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The Second World War opened up Tristan, in a sense, with its first colony of resident Outsiders since the garrison of 1816‑17. On October 9, 1942, amid appropriate storm-clouds and mist, a depressed little detachment of Royal Navy men gazed with the despair almost of marooned persons at 'the small huddle of stone cottages with the wisps of smoke' in the rain, and listened to 'the muffled mourning of the surf beneath the cliffs.' They were to be exiled for a year on what was notoriously the loneliest inhabited island in the world, to maintain wireless communication with the Cape for the benefit of Allied ships and aircraft.
The meteorological and radio station was commissioned as HMS Atlantic Isle. A Navy surgeon-lieutenant-commander was in charge, accompanied by his wife and child. There was also a naval chaplain and a nursing sister. (These formed the 'quarter-deck society'.) The station personnel included four Navy men, nine wireless operators, a cook, and a stoker for the dynamo which was to keep up the local phenomenon of radio power and even of electric light for a short time in the evening. The meteorological station was manned by a sergeant and two corporals of the South African Air Force. The former was the able Allan Crawford, surveyor in the Norwegian Scientific Expedition.
The newcomers had been preceded by a temporary party, the 'Springboks', a detachment of engineers of the South African Defense Force, who had constructed the station. They had built the radio hut on desolate, windy Herald Point, and the wooden quarters on the western edge of the Settlement. There were tiny houses for the officers, while a long 'prefab' bunkhouse, with mess and recreation room, was the so‑called Single Men's Quarters.
Here, monotonously cooped up together for more than a year — 'always the same faces around the table' — lived the nine young wireless operators whose average age was about twenty. One was Mr D. M. Booy, who later wrote Rock of Exile, a charming, sensitive book about his fourteen months on Tristan. He has given the 'feel' more than any writer since the marooned Augustus Earle in the 1820's. ('About us the thirty-five thatched roofs glistened with raindrops and the wet grass p224 was a dark green . . . A strange sea‑smell odour clung to everything on the island, faint but unwholesome . . . The people lived their lives with their backs to the mountain and their faces to the sea. . . .')
To the glum, homesick young ratings, Tristan at first seemed a dead end. They looked at the taciturn settlers — polite but stiff, shy and strained. Some of the kerchiefed girls, peeping from a distance, ran and fled with a flicker of white skirts at their approach. The husky Tristan men seemed 'timid', 'furtive', 'almost secret', though they whizzed up the steep slopes with far more gear than the sailors could carry. ('The islanders climbed quickly, silently, on moccasined feet, at a slack-kneed pace.')
It was the elders who were brave enough to start making friends. 'The old men,' wrote Booy, 'are more individual than the younger and certainly better talkers.'
Gaunt, grizzled old Bob Glass came stumping up to the quarters with his stick, his worn sailor's jacket resplendent with his Boer War ribbons. He boasted of his prowess in the 'Houtside Warl’' and his faded schemes for 'industries' on Tristan.
He benevolently arranged for his solid if rather browbeaten wife, Charlotte ('Shawlett'), to adopt the young operators as her 'washmen' — i.e. to wash their clothes. The beneficiaries wondered delicately how they were to reimburse her, without cash in circulation. But like others before them, they soon found that the islanders in return asked innumerable small favours from the quarters canteen, in the expected see‑saw of giving and receiving.
Alas, old Bob Glass was to die while the detachment was on the island. He was solemnly buried in the second little stone-walled, wind-swept cemetery to which the slowly increasing graves had spread — 'neglected among the tall flax gardens . . . the dry stalks rustling . . . odd, stiff and unreal'.
Charlotte Glass's father, Old Sam Swain, remained at 86 the oldest inhabitant — the last offspring of the St Helenian women. He was 'an imperial figure' with a dark-brown face and a full white beard. He was still lively and could hop across a Waterin'. With hearty laugh, strong white teeth and bellowing voice, he would sit enthroned in a straight chair in 'a home as crude and disorderly as that of Mrs Repetto was impeccable'. Now and then he thumped his stick on the floor to command service from his daughter, son-in‑law or grandchildren. He still knew many of the old dying arts and crafts, like the making of rope sandals for indoor wear, or of matches from slips of wood dipped p225 in an outcropping of sulphur. ('They works foine — if you've got a light.')
