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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 7
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 9

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p188  8 Courtships, Weddings and Birthdays

While Dr Macklin of the Quest was staying at the cottage of Bob Glass, two of Bob's daughters were engaged. In the evening he heard Bob urging, 'Don't be shoiy, lads, come in.' The youths entered sheepishly and sat opposite their sweethearts in heavy silence. The doctor rose and tactfully went out, yet when he came back an hour and a half later, he learned that the two couples had 'neither moved nor spoken'.

With or without tongue, romances somehow developed. But where every window had eyes, and gossip was the eternal chaperone, the courting couples were generally observed to be shy, reserved, even stiff, some of the time coy or jocose, or both.

Couples always chose their own spouses, and courting — though not marriage — commonly began very young. The first stage was the mute sitting in the fireside circle in the girl's home, sometimes in company with rivals until one was accepted. The youth might bring her a bartered scarf or 'hangcher' — handkerchief. The progress of his courtship could be seen by the number of coloured rings she might knit into the tops of a pair of long white stockings or the waist of a white 'gansey', or guernsey. Three rings marked him as favoured and with four he was virtually accepted. Then she invited him to bring her his clothes to wash.

It was then his privilege, or duty, rather than her father's, to make his fiancée's moccasins. In the man's world of Tristan her betrothed did not otherwise do much for her, Mrs Rogers pointed out critically — though she knitted for him tirelessly and cooked his favourite dishes. Each party liked to know that the other was 'capable'.

Now, too, he was entitled to dance with her three times in an evening and to escort her home from the 'dawnces.' A certain area down by the cliff, where the grassy slope suddenly dropped to the shore, was the special preserve of betrothed couples. Visiting bachelors were jocularly warned not to dally there with a girl friend or 'they might find themselves engaged'.

Any open show of affection or use of pet‑names was considered bad taste between engaged pairs and even for husband and wife. Lovemaking found a cruder outlet in teasing, scuffling and wrestling matches  p189 between the courting couple. The girls were so strong that many a brawny young man had no easy time in holding his own.

Though a couple might have been courting from their early teens, there was usually a wait of long years to scrape together enough material objects to set up a home. There must at least be wood enough for the skeleton of the house, and for table, bench and bunk. Since 'a good shipwreck' had ceased to be probable, after every storm the prospective bridegroom had to toil around the island shore, looking for driftwood. Tools — such as an axe and a shovel — could only be got from passing ships. Slowly, slowly, the hut would be built and partly furnished. There would be coarse Tristan jokes, spoken or played by friends throughout the engagement.

Sometimes a young couple did not marry until after a baby was born, even several years later, the child changing its surname after the marriage. This was not, however, a 'shotgun wedding'. Beyond driftwood and stone, the young man could acquire nothing except as a gift from his parents. The island offered no jobs or trades and (until recently) no money. If anyone wanted help with his work, relations and friends lent a hand in return for meals. His father and mother might not permit him to marry, for it would mean another family on the island to share the common produce and stores. The parents might not be able to spare the household goods to set up a new home, or may not have wanted a daughter-in‑law and grandchildren in their crowded cottage. It also meant the loss of another adult worker in the family. So young couples sometimes forced their parents' hands. When a child was born the elders might relent, and give them a cow, a sheep and a few sticks of furniture to start a home.

In the days before a priest was regularly stationed on the island, the Church of England marriage service was read from the Book of Common Prayer first by a Scots Presbyterian (William Glass), then a Dutch Lutheran (Peter Green), then an Italian Catholic (Andrea Repetto), and even a woman (Frances Repetto). Witnesses signed, or made their X, on the register; and later the union was usually blessed by a visiting chaplain.

The wedding feast, provided by the parents, was as hospitable as supplies permitted, with roast mutton or beef, and potato puddings. Cohorts of friends and relations came bearing gifts.

There were two sets of double weddings while Mr and Mrs Rogers were on the island. The Tristan brides, not unlike others, preferred to be married in starched white. But various garments had to be borrowed —  p190 coloured sashes, beads and brooches. Even the wedding ring was lent. The brideswomen, too (local custom decreed married attendants rather than bridesmaids), were dressed in borrowed finery.

One engaged girl sent to England for her wedding gown. It reached Tristan three years later, in time to be made into shortcoats for the second baby.

There were two legendary wedding hats, at least one of which had, even in the Rogers' day, been on the island for fifty years, passing from bride to bride.

In the late 1930's, it was reported, a communal wedding dress and veil had for years been taken out of a chest and worn by each bride in turn.

The Tristan equivalent of the stork was revealed when children lisped that 'God brought a little brother (or sister) down the mountain'.

While the Rogers' baby son was being born, less than a half-year after his mother had arrived, many people hovered around the house, some praying. He was delivered in three hours by 87-year‑old Martha Green, sister of Betty Cotton. She had been the midwife for more than fifty years. Her sight was beginning to fail and she had to have an assistant, Mrs Bill Rogers, but she was still very skilful. (Island births were notably hardy; there were scarcely any known miscarriages or stillbirths, deformities were exceedingly rare, and infant mortality was very low indeed.)

'I was impressed by Martha's fervent prayer when Edward was born,' wrote Mrs Rogers, 'and I then realized her great anxiety and nervousness on my behalf.'

Female visitors all knelt and kissed the baby, saying, 'May you grow up a good boy and be a blessing to your mother.'

Neighbour Tom Rogers made the child a typical Tristan cot; it was modelled after an old Norwegian pattern, from the wood of the famous South American giant redwood washed up long ago at Seal Bay.1

The Rogers sensed that the child's coming made a strong difference in the local attitude to them and their work: 'a real Tristan baby'. The  p191 people asked that he might be named Edward for the Prince of Wales, whom they greatly admired. His second name was Tristan. They were the more 'proud and pleased' because the first all‑white island child was blond. 'Fair people,' explained Mrs Rogers, 'are thought a lot of at Tristan, and those few who are fortunate in having fair-haired children are very proud of them. Some of the darkest ones can hardly get anyone to marry them.'

At the christening the island's five Union Jacks were all flown, and the church loft was decorated with flowers.

Birthdays, too, have always been important to Tristanians. An islander who had a 'barfday' was expected to give a present to his or her friends; the missionaries soon learned whose birthday was when, as some of turned up bearing a gift. The birthday person was also expected to keep open house all day, serving 'strong drink' (tea) when available, or at least milk-and‑water, and perhaps slices of potato pudding. Then it was the turn of friends and relatives to bring presents.

The first, the twenty-first and the fiftieth birthdays were reckoned of major importance. Most ceremonious was the first 'barfday' of Master Rogers on September 21, 1923.

'Everything went off very well,' said Mrs Rogers, 'except that the dogs broke into one house and devoured a lot of meat.'

During the day everyone called at the parsonage to wish the baby many happy returns. He was given over a hundred hen's eggs, twenty goose eggs, white socks, clothing, penguin-feather mats, ox‑horns, moccasins, sea‑shells, medals and brooches and other trinkets.

Even Baby Edward was subjected to the birthday custom of 'a kiss and a slap'. This meant a slap for each year of your life to make you good ('Edward crowed with delight') and a kiss to make you happy.

The Author's Note:

1 Some of the remaining wood from the same tree was made into models of ox‑wagons, longboats, etc., which the islanders sent to London for the Wembley Exhibition of 1924‑25, where it appeared in the Tristan da Cunha corner of the South African Pavilion.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20