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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 8
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 10

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p129  9 The Grand-Opera Shipwreck and the Two Italian Castaways

As an earlier shipwreck had ended with Italian song and dance like an operetta, the loss of the Allanshaw was a romantic melodrama in the grand-opera tradition.

She was a full-rigged vessel, of a line which conveyed indentured coolies to and from various tropical ports. With a crew of thirty‑one, she was outward bound from London for Calcutta in February, 1893.

According to superstitious sailors, she started under a series of jinxes. There were five cross-eyed men — and even one meant bad luck. Also, there was a senior apprentice named Roberts who admitted that every ship in which he had sailed had been lost — 'so we knew we had a Jonah aboard,' Able Seaman P. Saunders of Johannesburg later told the Press. From the first the cruise was dogged by rough weather.

The baritone hero — or villain — of the opera was the 'Old Man' himself: an Irishman named Captain Thomas. He was only 31, but within a few days the crew realized that he knew his job — 'one of the  p130 devil‑may-care, let‑her-rip type of seamen'. He was a silent fellow, and it was plain that he was worried about something.

In fine weather, he startled the crew by abruptly ordering both lifeboats to be made ready.

In the morning of March 23, they saw the hovering peak of Tristan about sixty miles dead ahead. 'Hour after hour passed, and we piled along at twelve knots with all sails set.'

On the poop Mr Cartwright, the mate, was increasingly alarmed. So were all the crew. But no one dared to disobey orders. When one or two old hands spoke to Cartwright, he shook his head and said that if he tried to intervene and the captain made a proper anchorage, he would be charged with insubordination and his career ruined.

Soon the great rocky island was towering up into the sky straight ahead. They were making for the lee side, away from the Settlement. An Austrian master-mariner at the helm tried to alter course. But Captain Thomas shouted, 'Keep her on her course, damn you!'

After five bells, 2.30 P.M., that beautiful ship, with all sails set, struck, reared her bow in the air, heeled over to starboard . . . snapped in two amid­ships, and in less than ten minutes all that was visible above water was the truck of her mizzen-mast.

She had crashed on a hidden reef, and one half of her hull had sunk on either side. There had not even been time for crew to take to the two lifeboats — without orders. One boat was swept down with the wreck. The other floated clear. Twenty‑six of the thirty‑one managed to crawl into it.

We hung around, looking for the skipper and the four others. There was no sign. Roberts, the 'Jonah', had made his last voyage. The skipper had made no effort to save himself.

Though the steep coast on the lee side was forbidding, the sailors managed to find a landing-place, and scrambled up, dripping and shaken, on the black beach. By a fortunate fluke a party of Tristanians happened to be there, gathering penguin feathers.

The combined parties spent the night in a cave, and went around the island the next day. Though the men greeted the strangers heartily, the women took cover as they appeared. 'My, but I never met such bashful women! One or two I never got close enough to speak to during my three months' stay.'

By another lucky chance, a warship from the Cape Station had left  p131 Tristan the same morning after the annual visit, so the settlers had abundant food to share.

Able Seaman Saunders recalled that he was billeted with Miss Betty Cotton, the Grand Old Lady of the island, who 'did us proud'. He mouth still watered at the recollection of her dish of spiny lobster, the so called 'crawfish' (crayfish) shredded and fried in butter, and served with potatoes mashed in butter and milk.

For the crew it was a sort of holiday with pay. They spent the days 'fishing, donkey-riding and eating'. In the evenings they organized singsongs, exchanging their native tunes and sea‑shanties for the old polyglot Tristanian ballads. Gradually the shy women began to appear in the audience, and eventually became bold enough to dance.

About three weeks safe the wreck a group, including Saunders, went around to look for flotsam. Among other things, they found the captain's wallet. 'It contained,' said Saunders, 'a cabinet photograph of a lady and some letters written by a lady. One of them referred to the breaking off of her engagement.'

He added that as the publicity would do no good, they burned the mementoes on the spot.1

Three weeks later, the castaways hoped for passage when an Italian barque came near enough to be intercepted. A boatload of men went out. The crew must have taken the boatmen for pirates, for they cut their painter, threw two of them overboard and sailed on.

The next ship appeared three months to the day after the wreck of the Allanshaw. It was the German barque Theodore, bound from Hamburg for Australia.

'He was a real sailorman, that skipper,' concluded Saunders. 'He agreed without hesitation to take the lot of us to the Cape, where he set every castaway ashore with a good dinner, a tot of gin, a pipe, tobacco and matches.'

The mate, Mr Cartwright, was not among the repatriates. He stayed on Tristan, and later married one of the widows. So the tragic opera ended with a wedding chorus.

 p132  The next shipwreck buffeted ashore the last two founders of the modern Tristanian families.

The Italian barque Italia was a beautiful three-master painted bright green. In October, 1893, she was bound from Greenock to the Cape with a crew of sixteen. Her cargo of coal caught fire in the middle of the South Atlantic. The captain had little hope of saving his vessel, much less his cargo. But he had a desperate decision to make for the lives of his men. He called them together and asked whether they would vote for continuing to the Cape, or for changing course towards barren Tristan da Cunha, which was a little closer. They chose Tristan.​a

As the smouldering ship drew near the archipelago, they could see nothing but thick damp fog. There was a helpless wait which lasted several days. The Italia dared not move for fear of the reefs, though she was gradually exploding like a slow chain of giant firecrackers. The main hatch had already been blown off. The lifeboat hung ready for sudden disaster.