Bob Glass's younger brother was Big John Glass. 'Big' or 'Little' meant someone older or younger than a namesake. It happened that Big John Glass really was big as well as senior — being nearly seventy. When he was younger, he was said to have been able to break a bullock's neck in his huge hands. He was dignified, but a great joker.
There was dear little old Gaetano Lavarello, known as 'Gaeta' or 'Uncle', heading a family now three generations in the village. He was a sweet, gay little man with a very large head with silvery hair that curled between his floppy broad-brimmed hat and his big white moustache. In the evenings he yarned to the operators about his seafaring days. But though he waved the boats back to shore he had kept his vow of never again setting foot in any craft. 'Because I was a‑tired of a‑being a‑shipwrecked,' he explained to Booy.
Henry Green had long since lost the excellent tidy wife who had been a favourite of Mrs Barrow. He lived alone in a cottage under the mountain. His darkish, wizened face was covered with a wig‑like crop of white woolly hair. At 78 he was quiet, active, and still pulled his weight in the boats. Though he had never been farther than Gough, he was the local authority on 'wracks'. He loved to tell tales of them to the young naval men beside the evening fire, sometimes breaking into 'a long, quavering solo — usually a song of shipwreck'.
His sister, Mrs Repetto, was of course the object of one of the servicemen's first calls, as a duty to a queen. They admired her shipshape house with its neat wooden walls, its deck-board floors, the brightly painted sea‑chests salvaged for use as seats, and over the fireplace the old name-board of the Mabel Clark. She was then aged 67 — 'stern-looking, with a brown, lined face, angular and masculine but shrewdly intelligent, her scanty hair drawn back in a severe bun'. They had heard much of her authority, and of her handed-down skill in home remedies and midwifery, so necessary in a place where there was seldom a doctor.
Derek Booy was disappointed to find very little so‑called folk-lore and indigenous creative 'culture'. There were, for instance, no native Tristan folk-songs or poetry or legends, few local cures, not even many unique superstitions. Some of the women claimed to have premonitory second sight, and the continuing habit of fainting fits among the adolescent girls was taken to be a psychic seizure. Young Louie p226 Swain, who worked in the naval canteen, said that he was prone to hear voices and thunder before some important happening, and when he dreamed of dogs on the church roof a disaster impended.
Booy attributed the thinness of lore to the fact that the people were materialists, with 'little room for the spirit or the imagination'.
The youthful service‑men began to wonder how they would ever make friends among the bashful younger people. The fulfilment began with the dance which was held in their honour in the village hall — initiating them into such solemn but strenuous gyrations as the fiddled 'Donkey Dawnce', 'Heel and Toe Polka' and 'Pillow Dawnce'. Mr Booy even acquired an island girl-friend — vivacious, buxom, dark-eyed 'Our Hem'ly', or Emily — though the Tristanians were embarrassed when he dwelt upon the friendship in his book. She had blushed when he first came upon her singing the spinning song at the tall while outside her cottage, and her mother invited him in. (Later she was to beg a measure of cord from him for this primitive apparatus — which was preferred with Tristan conservatism to the unused sewing machines. She asked for the gift not by feet or yards, but by the island's typically nautical term of 'fathoms'.)
He fell into the habit of sitting at her hearth in the evenings like the island swains, smoking a pipe with her father. He joined the family party for the customary festivities and excursions. The decorous Hem'ly, however, would hardly even speak to him, much less walk beside him if they met in the network of village paths, because of the eternal gossip. Faces glimmered continually at every window or over every wall. 'But so pervasive was the desire for respect,' he explained, 'that scandal rarely had a chance . . . Discretion was the highest virtue, and it was needed.'
Seemly morality appeared to be the island religion, rather than devout piety. 'Custom,' he wrote, 'was the ultimate court of appeal.' Standards replaced laws, written or oral. Public opinion, focussed as under a burning-glass, dominated everyone's conduct. 'In a sense,' he said, 'many of the islanders were amoral, but their behaviour accorded with the highest morality. Honesty was the common policy because deception was hard to conceal. Promiscuity was rare for the same reason. There was no vice and no perversion . . . In questions of conduct the individual succumbed to general opinion.'
