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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 8
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 10

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p192  9 Appling Days and Ratting Days

Mrs Rogers prided herself on her presentiment of the arrival of each long-awaited ship. This impressed the Tristanians, with their belief in second sight.

She had had such a hunch before the fine morning of March 26, 1923, when her husband was teaching. He never used a cane in school like Mr Dodgson and Mr Barrow, 'as he always seemed able to keep good order without'. But this time, when a cry of 'Sail ho!' echoed through the windows, he reported that 'all my scholars jumped up, threw down their books on the tables and were out of the door and down the steps pell-mell, shouting as they ran . . . There was nothing to do but follow them . . . I could see a thick trail of smoke coming from the eastward'.

It was HMS Dublin, a light cruiser sent by the Admiralty after an appeal from Mr Gane, who had collected about twenty-five tons of stores and many bags of mails for the island and had no means of shipping them. Queen Mary herself had contributed a monetary gift of five pounds towards buying flour, and had sent two copies of The Prince of Wales' Tour in the East, one for the missionary and the other for the community.

The supplies were desperately needed. There had been a potato blight, and Mrs Rogers wrote that food and clothes had run 'terribly short, and we were very near semi-starvation'.

On board were a few ex‑islanders on a visit, several South Africans including a reporter from The Cape Argus, a film man, a doctor to make an official survey, and as a great surprise, Bishop Holbech of St Helena, in whose diocese Tristan lay. He held confirmation services for seventy-three persons, and Holy Communion. Many were rather frightened of the awesome dignitary.

Surgeon-Commander Rickard, like others before and since, marvelled at the people's excellent teeth, despite the poor diet. Mr Rogers had had a set of dental instruments given him before he left Cape Town, but he remarked, 'Luckily I had no applicants for extractions; it would probably have been painful for both parties.'

The Rogers also had some clove-tasting toothache mixture in their  p193 medicine chest. Some of the people asked for doses — until Mr Rogers found that they were using it for scent at dances. Then he recommended hot poultices instead.

The cruiser's officers, like those of the Quest, strongly criticized the Tristanians for lack of co‑operation and leader­ship. It was only when all were agreed as to the course to be adopted or the moment to be chosen that the boats were well handled. A strong beach party under a determined officer became necessary for the expeditious landing of the stores.

While the Dublin party were ashore, the 'genial' Bob Glass buttonholed Laurence Green, junior, of The Cape Argus.

'See here, Mr Argus,' he whispered, drawing me on one side, 'I have been over to Inaccessible Island prospecting for diamonds. Look what I found.' He produced a curious species of rock, and asked me to take it to Cape Town and have it tested. I promised to do so, and Bob Glass continued with infinite craft in his eyes, 'I think it would be worth while someone in Cape Town sending a ship here. It might be diamonds, and I could show them where I found the rock.'

'There is something weird and terrible about uninhabited islands,' wrote the Rev. Rogers.

He was the first missionary to visit both Inaccessible and Nightingale, breasting the wide treacherous channel in the island longboats. The Tristan men had always gone foraging on Inaccessible several times a year. But seems for a few sealing campers, Nightingale — with its broken cliffs, peaks and caves — had been rarely visited before Mr Rogers made the trip. There was seldom a good sailing wind from the Settlement for the twenty-mile crossing; the landing was tricky except in ideal weather; and most of the thick dark alkaline water in the streams and ponds was undrinkable, fouled by the clouds of shrieking seabirds. 'Nightingale beer,' the men called it.

Father Rogers' companions found some long spars of driftwood off shore, but while two men swam out to tow them in, two others kept watch every minute with loaded rifles — so numerous were the sharks.

From both islands the chaplain brought back many natural history specimens. His great prize was the first known specimens of the unique 'island cock,' or flightless rail — extinct on Tristan proper. The rail  p194 sheltered in the ubiquitous tussock and lived in a burrow, feeding on worms and other insects. He sent one to a museum at the Cape and the other to the Natural History Museum in London, where the species was given the missionary's name, Atlantisia Rogersi. It was a small black-and‑brown bird with pink eyes, wingless and unable to fly, but able to run through the tussock at great speed.​a Fortunately there were no rats on Inaccessible.

Each early autumn, usually in March, there was the one annual outing on which women and girls regularly accompanied the men and boys in the boats; the Appling Day — 'Happling' Day — at Sandy Point on the opposite side of the island.

