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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 7
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 9

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p125  8 Clinging to the Rock

The 1880's were to remain the darkest decade in Tristan's history. The year of the boat disaster, 1885, marked the island's increasing isolation, with a period of decline which was at its worst for about seven years, like the biblical 'years of the locust'.

The only profit of the tragedy was the public sympathy and interest which it aroused. The activities of the two Dodgson brothers, Edwin and Charles ('Lewis Carroll'), stimulated a wish to help. Also, young Douglas Gane had returned from Australia to England, and was powerfully moved to think that the little incident which he had witnessed off Tristan, when the picturesque boatmen braved a rough sea to meet his vessel, had been repeated just a year later with a terrible ending. In 1886 he wrote a pamphlet about the colony, and began his lifelong campaign to keep it alive.

The best result of the fatal blow was the decision of Queen Victoria's government to send a warship once a year.

In August, HMS Rapid was despatched to see how the survivors were getting on. The doctor went ashore and vaccinated twenty-eight children. Captain Musgrave reported that they found the people managing fairly well. The consensus of instructions from London, with Father Dodgson's advice, was to encourage individual emigration.

It was feared that the morale would deteriorate if free supplies were issued regularly. Stores must be exchanged for the islanders' goods in the old tradition of barter, unless there was some great emergency.

Another result of the calamity was the temporary return of group co‑operation, as in the early days of Governor Glass. The whole community had to care for many widows and their large broods of children if they were to survive. Thus grew the long-continuing custom whereby a widow was entitled as a 'household' to a share of communal bounty, even though she had no husband to earn it. (Mr Gane in the 1930's, found three of the boatmen's widows still benefiting from this.)​a

On the other hand, the lessening of opportunities for trade with passing ships led to more barter by individuals on behalf of a family rather than in a community pool.

HMS Curaçao made two calls within a few years. The first time she brought a whale-boat from St Helena, and let the Tristan men — or  p126 youths — have a jolly-boat and fittings, their own boat being unsuitable for fishing. These, 'though they had to pay for them, they gratefully accepted'. The bartered produce included only a small quantity of potatoes, as there had been another blight.

When HMS Acorn arrived in January, 1888, Captain Atkinson reported that there was no poverty. Nevertheless he had the impression that the people meant to emigrate to America and Australia. The boatmen who came out to trade refused to take stores in barter, preferring money.

In fact seven people left in the next year. And when the Curaçao reappeared on December 12, 1889, she gave passage to the Cape to ten persons, including six children and Father Dodgson. The missionary's ill health, which had forced him to go home before, had now deteriorated further with the worse times and harder work in an almost fatherless community.

Captain R. A. Stopford, the commander of the Curaçao, gave the Government one of the most unfavourable reports ever made on Tristan. It was understood that this was at least partly influenced by the depression of Mr Dodgson.

Unless the naval men kept a sharp watch, the captain wrote, the 'unsophisticated' islanders would barter all the oldest geese. He solemnly advised that if any vessel took geese, the sailors themselves should dress the birds on shore, for on the Curaçao's previous visit they had found them too tough to eat.

He also warned new‑comers that if the boatmen were allowed on board before the barter and transfer were completed, they would 'just loiter, do private trade, and not make the slightest effort to get the cattle down to the beach and embark them'. If not pressed, they would delay the sailing of the ship.

He believed that the colonists' mental qualities were at a low ebb, 'being practically limited to thinking about what they should eat and how they should be clothed'. He feared that the race was deteriorating for want of fresh blood; the women showed debility more than the men. If the people were not evacuated, he was afraid they 'would die out for malnutrition and natural decay'.

This seems a harsh view of the colony in the Dark Decade of the 1880's. First there had been the arrival of the rats — though at least partly preventable, it is true. Then the boat disaster. And several crop failures, and a flood. And now the appalling drop in shipping — not only of whalers, but with the rapid change from sail to steam.

 p127  Steamers were not blown by trade winds, or becalmed; there was no longer a need, either of route or of commissary, to pass near Tristan da Cunha and stop for refreshment. Now none of the main shipping lanes lay within 1600 miles of the archipelago. No one would expect a steamer to detour so far.

The islanders could hardly be blamed for their wonder in lingering aboard a rare vessel, or for being absorbed in 'thinking about what they should eat and how they should be clothed'.

