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Every few years Tristan seemed to have an unusually severe winter, but after the Barrows arrived they experienced the bitterest season which the old people could remember.
Before it started, there were about 700 cattle, small and thin, too many for the limited pasture on the island.
By the time the spring came at last, about 400 miserable beasts had perished. Old Miss Cotton said that she could not remember such a time of scarcity; not only was there no milk, but no potatoes after a crop failure, and no flour, since there had not been a ship for months.
Father Barrow, however, observed that with the usual Tristanian fatalism the people did not try to provide food and shelter for their livestock in winter. He was trying to persuade them to revive the old plan of getting a trading schooner to ship cattle to the Cape. But duty on imported stock was high in South Africa, and the islanders did not want to lower their prices.
p155 The reduction in the numbers of cattle by over half meant that there was much more grazing for the survivors. Times improved — comparatively. But animal life, like human life, was never soft on Tristan da Cunha.
When the Barrows first arrived, the mutton was good; but it deteriorated as scab beset the flock. There was beef occasionally in the winter, but Mrs Barrow deplored the cruelty with which the 'poor animal' was slaughtered. It was chased around the Settlement by men and dogs, and killed only after many shots.
Once Mrs Barrow watched the yoking of young oxen in the opposite yard. Several were being broken in for the first time, while others had not been yoked for many months. One went wild, jumping over a wall into a tussock garden. The pair to be yoked together were driven into a corner. The owner warily approached one of the beasts, slipped on a wooden collar, and waited while a man handed him the heavy cross-beam, with one end fastened to the collar. He then collared the second beast. If the whole process was not done very swiftly and deftly the ox might bolt. As soon as the team realized what had happened, they made a rush for the common. The owner hung on to a horn, racing along at top speed until the animal was out of breath. Some were much easier to tame than others. Each pair was left yoked together for several days, dragging their burden about the Settlement and trying to butt it off, until they were broken in.
The Barrows were sometimes lent a couple of the cheeky little donkeys for excursions. The islanders perched far aft, with only the rope halter. Mrs Barrow found it exhausting to sit sideways on the sacking on a man's crude saddle as the village women did. Even Mr Barrow came off more than once, to the amusement of his guides.
The new‑comers' canaries soon died. They were a great novelty to the inhabitants, who had no songbirds. But one day William, the lad who worked for the mission house, brought in a 'starchy', as the Tristanians called the songless thrush which lived in the large numbers on the hillside.
In the second year Mrs Barrow was given a 'funny little brown puppy' by a visiting captain. It inquisitively nosed a stinging fish on the beach, and howled with agony.
The Barrows found a 'great number' of dogs. Some families kept as many as four. They were often named Knock or Watch. 'Most have to find their living, which they occasionally do by hunting sheep p156 and by night raids on the geese.' Several times dogs had to be shot for worrying and killing sheep, driving some over a cliff into the sea. Even Rob had to be whipped for chasing a sheep. When the men made a trip to Inaccessible, Sam Swain took his dog and left it there to fend for itself, because it had been guilty of killing geese.
Once Mrs Barrow felt obliged to beat a small schoolboy for being cruel to a dog. His mother was not pleased.
'Animal life is little thought of here,' wrote the diarist. 'No wonder the dogs prey as they do, for many are half famished.'
Though the mongrels bustled about officiously in helping to herd and round up the sheep, their lack of training often harassed the flocks. Sam Swain was sent a half-collie, after which, Mrs Barrow said, the people valued the improved breed a little more and allowed the dogs inside their houses. The Edwardian lady did not mention that her own collie may have helped to raise the standard of Tristan canine pedigree.
The missionary couple had not been long on the island before Mrs Barrow wrote with discreet resignation that they had 'no privacy'.
The islanders themselves had, or wanted, little. Much of the men's work was necessarily done together — boating, fishing, hauling, cultivating. The women met at the flat washing-stones beside the Waterin', where they pounded their laundry and weighted it to dry on the stone walls; they trooped along after the men to work in the Potato Patches, sowing, lifting or sorting; they carded wool in the spring sunshine in parties; and they knitted together everywhere but in church. The only couple with the resources to value being alone were the Repettos. The busy Mrs Repetto disapproved of the gossipy time-wasting of the other women. Katherine Barrow recorded as a noteworthy item the fact that she had come to call at the parsonage on New Year's Day.
