Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Part IV
Chapter 3
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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Part IV
Chapter 5

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p164  4 A Businessman and the Prodigal Sons

On March 4, 1907, the Barrows saw a vessel arriving from the eastward for the first time, and flying a flag from the masthead as a sign that someone special was on board. She turned out to be the schooner Greyhound from the Cape, on charter by the British Government. The flag was in honour of her part-owner, a Mr Keytel, who had come partly for a holiday and partly to see whether it would be practicable to start a trade in guano or sheep.

He took his meals with the Barrows and slept at the Repettos', who had a larger house. He was an energetic man of many hobbies: photography, birds, flowers, fishing, horns and curios.

His vessel had brought a hundred pounds in money and a bounty of mail bags and parcels. These had been sent as emergency supplies by the Government, after the reports of the crop failures and the distress of the terrible winter. At the same time, the Cape Meteorological Commission had sent Mr Barrow some instruments with which to check the weather, though no one knew quite how to use them. Each longboat ferried in twenty sacks of flour. The missionaries received a two‑year supply of stores, and Keytel gave the islanders a large gift of sweets. He had also brought along a gramophone, and later held a concert at the Repettos'.

The Barrows noticed that the precious mail was opened 'in a careless way', even in the open boats. It was agreed that thereafter the bags were to be brought to the mission house, where Andrea Repetto was to act as postmaster.

The mail contained a letter from the Colonial Office to Father Barrow, asking him to talk to the people about the possibility of leaving the island for the Cape. The next day a meeting was held for all inhabitants over the age of 15. The chaplain read aloud the official letter and explained it.

The Tristanians unanimously voted to stay. They insisted that they would go only if they were forced to go.

'We'd rather starve here than at the Cape,' some said.

This was the last serious attempt for many years to evacuate the islanders.

The schooner stayed a week. Keytel gave up his scheme of shipping  p165 guano when he found the substance diluted by rain and sand. He decided that he did not want to trade in cattle and sheep. But meanwhile he taught the men how to shoot an ox with a single shot, to the relief of the Barrows. He left with the assurance that he would return, and for many months the islanders kept watching for the schooner. They became depressed when she did not appear for Christmas.

Father Barrow once went along with the foraging boatmen to Inaccessible, as a nostalgic pilgrimage. He was anxious to visit Blenden Hall Beach, where his mother had been cast away in 1821. While the crew gathered driftwood and 'sea beans' from West Africa and South America, he picked up some copper and a piece of wood as mementoes of the wreck.

Another time six men went to Inaccessible for sealing. They caught three seals in a dark cave by lantern-light. One man purposely set fire to the tussock, destroying thousands of birds at nesting time. The fire burned furiously for three days, and the smoke was visible from Tristan. A month later most of the men went over again, and found the island still on fire.

Just over a year after her first appearance — on March 26, 1908 — the Greyhound returned. The congregation glimpsed her through the windows of the church-room. Sunday or no Sunday, two boatloads of men went out to meet her. They came ashore bringing Keytel with two large dogs, the mail, and seventeen persons from the Cape.

The party included Joe Glass, Bob Glass and Jim Hagan, all of whom had been born on the island and had left as young men fifteen years before. In South Africa two of them had married white women who were English-Irish sisters, Elizabeth and Agnes Smith — the tiny Roman Catholic nucleus which still remains among the Tristanians.

Moreover, they represented the last occasion when new blood is known to have been brought into the seven permanent clans. In the whole history of the Settlement, they were the only all‑white women among the wives of the seven founding families whose surnames still exist in the community: in chronological order — Glass, Rogers, Swain, Green, Hagan, Repetto and Lavarello.

The three family parties, each with numerous children, totalled sixteen persons. The seventeenth was Joe Hagan, a young unmarried man.

 p166  'I don't think,' wrote Mrs Barrow, 'that most of the islanders are particularly pleased at this invasion.'

The arrival of seventeen more mouths to feed meant a sharing of the limited land, grazing, housing, provisioning and trading.

The Bob and Joe Glass families at once tried to appropriate the Repettos' cottage, claiming some sort of hereditary right. They swore darkly that they meant to have it, and Bob pulled off his coat in a threat to fight Andrea Repetto.

