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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 5
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 7

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p174  6 The First World War and a Parson's Bride

After the departure of the Barrows, Tristan almost disappeared into the desolate Atlantic mists until the arrival of the next missionaries thirteen years later, in 1922.

Having rested in England, Mr and Mrs Barrow tried their best to return for a second term with the Tristan flock. At their own expense they went to South America and then across to South Africa, but in each place they waited so long for a vessel, with no prospect of finding one, that they feared they might be wasting their time and money indefinitely, and had to return home.

After 1907 no more reports on Tristan by visiting warships were published in the British naval Blue Books. It was said that the average  p175 accumulation of correspondence for the islanders each year seldom totalled more than a dozen letters, while parcels were very few until the 1920's.

Andrea Repetto died in 1911 — to be outlived for several decades by his fellow-castaway, Gaetano Lavarello. The garrulous Bob Glass gave himself the title and authority of headman, though he was never chosen. Before Father Barrow left, Bob had asked whether he might preach in 'charch', but the clergyman said No: he was 'a notorious swearer'. Nevertheless he later boasted about the 'sarmons' he had delivered. Except for Captain Andrew Hagan, Bob Glass was the only islander who might ever be described as having a politician's aspirations.

'He's done everything when he talks,' said one of the settlers, 'but when you looks into it, he ain't done nothing.'

Bob's self-appointment was opposed by the widowed Frances Repetto and her brother, Henry Green. Had Mrs Repetto been a male, there would never have been a moment's doubt of her precedence from the death of her Grandfather Green in 1902. As headwoman, her wise and powerful character gave her a strong matriarchal dominance in the community for half a century. Visitors have remarked that she was the only person on the island to be always called 'Mrs'. Everyone else was called by the Christian name. In any case, through the female line she continued the Green dynasty. There has remained a hidden rivalry between the Glass and Repetto clans even into our own times.

From 1904 to 1913, only about thirteen American whalers visited the island. Later, Tristan's main but rare contact with the Outside World was by Norwegian whale-ships touching to and from the Antarctic. Not only did steamers, with speed and refrigeration, no longer need to barter for fresh provisions, but their insurance commitments made them doubly unlikely to detour to hazardous Tristan.

During the First World War, 1914‑18, the island was without any communication at all for three years. The hardships were acute and dreary. There was no tea, sugar, salt, soap, cloth, tobacco or other basic comforts. The people had to patch and scratch from the land.

On August 22, 1916, The Times printed a letter written by a Mr B. R. Balfour of Drogheda, pointing out that there had been no mail from England to Tristan da Cunha for ten years. With this stimulus a notice followed, announcing a proposal to make up a post for the island in a Norwegian ship bound for South Georgia, which would call at Tristan on the return voyage.

The benefactor behind the gesture was the island's old friend, Mr  p176 Douglas Gane, in London. He started the Tristan da Cunha Fund (which has remained the resource of the islanders even through the crisis following the eruption of 1961). Ever since, the Press — British and overseas — has continuously sponsored the strong 'human interest story' of the cause.

'The inhabitants accept privation as part of the settled order of their existence,' Mr Gane wrote later. 'To mitigate the less tolerable of its privations has been the end in view of the Tristan da Cunha Fund.'​a

The position of Trustees of the Fund was accepted by the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Colonial Institute (later called the Royal Empire Society and ultimately Royal Commonwealth Society). Mr Gane served as Honorary Secretary. The purposes of the Fund were defined in a Trust Deed. It was arranged for the formation of a new Tristan da Cunha Welfare Committee at Cape Town — since Tristan had been annexed as a dependency of the Cape Colony.

In February, 1921, Mr Gane appealed in The Times and the Manchester Guardian for another missionary-cum‑teacher. This notice led to the appointment of the Rev. H. M. Rogers, a curate in Leicester, with his young wife. Like their predecessors, they were sent out by the SPG.

It was not until their arrival, in 1922, that the Tristanians learned that the World War was over.

