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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 10
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 IV
Chapter 1

Part Three
Shipwrecks and Flotsam

 p138  11 An Accident and the Boer War

Tristan made world news again after the visit of the steam yacht Pandora early in 1905.

Two British youths, Walter Lawis and Ronald McCann,​a1 were passengers. In the Edwardian way they were both taking a long sea voyage, via the Canary Islands, for their health.

The skipper, Captain Thomas Caradoc Kerry, had been granted a Government concession for working the guano on Inaccessible and Nightingale. It was a condition of his licence that he was to call first at Tristan and deliver mails and parcels, free.

On arrival he sent the two young men ashore with the stores, engaged some island hands, and then steamed over to Inaccessible. He expected to return in a month, meanwhile leaving the youths in the Settlement.

After a few days the 19-year‑old​a2 McCann suggested to Lawis that they should go out to shoot penguins. They went without a guide, trudging up past the Potato Patches to the vast rocky drop of Anchorstock Gulch. Ahead, the big headland of Anchorstock Point reared out roughly above the sea, a favourite spot for the penguins. Lawis felt too tired for the sharp scramble. It was agreed that he would wait and rest while McCann went on alone. He later told how the boy had strolled off, laughing, and he had watched him striding up a narrow path which wound along a windy cliff high above the sea. He saw him reach the top. Then he disappeared.

Lawis waited and waited. But his friend did not return. While the sun moved west, his eyes raked the lava face of the precipice, the Base, and the Gulch, waiting for a flicker of movement or a human cry far away. He grew alarmed, and hurried along the beach and up the cliff path. He looked down into 'a seething cauldron where the waves beat high on the shore'. He shouted with all his lungs, 'McCann! McCann!' But his voice was lost in the roar of the surf below.

Despairing, he hastened back to the Settlement. Every man joined the search-party. Though earlier he had been too weak to accompany his friend, now he went back with the others. Darkness soon fell in the deep violet shadow of the Gulch, and the party decided to go home and resume the hunt at dawn.

 p139  Now, however, Lawis himself was missing. So a fresh search was begun. Numb with exhaustion, he had lagged behind the swift islanders and missed the path. He had groped about through the scrub and lava in the twilight, until suddenly the ground gave way and he tumbled down into a ravine. He lay stunned at the bottom. As he regained consciousness, he had a horrible nightmare, and he heard himself sighing and groaning. Whichever way he turned his head, a pair of gleaming eyes met his. 'Rats ran over my body and squealed as they did so, and I lay there bruised and bleeding in an agony of pain.'

He made five attempts to scale the lava walls of the Gulch. Each time he failed. He was overcome by a powerful fear of death. He gave up and lay down, prepared to die.

At the same instant, he caught the glint of a lighted match on the mountainside high above. (The islanders often lit brands to guide those who had been 'nighted'.) New hope gave him a little more strength. Again he struggled to claw his way up the precipice. This time he made it, and he was rewarded by the sight of the search-party rounding the bend. They gave him a rousing cheer.

On the long trek back to the Settlement he was helped by several of the strong islanders. Others hurried ahead to fetch a bullock-cart, which met them half‑way. It some days before he was able to be up and about again.

Each day the search-party made a new attempt to find the missing McCann. They discovered his footprints on the cliff above the sea, and deduced that he had been swept over by the gale. Later they found his body washed high on the beach. It was badly mangled, and naked.

The settlers clothed it in a duck-suit belonging to Lawis and made a rough coffin out of the packing-cases which had been set ashore by the Pandora. The same bullock-cart bore it to the small windswept graveyard.

Twenty years later the missionary's wife, Mrs Rogers, wrote of seeing the little wooden cross marking the spot:

Ronald McCann,

aged 19.

Though Captain Kerry of the Pandora had expected to be away on Inaccessible and Nightingale for a month, he came back to Tristan  p140 in a week with a damaged rudder. Off the coast he signalled by code for McCann and Lawis to rejoin the ship.

Andrea Repetto signalled back the news of the tragedy. The captain hurried ashore, to find the search-party still out.

The tragedy doubtless enhanced the trouble and publicity which awaited him when he returned to England. He was charged with theft, at Bow Street and committed for trial at the Old Bailey. The Crown prosecution lasted for three days.

Before sailing he had advertised, offering to take out a limited quantity of supplies as gifts for the inhabitants. His counsel pleaded that when the Pandora was ready to sail, he had 'found the decks covered with so many packing-cases that it was impossible to navigate the vessel'. The small steam-yacht had no hold. The captain even had to fill the bath with parcels.

The prosecution alleged that he had had two boxes of books and magazines thrown over the side, as well as some cases of provisions which were going bad.

'I'm not,' he was heard to grumble, 'going to have such rubbish on board.'

As the Pandora neared Las Palmas in the Canaries, he found himself 'tormented by bugs', and several more packages were jettisoned. Among them was a collection of Bibles sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Further, he had grown tired of a consignment of agricultural tools, and had sold them at Sierra Leone on the West African coast. He was able to prove that he had returned the money to the donors.

It seemed that the crew were vengeful because he had put a man in irons, and were only too ready to give evidence against him. A number of well-known people had been among the benefactors. The discarded gifts had included about 1,500 books, and the supporters of the SPG were outraged by his dumping of the Bibles.

