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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 9
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 11

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p196  10 Luxury Liners and a Psychic Priest

Mrs Rogers said, 'We looked each day for the ship which never came.'

The Rogers' last six or eight months on Tristan covered one of the leanest periods of all. The island children hung around any kitchen where food was being cooked. The missionaries themselves had exhausted all their imported stores by much sharing, even the daily ration of a tablespoonful of rice and of flour for the baby; they had only a little  p197 tea and soap. There was always a confusing paradox in the way the islanders were for ever asking and giving, and yet were proud about taking help frankly. When Mrs Rogers wanted to give away some food to a hungry household with many young children, she was 'told rather gruffly that they could feed their own family'.

The English couple 'could not help seeing how the people were hard-pressed and weary, and much disheartened in spite of trying to keep up a cheerful front'. As the earlier missionaries had found, the parishioners often gave up their own staples when they were short themselves, to send the promised food to the parsonage.

'We's used to it,' they always said with a stoical shrug. 'You ain't.'

With Christmas coming, Mrs Rogers marvelled at the ingenuity of the island mothers in 'making do' for new clothing. She gave away every bit of cloth she could spare. One little girl had a new dress made of a white tablecloth, another from a mackintosh and third from a yellow canvas mail sack. 'They are wonderful contrivers.'

The stormy winter was doubly depressing when one was hungry. On June 22: 'Today is a typical day in the winter season — cold, windy, and steady heavy drizzle of rain. Up early to get breakfast. We lit the kitchen fire, but cannot have one in the parlour as wood is so hard to get and we are short, so sit in our coats.'

Everyone suffered from stomach and bowel trouble from poor food. There was more illness than usual, and the Missus was running out of medicines. Baby Edward was sick. The people quarrelled and accused each other of theft and dishonesty.

'We all dreamt of ships. We watched for them day and night. There were false alarms of "Ship!" '

The islanders kept repeating fatalistically, 'It's God's will.'

Father Rogers was apt to counter, 'It's rather man's folly or neglect.'

He and the men talked over the perennial problem a hundred times; what to do. At length he drew up a petition on their behalf, signed by fifty‑one men. It was eventually sent to Mr Gane for forwarding to the Colonial Office. With loyal greetings, they again begged the Hon. Secretary of State for the Colonies to send an annual ship with parcels and mails.

The next year a courteous and sympathetic reply regretted that due  p198 to the considerable expense and other difficulties, 'the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty cannot undertake to arrange for a yearly visit of one of His Majesty's ships to the island, though it is hoped that such a visit can be made every three or four years'. The letter added that 'every opportunity will be taken to make use of such means of communication with the island as may present themselves'.

In 1923 The Cape Argus urged the evacuation of the colonists. But the British Government was now willing to continue with a policy of laissez-faire. The people did not wish to go. And it was pointed out that if they did, the island would probably attract other settlers.

At Rogers' three-year term neared its end, they were growing secretly anxious about when they would get away with their underfed child.

Before they were up on February 4, 1925, there echoed the longed‑for cry; 'Sail ho! Steamer to west'ard ho!'

Everyone tumbled out to dress. Mr Rogers slung the mailbag over his shoulder and joined the men launching the big boats, while the women rounded up livestock. Mrs Rogers helpfully tried to pack a little, impeded by a crowd of sympathetic visitors. Then, to her tremulous wonder, a long blast was sounded on the ship's siren, to let her know that the captain had consented to give them passage.

The steamer was the Ramon da Larrinaga of Liverpool, returning from South America and bound for Durban. She had been diverted by wireless and, being short of stores, had called to barter for fresh meat as in the old days.

The master had agreed to stop for only two hours — which meant a frantic scramble, with packing and a farewell service. To crown all, two engaged couples hastily decided to get married before the chaplain left — so the Missus had to help with the borrowed finery and to stand up as 'brideswoman'. The clergyman was so excited that he got mixed up over the names.

In the moving scene on the beach, said Mrs Rogers, 'it seemed strange to see the women without their knitting . . . Some of them clung hold of me desperately as if they could not let me go. . . .' As the vessel steamed off, the men in the island boats stood up and gave three cheers, and the little crowd on the shore joined in.