Fair-haired Mrs Rose Annie Rogers was not yet 19 when she agreed to go with her 42-year‑old husband to the ends of the earth. She was conscientious, naïve and courageous. Like her predecessor, Mrs Barrow, she kept a diary during her three years on Tristan, and later turned it into a book, The Lonely Island.

Mr and Mrs Rogers waited a whole year to get passage to Tristan, though Mr Gane tried 'unceasingly' to find a ship. At last, early in 1922, a Japanese steamer, the Tacoma Maru, was given permission to make the long detour from Cape Town, obligingly arranged by its London agents and the Imperial Japanese Government.

In Britain the Press and public took a sentimental interest. Mr Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, forwarded a gracious letter from King George V to be read to the islanders on the clergyman's arrival, assuring them of the warm friendliness of the Royal Family.

 p177  The Rogers brought 150 cases of stores from England, for use in church, school and household, including a year's supply of groceries, and many donations of goods from well-wishers of the Tristanians. In Cape Town, at a public meeting presided over by the Mayor and Archbishop, they were presented with a small wireless set in an effort to ease their total isolation.1

Mr and Mrs Rogers were 'depressed' when they left South Africa. For as with all three earlier missionaries, the captain had had to stipulate that if the weather were rough at Tristan he would have to take them on to South America. 'And that,' wrote Mrs Rogers, 'would be the end of our adventure.'

It was raining when they anchored off the island early in the morning of April 1, but they were relieved to see through the porthole that the ocean was 'beautifully calm'.

'My feelings,' wrote Mrs Rogers, 'were very mingled as I stood gazing at the big lonely rock which was to be our home for the next three years.'

So early, there was no sign of life except a few wandering animals. But the sudden blast of the ship's hooter brought the utmost commotion. The whole population could be seen hurrying to the shore, the dogs barked loudly, and very quickly the men had launched three boats. The young Englishwoman felt a little timid of the long-stockinged boatmen, 'wild and strange, and all shouting and gesticulating at once, while many were dark complexioned '.

The irrepressible Bob Glass, who did not know who she was, at once tried to barter some island curios with her. 'I'd like some clothes,' he said, 'as I's got a lot of big girls and boys.' Then Father Rogers introduced himself to the group.

There had been no ship at Tristan for eighteen months — and never any Japanese vessel. The men gaped at the slant-eyed crew with their staccato language.

From the boat an islander lifted Mrs Rogers and carried her through the backwash to the excited crowd of women, children, dogs and tiny donkeys on the wet black beach. Several dark elderly women came up, shyly held out a hand and said in soft voices, 'Welcome, marm, to Tristan da Cunha.'

Mrs Repetto took her hand with tears in her eyes, and said she  p178 thanked God that she had seen 'another missionary come to larn the children'.

While Father Rogers supervised the landing of the mail and stores, his wife stood forlornly in the heavy rain. She walked up to the nearest woman and said, 'Please, where is the Settlement?' But the woman was so frightened that she turned and ran away.

However, a tall dark woman approached and introduced herself as Mrs Tom Rogers. She said she 'hoped she was not insulting me by asking', but invited the missionaries to come up to stay at her house until their own was built.

Tired and hungry, Rose Rogers climbed the cliff road over the steep loose stones. (She wrote that she was 'not in very good health' — in fact pregnant.) All day she held court without food or rest in her hostess's cottage, sitting on the one wooden chair. Almost all her endless callers brought small gifts. At seven o'clock there was a meal at long last: roast mutton, baked potatoes and tea. It was disclosed that as soon as the missionaries landed, a boy had been sent six miles for a sheep, which was then killed and prepared for cooking.

'Alas!' concluded Mrs Rogers. 'Under the scarlet blanket I could not sleep, for the bed only boasted of one sheet, and was, as nearly all Tristan houses, full of fleas.'

Later she remarked that 'many houses are worse furnished than a prison cell'.

