put out together. This time — which was unusual — they were all in one boat, the new lifeboat.
There are several versions of the happening. A composite sketch can be drawn from the accounts of Peter Green; of the captain of the vessel — which was the iron barque West Riding, bound from Bristol to Sydney; and from the report of another British master who called a month later and questioned the island witnesses.
The families, anxiously peering from the cliff, said that they watched the lifeboat going alongside the ship •about six miles off shore. Its p121 captain took in sail and hove to, but did not allow the islanders to board. When the vessel stood out from the land, the boatmen kept rowing alongside for •about four miles, doubtless hoping the skipper would relent. However, he callously dipped his ensign in the nautical symbol of farewell. The watchers on the island saw this signal, though they could not see their own boat.
After that, the men must have given up. But they had moved a long way to the leeward of the island, and could not sail or row back, helpless between the north-east current and the south-west wind. So they were driven farther and farther away.
Back on Tristan the women and children watched and waited all day and all night. They grew anxious, then alarmed, then terrified. Two parties set out around the island by land in either direction, hoping that the boat had managed to come in at some other beach. But they saw nothing but the empty reefs and the flocks of birds.
No corpse, no clue, was ever found.
Some of the islanders later claimed that they had seen the boatmen taken aboard, and feared that the captain may have been short-handed and commandeered them as crew. This possibility was seriously considered at home and abroad — although, as was pointed out by the next captain to call, the ship would hardly have wanted so many men. It seemed more probable that the lifeboat must have capsized or filled with water in one of the sudden 'willies', or squalls.
It was ironic that the men had all squeezed into a single boat instead of being the usual seven or eight to a crew, and that they were less used to handling the new lifeboat, with which they had been so pleased, than the old shabby whale-boat in which the accident might never have happened.
After the tragedy, as hope on Tristan was dimming, Peter Green wrote a letter about the lost boat to send to the Admiralty by the next vessel.
. . . One thing is certain; she never reached the island. She had all the best boatmen in her, rather too many, fifteen in number, twelve of them married. If the boat and crew is lost it will make Tristan an island of widows, for it would make thirteen widows.2 One man has gone insane; we had to put a straightjacket on him. But I am still in hopes the boat's crew is still on board the ship . . . I p122 had three sons and three grandsons, three brothers-in‑law, and one son-in‑law in the lifeboat. . . .
Captain William Thomas, the offending master of the West Riding, told his version of the episode in a Sydney newspaper on January 13, 1886. He informed the reporter that on seeing a boat crowded with men approaching his ship, he took in sail and brought the barque to wind. At 7.40, when the boat was •a mile and a half away, its sailing mast suddenly disappeared. But afterwards the craft was seen again, apparently making towards the vessel with oars. Thinking some accident had occurred, he made sail and stood towards the spot; but though he cruised in the vicinity for two hours, using telescopes, he saw nothing. As the wind was south-west and the ship was 'rolling dreadfully', it was impossible to launch a boat to the island. Nothing more could be done, so he kept on course.
As far as the 'island of widows' was concerned, the master's belated qualms were no comfort. Their descendants have never forgotten that the West Riding held to her course, even though the boat may have overturned 'within a stone's throw of her bows', and her crew may well have seen the fate of the boatmen. Nor will they ever forgive the mocking dip of the ensign with which the heartless captain said good‑bye — for ever.
On Boxing Day, 1886 — a scant month after the loss of the lifeboat, the City of Sparta called at Tristan, Captain A. R. Johnston gave the first news of the calamity and its results, in letters to Cape Town and to London.
He said that there were now ninety‑two settlers left on the island, including four married couples, of whom the husbands were the only adult men. All the rest were women and children — many children, with the large size of Tristan families; and two of the three elderly women were invalids. Thus almost a whole generation of Tristan men was wiped out, and the effects, indirect as well as direct, were to be felt for many decades.
