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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 4
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 6

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p170  5 Sail Ho!

As with everyone on the island before and since, watching and waiting for a ship soon became for the Barrows an obsession, which grew as their three years waned.

February 2, 1907.º One 'Sail ho!' and then another.

The boats returned in the dark. The people hurried down to the beach carrying firebrands, which they waved to keep alight, with 'a fine effect'. One fire was burning on the cliff, another on the shore. Lanterns were held up to help the boats through the rocks and surf. As the first craft touched the beach, the women, boys and girls ran down and pulled frantically at the ropes to drag it over the shingle. The fire was stirred up, and the second boat made a run for the shore. It was 'a weird scene'.

Unluckily the expedition had been almost in vain, and the men had had to row nearly all the way. The vessel was Russian. When the  p171 captain was handed the Tristan mail for posting, he had called out in broken English, 'The letters are not stamped!'

Repetto had shouted back, 'All you got to do is put them in the post box as they is!'

Mrs Barrow added that of course there were no stamps on Tristan, and the people never knew where their letters would be posted, though the British Post Office honoured the unpaid Tristan mail.

January 30.º A mere dot of a ship was sighted, so tiny as to puzzle the Tristanians. It proved to be the French ketch J. B. Charcot, bound from Boulogne to Melbourne for 15,000 miles of voyaging in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Its mission was scientific research on Kerguelen Island in the far South Atlantic. Captain Raymond Rallier du Baty (photographed with waxed moustache and bow tie) was accompanied by his scientist brother, three sailors and a cook. The two brothers spoke a little English.

After the ketch had been pounded by a heavy storm for five days, the Frenchmen were thankful to see two crude canvas boats approaching. Shouting 'in English of a strange dialect', the local men advised the captain to go out farther from the coast for the night.

To the islanders' surprise, a wine-bottle was flung between the two tossing boats. The men picked it up and read its message. The captain had listed the items he was willing to let them have — gunpowder, salt, sugar and tea — in return for fresh meat and vegetables.

The ketch was becalmed at a distance for three days. But at last the crew were able to put an empty water-cask into their biggest boat and make for shore.

Twenty island men dragged the boat up the beach, and wrung them by the hand with delight. The Tristanians were described as 'a curious crowd, rough-looking but picturesque'. The Italian Repetto had 'an air of dignity and almost of command', though the men repeated that they had no chief: all were equal. Repetto was found, however, to do the community business, as he was the only man able both to read and to write; some of the others could read only.

Captain Rallier du Baty recorded that 'the green meadow, waterfall, white surf and glowing sunlight seemed like a stage setting. The little ones were pretty and fairy-like in clean white calico frocks, with white woollen stockings and small calfskin shoes, dancing around us like those little novices of the corps de ballet.'

He found the women 'by no means unattractive, though one or two showed traces of Negro blood'. With a love of colour, they had made  p172 use of 'any bright rag they could obtain from passing or shipwrecked vessels. On their heads were cotton handkerchiefs such as sailors keep in their lockers, and here and there the blouse and skirt, which are their usual garments, were made of the coloured striped shirts which seamen can buy in most ports.' Before the Charcot left, the women grew bold enough to clamour for the crew's own gaudy shirts. The captain remarked on their 'wistful and embarrassed gaze', though the children were lively, and he heard 'no quarrelling voices'.

At the best cottage he was presented to Mrs Repetto, 'buxom and hospitable'. He had brought a bottle of wine and some cakes, and the Repettos gave him tea. Someone slipped away, and Repetto candidly explained that they had sent to the missionaries' house to borrow the only bread baked on the island. Later both brothers were entertained by the Barrows, and the scientist showed the priest how to use the Cape meteorological instruments.

The captain noted the scrubby wild cattle, whose mixed breed had dwindled in size from 1400 lb to 800 lb though they made 'fair cows'. The rats he described as 'large as young rabbits and daring as foxes'. Otherwise he found the island 'a simple Utopia'.