Everyone marvelled at the coincidence that the new‑comers should have the same surname as the five families of the Rogers clean on the island. Mr and Mrs Tom Rogers were very kind, living in the kitchen by day and sleeping out at night, while the guests and their boxes overflowed the bedroom.

The missionaries had brought along the sections of a tiny two‑room frame cabin, a 'prefab'. These had had to be lowered from the ship into the sea and rafted ashore. Tom Rogers donated a piece of his land near his own cottage, from where his wife could come in daily to help with the housework. The islanders toiled to clear the site of boulders and to set up the nineteen-foot house. It was ready in a week. The frame was so flimsy for stormy Tristan that the men reinforced it with piled‑up stones and stout wire rope hawsers. They generously used props of precious timber which they had been saving for a new boat's  p179 keel. Even so, Mrs Rogers said she thought they were 'still a bit anxious', for when a heavy gale arose she and her husband were sometimes roused in the night by the footsteps of solicitous watchers.

The miniature house turned out to be so overcrowded that the men added a stone-and‑thatch kitchen. When this was finished, Andrew Swain played a lively tune on his fiddle, and the builders 'took turns in dancing round and round the tiny room in couples and in and out of the door'. Mrs Rogers and Mrs Tom Rogers served them with tea and biscuits, while all the company joined in the chorus of some 'quaint old sea songs'. This jovial ceremony was performed in every new house, for good luck.

The Rev. Rogers soon began to plant vegetable and flower seeds, contributed experimentally by Kew Gardens in London. But he was thwarted by the same hazards of climate, children, poultry and pests as the Barrows. The children, Mrs Rogers thought, often took the vegetables because they were hungry. She wrote, 'A flourishing garden tonight may be a desolate ruin by tomorrow from wind and rain.' She sympathized with the islanders, most of whom did not bother about gardening, except for potatoes, and tussock and flax for thatching. The best garden belonged to a childless young couple named Arthur and Martha Rogers — 'Arfa and Marfa'. Martha, daughter of Mrs Repetto, supplied the church altar with flowers. (It was she who, in succession to her mother, was destined to be headwoman when the Tristanians were evacuated to England in 1961.)

For some months the missionaries lived fairly well in their meagrely furnished hut. But their year's supply of provisions dwindled fast and there was no vessel to replace them. Like their predecessors, they shared them liberally with the congregation, who expected equally to give and to receive. The new Missus also found that it was 'knock, knock, knock, all day'.

She noted that on Tristan, time seemed to be reckoned by the visits of ships rather than by dates. The people would remark that something or other had happened 'after the Yarmouth or 'after the Dartmouth'. Also, the islanders dated events by the sojourns of their few missionaries. Some event had occurred 'in the time of Father Dodgson', or 'in the time of Father Barrow'.

The 93-year‑old Miss Betty Cotton could still remember the first  p180 missionary, Mr Taylor, who had come in 1851, but apparently Mr Dodgson was her great favourite. The Rogers too found her 'a remarkably intelligent woman, with fine manners' and a wealth of old memories. Other Tristan women were aged 87, 86, 81 and 78.

The island's lone patriarch was Old Sam Swain, the only man of his generation who had not been lost in the boat tragedy of 1885. He was a picturesque character, with his dark face and long beard. He was 67 when Mr Rogers took a census in 1922. The priest recorded a population of 140 in thirty families, the largest ever on the island.

There was impressive evidence of the tradition of a sudden great cloudburst at roughly fifteen-year intervals. Just as one had occurred before the Barrows came, the Rogers' arrival had been preceded by its successor. Again a flood had raged down the 2,000‑foot Hottentot Gulch. It 'shook the island like an earthquake', and huge rocks were swept along and out towards the sea. A number of the settlers had had narrow escapes from drowning, and some stock was lost.

