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Bill Thayer

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Part III
Chapter 11
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 2

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p145  1 An English Housewife on Tristan

A 4-year‑old English girl had been among the passengers in the most famous shipwreck, the loss of the Blenden Hall off Inaccessible in 1821. The tales of her adventures and hardships became her small son's favourite bedtime stories. She always wanted to repay the Tristanians. And this wish was inherited by her son when he took holy orders and became the Reverend J. G. Barrow.

In England in the autumn of 1904, eighty-three years after his mother had been cast away, he saw and answered a letter in The Standard with an appeal by the SPG for a missionary clergyman and teacher on Tristan da Cunha. It took Mr and Mrs Barrow a year and a half to reach their destination.

Accompanied by their faithful maidservant, Ellen, they left England in the autumn of 1905, with a year's food supply and very limited furnishings for house, church and school. They sailed to St Helena, hoping to catch an American whaler en route from New Bedford, but they learned that they might have to wait indefinitely. They then went on to Cape Town. After several months they made a deal whereby the captain of the Surrey might drop them off at Tristan on the clear understanding that if the weather were too unfavourable, they would continue to the River Plata.

A fellow-passenger was Tom Rogers of Tristan, returning home from South Africa. They were also accompanied by two tuneful Cape  p146 canaries, and a young collie whose name, Whisky, had been properly changed with clerical propriety to Rob.

Katherine Barrow was keeping the diary which was to be made into a book on her return to England: Three Years on Tristan da Cunha.

The party arrived early on Palm Sunday 1906, with a cloud-hidden peak, a stiff wind and a rowdy sea. Two canvas longboats came rocking out to the ship. 'It is not very comfortable for a lady,' said Andrea Repetto gallantly in his broken English.

The waves were too rough for the new‑comers to disembark at the Settlement, so the Surrey went back eight miles to Halfway Beach, on the north-east shore. The ship's boat and the two island boats landed the luggage, but not yet the missionaries. One Surrey passenger was washed overboard, but his companions hauled him in, gasping, and once the Barrows were shocked to see their church harmonium floating on the water. Luckily it was in a zinc-lined case, and was retrieved without damage.

A year later Mrs Barrow happened to ask Henry Green which was the worst day he had ever known at sea.

'The day the Surrey was here, and we was landin' the luggage,' he replied. 'The wind tore the sail off our boat, so we hadn't got the same control of her.'

By afternoon it was considered safe to disembark the missionary party at the Settlement. The three people and the dog had to be lowered forty feet down the ship's side on a swinging rope ladder. They had to hold a rope in either hand, while another was knotted around their waists. It was alarming, said Mrs Barrow, to descend among the mountainous waves and spring into the longboat. The collie came last, nearly frightened out of his wits.

A crowd of tongue-tied villagers and vocal mongrels greeted the dishevelled travellers on the shingle beach. Two young women shyly offered their coloured kerchiefs — 'hangchers' — to replace the Englishwomen's drenched veils, and tied them on.

The trio were taken to the home of the excellent Miss Betty Cotton, a protagonist in theirs as in several other Tristan diaries spanning much of a century. She was now 76 — 'a dear old body', Mrs Barrow said, and full of island history and lore. She had laid a table for their tea, which they took in a room overflowing with silent spectators. She gave up her house for the missionaries throughout their whole stay on the island. The Barrows occupied the same tiny room where Father Dodgson had lodged in the 1880's, while Ellen had a mere 'cupboard'.

 p147  After prayers, the weary, excited party went to bed. They knew themselves to be a sensation indeed, since Mrs Barrow and Ellen were the island's first Outside women — other than castaways.

'We find Tristan far more beautiful than we expected,' marvelled Mrs Barrow — just as the Rev. Dodgson had done. 'The mountains seem very near and are most imposing, and the light on them at times is very beautiful. Little rivulets are to be seen, coming down close to the houses . . . diverted from the "Big Waterin'." ' She admired the vast view of the dazzling ocean, and soon wrote of 'a lovely sunset, with the sea indigo, and a sunlit sky'.

The missionary's luggage and cases were fetched up from the beach in the crude tiny carts, each drawn by a team of bullocks urged on by boys with whips and shouts. Their belongings were curiously admired by the whole population of seventy‑one, only ten of whom had ever been away from the island.

They were fascinated by the washing-stands and stove. Their own cooking was still done in the large open fireplace on two iron bars supported by fixed stones. There were no ovens, and bread was baked in a big iron pot with a lid, on which the fire was lit. As soon as she was settled, Mrs Barrow took to baking twice a week a loaf which was forty‑one inches around and weighed eight and a half pounds. With so little flour available, however, bread was scarce on the island. It was replaced by potatoes, of which twenty acres were then under cultivation.