Mrs Rogers rose at 4 A.M. to prepare tea and cakes to take along. The flotilla of boats set off from Little Beach at dawn in a clearing mist. They kept close to the sharp curves of the shoreline all the way around, sailing or rowing according to the wind and waves. The coast was precipitous, with handsome scenery indented by high points. This area was well wooded with island tree; the dinghies often visited it to gather firewood. The boats passed a series of headlands cut by deep gulches — such as Jew's Point, and Rookery Point where penguins still nested even in the Rogers' day. There were also the nests of mollymauks on the towering cliffs. The birds bowed gracefully and clicked their beaks at the passers‑by.

Eight miles beyond the Settlement lay Halfway Beach and at Sandy Point there was 'a nice small flat', but as usual a heavier swell than at Little Beach; the people had to watch their chance to disembark. The men carried the Missus ashore.

Sometimes it was too hard to land at Sandy Point and the boats put in a little higher up the coast, on the shingle, from where the parties walked down. This happened when Mr D. M. Booy made the trip in 1942. On that occasion a small mongrel had undertaken to accompany the expedition by land, clambering strenuously over the heights to keep the longboats in sight.

At the shingle several boats had discharged a group of women who were picking their way, chattering, along the shore. Suddenly a heavy rockfall tumbled down from the heights above, nearly killing the women.

The only casualty was the little dog, and the men seemed strangely  p195 stoical, almost off‑hand, Mr Booy said, after the close call to their womenfolk. But rockfalls were a dangerous commonplace at the end of the summer, after the first heavy rains.

On the shore the parties always made a fire and cooked breakfast. Then they toiled up the steep side of the mountain to the 'orchards', which lay in a sheltered spot. The trees were seldom pruned, so they were stunted and had grown rather wild, while the fruit was small. Mrs Rogers remarked that it was 'like a miniature jungle', wading among them through the damp knee-high grass. A few peach trees remained, but did not bear well. There was always a race to get the apples ahead of the rats — which in any case ate the best ones first. So the fruit was gathered rather green.

All hands scattered and picked until they were tired, when they rested in the long grass. Some of the heavy sacks were let down the cliff by a rope; others were 'backed' down.

Earlier, on the Barrows' visit, the weather had turned too windy for sailing or even rowing, so the party walked the ten miles home. It took seven hours and was 'very arduous'. They were glad to be met by the village women with the inevitable pots of 'drink'.

Afterwards there was always a glut of apple-eating in the Settlement. The children munched all day, eating little else for as long as the apples lasted.

At Whitsuntide, in May or early June, occurred the annual autumn Ratting Days, at the Potato Patches.​b

The expedition divided up into teams. In each sector an eager dog was dispatched along the sheltering wall. If it scented a rat, the hunters gathered around, often tearing down the part of the wall, stone by stone, and sometimes blocking up the holes with turf. Whenever they uncovered a nest, the rats rushed out to be caught by the snarling, yelping dogs.

At midday the women and girls arrived on foot or on donkeys, bringing up the hunters' lunches in sheepskin bags. A fire was lit in the stone shelter, where each family vied with the others to boil its own potatoes and make its tea separately — with the usual lack of communal organization in Tristan proceedings.

In the Barrows' day, 150 rats were tallied in a day's hunt. In Mr  p196 Booy's time, a generation later, when the population and Patches had increased, the winning team claimed 133 tails out of a total bag of 620 victims.

Much time was given by the men and boys to the hunting of seabirds and their eggs in season. Until constant chasing made the penguins retreat to Inaccessible and Nightingale for nesting, vast quantities of their eggs were picked up in September and October.

Black eaglets, described by Mrs Rogers as 'good eating', were obtained in June and July. Mollymauks, 'very strong and unpleasant,' were hunted from January to March. In one January 2,139 mollies were taken, and 4,800 in one March. Mrs Rogers pointed out that these figures showed the people would starve if they did not have seabirds and their eggs in the lean times. All kinds of eggs were eaten (though most were fishy and indigestible) and all varieties of seabirds except penguins and sea‑hens. Petrels, mollies and black eaglets were the favourites. Night-birds were getting scarce on Tristan by the 1920's, and the albatross, or 'goney', had left.

In February a boatload of men sometimes went to shoot albatross on Inaccessible. Once they were seen to come home with seven. The dead birds were so large that it was hard for a woman to carry one up from the shore on her back.

Thayer's Notes:

a Several websites have information and photographs of the Inaccessible Rail, like for example this appealing page from the National Geographic.

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b Ratting Days, with teams competing, are still held every year; similar tallies of rats are caught. Details on the current year's event may be found at Tristan da Cunha Ratting Day; the tradition is commemorated on a 2009 postage stamp.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20