Oddly the island youths did not seem to be jealous of the young operators' visits to their girl-friends in the evenings; they felt complimented.
p227 Sometimes, Booy recalled, 'the nights were so black that we could not see the houses'. They had to grope along, stumbling and even tumbling. For if anyone showed a light at night he was likely to be attacked by outraged bullocks.
They had, too, to be careful not to fall over some unseen donkey sleeping across the path in the dark — or indeed to be kicked if they got in its way in the daylight. (Booy was derided by Our Hem'ly's two little brothers when he referred to their brushwood-laden beast as a donkey: one should specify 'jack' or 'jenny'.) Not only did the living donkeys wander in and out of the usually gateless yards. The bones and the long, grotesque skulls of the dead ones leered unnervingly in gulches and grassy hollows on the plateau and the mountainside — among the bones of generations of other Tristan animals.
Booy noticed the toughness of the islanders towards animal life — like that of most people in oriental or other countries where human life is also hard. Once, above the rocky beach, he puzzled a group of urchins when he tried to stop them from stoning a penguin to death for their amusement.
Fathers were strict, sometimes harsh with their children — 'but it was no more cruelty than the beating of dogs and donkeys'. With it there was often 'a rough affection . . . with laughter . . . and more humour than we had at first supposed'. The boys raced on the common, scrambled about the rocks, threw pebbles, and bathed in the summer in the tidal pools sheltered from the sharks by once-tragic Julia Reef. There was less to do among the girls, who seemed early to have become like miniature women. They had no dolls or other toys.
The men at the station were occasionally baffled by the Tristanian speech. When the islanders addressed them it was intelligible enough; but sometimes when they overheard the people jabbering to each other they could not comprehend a word. Apparently there was some sort of patois which had evolved side by side with the known 'Tristan accent'.
Also — apart from the uncanny telepathy of the boatmen — a further kind of group understanding existed among the villagers. Even when a cottage gathering seemed to be moving along with lively chatter, all the company might suddenly rise and leave without apparent reason or signal, like a flock of birds.
The surgeon-commander and the chaplain had promptly extended p228 their duties to the welfare of the inhabitants. But unlike the missionaries their first tasks had to be the wartime needs of the station. The chaplain evidently had a challenging role. It was not easy for the flock to realize that the naval chaplain was not available with his full time, attention — and stores — for their benefit, like his civilian predecessors. He held regular church services for everyone, and a Sunday School. The diarist has described the wonder on the faces of grown‑ups and children alike at his little improvised crib or crèche at Christmas — only cardboard figures in a wooden box, but enchanting to people who had never seen a theatre or a show of any kind. He organized a school, in which Mr Booy and several others of the station personnel served as volunteer teachers. ('Is Hengland Beach as Big Beach?' somebody asked doubtfully.)
The naval doctor not only looked after Tristan patients but, as commanding officer, got the island men to do some work first for the station and then for the village — notably improving the latter's sanitary conditions. Obviously he paid them for their labour for the Navy. But even when they were working entirely for their own people's good, they naïvely expected to be paid also. The service‑men, like the missionaries and the sea captains, were irked by this weakness of any communal will. Since the local men were all 'equal' and no one was empowered to lead them, they would not exercise themselves on their own behalf unless the Commander took the responsibility. 'Some authority,' prophesied Mr Booy, 'would have to be found after the war.'
He also observed, more truly than he could know, that 'the houses would be tumbledown in a year if they were not cared for'.
With the station in its midst Tristan was far less isolated during the Second World War than in the First. Always there was the throbbing of the wireless hut on Herald Point, spanning the •fifteen hundred miles to the naval headquarters at the Cape. When the operators had completed their official communication they were allowed to pick up a little news from their opposite numbers on the mainland. They even put out a small news sheet with world bulletins and local notes, though many of the Tristanians — including the dark-eyed Hem'ly — had little interest in foreign events.
The men at the station often wondered what they would do if a German submarine turned up, since there were many off the African coast; but none appeared. During the windy weeks of winter, several storm-damaged ships anchored for repairs. Once a vessel's life-raft was p229 washed ashore, and there was grim speculation about the fate of its passengers.