There were so many people and so few names that the Barrows found it hard to distinguish them — 'but we are learning'. At first too, the speech was difficult to understand, with the high-pitched drawl, limited vocabulary and sprinkling of patois words. (For example, 'cake' still means bread, 'bread' means ship's biscuits, a 'train' an ox‑cart and 'bus' a wheelbarrow.)

The families re‑established the old custom of taking weekly turns in bringing provisions to the parsonage. Since it was autumn, the Good Time when the harvest was in, the missionaries were plied with eggs, apples, butter and milk, with a plate of hot meat and potatoes for dinner. 'They will not let us pay for anything.' But in turn the Barrows shared their own meagre supplies.

Mrs Barrow found the interiors of the settlers' cottages bare and  p148 'dreary'. Their clothes were neat, with no holes, but varied patches. The women and children were especially short of underwear, for which they depended on parcels from abroad to augment their knitted undergarments. The women were always knitting, she said, and added, 'I wish they could throw as much energy into their houses, only one or two of which are kept clean.' (The approved list of housekeepers apparently comprised Mrs Henry Green and Mrs Repetto.) Soap had to be brewed from blubber or from the sap of island-tree, while a broom was an island-tree whisk.

As soon as the Barrows' cases were unpacked they used the wood to re‑floor their bedroom and the passage, in which there was a hole. Andrea Repetto and Tom Rogers were good carpenters, 'but house-carpentering here is somewhat slapdash'. As in all the island houses, old faded illustrated papers took the place of wallpaper and shelf-paper. Many of the window-panes were cracked or missing; but, except for an odd sheet of glass from whalers, there was none to be had except from shipwrecks.

The Barrows discovered that Tristan was only about fifty minutes behind Greenwich Standard Time. Few of the families owed clocks. The Hagans had on their doorstep a sun‑mark cut by a 'shipwrecked sea captain'. (Probably this was old Captain Hagan himself.) The islanders had an uncanny instinct for telling time from nature. Not that they made the best use of the skill, for they were very unpunctual — in a place where time was only relative. Meal hours were late and most irregular, even the small children's suppers, which often consisted of a boiled‑egg-and‑milk mixture called 'skouse'.

Oddly, the Barrows' humble cottage contained some very nice white china and glassware, from a wreck. One house had a cushion-cover, from some mission box, embroidered with the name 'Jane Austen'.

The water was pure and soft, but the newcomers did not depend on the Waterin's as their neighbours did, for these were defiled by laundry and rubbish. Their drinking water was fetched from a spring at the foot of the mountain. This was done by a young lad named William Green who was engaged as factotum, filling the pails twice a day, and chopping wood. A nice bright boy, he was assiduous in his attentions, even interrupting their daily siesta to ask if they wanted anything.

The mission home like all the others was hard pressed for fuel. Mrs Barrow and Ellen went out gleaning driftwood on the shore, and Alfred Green 'backed' it home for them in the local sling-like knapsack.

 p149  Housekeeping offered frustrating problems. On windy days there was dust and litter from the thatch. The innumerable wood-lice also made dust. Since the thick stone was porous, the walls on the shady south side were very damp, often covered on the inside with a green slime. The Barrows soon found that they had to keep 'almost everything' on the sunny north side where the windows were, though this in turn was hot for the food in the warm season. When summer came, the week's supply of meat lasted only for two days, and they had to learn to salt it.

In wet weather the rain came through the ceiling. The bedding grew damp. Basins and pans were set out to catch the drumming drip. The smoke blew in from the chimney, and the draught through every crack. All cooking had to be done at the hearth in the native way. Sometimes the wind was too strong for baking. On more than one night the rain gauge showed four inches between eight-thirty and midnight.

Once a gale swept some tussock off the roof. Two passing men stopped and mended it. They said that if such damage were not immediately made good, it might end in the roof being blown off.

Though the temperature did not fall below 44° F, the winds were often very sharp and the humidity ached in one's bones. Some of the blustery winter nights felt so icy that the Barrows could not sleep, and got out of bed, wrapped in blankets, to warm their feet at the fire. By contrast, on warm sultry nights in summer, a chair had to be propped up across the open door to keep the pigs out while letting the air in.

The garden, long uncultivated, was enclosed by a stone wall without gates. It had the usual copse of tussock, and a hedge of the tall New Zealand flax which had been imported to supplement the thatching, since the wild tussock was growing scarce through carelessness and bush fires.

Busy though the Barrows were — preaching, teaching, housekeeping, doctoring, receiving callers and requests — they managed to be energetic gardeners. They planted the gorse and blueberry brushes still on the common, though these have remained scrubby.