'Some days,' wrote Mrs Barrow, 'there seems to be no quiet, it is knock, knock, knock, all day. I am beginning to feel the solace of gardening.'
Their house 'resembled a shop', with so many villagers coming to ask for things. She listed the typical requests in one afternoon:
Thyme and parsley.
Borrow boot-brushes and blacking (weekly).
Leeks for soup.
One very rainy Sunday she remarked plaintively, 'For once we had the afternoon and evening to ourselves.'
Most of the people bore a gift when they asked for anything. The Barrows found it 'touching' the way they shared their 'tiny bits'. Once John Glass swam around the Bluff and brought the missionary trio three eaglet eggs for supper.
At the request of the Customs House in Cape Town, the Barrows had taken along some supplies sent by a French firm in gratitude to the Tristanians who had helped when one of its ships was on fire. The Company had asked what would be useful and had misread 'soap' as 'soup'. They sent four cases of tinned soup, much to the disappointment of the recipients, 'for soap is prized more than anything'.
The Barrows' medicine chests was in almost daily demand throughout their stay, accelerating with the colds whenever a vessel arrived from the Cape or St Helena. This immediately meant a stream of visitors requesting brandy. Such a palatable remedy being impracticable, a teaspoonful of glycerine in hot milk was substituted.
The Barrows were skilful in amateur doctoring and first aid. Andrea Repetto also was a remarkably deft amateur surgeon.a He had sewn up the foot of a girl who had cut it with an axe while chopping wood, and it had healed well. Once a stone fell on 7-year‑old Florrie Swain and broke both her legs. Mr Repetto had had to cut off two of her toes, but his setting of the bones was satisfactory. A few years earlier, old Susan Swain had fallen and broken her left leg at the shin 'into splinters'. Repetto set it, and she walked about as well as ever. He told the Barrows that whenever he pulled up her skirt to look at it, it was pulled down by one of the many bystanders.
Mrs Barrow wrote of the vast obesity of old Eliza Hagan. She was so big that when she came to tea, 'I trembled lest the chair give way.' Another exception to the general fitness was the tidy Mrs Henry Green. She had had bad rheumatism since she had been lost — 'nighted' — on the mountain years before. She had climbed with a party to the Base and became separated from the others. There had been fog and thunder, and all night she had lain among the ferns with her dog. Her only food was birds' eggs, which she sucked. Her chilled hands had become p158 swollen and useless until the sun came out. Two search parties had hunted for her, but she was not found until the next afternoon.
She was 'a nice quiet woman', according to Mrs Barrow, 'very grateful — unlike many who accept everything as a matter of course '.
Henry Green, her husband, was another casualty when he was hurt in a fall from a donkey and suffered an infection. (Mrs Barrow found that the islanders often left an ailment much too long, and then expected the missionaries to work a miracle cure.)
The Henry Greens had a child of two who was much too fat and could neither walk nor talk. Mrs Barrow suggested bathing it in sea water — and soon afterwards it stood up.
Among adults, the simplest soul was deformed little Ben Swain. He was always cheerful, and went around whistling. His work was chiefly shepherding. Once he overdid it, running after the sheep with no dog, and had fits.
One evening during the Barrows' stay there was great excitement next door when the Lavarellos' lamb-house caught fire. Henry Green's cap had been blown off by the wind, and when he searched for it in the dark with a firebrand, it was assumed that a spark must have alighted on the tussock roof. Mr and Mrs Barrow watched the eerie scene. Silhouetted figures ran to and fro from the Waterin' with buckets and climbed up to splash them on the roof. As usual on Tristan, the most serious loss was the precious wood which upheld the thatch inside the stone frame.
Later, a man started a fire to see if he could unearth stone for building. It burned for three months, losing much pasture for the cattle.
a The island's little hospital, established some time after this book was written, has been given the name Camogli Hospital in honor of Andrea Repetto's hometown.
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Tristan da Cunha
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Page updated: 13 Dec 20