In England the mother of young Ronald McCann had not forgotten how her 19-year‑old son had fallen over the precipice path at Anchorstock Gulch when the Pandora called in 1905.​b In the many years since the Barrows left she had had no other contact, but now at her request the Rogers planted fresh flowers on his grave each Christmas and Easter.

'Dangers on sea and land are a feature of daily life at Tristan,' wrote Mrs Rogers.

The Rogers, like the Barrows, kept a communal medicine chest and both had had training in first aid. The diary lists a few of their cases:

William Rogers, thrown out of surf boat on shingly beach, two fractured ribs; Peter Repetto, two accidents — head cut open by stones falling from cliff, and neck badly cut in fall on mountain patch by axe he was carrying; Tom Swain, fall from mountain, fracture of collar-bone and many bruises; John-the‑Baptist Lavarello, hand badly bitten by a snock fish (poisonous) . . . The patients let their wounds get shockingly dirty and septic, and then expected to be cured in a few days . . . Though there are no germ diseases at Tristan there is much dirt and carelessness . . . We had to be careful over bandages as some would pretend to be sick or hurt to get bandages to mend their clothes. They came in handy for everything, from shirt-cuffs to boat-sails.

The diarist also found that round-worms were 'almost a universal  p181 complaint', and young and old were often sick from them. Asthma, pronounced 'ashmere', was perhaps the most serious disease common to the humid island. There were also rheumatism and lumbago, not helped by working in damp clothes — though the people tried to keep indoors on rainy days. There was still the usual 'tissick' or grippe from passing ships. A mild dysentery was so prevalent at certain seasons that Father Rogers named it 'Tristan sickness'. The islanders also suffered stomach and bowel disorders from bad food. Mrs Rogers told of curing a woman — pregnant, moreover — who, being underfed, had swallowed a lot of raw dried beans. She was delirious, but recovered after a strong emetic.

The missionaries were continually asked for pills. 'I believe here they think pills will cure a broken arm,' Mr Rogers told his wife.

'We were asked daily and hourly for all sorts of things,' she reported. 'In fact they seemed to think we were a kind of Universal providers, and must have hidden hoards of everything in heaven or earth.'

Go day, come day,

God bless Sunday.

The couplet had been chanted on the island since the oldest inhabitants could remember. But it was Rev. Rogers who finally achieved the building of the 'charch' for which his three predecessors had struggled in vain against the civic inertia.

On the Rogers' arrival, the largest room in the village had been lent for a church-school: the top floor — a large loft — belonging to Andrew Hagan junior, who had the only two‑storey house, and a small family. The loft was much overcrowded, 'since at Tristan every man, woman and child attends church regularly'. Some men had to stand up and big children to sit on parental laps. Then, in June, 1922, Father Rogers called a meeting of men and actually persuaded them to begin building.

A central plot of land was given by Mrs Repetto and Tom Rogers. A foundation was marked out, fifty feet by fourteen. Digging was done in relays by family quotas. There was an 'imposing' ceremony for laying the foundation stone, presented by Mrs Repetto, with Father Rogers in cassock and surplice, attended by Boy Scouts and choir, and some silver coins in a little tin box set underneath. The original stones  p182 (better than the newer quarrying) were dragged from the cemetery wall where Mr Dodgson had let them be piled when he despaired of building the church forty years earlier.

There was a shortage of tools, and many materials. 'But we started as a venture of faith,' wrote Mrs Rogers. Letters of appeal were sent by the next mail to the SPG, to Mr Gane, and to the Cape benefactors. Somehow the building was completed in July, 1923, after only nine months — 'really wonderfully quick, as houses which are much smaller often take over a year to build, or even two years'. The men walled the garden, made two gates, and planted flowers.

When the little Church of St Mary the Virgin was dedicated, everyone attended except three communicants who were sick. The new building was bedecked with flowers and the people dressed up as for a feast day — men on one side, women on the other, in the immemorial Tristan way. The furnishings included the little shipwrecked stone font which Mr Dodgson had brought, and the big Bible which had been sent to Mr Barrow from England, and Mrs Rogers' harmonium, which had arrived a year after herself.

