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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 10
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 12

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p205  11 Pioneers and Pilgrims

In 1935 the Tristanians were excited to see what they took to be a colossal whale foaming up through the waves beyond the surf. To their astonishment it was the Dutch submarine K. XVIII. The island boatmen were thrilled at being allowed to explore its intricate interior.

The Dutch crew, in turn, were fascinated by the island and especially by its medical welfare, and helped to publicize it in Holland and elsewhere. Their visit stimulated Jan Brander, the elderly expert on Tristan, to persuade the Netherlands Government to send a gift of wooden clogs. The benevolent Dutch presumed that these would keep the  p206 islanders' feet dry and reduce the common asthma. However, later visitors had the impression that the quaint wooden shoes, picturesque amid the muddy fields and sandy beaches of Holland, were less useful for clattering up and down the rocky lava slopes of Tristan.

In 1935 the island lost its greatest friend, Douglas Gane. His son, (later Sir) Irving Gane, took over his father's work as Honorary Secretary of the Tristan da Cunha Fund.

Not long before Douglas Gane's death he wrote loyally of his protégés: 'Seldom has relief been given: it is the other way, they gave to the shipwrecked . . . The people are of the grit and substance of the rock they occupy, and if their independence would seem of late to have relaxed somewhat, it is only due to the difficult conditions under which they now live.'​a

Meanwhile a new chaplain-cum‑commissioner had arrived on the island in 1934. He was the Rev. Harold Wilde, MC, MBE. He served three years, and later returned for a second term on Tristan.

Wrote a traveller, in telling of the approach of an island boat to meet his ship, 'In the stern sheets was a wild-looking figure in a cassock and wearing a long black beard.'

Father Wilde has been described as a vigorous and energetic organizer. Patient with the children, he laid down the law with boisterous affability for the grown‑ups. He was given to back-thumping and even horseplay to show the virile camaraderie appropriate to a Military Cross holder and a missionary scoutmaster. His habitual ejaculation was, 'I'll tell you what!'

Unlike his predecessors, he always cultivated his own potato patch and caught his own fish. A couple of the local women cooked and cleaned for him.

Father Wilde persuaded the Island Council to adopt its first simple form of taxation. Each farmer contributed a part of his potato crop to be stored for seed.

A communal building was put up behind the church — a store‑house-cum‑school-cum‑meeting-house. There, instead of immediately distributing all the supplies which were received on the island, he started the custom of putting a good part aside to allow for the leaner times. Each fortnight he issued rations, including a small reserve of luxuries such as imported staples and tobacco. He induced the men to build a cottage-hospital, to repair all the houses, and to construct rudimentary bridges over the Waterin's — a few planks upheld by stones.

He also stimulated the erection of the crude lighthouse which the  p207 settlers had so long needed and wanted, but had not themselves undertaken. It consisted merely of a heap of whitewashed rocks surmounted by an oil‑burning lantern in a cage resembling a meat-safe. The beam shone out over the anchorage from sunset to sunrise.

Though there was still no money, he instituted an agreed scale of payments for work. For example, to cut and cart six loads of wood, the price was one sheep. One calf was the cost of making a cart, and the same for hauling several loads of kelp for fertilizer.

A weekly concert was held in the community building, with scratchy records played on the old gramophone which King George V had donated. Sometimes the older men obliged with quavering sea‑chanties. The same gramophone took turns with the accordion and fiddle at the monthly dances, the Western jazz serving well enough for the jigging Tristan steps.

Father Wilde's most ambitious project was to try to start small sub‑colony on Inaccessible, on the hardship-haunted shore where the Stoltenhoff brothers had toiled and almost starved in vain. Since the arable shelf faced the opposite way from Tristan's and was free from rats, it was felt that a crop failure on one island was unlikely to be shared simultaneously by the other.

Led by Wilde, a group of fourteen men built a communal home and store-house to the right of the waterfall on rocky Salt Beach, and started to live there in the summers. The new settlement was called Carlisle Bay after the man-of‑war. The pioneers planted 300 bushels of potatoes and even some wheat, and raised a few cattle, sheep and pigs.

The first few months seemed promising. Wilde was exuberant and talked of a similar colony on Nightingale. He told some travellers that in five years the archipelago would be self-sustaining. 'All we need is clothes, tools and a large boat for inter-island communication.'

However, the potato harvest was only eighty bushels, while the second year's yield was even poorer. So the project was abandoned, and the inevitable tussock and petrels took over the stones of the pioneers' house.

In February, 1937, HMS Carlisle reappeared and landed some pedigreed livestock: an Ayrshire bull, nicknamed 'Carl' for the ship; a pair of pedigreed pigs; and a few pairs of Rhode Island and Australorp chickens and of ducks. The sailors also planted 700 young trees in sheltered places, mostly willows and apples. Many died.

The medical officer reported that of 156 islanders old enough to be  p208 included in the count, 131 had teeth free from decay. Long-bearded Sam Swain possessed a perfect set at the age of 75. Sam was now the oldest inhabitant, but he still stoutly pulled his oar in the boats. He told the Carlisle officers that he had never been away from Tristan and never wanted to leave it.