Bill Rogers brought some grapevine cuttings, which they nailed to the front of the house. The next morning they found one pulled up by a pig. Mrs Barrow collected ferns on the mountain and planted them in the stone wall. However, many were soon uprooted. 'Fowls are always around, and snap up every bit of green,' she wrote. They resolved that gates must be put up, in spite of the wood shortage. Nevertheless, in July a famished cow got into the garden 'and feasted'.

 p150  In August Mrs Barrow recorded that she sowed flower-seeds in old biscuit tins, while the children crowded around to watch: sweet-peas, zinnias, nasturtiums, love-in‑a‑mist, cannas. 'One does sadly miss the spring flowers,' she added. She also sowed the seeds of carrots, onions, peas, lettuce, tomatoes, parsley and thyme. She planted peach-slips under the flax which overgrew the garden; and cuttings of young apple and fig trees. The islanders, she said, did not even bother to prune their few stunted fruit-trees, so pessimistic were they about the rats.

Wildflowers were very few. Katherine Barrow found field-daisies growing, though probably they were naturalized from settlers' seeds. There was a wild yellow species resembling a hollyhock; the people thought it poisonous and never picked it. She also found a pink flower which they called a sunflower. And there was a wild geranium, and a kind of sweetbriar. There were also wild crowberries, which she considered 'nasty', and a plant not unlike a blueberry, from which berry tarts were made as great treats.

November was the flowering month on Tristan. The red buds of the tall flax were opening in every yard. By Christmas the hot weather was in full blast, and the children helped to water the missionaries' struggling garden every evening. By January the Barrows were thankfully eating their own vegetables, despite a scourge of caterpillars. The people asked for vegetables, and she hoped that the example would lead them to plant more of their own; so far they only bothered with cabbages, leeks, onions and pumpkins.

The missionaries even ventured to plant wheat, which had been almost given up because of the rats. At harvest time they threshed the grain on a sail in the field; Mrs Barrow and some older boys tried to beat and rub it out. (The early colonists, she was told, had threshed in their sitting-rooms.) Then they winnowed it by throwing it into the wind. All they achieved was a quarter bushel, though they got more later. When it had been ground between two stones she made it into delicious brown bread.

In time they were given some chickens — the dwarfish Tristan kind — and raised a little flock of their own. The hens exasperated them by laying their small eggs in the hiding-places of the tussock jungle. They had a crude fowl-house, but the roving pigs were always getting in. One morning Mrs Barrow found a hen on her pillow and its chicks on the dressing-table and the widow-sill.

'Most nights,' recorded the diarist, 'are disturbed.'

 p151  For one thing, there were the fleas, the pest of generations of visitors. Flies, too, were a dense plague in the summer, including a big bumbling kind similar to a bluebottle, which the Tristanians called a 'greenfly'.

'In the night Graham was catching rats and picking wood-lice off the walls,' wrote his wife soon after their arrival.

Her diary teems throughout with rat‑chasing entries, largely nocturnal. 'Through the night we heard the cat crunching rats close by.' . . . The next autumn, traps were still 'going off at all hours of the day and night'.

The violence of the wind and rain sometimes made it difficult for the missionaries to get to church or school on time. Umbrellas were almost useless; the women substituted a shawl over the head. Soon after the trio's advent they were drenched en route to service, and returning with the wind at their backs, Mrs Barrow and Ellen were blown to the ground. Father Barrow himself was twice blown over on his way to and from school. But most of the children turned up even in the tempests, the younger carried by their parents. Often they sat in damp clothing throughout the classes. On the worst days the little ones were kept indoors.

Occasionally the torrents lasted for twenty-four hours and the gales a fortnight.

'When you hear a puff coming,' the neighbours advised, 'stand or duck till it's over, and then go on.'

It was dangerous to pass near the edge of the cliff in a strong wind unless you linked hands with two or three other people. At night it was sometimes impossible to move about: so black that you could not see a house ahead of you, and wandered in circles.

Once a fierce gale blew off Mrs Barrow's spectacles. Fourteen people searched for them, crouching down at each gust. They were found at last, and mended by the clever fingers of Andrea Repetto.

The widowed Lucy Green offered the missionaries her cottage as a church and school, as she had done in Father Dodgson's time. The men scrubbed the ceiling and the women the floor. They fitted it out with the church furnishings which the Barrows had brought, and the small  p152 stone font which had been washed ashore from Mr Dodgson's wrecked ship.