The officers of the Larrinaga were more than kind to the tired and  p199 hungry Rogers. But at Durban, 'Edward howled: he wanted Captain Jones to take him back to Tristan'.

In England, Mr Gane reported that 'there grew upon Mr and Mrs Rogers a longing to return. Only a fortnight before his death, moved by an appeal which he received from the people, Mr Rogers wrote to me intimating his readiness to go back if possible.'

However, the clergyman died on May 14, 1926, leaving his impoverished young widow with two children. In a lecture shortly before, he said:

The rushing of the Atlantic waves is still in my ears, while I can still smell the kelp on the beach, and see those eager, tear-stained faces pleading for our return — for my heart is ever there and I hope I may yet be able to return to the little island flock I love so well.

At length the British Government relented, and in response to the islanders' petition to the Colonial Secretary, the Royal Research Ship Discovery called in January, 1926, with mail and stores. Thereafter a vessel came officially every summer.

Though this was obviously a godsend, the 'Big Mail' again gave the Tristanians the habit of counting on gifts and donated supplies. Theirs was, and has continued to be, an odd blend of proud independence in their unique heritage, mixed with reliance on the generosity of thousands of foreigners to whom their austere picturesqueness has appealed. The island, unaided, has never fully made its own way since the best days of sail.

As a curious contrast, a series of luxury liners began in 1926 to touch at Tristan while crossing the South Atlantic on world cruises. Their suites were as large as the huts in which whole families lived on Tristan. The first was RMSP Orca. Unfortunately the weather was so bad that a landing could not be made. To the puzzlement of those aboard, the men did not come out in the boats; it was later learned that they were on Inaccessible. The captain set afloat a raft laden with supplies, hoping that it would be washed ashore. But the visiting mariners did not know  p200 that the normal current off Tristan is outward bound; and it was never seen again.

The next year, the Asturias succeeded in making contact. There was memorable hobnobbing among the sightseers and the diffident, excited islanders, with their crude curiosities for sale amid the carpets and chandeliers. There were mats woven from the 'tossels' taken from the topknots of the rockhopper penguins; polished bullock-horns; cat skins; ox‑hide slippers; the inevitable knitted socks; and carved wooden models of longboats and bullock-carts.

In May, 1927, the Cunarder Franconia was due to call with 350 tourists on a world cruise, but again stormy weather prevented. There was keen disappointment on ship and shore, for the passengers had collected a fund of £200 to spend on gifts for the Tristanians, and the women on board had been busy knitting clothing for the island children.

In February, 1928, the Canadian Pacific Line's Empress of France halted off the Settlement. For the first time the dazzled Tristanian women and children were received on board the 'floating hotel' and fêted.

Several young islanders asked Captain Griffiths to take them to the Cape, but he reluctantly had to refuse. Later he was transferred to the new sister-ship, the Duchess of Atholl. Before he left he wrote to Mr Gane, offering passage to two or three young Tristanians if he were first assured that the South African authorities would let them land at Cape Town. But the South Africans regretted . . . Though they were friendly towards the Tristanians, in their own country the farming and fishing were done by natives. The islanders, untrained, would be only 'poor whites'.

Such exotic calls did not compensate for the lack of any regular communication with the Cape. The island was again becoming over-populated and there was no outlet for the venturesome young. Though the outbound ships might deliver mail and supplies from South Africa, they went on to South America and returned by a different route.

In the late 1920's Percy Snell, secretary of the newly organized Tristan da Cunha Welfare Committee at Cape Town, worked hard to raise grants and donations to buy a small trading vessel — the old island ambition since the early days of Governor Glass a century before. The ship was to be managed by a local board and manned as much as possible  p201 by Tristanians. An offer was made, at the considerable cost of £6,500, but the plan again fell through.

In 1931 old Mr Gane, always dreaming for the good of his island, proposed with youthful eagerness in The Times, an aircraft landing-strip on the windy plateau. It even got as far as an official investigation when HMS Carlisle called in 1932. But no planes touched down among Tristan's whirlwinds and 'willies'.

After the death of Mr Rogers, the Rev. R. A. C. Pooley was appointed chaplain to the Tristan parish. He arrived early in 1927 with a lay assistant, Philip Lindsay. Father Pooley stayed for two years while his helper remained for a third.