At last the mist thinned enough for the haggard men to see a steep coast. They did not know whether it was Tristan or Inaccessible. In fact they were on the southern side of Tristan, near the cliff-pent strip of pasture lands where herds of cattle were, and are, running wild. The captain was able to steer his ship aground off the lava boulders of Stony Beach. The crew splashed ashore without loss of life, leaving the smoking green hull of the beautiful Italia to her fate.

For several days the castaways tried to find their way over the cliffs, gulches and ridges to the Settlement which, diagonally opposite, was about as far away as it could be. They seemed to make no headway against the precipices rising to the Base or falling to the sea. So they returned to the beach and tried their luck with the lifeboat.

From the Potato Patches, some island boys looked up and saw a tiny white boat sailing around Anchorstock Point. They scampered back to the village and gasped the news. The grown‑ups would not believe them. 'It's a whale,' they said. But finally the boys prevailed on a few of their elders to stride up to the Patches. On the way, they met four unkempt figures: the Italian chief officer and three sailors, who were following the rough bullock-track to the houses.

The bedraggled men were kindly received by Peter Green and his daughter, Mrs Hagan — daughter-in‑law of Andrew. They gave them a hearty tea and makeshift beds for the night.

In the morning the island boatmen went around the coast to Seal  p133 Bay. They saw the barque still smouldering, a hundred yards front dry land. The rest of the crew were sheltering under canvas near the caves among the flocks of seabirds which haunted the hollowed and echoing region.

The same evening, gay music lilted through the Settlement. The Italians had saved their instruments even in the midst of explosion and shipwreck. The Tristanians were enthralled.

Though one or two of the castaways apparently got passage in a few days, most of the crew had to wait for six months. Peter Green wrote that they were 'hard-working and obliging fellows, very fond of music and dancing'. One of the sailors reported that it was 'a very happy stay'.

They were eventually picked up by the American barque Wild Rose while her boats' crews were sealing at Gough Island. (A Tristanian longboat has been named for her in our own time.)

In an emotional letter home, the Italian sailor described the final farewell on the beach. There were tears and embraces. He himself had left a fair-haired girl who, 'deathly pale, fled with outstretched hands to hide her grief in her humble dwelling'.

Not all the island maidens lost their tuneful sweethearts. Three stayed behind, to add Italian rhythms to Tristan's mixed heritage of songs and dances. One was a ship‑boy, who soon left. The others never went away again. Marrying local girls, they provided the last two of the seven surnames in the present generation of Tristanians: Repetto and Lavarello.

Natives of Camogli, near Genoa,​b both were men of intelligence, industry and good character. Andrea Repetto, well educated and enterprising, had been a petty officer in the Italian Navy. He was described as short and dark-haired, with a pale face and a slight squint. He was well read and clever with his hands. He was destined to make a more substantial contribution to the life and skills of there is than any man except Glass or Green. Later a missionary's wife wrote of him, 'He can do anything, even make his own suits.' One of his early tasks was to teach the local boatmen to manufacture line from a spinning jenny which had been salvaged from the Italia.

He acted as interpreter for Lavarello, who did not bother to learn more than a few words of pidgin until Repetto's death many years later. (By the time of his own much later death he had forgotten Italian, though his English remained heavily broken.)

Gaetano Lavarello — always known as 'Gaeta' — was tiny, squat and spry, with a broad head, a huge moustache and a ready smile.  p134 He had been born among the vineyards, but at the age of 11 he roved off to sea. Within a few years he had sailed to many lands.

Around the Tristan firesides in the breezy evenings he continued to tell sailors' yarns of his adventures. However, he had 'swallowed the anchor' so emphatically that, having been shipwrecked three times, he would never even go out in an island boat. He worked hard in the Patches, but for more than half a century he was to stand genially on the black sand, guiding the boatmen in through the surf with a seaman's eye and Latin gesticulations.

Not long after the Italians' arrival, Peter Green performed five wedding ceremonies, as authorized by the Bishop of St Helena. This brought the number of married couples up to ten — after seven years with only four or five. Two of the pairs were islanders. There was also Mr Cartwright, the mate of the Allanshaw, who married a lost boatman's widow. Gaetano Lavarello married Jane Glass — a young namesake of the Jane born during the sojourn of the Blenden Hall's castaways. And Andrea Repetto married Frances Green — Peter's extraordinary granddaughter, who had been Father Dodgson's brightest pupil. The wedding of this able couple was to give rise before many years to a new leader­ship on the island.

In due course the King of Italy wrote a gracious letter for their six months' hospitality to the Italia's crew.

More tangible was Britain's gratitude for their succour of the Allanshaw. Her Majesty's Government sent a hundred pounds, plus a plough and two sewing-machines. Long years afterwards the latter were still gathering salt‑air rust, for the islanders preferred either ready-made clothing or their own hand-sewn clothes in a quaint mingling of styles from Tristan and the 'Houtside Warl.'

The Author's Note:

1 Eventually, after the official inquiry, the loss of the vessel was ascribed to over-confidence.

Thayer's Notes:

a Good details of the Italia, her voyage and her end at Tristan, and the continuing links between the island and Italy are given in at the Seafaring Museum of Camogli.

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b The square onto which fronts the City Hall of Camogli bears the name "Largo Tristan da Cunha", as can be seen in this GoogleMaps view; a readable photograph of the commemorative plaque there can be found on an Italian philatelist's Tristan da Cunha page.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20