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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 11
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 13

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p213  12 A Sociologist Sums Up the Settlers

The largest 'Outside' project on Tristan, between the departure of the garrison in 1817 and the arrival of service units in World War II, was the four-months sojourn of the Norwegian Scientific Expedition in the summer of 1937‑38. Its thirteen members were led by Dr Erling Christophersen, Curator of the Botanical Museum in Oslo. Among them they later produced an admirably compendious collection of writings on the natural history and social data of the island.1

The expedition anchored off the fog‑muffled coast in December, 1937, aboard the Anatolia, a 2,000‑ton German freighter bound from Cape Town to South America. It had a Chinese crew. Dr Christophersen described the Tristanians as 'full of wonder and eagerness' when they greeted the strange company.

The party brought the island's annual mail — many of the letters being for stamp collectors. Mr Allan Crawford marked the envelopes with the 'Tristan da Cunha' rubber stamp and despatched them. He explained that since there was no money on the island, the letters were sent unstamped, and the addressee paid single, not double, postage‑due fees. They were accepted thus in the Central London sorting office.

As usual the Tristanians made no organized attempt to land the visitors' equipment, so Crawford took charge. The fog lifted, and when the 'towering cliffs' appeared behind the Settlement, he could not help feeling apprehensive as he realized that for a surveyor it would be 'precarious to be on the edge taking sights to the houses below'.

Among the curious bystanders he noticed, and mistakenly tried to make friends with, the 'mongrels like wolf-eyed sheep dogs'. They were fierce because they were unused to strangers. He was to find that when the wind was in the right direction they could scent human beings several miles away.

 p214  A meeting was promptly held in the parish hall, where Dr Christophersen explained the expedition and its plan for four months' stay. The members then camped in the hall while their house was being erected on high ground at Little Beach Point, a quarter‑mile from the Settlement (and target for the eruption of 1961). It was a long, low, wooden 'prefab', which they fitted together and put up in a few days. They dug a waterin' for their own use. They also set up a wireless, but this was not successful.

A whole 'large' house made solely of precious wood seemed a marvel to the wood-starved Tristanians. Yet no one hung about and stared. 'Nor,' added Sociologist Munch, 'were they impressed by our motors, our electric light, and our wireless station, though most had never seen such things before.' He attributed this lack of visible curiosity partly to the customary good manners and partly to their realization that on the island they knew best. 'They were very careful, even paternal, towards foreign visitors.' They felt superior on their own ground. There they acted as hosts, with the responsibility and pride in hospitality which had been a tradition from the days of sail.

The expedition was settled in time for Christmas. The Norwegians celebrated on Christmas Eve in the Scandinavian way, and then joined in with the Tristan Christmas of ceremonies and feasting the next day.

Yngvar Hagen, the land zoologist, could not resist taking a busman's — or an ornithologist's — holiday on Christmas morning, and ringed a penguin. In time he ringed birds of all varieties, including some petrels which were later found in Newfoundland, 7,000 miles away. (Scientists have long been marvelling at the habit of certain shearwaters which annually return vast distances to the pin‑point isles of Tristan for nesting.)

The party then joined the dressed‑up community at Christmas service. The church was so overcrowded that people were even standing at the windows. They sang without hymn-books, with 'tremendous fervour', and closed with a 'heartfelt' National Anthem. 'I found myself near to tears,' confessed Mr Crawford, 'for never again will I find such sincerity in a service.'

On Boxing Day the explorers turned up for the football match, and for the 'dawnce' at 6 P.M. in the parish hall. Fiddler Andrew Swain performed lustily on three strings, the fourth string being broken. The women were 'dignified', except in the hilarious pillow dance. The party watched the 'flat-footed Tristan foxtrot' to the cracked jazz records. But the islanders disliked the slower contemporary music. They preferred  p215 to revolve in their own quick rhythm to old English seafaring tunes. Some of the elders entertained the visitors with St Helenian and Italian dances learned from their forebears. Mrs Repetto showed Dr Christophersen the old island dances 'with the swing and grace of a young girl'. This, he added, was 'no exception on Tristan'.