The two brothers then started to take possession by mending a hole in the roof. Father Barrow intervened, asking for proof of owner­ship. They had no letter or paper, so Mr Barrow and Mr Keytel backed up the Repettos. Joe Glass showed his fists at Mrs Repetto. But she and her husband spoke with dignified courtesy, saying that if the brothers could offer proof of owner­ship they would give the house up, and anyway the families could sleep in the bedroom.

'The young man was ashamed, and apologized, asking to be forgiven,' reported Mrs Barrow.

The island men then set to work and roofed a small empty one‑roomed cottage for Joe Glass. Young Andrew Hagan was said to have sold it to him for ten pounds. Mr Keytel was to live in Henry Green's lamb-house as soon as it could be made ready. Meanwhile he stayed with the Barrows.

The Greyhound had to scurry away, as a gale blew up a few days after her arrival. But she reappeared at the end of the month to continue the guano-prospecting journey, planned by Mr Keytel, to Gough Island. It had been agreed that the Tristan men were to go along to work, but several tried to beg off, pleading colds; the usual round had accompanied the schooner from the Cape. However, Keytel was firm. In the end all went, including the newly arrived men.

In the meantime, the island women and children had extra chores to do while the men were away. School was let out early as the boys had to fetch the cows home from the pastures.

However, the schooner was back after only ten days. It had met with stormy weather and had never even sighted Gough. (The Barrows suspected that the captain may have preferred not to.) Keytel now proposed an alternative project of shipping 200 sheep to the Cape.

The men, it seemed, were not helping him much in making  p167 his house habitable — 'though he is trying to work up a trade for them'.

It was found that there had been considerable thieving on board the Greyhound. With the island record of honesty, it was feared that only the new arrivals could be responsible. Mr Barrow delivered a scolding from the pulpit.

'We wish Tristan could be what it was before the new‑comers came,' added Mrs Barrow. (The phrase 'The New‑comers' was to become almost a term of opprobrium.)

Physically too the new families had brought undesirable importations from Africa. In addition to the colds, one of the Cape babies had ophthalmia, which spread to other children. Someone else brought an infection of sores which covered the body, and with which a number of islanders became ill.

On the progressive side, the new men sowed wheat, mealies and Kaffir corn. Most of these crops, however, succumbed to the rats and the climate.

Keytel planned to stay ashore for a year after his schooner set sail, to develop his commercial ventures. He continued to be a moving spirit on Tristan. He held a magic lantern entertainment; and nearly everyone came. The slides showed the Robinson Crusoe story, which Mr Barrow narrated.

While Mr Keytel was on Tristan, he joined Father Barrow and a couple of island guides in one of the rare ascents of the Peak, with its shining panoramas of endless ocean. Comparatively few persons have ever struggled up the steep heights beyond the Second Base. Even in midsummer, climbers have seen snow in the shady crevices among the rough cinders — which were described as red, buff, grey, black and purple. The thin air was silent, too high for birds. But in the crater the party found life: mosses of bright green and yellow, and fluttering moths.

Inside the crater, too, there was an icy lake across which Barrow was the first man ever to swim — a legendary feat in island history. Keytel photographed his head, with Edwardian moustache, bobbing in the clear water on top of the world.

 p168  As Keytel tried to unfold his plans, he announced that one person was very disappointing: Bob Glass. The irate Bob called on him the next day and told him that 'soon there would be a big fight on the island, and he had a revolver at his house which could be used on a certain person and then on himself'.

In November Keytel held a meeting of the adult male islanders. Father Barrow read out an agreement whereby Keytel was prepared to hire all the men (except Bob Glass, with whom he would have no dealings) to work for him for three years. In view of the Tristanian casualness about formal contracts, it was explained that if any man defaulted on his agreement he could be put in prison in Cape Town.

Apparently the undertaking was accepted. A storehouse was built for the produce for market. But in January Mrs Barrow was still having difficulties, which were blamed on the new‑comers. The men were not pulling together as they had done before. 'There are mischief, divisions and quarrels.'

