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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 9
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 11

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p134  10 A Queen's Portrait and a Cargo of Whisky

'Please, God,' the Tristan girls used to pray, 'send us a good shipwreck, so we can get married.'

Mr Dodgson, and the other missionaries, discouraged this plea. But it was all too true that young engaged couples often had to wait for  p135 years to gather enough wood to set up a home. The masts and spars of foundered ships formed the beams of the new cottage; their planks provided flooring, door and window frames and, with luck, a little wainscoting. Sea‑chests, chairs, tables and other furnishings were treasure trove. Stout pieces of wood were hewn into the skeletons of the home-made canvas boats and the skimpy ox‑carts with their crude round wooden wheels.

In the first eight decades of the colony there were all too many wrecks, though not nearly enough for the residents. But the coming of the age of steam gradually brought an even worse wood famine.

Not long after the Italian settlers arrived, the tide brought a bonanza: the Big Tree, as it was always called. Semi-occasionally a large hardwood tree was swept up by the currents from the South American forests, and eagerly rescued. Though minor discoveries went to the finder, a major haul was regarded as communal property. By far the most important was the giant trunk which was found lying on the rocks at Seal Bay. It was between 120 and 140 feet long, and twenty feet in girth. The islanders made periodic sorties to chop off needed parts and bring them home by boat. Once, to everyone's dismay, a high ride raked the prize out to sea; but later another tide pushed it back and deposited it nearby. It was to last the colony for at least twenty years.

The change to steam was causing the Tristan boatmen more wild-goose chases than ever. Any island man, woman or child was always proud of having been the first to sight a ship and cry 'Sail ho!' For weeks afterwards the circumstances of how, when and where it was seen were retold over and over. Formerly most of the sailing ships had been English and American, and their masters and crews knew something of the Tristanians. But the advent of clippers and steamers meant more vessels from foreign lands, whose captains were alarmed by the boatload of shaggy, rough-looking desperadoes, and did not stop. In 1893 the men boarded only thirteen ships of various nationalities, and a few more in 1894.

April Fool's Day, 1895, produced a lucky fluke. On that one day alone, three ships stopped to trade. It was probably the most bustling day in island history.

The Tristanians were now in the habit of taking the annual warship's arrival for granted. Rear Admiral Bedford, Commander-in‑Chief of the Cape Station, proposed that a whaler instead of a man-of‑war should make the yearly call. But after a long correspondence, it  p136 was decided that a small naval craft was still the best — and islanders deserved it for saving so many castaways.

A week before Christmas, 1896, HMS Magpie brought a large awkward crate. It was formally addressed to Peter Green, Esquire. It proved to be a signed portrait of Queen Victoria, in a handsome frame, four feet high and three feet wide, with the Crown on top, beautifully carved and gilded. More appropriate to a tall drawing-room in Kensington than to a mildewed stone cottage in midocean, it hung on the wall for a number of years, and was then taken away to the Cape by some emigrating descendants of old Green.

In an accompanying letter, the aged Queen said she had presented the portrait in recognition of his 'self-denying efforts in saving life from shipwreck during the last sixty years'.

More practical was a supply of rat poison sent from England at Peter Green's request by his correspondent, the poet Newman. Unfortunately it never reached its intended victims. The warship was unable to land any stores because of bad weather.

The Tristanians wrote to ask the British Government for a lighthouse, but the request was denied because of the expense. In the meantime more 'wracks' occurred in close succession before the end of the century.

One morning in 1897 the villagers were bending over their work in the Patches as usual. A man straightened his back and glanced out to sea, where the familiar misty bulk of Inaccessible loomed above the horizon. Its abrupt hump was a meteorological guide to the settlers — steeped as they were in weather signs — visible or invisible, large or small, dim or clear, its dark mass often topped with cloud like volcano smoke.

'Sail ho!' the man shouted.

The people saw a ship 'hard up' against the neighbour island. Looking down from the high ground of the plateau, as in a Chinese painting, they could view it easily.

They kept an eye on it, hoping it would come their way. But it did not move, all day. Surely, with the shifting winds and currents of Inaccessible, something must be amiss.

They talked of going over to find out, but there was a thin fog and it was one of those lean times when there was only a single boat on the  p137 island, the lifeboat in which the Italia's crew had fled from their burning ship. So they did not take a chance.

Meanwhile, off Inaccessible, drama was enacted on the apparently motionless vessel. She was the barque Helen S. Lea, bound for Freemantle. She had been unable to take her bearings in cloudy weather. The captain had estimated that she was at least fifty miles from the Tristan archipelago.

Then without warning she struck some rocks with a shattering crash. She was quickly seated by the stern on a reef. The crew leapt into a lifeboat. She was only a third of a mile from the shore, but though they searched up and down, the island's namesake cliffs seemed truly inaccessible. Like others before them, they could not find even the smallest opening where they might land.

They could see the hazy lump of Nightingale about ten miles away. Though they had not had the time to equip the lifeboat with sails, food or water, they bent to the oars and rowed across. But again there were the unbroken cliffs; and they did not discover the couple of tricky landing places on the other side.

Exhausted, they heaved at their oars once more and pulled all the way to Tristan during the night. It was a remarkable feat, since they must have rowed some forty miles.

Next morning the Tristanians saw a large lifeboat approaching. They ran down to haul it up and help the tottering castaways on to the beach.

When the crew had had fresh water, food and sleep, both parties sailed back to Inaccessible. The Helen S. Lea was still afloat. Clambering up on her precarious deck, they rescued all of the crew's belongings, three more boats, and part of the cargo.

Most of the cargo was beer and whisky. Soon the sailors were too drunk to help in the salvage. (No mention has been made of any Tristanian share in the imbibing.)

Later a sharp north-west wind whipped the island, and the barque was shaken to pieces on the rocks. Her wreckage was soon swirled up on to the beach; not only the ever-useful wood, but more casks of whisky.

The men helped themselves again. Then they loaded the boats with as many cases as the craft would hold, and sailed the liquid booty back to Tristan.

It is primly stated that the islanders were relieved when the barque Dumfriesshire turned up and carried the tipsy castaways to the 'Houtside Warl’'.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20