Lindsay was the witness of another unsolved mystery of the Tristanian seas. In 1928 a sailing vessel, the Köbenhavn set out from Cape Town. She was a Danish training ship with a full complement of young cadets on board. After leaving the Cape, she vanished without trace.

One foggy day at about the same time, Mr Lindsay happened to be walking toward the Settlement. The mist lifted for a few seconds, off the west coast. He caught sight of a big, derelict hulk which was slowly sinking under his eyes. Then the fog curtained the water again, and when it cleared the spectral vessel had disappeared.

The incident was reported in The Times and other newspapers. The ill‑fated hulk was thought and later disproved to be the Köbenhavn. It was believed that the ship must have been abandoned by her crew, had drifted on blindly, and was wrecked on the Tristan rocks, all signs of flotsam being washed away while the fog concealed them.

Another Dane voyaged into Tristanian waters in his ketch in March, 1930: Captain Knud Andersen, the traveller and author. He was bound for Cape Town and gave a lift to two islanders: Tom Rogers and 21-year‑old Donald Glass. The latter was described as being six feet tall and weighing 169 pounds, but he surprised his nautical host with his modest appetite.

He explained, 'What makes you hongryº is to eat a meal at four  p202 o'clock in the morning, go out fishing all day, and then eat again at night.'

Tom Rogers stayed more than a year at the Cape, but in 1932 he returned home for good in HMS Carlisle. He was quoted as saying, 'Home food 's best. It keeps you tough.'

'What do you eat?' an officer asked him.

'Taties chiefly.' And he added, 'In the town it's noise and rush and heavy clothes and many meals, and you can't live long like that.'

The next chaplain, taking up his duties in 1929, was the Rev. A. G. Partridge, who wrote a book about his experiences.​a After the turbulent landings of his predecessors, he arrived in luxury in the liner Duchess of Atholl. As the island longboats neared the ship, one boat capsized, and many of the 'dark-featured, rough-looking men' were struggling in the water. Some abandoned their boat, swam to the liner and scrambled dripping up the Jacob's ladder. The Atholl's captain was indignant, and ordered them back to help their more conscientious mates who were trying to right the craft. Soon the boats were safely lashed to the side while all the men came on board.

Father Partridge arrived at the Settlement to find gaps in the church roof where some of the planks had been taken away. It seemed that someone had died during an acute shortage of wood, and the boards had been used for a coffin. (No fewer than fourteen pieces of wood had been used for Mrs Caroline Glass's.)

He enlarged ('stretched', in Tristanese) the east end of the church, and decorated it in bright colours — a hobby of his. Queen Mary had presented a harmonium, but no one could play it. At Sunday service he followed the medieval custom of reading notices after the Nicene Creed. For instance, he gave permission for the men to take birds from the mountain for food, or orders for ratting days to be held.

He found the Tristanians slow in learning the Three R's. 'But,' he added, 'like other primitive peoples, they had excellent memories.' They could recite hymns and catechisms by heart.

By this time considerable publicity was being give abroad to the islanders' teeth, which were written up in newspapers and dental journals as 'the best teeth in the world'.​b Travellers noticed the white and even rows revealed in Tristan smiles.

 p203  'Despite the glowing reports,' wrote Father Partridge, 'I extracted a number of aching teeth.'

He also remarked upon the people's fine health. Only the children were listless and dull. He had to coax them to play even a simple game.

Like his clerical forerunners, he experienced the privations of the island. Sometimes in one night an east wind might wither the whole potato crop. This happened in his last year, ten days before Christmas. When there was nothing else left, the people killed their animals, and again the missionary shared his own short rations with them.

One year in August the whole island was without any sort of food for three days. One woman stood on the rocks and cast a line into the boiling surf. She caught one small fish, a foot long. She brought it to Father Partridge, saying that they were used to going without.

Like Mrs Rose Rogers, he claimed to be 'psychic' about predicting the advent of ships. Early in his last year, 1931,​c there had been no vessel for eleven months, and there was no tea, sugar, flour or rice. In a dream he foresaw that a vessel would come on March 6, and he was so sure that he announced it from the pulpit.