Captain Kerry defended himself with bravado. And in the end the judge dismissed the case because of extenuating circumstances. But again, newspaper readers in Britain and abroad were touched by the wants and ways of the distant islanders.

'Dear Sir,' wrote Peter Green to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 'the inhabitants of this island are very poor and plain people  p141 but we are thirsting for the Lord and our children need education.' But the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa, with the consequent gap in communication, dimmed any current chances of a new chaplain's arrival.

Had such a missionary come, he would soon have had several funeral services to hold for the older settlers. They included two suicides, very rare on the island.

Joshua Rogers, deserted son of the early American whaler, suffered another of his bouts of insanity. This time he jumped off a cliff.

The other suicide was Andrew Hagan, the 'cattle king', who was found on the beach with his pulse cut. The razor with which he had set his own blood flowing was folded tidily in his pocket. The Tristanians attributed this sense of order to the seemly way of island life.

Peter Green, always a devout student of his old Dutch Bible, was now left to read the English burial service over his lifelong rival. But for him too there was tragedy to follow. His lively and competent mulatto wife died in 1900, aged 85. And soon he himself was not only infirm but imbecile. Mercifully he died on April 2, 1902, at the age of 94. The next day the Settlement saw its most solemn and important funeral since the death of Governor Glass. There was a great formality of keening and mourning, and the service was read by the old man's granddaughter, Mrs Frances Repetto.

There was never a memorial stone to mark his grave. But no one ever filled his place, though his strong-minded granddaughter and her gentle Italian husband more or less continued the dynasty together.

At home and abroad it was assumed that without the stubborn faith of Peter Green, Tristan would become a desert island once again.

Someone had once asked him why he refused to go away.

'I have taken Tristan,' he replied, 'as a man takes a wife.'

To leave the island or not to leave: the question of emigration continued to see‑saw back and forth.

At the end of 1901, the captain of the American whaler President had reported that the colonists were in great distress from the absence of supply ships during the Boer War. They were in rags, and down to their last half barrel of flour for the Christmas holidays.

When the war ended and a Royal Navy vessel called at last, it was learned that about half the people were willing to go if there were  p142 some opportunity abroad and if they could find a way of disposing of their 500 cattle and 600 sheep without abandoning them.

It was a blow for the inhabitants to find out that after the war the Admiralty had decided that cost of a warship's annual visit was not justified. The commanders were instructed not to go out of their way especially, but sometimes to deviate from their route when it was not too inconvenient to call at the island.

In 1903, five Tristanians went to Cape Town in HMS Thrush. One was hearty Joe Beetham, who tried to get a schooner for use in the cattle trade. But he did not succeed, and preferred to return to his second home in New England.

Perhaps the strongest argument for emigration was the fact that there was no 'school larnin' ' for the children. Without this nagging worry, there would have been little thought of leaving. Since Mr Dodgson's presence in the disastrous 1880's, a generation had grown up illiterate. Andrea Repetto was the best educated person on the island, but his English was not yet as good as his wife's.

Frances Repetto was the only inhabitant able to read the marriage service. On one occasion she refused to perform it because she disapproved of the match. The bride's brother therefore attempted the feat, but being barely able to read, he had to spell out the words as he went along.

The Hon Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary, offered to send the islanders a schoolmaster if they would contribute £75 a year to his salary. Andrea Repetto, as spokesman, wrote back that this would be impossible, since only five shillings had come to the island during the whole of the previous year.

In February, 1904, HMS Odin arrived with flags flying for an eminent visitor on board. The emissary was Hammond Tooke, Under-Secretary of State for agriculture in South Africa. He came ashore and called an important meeting of heads of families on behalf of HM King Edward VII.

He offered to move the whole population with their livestock to South Africa, free of charge. They would be resettled on the coast within a hundred miles of Cape Town. A family would have two acres, with a sum of money on loan for a start. There was only one condition: the decision must be unanimous. He gave the community twenty-four hours to make up their minds.

The next day another meeting was called. Of the eleven families, only three wanted to go, so the scheme fell through.

 p143  Mr Tooke described the 'healthy children leaping around'. The islanders were broad-shouldered, lithe and sinewy, though they 'looked a pretty wild lot', in clothing cast off by voyagers or home-made from sail-canvas or sheepskins. Even when they were merry, they laughed quietly. 'They had apparently the simplicity and guilelessness of children.'

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 Mrs. K. M. Barrow, who visited his grave on March 12, 1907, writes Macan (Three Years in Tristan da Cunha, chapter XVIII); and online we read his entry in the Repton School Register 1557‑1910 (Repton, 1910):

Macan, William Harry Reginald

Jan., 1901–Dec., 1902


s. of late William Macan, Alward House, Salisbury. b. Feb. 7, 1887. Fell off cliff whilst shooting penguins on Tristan d'Acunha, and was buried there Feb., 1905.

Pursuing that lead in turn, I find early‑20c census records and genealogical notices online of William Arthur Macan, 1859‑1898, listing one of his children as William Reginald Macan, born in Sussex in 1887. McCann thus does seem to be an error, likely based on a phonetic rendering of Macan, which must have been pronounced /mƏcán/. From the correct (William Harry) Reginald to Ronald would have been another small slip.

I strongly suspect, on the ground of dates and similarity of given names, that he was a nephew of Reginald Walter Macan (1848‑1941), the Herodotus scholar; whence his middle name Reginald.

It will be noted that he was not 19 years old, but at most just barely 18.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20