When the warship sailed, Mr Wilde was on board, bound for nine months' furlough at home. He had officially appointed William Repetto as headman: a large, stocky, slightly Dutch-looking man. (Willie was, incidentally, the island's only holder of the George V Jubilee Medal.) He was, and is, that rarest of Tristan birds, a mature bachelor. His mother remained the most powerful arbiter of island affairs. Willie Repetto, as he himself has always insisted, merely acted as spokesman, though he has retained the nickname of 'Chief' to this day.

How much the absent chaplain was missed is uncertain. Mr A. B. Crawford wrote soon afterwards that he was 'unpopular', even insisting on censoring outgoing letters. (One sees throughout the whole last century the recurring distaste of the people for being 'improved' with Western energy — on the island or, after the eruption, off it.)

Father Wilde returned in 1938 aboard HMS Milford, bringing from England a dulcitone and a radio. The radio had been presented through an appeal by the Tristan da Cunha Fund. A windmill was set up to generate power, and the wireless was installed by the Royal Navy men, with very good reception. Thus for the first time the island was not entirely cut off from the Outside World.

On January 12, 1938, by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, King George VI proclaimed the islands of Tristan, Inaccessible, Nightingale, and Gough dependencies of St Helena. The Tristanians remained, as before and since, devoted to the Royal Family. The moment any ship was sighted the Union Jack always went up into the wind.

During 'the time of Father Wilde', two more small ships put in at Tristan, bearing young persons who had seen the island and fallen in love with its austere romance.

In January, 1937, there came the Cap Pilar, a small square-rigged schooner. She was wandering the southern seas with seventeen young men (in a changing crew) and a girl who had never been in a boat before. Earlier the Fleet Street headlines had carolled, 'Bride at helm in adventure cruise'. The bride was Jane, whose husband, Adrian  p209 Seligman, later wrote a vivid book called The Voyage of the 'Cap Pilar'.

Five years earlier Seligman and his friend Lars Paersch, a Finn, as ordinary seamen on a Finnish four-master had first glimpsed Tristan just after dawn. 'A jet‑black pile of rock stood above the mist, rising to a great height: Tristan da Cunha. . . .'

'One day, they promised each other, 'we'll fit out a ship of our own, and visit Tristan.'

Back in England in 1936, Seligman put all his savings, £3,500, into buying a small French schooner of 295 tons and fitting it out for a year. In answer to an advertisement, six young men were eager to crew in a sailing voyage in southern waters, each contributing £100 towards expenses. One volunteer was George, the schoolmaster brother of Jane.

They left England in October on a wave of publicity. They had consented to transport a great mound of mail and stores sent by the Tristan da Cunha Fund. These included two large crates of Bibles, a hundred pairs of wooden shoes and many wire rat‑traps. A 'philanthropist' had asked them to take a dozen cats (headline, 'Cats for Tristan'), but the RSPCA intervened. And so — 'our longing to see it again brought us back in an old‑time sailing ship, carrying the mail as years ago'.

When they neared the area they were becalmed in a fog and could not get their bearings from sun or stars for three days, waiting among the cries of albatross and petrel. Then the wind freshened. Tristan 'stood up more black and forbidding than before; there was cloud above, but on the coast only grim black cliffs fell sheer into the boiling surf — save for the vivid green tongue of grassland'. Off Herald Point they lowered a dory filled with mailbags, and saw 'a tiny white triangle of sail creeping along the coast'.

As they met the Tristan boat, the 'sturdy men of uncertain age' lay on their oars and 'stared expressionless'. One man piloted the dory in. George told of how they 'pulled with all their might' through the kelp to catch a wave at the right instant. It lifted the dory and flung it on to the foaming beach, rolling it over. 'We arrived at Tristan on our ears beneath a shower of mailbags.' They were 'soundly kissed on the spot by over fifty women and girls'.

When Adrian and Jane came ashore they were greeted with the same salute. 'It took twenty minutes.' Every man doffed his cap and bowed as he shook hands, every woman curtsied before she kissed them. There was hardly a woman without a baby in her arms.

 p210  It was fifteen months since the people had received the last provisions, and they had feared another hungry winter. Father Wilde conducted a thanksgiving service in the church before his congregation resumed the landing and distribution of the stores.

A quarter of the parcels were addressed to Mrs Agnes Rogers, the island's original Roman Catholic, who held regular services for about thirty converts. Mrs Repetto told the Seligmans, 'What Agnes don't want she'll give me for the poorer ones. We don't do no trading on the island.'

The young English couple 'lay on the grass above the jet-black beach. The turf was soft and springy, the air full of the scent of thyme. We heard the barking of dogs, the gaggling [sic] of geese, the wavering thunder of the South Atlantic.' The village seemed overcrowded with meandering livestock. On the meadow rolling away to the west, 'one or two green cones marked ancient volcanic vents'.