On February 11 there was a frenzied cry of 'Sail ho!' Everyone went wild — 'even the dogs, the cows, the donkeys, even the birds'. The flag was hoisted and the church bell rung. The men rushed out in the boats — only to return disappointed. The ship had not stopped.

However, Mr Partridge would not eat his prophetic words. He reminded his parishioners that it was too soon. A ship would come.

Sure enough, another vessel did call with supplies on March 6, giving him much 'face' with his congregation.

Another time the community was so low on oil that there was none even for the sanctuary lamp. Everyone was longing for a sea‑elephant to appear, since the oil from his blubber would supply the whole island for a long time. It was used also as a dressing for the canvas boats.

One Sunday morning Father Partridge prayed in church for this boon to be granted. On that same day a sea‑elephant was sighted on the shore, and shot. The men cut out the blubber to protect it from the dogs. But after such a divine manifestation on the Sabbath they would not try out the oil until after midnight.

There was, nevertheless, a tiny dissident group: a few Roman Catholics. Since her arrival in 1908, the Anglo-Irish Mrs Agnes Rogers  p204 had steadily continued to conduct the offices of her faith in her own home. In about 1929 a Catholic priest visited the island and made a few more converts, a nucleus which has remained small but strong ever since.

In 1932 the Rev. Mr Partridge was officially appointed His Majesty's Commissioner and Magistrate, in addition to his duties as chaplain. He in turn appointed a Council of Elders. It was hinted that this was done to block a Glass dynasty. First Joseph Repetto (and later his elder brother William) was designated headman. Their mother was the inevitable choice for headwoman. When Father Partridge left, however, the full status of headman was again ignored.

The petticoat power of Mrs Repetto was said to be lessened by the presence of a Government representative. None the less her matriarchal influence continued for many years, until her death. Not only had she more wisdom — native and general — than anyone else on the island, but unlike any of the headmen since Governor Glass, she had the initiative to take real action.

There was, for instance, the 'crime' and punishment of the island's laziest housewife, one Long Lena. Mrs Repetto was outraged by the slattern's dirty cottage, and finally mobilized a group of women to invade and clean it. Long Lena swore at the scouring party so profanely that Mrs Repetto took the matter up with the village council. Sentence was solemnly passed. Long Lena was confined for a day on the common in a pair of stocks which had been specially devised for the purpose. Moreover, she was forbidden to attend church for three Sundays — a great loss, for everyone liked to go to service, to see and be seen.

The Franconia called in 1931 on another luxury cruise, followed in 1932 by the Carinthia. The mail and stores aboard the latter included two ship's lifeboats presented by the Tristan da Cunha Society in Cape Town. Unfortunately the sea was too rough for any contact; and the gifts could not be delivered until two years later in another cruise ship, the Atlantis.

Meanwhile, in 1932, the British Government sent HMS Carlisle as a vehicle for the official visit of the Rt Rev. C. C. White, the new Bishop of St Helena, to which diocese Tristan was now transferred. A meeting of islanders was called, with Surgeon-Commander Bee  p205 representing the Government. He again sounded out the Tristanians on the possibility of removal. Once more there was a unanimous refusal.

One young man, when asked, replied stubbornly, 'All I can say is I stay here.'

The bishop reported that he thought a wholesale evacuation would be cruel. The people were hardy and showed little sign, if any, of degeneration. Their morals were high. The eminent visitors from the Carlisle were told that only two illegitimate children had been born in the memory of the oldest inhabitants, and in the more recent case the parents had since married.

However, the bishop and the commander felt that the pressure of over-population within the next decade, plus the progress of the new Tristan Welfare Committee in Cape Town, might mean that possibly a few of the younger people would be well advised to emigrate. In the meantime there were the usual urgent needs for a missionary-teacher, a ship to call regularly, and for immediate supplies such as oars, canvas, paint, clothing and foodstuffs, which the Government was recommended to donate to the value of £150.

The Rev. Partridge left the island when the Carlisle sailed. Soon after his return to England, he was asked to return to Tristan to assist a Brazilian scientific expedition. He went back, but the expedition was abandoned, and in 1933 a ship was sent to bring him home again.

Thayer's Notes:

a See the Bibliography.

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b See for example the chapter on dental health in Gane's Tristan da Cunha.

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c His last full year. He left in 1932, as is made clear later in this chapter.

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