John Glass officiated as church clerk, and carried in the harmonium, which was played by Mrs Barrow. There were four baptisms in the first week. Each family had provided a wooden bench, so the seating exactly matched the population. Every man, woman and child, except one old invalid, turned up for Easter service in their Sunday best. The women were picturesque in bright clothes and kerchiefs, the men stiffly tidy in broadcloth or white duck. Babies cried peevishly, including the Henry Greens' over‑fat child, thirteen months old, who could not yet sit up. The people were 'very reverent, and loved singing the hymns'. The men were anxious to sing in parts, as Father Dodgson had taught them. Among the most vocal was Ben Swain, the little man with the penguin arms. They liked learning new hymn tunes, and sang the new ones better than the old, which they were inclined to drawl. Later, at home, one little girl got a 'strapping' because she had sung too loud.

When spring and summer came, the boys took to adorning their caps on Sunday with a bunch of pink roses, exotic against their brown complexions. The older men contented themselves with a rosebud in their buttonhole.

After a few months Mrs Barrow organized a regular women's meeting. The members enjoyed the ballads, hymns and prayers, but were 'not keen to learn reading and writing'.

Like Father Dodgson, the Barrows campaigned for the building of a 'charch'. Though at first the men seemed amenable, they procrastinated with the usual Tristanian ease in matters of time or of civic enterprise. A year after Mr Barrow's arrival he strongly reminded them of their intention. But — 'here,' wrote his wife, 'every man looks out for himself'.

In February, 1908, the matter became urgent when old Lucy Green asked to have her house back, her son Charlie having returned from the Cape. Andrea and Frances Repetto, wearing the conscientious mantle of Grandfather Peter Green, sacrificed their own cottage, which had been the original church-school before Peter bought it from the community. Mrs Barrow observed that the Repettos took great pride in their home, which Andrea had made even more snug by his skilful carpentering. It has long been the best house in the village, with full wooden wainscoting and the cabin doors and windows from wrecked ships.

 p153  In this crisis the men, at a meeting, agreed to build a church after the potato harvest. But they did not keep their word.

Early in her stay Mrs Barrow had first reported that on the previous Sunday, in the midst of morning service, one man after another had got up and tiptoed out, because a whaler had been sighted through the window. 'We were sorry to see them trading on Sunday,' she wrote. This was a subject which was to rankle increasingly during the Barrows' term.

The new chaplain had started the school shortly after his arrival. There were thirty-five pupils, eighteen boys and seventeen girls, aged from 21 down to 3. His wife — known as 'the Missus' — taught the infants, sometimes assisted by Ellen.

An older pupil was the flipper-armed Ben Swain, who was 35. Mr Dodgson had taught him to write by kneeling on the floor and holding the pen in both hands — a remarkable feat of patient training.

'The people so glad to have us teach their children,' wrote Mrs Barrow. Her husband was soon sent a cane by each of two mothers, who 'were anxious that they should be used'. Two other women gave their sons a 'tanning' for playing truant. All the mothers were found to teach their children good manners. 'Mrs Repetto whipº hers too much, but they are turning out well.'

In doing sums, the pupils found it very hard to add — except in terms of practical, familiar objects like counting cows. But after a year Mrs Barrow recorded with satisfaction, 'They are learning to write.' The missionaries discovered that some of the people had used their books for lighting fires, while others had pulled them to pieces for the thread in their bindings.

Soon after his advent the schoolmaster showed his pupils how to skip rope. At first they were bashful, but presently the whole Settlement was hopping with small figures. Crippled Ben Swain performed 'with intense enjoyment, leaping about two feet in the air'.

Encouraged by the chaplain, the men and boys took to playing cricket. The boys were especially keen. Even Ben Swain was able to play. He managed to hold a bat and to hit, but he had to lie down on the ground to pick up a ball. The girls began to play too, and there were school matches of boys against girls. Cricket has ever since been a steady fixture of Tristan life, especially in the holiday season.

 p154  At school the girls were allowed to bring their knitting, and during the interval they sat on the stones of the low wall, even the very young ones with clicking needles and tongues, like their mothers. Mrs Barrow and Ellen also arranged a sewing class for the older girls.

The missionary's wife set herself the objective of 'cleaning up' her girl pupils. 'When at school I often have to despatch a scholar to the stream. It is surprising what a presentable appearance the people have, but . . .'

To teach the girls 'nice ways', she began to invite each in turn to spend a few days as a guest at the parsonage. Ellen had volunteered to be responsible for bathing and dressing them. The invitations were eagerly coveted, though often a young visitor was painfully shy when the great occasion came. Some reacted with a happy resilience. But with several there were bouts of homesickness and repressed tears at this first momentous separation from home and family, a hundred yards away.

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