The settlers were having their customary week's holiday, mostly spent 'going out to tea' in the phrase if not in the fact, since they were reduced to serving milk‑tea, or 'famine tea', known as 'Fanny's tea'. At the end of the week the scientists joined in the New Year's Eve Mumming, with its bizarre costumes, mostly female.

The English conversation of the Norwegians varied from extreme fluency downwards through schoolboy pidgin to nil on the part of the cook. He was, however, a 'character', and managed to communicate well enough. The people had met many Norwegians. Their whalers had long been the chief, though rare, representatives of the industry left in those waters. A testimony to the local approval was the appearance of Norwegian names for some island babies.

'We's only too pleased, sir,' was the Tristanians' standard reply to all the visitors' requests.

A couple of women were employed to come up daily to 'you‑all's place' to do the housework and laundry. The younger girl was quick to understand the European methods and utensils of cookery in a day or two.

Christophersen noticed that islanders were 'experts in teasing — perhaps inoffensive, but with a hidden dig'. They liked ridiculous situations and practical jokes. The chief butt was Mr Munch, whose thorough and intimate inquiries as sociologist put him most in touch with the people. A typical example was their young handmaiden's enjoyment of pinning, unknown to him, a handkerchief or other 'donkey's tail' to the seat of his trousers, and then fairly expiring with giggles.

The scientists soon scattered to their tasks. The Norwegian schooner Sandefjord joined them to stand by and help, but the changing weather often drove it away for a week at a stretch. Mr Crawford started out for a month's surveying of the island, with Paddy Rogers and two lean donkeys. Thereafter each able-bodied man took turns in accompanying him for two or three days. Sometimes, on the pretext of sketching, he  p216 hastily jotted down the peculiar, oblique comments and terminology of his guides. They repeated themselves a great deal, and were often at a loss for a word for even a simple concept related to the great world, in which they had little interest.

Mr Crawford was the first man known to sleep on the mountain except those who had been 'nighted', or lost. This still happened occasionally when someone strayed too far in looking for seabirds and their eggs. Then a search-party would set out for the Bluff, carrying lanterns, flares, wood, dry clothing, and 'the inevitable kettle of tea'. A beacon fire was lit, and some of the searchers climbed the cliff, with dogs to find a scent, and whistles, and guns and shouts to make noises.

Allan Crawford encountered all the difficulties of weather and terrain which had defeated others who had attempted the same survey since the 1790's. He naturally had to work much in the cloud-belt with its soaking rain, fog and mist. (It was strange to realize that the peak above stood in almost continual sunshine.) One 'terrible' tempest, the worst among many, bombarded him with such a downpour that he spent a whole morning holding the tent-pole up. Thomas Glass, his current guide, became increasingly anxious.

'You people what comes from the Houtside Warl’ don't know what a storm like this can turn to,' he warned. 'We's best git back to the houses while we can.'

Crawford said that they had to 'fight' their way home through the gale, the blinding rain, the precipices and sliding rock, and the footholds sinking among ferns and tussock.

Nevertheless, though his work was a race against time and natural obstacles, he managed to complete his survey, and his map became standard.

While the scientists were on the island, HMS Milford arrived en route from England to South Africa. She brought the ebullient Father Wilde returning from furlough. Sailors with leave came bouncing on to the beach in liberty boats, 'to kick a football and poke about the houses'. A few civilian-clad officers strolled around with cameras. At night it seemed strange to look across the usual limitless waste of water and see the string of lights along the decks of the anchored warship.

The Milford had brought the annual Big Mail, which the more literate read to the illiterate outside the parish hall. The stores included yet another donation of the wooden clogs which had already proved de trop.

 p217  The islanders showed their pride in their Empire connexion. Some had 'pen friends' in England or elsewhere. Mrs Martha Rogers (née Repetto) had corresponded for twenty years with an Englishwoman whom she had never seen. But the two were actually to meet in 1939 when the liner Viceroy of India stopped at Tristan, and the lady, a passenger, went ashore and met 'Marfa' in a momentous twitter of talk and tea‑brewing.