'The wind,' wrote Mr Booy, 'was our worst enemy.' And yet he said, 'The islanders are happy when the wind blows, like stormy petrels.'
Usually he was aware, like every conscious observer, of two sounds on Tristan: the wind and the sea. The wind did not blow steadily, but 'in bursts and salvoes'. Sometimes on the plain the air was thick with dust and litter from the thatched roofs. Once in early May an easterly gale shattered a boat and gnawed away the lower part of Little Beach Road. For four days the sea was 'a mass of churning white', and at night 'the island seemed to quiver and groan like a ship in a storm'. There were rare nights when the wind fell. Then one could feel the 'iron chill of the pack‑ice creeping slowly north from the Antarctic'. In the morning snow could be seen on the Peak; the children were curious about it.
Bleached by the winter, the Settlement looked 'so low, so grey' that the thatch and the grass, the cottages and the rocks, all seemed the same grey. The slope was littered with loose red stone and rubble, here and there darkening to purple. There were days of 'sun‑shot mist' when the village was almost invisible.
Spring, like autumn, was squally, with the 'feather-white willies' dreaded by the old sailing ships; but sometimes there was a rainbow after the downpour. The water drained in scenic cascades over the whole mountain, while the Waterin's 'bubbled brimful to the cliff edge'.
The warm weather came at last, 'buzzing with flies', and the sharp sunshine was a welcome relief. The children picked crowberries for tarts. On Big Beach, with the 'beat and growl of the surf', the dune of black sand was hot underfoot, 'ribbed by the tide and sparkling with grit'. The women sunned themselves on the stone wall at wool-carding parties. The tall spinning-wheels rumbled on the floors of the cottages, through whose open doorways one could see a dim interior as in a Flemish painting, with the figures sitting on chests and boxes (there were few chairs), and the kettle boiling on the grid.
On Christmas afternoon the wireless station gave a party for the children. There were sweets and treats. The guests were shy at the games, but as the accordionist started to play the old jig‑tunes for p230 dancing, every little girl and boy stood up eagerly in pairs, even the smallest.
In the evening there was a 'dawnce' for the grown‑ups in the same recreation room. It was hot. The white-clad, moccasined couples swirled in the muggy blur. As each dance ended in sudden silence after two hard stamps, 'the men laughed shakily between gasps and the women retired to wipe their shining faces with their kerchiefs.'
Mr Booy noted another calm, warm summer evening when the whole land-and‑seascape lay deep blue in the starlight. The tiny village was engulfed in the darkness at the foot of the immense mountain. There was the bleat of an old sheep, and the sound of the silver surf beyond the cliffs. Once, when he returned at night from an excursion in the boats, 'the phosphorescence ran like silver fire on the dark water'.
At last, after nearly fourteen months, a small grey smudge of a ship enlarged on the horizon, bringing the detachment's relief, and another group of dispirited young exiles in navy blue came plodding ashore with their kit, eventually to take their place at the firesides and the 'dawnces'. In later years the only reminder of those wartime months was a rare, scrawling, childish handwriting on an envelope turning up in England, and Press photographs showing the characteristic Tristan faces when the island was in the world news. But since the original draft at the station made 'the first impact on island life', the Tristan community has never again been left entirely alone without companions from the Outside World.
And what was the gist, the grist, of those fourteen months on the rock?
'Gradually,' Mr Booy had mused during the summer, 'there was a sense of peace and dignity and a still, quiet beauty.' And yet he wrote later, 'There was a strange inimical silence everywhere away from the actual Settlement.'
Above all the people were optimists — 'for all their dour countenances. Faced with a howling gale, they called it "a good blow". Caught in a downpour of rain, they described the weather as "showery".' The great danger of their contentment seemed to be its tendency towards improvidence. Since they wasted and neglected their natural resources, many of their hardships were due to this fecklessness about the future. 'The people were fatalists, hoping for the best but inured to the worst . . . All these conditions were tolerable because they were familiar: the only thing hard to bear was change . . .
p231 'Living in isolation, they knew no competition. Everything on the island belonged to them; they had no neighbouring community to challenge them and therefore no motive for aiming at high standards. Conservatism was the island disease . . . They did not like to make a change.'
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Tristan da Cunha
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