Keytel's projects gradually met with increasing disappointment. The lack of a decent harbour and the rough seas were worse handicaps than he had foreseen. And the poor quality of the island products made them hard to sell at a profit. When he sent the 200 sheep to the Cape, he found that they had scab. It seemed sharp practice that the islanders had not forewarned him. He also tried to trade in dried fish, which the women were to clean, slit and salt, despite the hazards of the 'greenfly' (bluebottle). But the sticky summer wind spoiled a large part of the fish, which had to be thrown away.

Later visitors reported that, for all his helpfulness and enterprise, Keytel had perhaps not been patient enough with the islanders. He did not fully understand their inherent conservatism and suspicion of newfangled ideas introduced from the Outside World. They did not like the new kind of work, and they thought he exploited them.

For his consolation, he collected many excellent natural history specimens, which are still in museums in Cape Town and London.

In September Mrs Barrow wrote, 'We fear the new‑comers will have a bad influence on old and young as regards morals. One of the men and two of the wives are terrible swearers. Some of the children are already singing bad songs learnt from them.'

Church attendance fell off, and even that at the women's meetings. Some of the men, including poor little Ben Swain, were under 'the bad influence' and vowed that they would never come to a service again. Subsequent writers attributed this partly to the Barrows' opposition to  p169 trading with any vessel which might pass on a Sunday. It was felt that the need was so deep and the occasion so rare that the missionaries might have held their peace.

'It has taken us a long time really to know the people,' mused Mrs Barrow. 'They are very pleasant and kind, but everything is not as it appears on the surface.'

Over the years various sources have added a patchwork picture of Bob Glass: brash, garrulous, intelligent, rakish, boastful, amiable, profane, a dreamer, a soldier of fortune, ambitious on a tiny Tristanian scale.

He had been born in 1872, the grandson of old William Glass. He was tall and thin, with longish hair, penetrating eyes and a solemn intense voice. He still owned, and wore on dress occasions for many years, an old military jacket. He had left the island in the lean times after his father had been lost in the lifeboat disaster of 1885, and had got a job at a candle factory in Cape Town. He next went to work on the Swallow, a whaling schooner of which his uncle was captain. On his first voyage he was 'boat steerer', on his second, third mate. Later he joined the Wild Rose, the American barque, on a sealing voyage to Gough Island. He made more than one journey in whalers to England and several to America.

He returned to the Cape some time before the outbreak of what he called the 'bluebonnet' — or bubonic — plague. During the Boer War he served as one of Kitchener's Scouts. Later, for the rest of his life, he liked to sport his three medals to impress visitors to Tristan: the Transvaal, the Cape Colony, and the Orange River Colony.

After the war he tried his luck at diamond mining and farming in the Orange Free State. He married Anglo-Irish Elizabeth Smith. She had borne him five children when, in his mid‑thirties, he determined to return with his family to Tristan.

'Mrs Bob Glass,' wrote Mrs Barrow, 'is a great comfort.'

Three years later Elizabeth Glass died following the birth of her eighth child. Bob then married a daughter of Old Sam Swain — Charlotte, pronounced 'Shawlet', solid, stolid, and obedient to her volatile husband. ('She loves a joke,' said Mrs Barrow.) She bore him one son.

 p170  Like many of his predecessors, Bob had arrived with big schemes of using the island boats for whaling and making a fortune in blubber oil. The fortune did not materialize, but the vision remained. He was never again to leave his birthplace. And yet he was never satisfied. He felt himself superior because of his 'edication' in the 'Houtside Warl’'. He thought, whether anyone else did or not, that he should be the leader of the community, and set himself up as a rival to Andrea Repetto. As long as he lived he fastened like the Ancient Mariner upon strangers, dreaming aloud and bragging of his distant exploits, especially as an intrepid warrior in South Africa.

Long afterwards he yarned to a naval visitor, Mr D. M. Booy, about the 'whaling industry' which he had started on his return to Tristan, and boasted of the sport the island crews had had in harpooning the whales.

'Did you kill many?' he was asked.

'No,' he replied in a tone which rebuked such irrelevance, 'we never killed none.'

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 13 Dec 20