Almost the only way the people could 'order' what they needed was to send a list of their wants to the SPG — which, with the Tristan da Cunha Fund in London and the Tristan Welfare Committee in Cape Town, provided by far the greater bulk of their supplies. Men's clothes were not so hard to barter from sailors, but women's clothing and household things nearly all came from abroad. There was, however, a little individual barter at long distance, by which the islanders traded, through the societies, the same sort of curiosities which they hawked to passing crews and passengers.

Dr Christophersen was impressed by the great crater plus 'the small parasite craters of glittering black and blood‑red volcanic ash', and the huge naked lava blocks on Stony Hill, on the south shore. He saw great erosion still going on, with the dry gulches washed by flood towards the ocean. Sometimes in a storm the beaches became rocky overnight. He poetically described the waterfalls as hanging 'like white veils' over the steep mountainsides such as Big Beach after heavy rains. He counted more than twenty small extinct volcanoes dotted around the cape of the island, rising from 200 to 300 feet, the craters often shining inside with sky‑reflecting water.

'There are not many places in the world where the destructive forces of nature display greater activity,' he wrote. Eternally the sea flayed the island and gouged out its coastal cliffs with precipices and caves. Estimating Tristan as being twenty million years old, he wondered how much older it would become. 'Explosions can at any moment blow it to pieces, as with Krakatoa, or fresh streams of lava can build it up again.'

And yet, he remarked, 'There is a curiously snug atmosphere in this village.' It was a 'wilderness of tussock', but the cottage walls were covered with roses, Indian cress, sunflowers, etc., especially in the garden of the house-proud 'Marfa and Arfa' Rogers.

Roses or no roses, the whole Settlement area seethed with the summer scourge of flies, which could be scooped up in handfuls from the window-panes. Fleas were acquired from every social call. There were  p218 also abundant woodlice, spiders, moths, and the 'Red Henry', an aggressive centipede. In strong winds in high summer it was common to see masses of insects being blown through the air. The grassy hills were pierced by rat‑holes to sprain the unwary ankle. Stray dogs — 'ever ravenous' — hunted the wild cats. The Waterin's were polluted. Ablutions were performed in them, with scant soap, and clothes laundered. At the rear of each cottage was a tiny low house with three wall but no door, and two logs placed across for a seat. Buckets were emptied into cesspools with seaweed, buzzing with flies.

No wonder a mild dysentery was common in warm weather. Nevertheless Dr S. Dick Henriken, the expedition physician, diagnosed no cases of serious infectious disease, and no venereal disease. He found strains and pains in the limbs, and rupture was common among the older men. Yet the Tristanians were able to carry very heavy loads. Some of the poorer children were small and thin, and only half could read. The women were well-built, slim and broad-shouldered.

Christophersen commented that most people seemed to live to 90, and so far as the expedition could see, as a century ago there were still only two general causes of death on Tristan: accidents and old age.

Inevitably he had deep conversations with Mrs Repetto. ('Her house is a model.') 'In the main,' he reported, 'she was convinced that life on Tristan was happier than out in the world. Here every man was his own master, there was no money and no working for an employer to gain a livelihood.'

Like everyone else, he accepted her sibylline wisdom without thinking the less of it because she had never been in the Outside World to make comparisons.

Mr Crawford echoed her sentiments, writing that he could understand the return of so many Tristanians who had emigrated to the Cape in the Bad Times. 'However hard their struggle, there is a fascination about the island and a spirit of unity which holds every islander in thrall.'

The hazard of possible inbreeding among the Tristan population has been discussed for generations. Peter Munch, in his sociological study for the Norwegian expedition, reported that of fifty‑one marriages between 1875 and 1938, sixteen were cousin marriages. But he could find no adverse effects. (Until recent years other investigators expressed  p219 the opinion that the population was large enough to avoid any such danger.)

Munch found the fertility higher than the average — obvious enough, with the traditional large families — but said that it might have diminished gradually. The frequency of marriage was 100 per cent for women. During his stay there was no unmarried woman over the age of 25. There was one known case of incest.

He described the 180 Tristanians as a 'new' race. On the whole they gave (and still give) 'a remarkably heterogeneous impression', though some are light and European in appearance while others are dark with 'coloured' features. (In most, to this day, there is still what one can only describe as a 'Tristan look'.)