Of the four men surviving, the only one who was middle-aged and strong was Sam Swain. Peter Green and Andrew Hagan were both old. (It is ironic that the two veteran enemies should still be left, facing each other across the watery graves of their comrades.)
p123 The fourth man was 45-year‑old Joshua Rogers, son of Jane Glass and her absconding Yankee whaler. Joshua had returned to Tristan from New England, where he had emigrated as a boy with his mother and the other Glasses. It was he who had gone insane, after an accident with explosives.
Captain Johnston reported that 'he gives no end of trouble when he occasionally breaks loose'. In wild fits of madness he would strip himself naked, using his hands and teeth. Then he would set to unroofing the thatch of the houses. While the others tried to catch him, he ran up the mountain, climbing 'with marvellous dexterity on top of inaccessible places', until his pursuers had to give up. In a day or two he would come cringing home, exhausted and starving, and was easily captured. The captain gave the people a piece of strong canvas to make a strait-jacket, and told them to sew it around him tightly.
Peter Green also asked Captain Johnston to relay their complaint of shabby treatment from some of the passing English ships. Many other masters were as indifferent as the West Riding's, letting the boatmen make the long hard pull out, and then brushing them off with a dip of the ensign. The islanders felt that this was cruel treatment, when they might be in great need or distress, or — as had sometimes happened — wished to tell of a shipwreck.
When the black news of the lifeboat at last reached the Cape, a petition was presented to the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, by twenty-eight residents of Mossel Bay, all former Tristanians or grown children of those who had emigrated with Father Taylor in 1857. They asked His Excellency to inquire into the disappearance of the boat crew, 'whether by wreck, capture or other casualty'. They also asked that he would investigate 'the state of the remaining population, and grant them assistance in distress'.
The letters posted by the City of Sparta did not reach England until March. The stunned Mr Dodgson at once wrote to beg the Admiralty to send a warship to help the colonists. 'I fear the people must be already in great straits, for under ordinary circumstances they would have regarded it as an act of madness to attempt to board a vessel •nine miles to leeward in such dangerous weather.'
He said he felt that he himself must return to them, since they told him in their letters that he was the only person they could look to. p124 Also, he added, owing to the peculiarity of their diction and mode of expression, and to their unique state of life', outsiders often misunderstood them.
In mid‑April the Admiralty offered him a passage to Tristan in HMS Thalia if the Colonial Office would pay £24 12s. 0d. for his fare. There was much haggling over pennies, but at last a bargain was struck for the proposed figure plus the cost of the clergyman's messing.
The Treasury granted him £100 to spend on the islanders. He asked for potatoes, flour and clothing. He rejected the two suggestions of seed potatoes and rat poison. They were of no use, he said. The people must leave Tristan, not plant more crops; and 'the whole island is undermined and overrun with rats'. He further asked the Government when, where and how it meant to evacuate the inhabitants.
Despite his opposition, he found that seed potatoes and rat poison were indeed aboard the Thalia when she sailed from Devonport to convey the supplies. So were some terrier dogs and mongooses. (The terriers were doubtless soon absorbed into the canine population of the island. Of the mongooses there is no further mention.)
As soon as the Governor of the Cape received news of the Thalia's arrival at Tristan, he Tristan, he cabled to London, 'Inhabitants well, no sign of distress.'
Captain Day H. Bosanquet reported that this year, 1886, the potatoes had not failed; there were enough to last until next season, but 'the rats threatened the crop in a year or so'.
Each family had one or two milch cows with calf, and one or two trained bullocks. There were about 500 wild cattle. Many others had recently been washed away in more giant floods.
During the year only two whalers and eight other ships had stopped. All were small, and there was very little trading.
There was still only one able-bodied man. In addition to the twelve widows of the lost boatmen, and the old Widow Cotton, there were two spinsters, aged 55 and 56. 'But we have a good many big boys,' wrote Peter Green, 'and they have to work for the nineteen families.' Ten boys were able to form crews for the two whale-boats.
Twenty years later, the forceful matron who had been little Frances Green told a missionary's wife, 'The present generation of girls don't know what hard work is, compared with mine — after the boat was lost.'
2 The thirteenth widow was old Mrs Alexander Cotton, aged 75.
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Tristan da Cunha
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