The church looked much like any other long low Tristan cottage except for its zinc roof, which was then unlined — very hot in summer and noisy in the rain. (The pale roof still stands out in photographs of the Settlement.) At either end was a white cross. There was also the ship's bell which had been salvaged from the wreck of the Mabel Clark in the 1870's. John Glass, again the parish clerk, always rang it for as long as he could see anyone approaching. On rainy days the girls would come flying over the criss-cross paths in white dresses, with old coats held over their heads and shoulders. 'Squalls,' remarked Mrs Rogers, 'usually seemed to come on just at church time.'

There was customarily a foregathering out‑of-doors — the old‑fashioned church parade — before the service, with everyone being stiff and polite and rather formal to each other in their Sunday clothes, as if they did not meet every day. 'A few,' wrote Mrs Rogers, 'stayed away if they had not got moccasins, or did not think their clothes good enough to come in.' Sometimes children would be carried in wearing nothing on their feet but clean new socks. Sheepskin moccasins, it seems, were despised: only bullock or donkey hide would do. Shoes were worn when they were available.

As for the ever vigorous hymn-singing, the older generation preferred Mr Dodgson's tunes; the young married couples liked Mrs Barrow's, which they had been taught as children; and the youthful  p183 choir were eager for Mrs Rogers' hymns, turning up their noses at the others as 'too old‑fashioned'.

Unused to having a church with ample space for everyone, the waiting congregation still habitually 'made a dash for seats', though Father Rogers assured them there was no need. Once Bob Glass planted himself in a chair in mid‑aisle. Old Mrs Swain, who was 'a little queer at times', now and then entered the church expectantly when there was no service, sat patiently for a while, and finally pottered off, puzzled.

The chaplain — and indeed his successors — held special prayers daily for 'those who go down to the sea in ships'. The prayers included a plea that some of these vessels might come to Tristan.

It was found necessary to add shutters to shield the six windows from being broken by the wind. The back windows were very low and had to be protected from the incursions of pigs and dogs. Sometimes the pious attention of the congregation turned into suppressed giggles. This was when some animal — dog, cat, sheep, pig, donkey or fowl — climbed up on the low slant of the zinc roof, and made 'weird noises above the heads of the worshippers'. John Glass had to tiptoe out and drive it off, while the children's shoulders heaved and their bright eyes danced indecorously.

The missionaries had opened the school in the Hagans' loft three weeks after their arrival. (The devout Dodgson had commenced the next morning, but he was a bachelor.) On the first day there were forty‑two pupils aged from 3 to 60. The Rogers split them into three grades. Some of the young married couples could read and write 'quite nicely', having been schoolchildren in the time of the Barrows. A number of the big girls were so bashful that rather than answer a question they would hide their heads behind the back of the next girl. At first slates were used for writing, but the pencils were often lost or even eaten.

Mr Rogers tried to start a night school for young men, but had to give up because of lack of lighting. There were only the feeble penguin‑oil lamps, rather like biblical cruses, made of an old tin with a small wick.

He also founded the so‑called Penguin Troop of Boy Scouts, with the blessing of the Chief Scout, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and uniforms  p184 and equipment granted by Headquarters. Thirteen boys joined, though the parents were reluctant at first, fearing that their sons would have to go away and fight.

The Rogers were touched by the children who, when they were not hard at work, did not know how to play, hanging listlessly around. They showed them games at school. Father Rogers taught the boys to play football, laying out a ground on the rocky and humpy plain. They became ardent players, and the games were noisily boisterous.

The Author's Note:

1 This turned out to be useless, for the villagers broke off the aerial pole while erecting it with careless haste. They suspected it of attracting lightning, and Tom Rogers surreptitiously cut the wires.

Thayer's Notes:

a Tristan da Cunha, Preface (p7).

b His name appears not to have been McCann, and he was only 17 or 18: see my note on p138.

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