He rated the islanders as of average rural intelligence. Like most groups, they varied from bright to dull; there was one idiot. Only fifty per cent of the adult women and thirty per cent of the adult men could read and write at the time. He considered this a poor showing since there had been so many missionaries in the 1920's and 1930's. Most of the correspondence was still done by women, who were more proficient than the men. He pronounced the people 'a bit lazy but anxious for "larnin".' Most were quick to catch on and to familiarize themselves with new things. Some of the men soon got the knack of handling a motor for the first time.

This adaptability might seem to contradict the deep conservatism — which, indeed, is still a chief clue to the community's character and its preference for the limited opportunities of the island. For instance, the men and boys persisted in wearing their long white woollen stockings outside their trousers, even at the 'dawnces'.

'Variations,' wrote Mr Munch, 'are small and slow.' He pointed out that the old photographs showed very few differences since Father Barrow's arrival in 1906. Only the coiffure had altered noticeably — the older women wearing a knot on top of the head and the under-thirty a knot at the banquet (though since the war, many girls have cut their hair). In Father Rogers' time, 1923, the photographs still showed a fringe as in the 1880's.

The islanders' dress has often been described as 'quaint'. The women have always liked to make their own costumes from a piece of print. Munch noticed that many 'nice' garments, sent by foreign donors, were used as working clothes or cut up and re‑made in island style. Some were actually discarded because of their new fashion.

Another permanent feature has been the fact that out of doors,  p220 except in the warmest weather, hardly any male appeared without a cap, or any female without either a 'hangcher' or a 'kappie' on her head, to protect the hair and skin from the weather-beating winds.

Rags were to be seen only on the poorest. The women washed every Monday at the Waterin's, and mended the family clothing with variegated patches.

Though the islanders liked to call themselves 'farmers', Mr Munch believed that their conservatism in agriculture and cattle breeding was 'only partly ignorance'. They liked to do as their fathers and grandfathers had done. There were then between 300 and 400 patches of potatoes, and when a piece of ground was depleted it was left to grow with grass or weeds for many years. In cattle-breeding nature was left largely to take its course.

Whatever the capacity of the Tristan men in farming, there is no question as to their extraordinary skill as boatmen, with their telepathy in motion on the water, and their pride in building and owning their skimpy craft. Possibly the gift has been a matter of survival and necessity; you could not be merely an ordinary boatman in those crashing seas. Yet it seemed strange that they parked their precious boats for the winter only in the shelter of the cliff, without troubling to erect even a roof to protect them from the weather.

While the Norwegians were on the island, a dead whale was found ashore on Stony Beach. Its blubber would have provided much more and better oil for the tiny tin‑can lamps, but the islanders declined to bother with it. They preferred to take the oil from the comparatively few remaining 'pinnamins', or penguins, because it was easier and customary.

The scientists were puzzled by the fact that, though the Tristan diet was below standard, the people remained hardy. Even normally there was often only a soft diet of fish and taties three times a day, and sometimes the men worked all day without food. During the year of the expedition there was another failure of the potato crop. One of the islanders told Mr Munch that his family of eight needed two hundred bushels for the winter, but added with a smile, 'this year I'll have about eighty.'

Very few complained about the hard life. 'We's used to it,' continued to be the refrain.

The sociologist noted, however, an occasional extravagance for some special feast, or when there was a seasonal abundance. This seemed to explain the careless wasting of such resources as the birds and their  p221 eggs, and in the failure to ration the supplies from the rare ships. The islanders believed in enjoying bounty while it lasted. They took few, if any, precautions for 'tomorrow', and often they even threw away things which spoiled because they had seized more than was necessary. Mr Munch pointed out that this attitude of 'eat, drink and be merry' was 'characteristic of all peoples who live from hand to mouth, but with seasonal plenty'.

In contrast to the early weakness for tippling in the days of sail, the Norwegians found that alcohol was not used on the island. Generally the men even refused a drink which might be offered them when they boarded a ship.

Some few of the poorer people, according to Mr Munch, 'prefer begging to work'. They were dirty and tattered, and their ill‑furnished houses became even more bare in the Bad Times, when they pulled down what wood they had, to trade for the potato and firewood which they had been too lazy to provide. Mrs Repetto and other respectable souls were intensely opposed to any socialistic care of the unworthy, though they helped the children.