'Tristan,' he wrote, 'is remarkable in having no government, no public opinion, no rents and no rates, no regular hours of work, no magistrate and no police, no post, no shops, no drainage, no crops save one, and no frost, but plenty of wind and rain, and a fair amount of sun.'

When it was time for the ketch to sail, there was a final round of bartering as the islanders swarmed aboard. They showed in particular 'a passionate desire for nails, however rusty'. They also coveted the Frenchmen's boots and shoes.

Many of the men were very seasick on the pitching deck. However, they brightened up when the sailor Agnès played his accordion. 'It seemed to bewitch them into a kind of joyful madness.' They all began to caper about 'in a grotesque way', and Andrea Repetto 'kicked up his heels and danced a jig'.

The men begged Agnès to barter his accordion. They would have given three sheep, though he had bought it for a few francs. But the Charcot needed the instrument for the crew's morale. 'The islanders,' concluded the captain, 'yielded sadly.'

 p173  October 24. Another tiny ketch turned up — the Forget‑Me‑Not. She had an amateur crew of 'city gents', who were taking a breathless chance of voyaging on a shoestring. Captain Pearson, the only one with nautical experience, was accompanied by his two brothers, a friend and a Creole.

A friend had given them the seventy-five-foot ketch, and they had sailed from Dover with funds of only three pounds. Burning with dreams of travel, they had come with the hope of collecting and trading guano from Tristan and Gough. They had laid in provisions for only three months, and had experienced five months of adventurous voyaging. They had lived on dried peas and beans, a little flour, some tea and a few biscuits. Only two gallons of water were left. All the men, said Mrs Barrow, were 'trembling with weakness, but cheerful'. The fox terrier looked 'starved and dirty'.

The Forget‑Me‑Not stayed at Tristan for eighteen days, in usuallyº good weather. The Barrows and Mr Keytel gave the crew some desperately needed food supplies out of their own lean stocks. The men offered clothes and books in exchange, but these were declined. Mrs Barrow assuring them that 'it is not begging to receive'. The exhausted, worried townsmen came ashore to share some simple meals in the English home. At their suggestion, afternoon tea was even served in the garden like a British summer treat.

Pearson, an architect, was 'much pleased' with the Tristan houses. He delighted in the use of the native stone and the plain essential design, nestling towards the sun and braced against wind and weather.

There is no mention of any unlikely deal in guano on Tristan or Gough. At length the tiny ketch vanished over the horizon again to what further penniless privations we are not told.

November 12. Mrs Barrow had started to pack tentatively, in case another ship should suddenly come to take them off the island.

Andrea Repetto asked Father Barrow to have notices printed in the foreign papers for the captains. If a vessel passed near Tristan in moderate weather, a fire on the island by night or smoke by day would mean that a boat was coming out to it.

February 1. Since Father Barrow might leave any day, he gave Andrea Repetto the Bishop's commission to hold a service every Sunday, to  p174 take baptisms and to perform marriages. Of her husband, Mrs Barrow wrote, 'Graham has aged twenty years.'

March 20. Three steamers appeared from the west at once, one large and two small. They were the Norwegian whaler Svend Foyne, accompanied by two little satellite vessels with harpoon guns mounted. The captain consented to take the missionary party — but only, he said, because he knew how hard it was to leave the island. He agreed to wait until eight o'clock the next morning.

Mr Keytel was given passage also. Despite his many discouragements, he said that if the Government would grant him certain concessions, he meant to return.

There was a great scramble of preparations and moving farewells. At daylight Father Barrow held an early service, with earnest prayers. Mrs Barrow gave away nearly all their household effects. Everyone came down to the beach to say good‑bye. 'The little boys were glad there was no more school, but the little girls were in tears.'

As the whaler steamed away, clouds hovered over Tristan. The island remained visible most of the day, but Mrs Barrow wrote that she could not see the Peak, which she had never yet seen — though she had lived in its shadow for three years.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20