With the departure of Mr Dodgson, Peter Green, now about eighty‑one, was again the sage of the island.

'I am getting deaf and have a bad cough,' he wrote to a friend, 'and the doctor of HMS Curaçao thinks it will not leave me at my age.'

Nevertheless he was always busy. He loved to read and had accumulated a small library of books received from ships. He wrote to an English editor who sometimes sent passages from his letters to be printed in The Times. He liked to draw, etch and paint. He used a box of water-colours, mixed with the local oil from sea‑elephants or seabirds. His paintings soon faded on the stone walls in the damp salt air, since he had no glass for framing. He also took rubbings with brass from interesting illustrations in books and magazines. And he made pictures from braye, a scouring-clay, which he retrieved from wrecked ships.

His correspondents increased with his years: relatives and friends who had emigrated to the Cape or the USA and friendly strangers in England or elsewhere. He kept up a long pen friendship with the poet George Newman, relative of a castaway kindly treated by the islanders. When an Austrian man-of‑war called, with nostalgic talk of northern Europe, he was stimulated to renew his strong interest and contacts in his childhood home of Katwijk. Travellers who had met him went out of their way to visit his elderly brothers and sisters in Holland.

He was 'very old and deaf, and had little authority' — according to the captain of HMS Swallow in January, 1890. The patriarch deplored the fact that so many more islanders had left, and blamed the Rev. Dodgson for scaring them away.

The Swallow had brought back three young men from the Cape — a Green, a Cotton and a Swain. The population now numbered sixty-three. Of the eleven men, five were married. There were the  p128 two old perennials, Green and Hagan, and nine young men — 'just enough for one boat's crew', in the words of Peter Green.

The Swallow's captain echoed his predecessor in finding that the islanders drove hard bargains and were eager for money as well as food.

This could not be said in October when a sealing schooner arrived from New Bedford, as in the old days. The captain and mate were both Tristan-born, grandsons of Governor Glass on the female side. They had left the island thirty-four years ago in the family exodus, but only a few of the oldest inhabitants could remember them; they were grey-haired and wrinkled.

'We sold nothing to them,' wrote Peter Green to the poet Newman, 'and they sold nothing to us. We gave them what they wanted, and they returned the compliment in grand style, as they had provisions on board for four years. It was a holiday and a dinner day and a gossiping day.'

The same schooner continued to make annual visits, which was heartening.

A sign of the times was the fact that HMS Raleigh, the warship which arrived in early 1892, was a steamer. She gave passage to the Cape to four men, six women and three children. The captain feared that soon there would not be enough men to work a boat and to cultivate enough ground for potatoes, which had now dropped to about forty acres.

Fifty people had gone away to the Cape or America in the six years after the boat disaster. They were mostly the widows and their children, but included many young men. Some did well in fishing, whaling, sealing and other trades, but others never fitted in and eventually returned to Tristan.

However, when HMS Racer called in March, 1893, Captain Rolleston expressed 'a faint hope of averting a decline of the island to old women and greybeards'. Old Mrs Cotton, last of the St Helenian women, had died at 80. But a baby had been born, and there were two new settlers for the first time in many years. The population was fifty‑two.

The captain observed that Peter Green still flew the Union Jack over his chimney. He was the only one capable of taking in or making signals by the Mercantile Code, which he had been taught by Father Dodgson. However, the business with the four or five Yankee whalers which now called in the summer months — almost the  p129 only remaining source of trade — was conducted by Andrew Hagan. Thus Hagan at last filled the role of spokesman which he had coveted for nearly four decades.

Captain Rolleston described the fifty‑two islanders as 'thriving and contented', with 450 cattle and 200 sheep. The women churned, and spun their own sheep's wool from spinning-wheels constructed by one of them. There was 'no disposition to drive hard bargains, the produce being readily tendered'.

No one wished to leave the island, but the parents wanted education for their children. The only teaching was done by Mrs Swain, who lent her house for school in the evenings and for Sunday service, receiving a small remuneration in kind. The children learned at least to read and write.

Thus, by 1893, the seven 'years of the locust' had been weathered.

Thayer's Note:

a Gane, Tristan da Cunha, p27.

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