There were 'a few toadies, mostly among the poorer'. Some even begged. They fawned and whined to the missionary to cadge supplies. However, added Munch, 'even the well-to‑do are flunkies for the missionary . . . a power in the community'.

For the most part, the islanders' economy was based on mutual gifts and voluntary service. Any offer of direct payment for presents or favours offended them, unless a bargain had been pre‑arranged. 'Personal freedom and independence are highly appreciated by them,' he wrote, 'and they have a strong dislike, therefore, of selling their working power or their service for pay in any form.'

The worth of groceries and clothing were estimated in terms of the foreigners' abundance against their own lack. They therefore considered their offers to barter some crude little souvenir 'not as begging, but as fair trade'.​a

The people had 'the most preposterous ideas' about the Outside World. Their attitude to foreigners was an odd mingling of deference and self-respect. They were a little touchy about being looked down upon by Europeans since they lived partly by gifts from abroad. They had a strong sense of cultural inferiority, feeling that they could not compete. This was 'one of the main reasons', Mr Munch added prophetically, 'why they always refused to leave the island.'

They could be merry when one got to know them; the men played  p222 and joked and sang and capered when they worked in gangs — 'cheerful, like big children'. Yet they were sensitive, and easily moved to tears of emotion in sorrow or joy. They showed a slight haughtiness when they were hurt. Many of the men, like the women, wept and kissed the members when the expedition left.

A fist-fight had not been seen in living memory, and quarrels were few and deplored. In his four months on the island Munch saw an outburst of temper only twice. It was quickly regretted, and depressed the others. A loss of temper was a loss of face. 'Not speaking' did not last long and was rare enough to be remembered for years. The people responded quickly if a dispute could be laughed away. They believed in being kind and helpful to each other as to foreigners.

Two men were inclined to beat their wives, but the practice was rare.

Shortly before the expedition arrived, there had been an outbreak of recurrent cases of 'violent hysteria with convulsions', especially among the women. The notion was introduced in 1937 by a girl of 21 who fainted and had fits at a dance; the practice was copied and spread fast. In September and October sixteen women of different ages and a boy of ten all had 'swooning spells', 'fighting spells', or 'sleeping spells' in which they were unconscious. The fits took place preferably at large gatherings. Some of the women also claimed to have religious visions.

For a few months the neurotic vogue seemed to fade, but early in 1938 it revived. Even some of the young boys went in for having spasms. The sociologist diagnosed this as 'a kind of revolution against group pressure', provoked by repressed emotions. At least in the early stages the fits lent prestige by surrounding the victim with interest and curiosity.

'A 'very intelligent' girl told Mr Munch that her seizure was caused by a quarrel between her brother and her boy friend, whom the former tried to stop from coming to court her in the evenings. Two or three cases were caused by jealousy, several by 'strong temper', and one or two by rows between husband and wife.

Mr Munch remarked that this fashion for hysteria was not common to Tristan alone, but had been observed in similar isolated communities. There had been an outbreak on Pitcairn Island in the 1880's, and similar patterns had been reported among the Eskimos off the east coast of Greenland, and on Andaman Island.

'Sexual difficulties, and an unsatisfactory sexual life co‑operate in some cases,' added Mr Munch. 'This is also a difficult question in this narrow and transparent community.'

The Author's Note:

1 The volume called The Sociology of Tristan da Cunha, by Mr Peter A. Munch, is highly relevant to this story. A more 'popular' book about the expedition, I Went to Tristan, was written by Mr Allan B. Crawford, FRGS, the surveyor in the party and its only English member. He was destined to serve the island again in its naval station in World War II; and later as Honorary Welfare Officer in Cape Town.

Thayer's Note:

a At which point your transcriber wonders how many pounds of flour I would pay for a hand-woven mat of rockhopper penguin feathers from Tristan da Cunha. Given an ideal free market, i.e., one to which there was universal access, the islanders were probably right. With the Internet, we're starting to approach such an ideal free market: for example, today's prices for sweaters made of local wool, hand-knitted on Tristan, seem reasonable to me.

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