In the afternoon Mr Wilde took them to call at several cottages, where they were greeted with 'smiles and home-made gifts'. In one house they noticed a bed made from the poop-rail and stanchions of the famous Blenden Hall. At the Greens' they feasted on roast mutton and a huge potato pudding 'in the shape of a bomb'. The traditional dish was a luxury when potato famine threatened, and could be made only with Mr Wilde's permission.

In the evening the ship's company were honoured with a dance in the village hall. Until nine o'clock they all 'stamped about the tiny floor in the orange gloom' cast by a stub of precious candle, to an accordion or the few remaining gramophone records. 'Our Mr Sanson, in kilt, demonstrated the Highland fling . . . making a great hit. . . .'

The hospital cottage was turned over as a guest-room for the young couple. In the morning a boy scout brought them tea and breakfast. They were ashore for four days, and talked much with Father Wilde, Mrs Repetto and others. The priest told them that in the three years since he came, there had been only one death on the island — an accident — and twelve babies born. 'A miscarried child is unknown.'

They were surprised to find 'rich' and 'poor' on Tristan. 'Each family produces as much as it can be bothered to work for.' They were given to understand that it was 'no use to have too much. If there are too many potatoes, they will sprout through the roof of the store-house before they can be eaten; if there are a thousand sheep, most would die of old age.' Anyway, it was said, the people would rather eat taties than  p211 to trouble to kill and carry meat from another part of the island; they were not fond of fish and it was a bother to go out in the boats to catch them.

The Seligmans assessed the Tristanians as 'simple and kindly but lacking energy and ambition'. As among dwellers in most tropical climates, there was a philosophy of 'mañana'. The young visitors respected the people for 'living calmly . . . no voice raised . . . no note of urgency in a crowd'.

Mr Seligman recalled that when his ship's dory had met the first island boat, the men had answered the strangers' hail so softly that the latter could not hear what was said. Another time, at twilight he had been waiting in the dory outside the line of surf for a chance to run in. The islanders were only a few hundred yards away, trying to shout advice. 'But we could hear no more than a high-pitched crying like the mewing of gulls.' He interpreted this to mean that for four generations the Tristanians had been 'so accustomed to quiet that they were now unable to shout'. However, other observers have attributed it less to a natural quiet than to the fact that the people had the habit of pitching their voices too high against the roaring wined and waves, so that the timbre had become thin. (Old 'Big John' Glass's speaking voice has elsewhere been described as ranging between a deep hoarse rumble and a falsetto squeak.)

The Cap Pilar crew were intrigued by the inhabitants' quixotic sense of values. One man bartered an intricately wrought mat of penguin feathers for an old cap. But later he offered a similar mat for the fo'c'sle gramophone.

They regarded Mrs Repetto as 'remarkable'. She was then aged 61, with six children, twenty grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. They did not wonder that all the people went to her for advice. She had 'the unassailable graciousness of a queen'. She told the Seligmans of the Bad Times, 'and we told her our own troubles as eagerly as to a wise prophetess, though she had never been off the island'.

After the Cap Pilar had been anchored for four days, the weather began to blow 'feather-white', in the Tristan phrase. On of the notorious south-east gales was starting and the schooner left for Cape Town.

 p212  Another pèlerinage sentimental was made in 1938 by W. Robert Foran, the young third mate of a whaler, who later wrote of his visit in The National Geographic Magazine. Serving in the South Atlantic, he hankered for the strange challenge of the bleak island, and persuaded his Danish captain to land him and bring him back. One gathers from him and from other mariners, that Tristan had become almost a legend, with its mirage-like peak, its hurricanes, shipwrecks, and odd stubborn little group of cliff-dwellers.

Approaching in the small boat, he was awed by 'the deafening surf . . . the spray flung up . . . the waterfalls . . . the tempestuous winds down the perpendicular slopes . . . with a shriek like the supernatural'.

Conveyed safely by the drawling boatmen to the Settlement, he was strongly aware of the lack of noise, 'except nature and animals,' and the unhurried assumption that 'time was no object'.

He was struck too by the people's piety. Each morning on the way to work they stopped in the church to ask a blessing on the day.

On the Sabbath he found that no man would go to service without a flower in his buttonhole. On Sundays after a ship's visit the congregation all paraded after church in their new — or rather, cast‑off — clothes from England or elsewhere. He noted that one man wore a bowler hat, an old dinner jacket, a red waistcoat, white duck trousers and Dutch clogs.

Mr Foran too had long talks with the elders, and sympathized with their concern over supporting a population which had grown to more than 200 on an island which, they said, could adequately sustain about eighty.

He visited a round of cottages with their bunk-shelves and 'the inevitable crude cradle'. A little luxury was the penguin-feather mattresses. (In the moulting season the people went feather-picking; the air was filled with them when the wind blew.)

Though Tristan was known as the loneliest island in the world, 'I found it more "contented" than "lonely",' he concluded.

Thayer's Note:

a Tristan da Cunha, p110.

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