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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 13
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 V
Chapter 2

Part Five
Change and Eruption

 p233  1 The Post‑War Boom and Another Prince

After the war the meteorological station was taken over by the South African Government, which continued to operate it until the evacuation in 1961, but the naval station was closed. For the first few years it looked as if Tristan might sink into the doldrums of isolation and poverty again, though not quite so deeply as before. There were the few lonely 'Met' people and the missionaries. But ships — contacts — supplies — were scarcer than during the war.

In 1947 occurred a lucky break in the old style, when the Soviet Antarctic whaling fleet called and bartered provisions for livestock and fish.

The next year saw one of Tristan's most ceremonious funerals. The regal Mrs Repetto died in her seventy-third year, though much less long-lived than most of her ancestors and relations. She has never been fully replaced, though her son and daughter, Willie Repetto and Martha Rogers, have remained as spokesmen.

Bearded old Sam Swain died a few years later at a spry 92, disappointed at not equalling the maturity of his pioneer father, who had claimed 102.

The year 1948 brought exciting prospects of that outside link for which the Tristanians had dreamed from the first. The motor-ship Pequena put in with an expedition whose interests, this time, were commercial as well as scientific. It had been organized by five Cape Town firms together with the South African government and the  p234 British Colonial Office. The leader was the Rev. C. D. Lawrence, an Anglican clergyman who had served for two years as chaplain to the Royal Navy unit on Tristan during the war. Having been first a sailor, he had studied the waters carefully. He was accompanied by a team of marine biologists, surveyors, engineers, an agriculturalist, a sociologist, a physician, a cameraman and other technicians. The team found that the high volcanic island made a good lee for fishing. Gough Island, with similar conditions, was included in the enterprise.

The 'crawfish' (crayfish, or spiny lobsters) were so plentiful in season that they could be caught, two at a time, from the rocks with only a hookless line. Breeding in swarms, they were vivid creatures with big fan‑shaped tails which formed the delicacy. Where unlucky Mr Keytel had failed forty years earlier, they were now to make a small fortune for the island via the Tristan Exploration Company (later called the Tristan da Cunha Development Company, Ltd), based in South Africa but taken under Colonial Office patronage. In 1949 a freezing and canning shed, or 'factory', was built — long and low, and painted white against the black sand of Big Beach. A pipeline crossed the beach and brought fresh water from a mountainside spring to the plant and the village. The Development Company kept a small supervisory staff, some with wives and children, on the island.

During the summer fishing season the crayfish were caught in the South African way, by netting from the fourteen-foot dinghies. The catches were hauled aboard a small Diesel-powered, refrigerated ship, the Tristania, 164 feet long. Many of the island men were hired to assist, some working with the ship's crew and others from the beach, using their own canvas boats. A tractor-trailer hauled the cargo up the beach — the only motor vehicle on the island.

The women were employed to work in the freezing and canning plant, where the lobster tails were packed in twenty-pound cases. By the summer of 1954 a year's total of some 27,000 cases was exported. The best customers proved to be the United States — notably the Pacific coast — and France.

The little ships plied back and forth to Cape Town about every six weeks during the half-year, shipping the lobster cargo and returning with the longed‑for supplies.

For the first time the Colonial Office appointed a full-time resident Administrator. Soon there was also a Government doctor, nurse and agriculturalist, also financed from an Administration Fund.

In 1952 the Council became a formally elected body of ten men and  p235 five women, with the Headman and Headwoman, the Administrator, the Resident Chaplain, and two representatives of the Development Company. All Tristanians over the age of 18 were entitled to vote. By 1956 the population was 286, with some sixty cottages, 250 cattle and 750 sheep.

Taxes on Tristan! Revenue for school, medical and agricultural supplies was to be partly raised by a small yearly levy on working men over the age of 18, backed by vastly larger subsidies from Outside.

The new régime enlarged and equipped St Mary's School for children aged five to fifteen. It was still controlled by the SPG (who retained a missionary chaplain on the island) and staffed by two teachers from abroad. The church building was 'stretched' and refurbished, though the old shipwrecked bell of the Mabel Clark continued to summon the parishioners. They were transferred back from the diocese of St Helena to that of Cape Town.

There was a small hospital in the care of the doctor and the nursing sister. Modern sanitation was put into the school. Water was piped to each cottage, and a drainage system installed. There were even flush water-closets.

For the first time in about a century — since the good days of sail — Tristan seemed on the way to becoming self-supporting.

For the first time ever, the people had regular wages. There was cash. Both British and South African currencies were in use. There was even a small savings bank with its roots in South Africa. And — after generations of anxious barter — the Company had set up a non‑profit store at which these wages could be spent. During the first days the inhabitants could not gaze enough. By about 1955 many families had new beds, and even cooking-stoves. Wood was still very scarce, but the people were able to get some coal and peat. Nevertheless the open hearth was still very much in use.

Now everyone sported a pair of store shoes on Sundays and holidays. But the men still preferred their pliable moccasins for clambering on the mountain and the beach. The women bought the printed cloth and festive white muslin which they had always liked, but made up the lengths mostly in the traditional Tristan style, with the perennial head-scarves and still the long white stockings.

For the children the ultimate treat was the ice‑cream, which could be prepared in the cannery refrigerators and served at parties.

Now there was a new round of exclamations in the dental journals.  p236 Tristanians had a more varied and balanced diet. They bought toothbrushes from the store, instead of the rag which they had formerly used. But with the sweets and the canned goods, their 'wonderful' teeth began to decay, and have continued to deteriorate ever since.

Now too the old façade of equality could not be so staunchly maintained. When everyone was struggling along with fish and potatoes, stone and thatch, moccasins and knitting, there was only a difference of degree between 'rich' and 'poor', between thrifty and shiftless. But when there were jobs and money, the store-bought articles shone proud and conspicuous in the cottages of the more enterprising. Snobbery had more visible fetishes than skin-colour and tidiness.

Part-time, when they were not working for the Company, the people kept up their old tasks.

The paternalistic new‑comers waged war on the rats, the caterpillars, even the scourges of summer flies and year-round fleas. Crops, trees, stock and conservation were all improved, though the agriculturalist had an uphill task to persuade the 'farmers' to modify the ways of their grandfathers.

The first Tristan postage stamps were issued on January 1, 1952 — after generations of depending on sea captains as messengers. Twelve denominations of overprinted St Helena stamps were first available. In 1954 there followed fourteen 'pictorials' — real Tristan stamps. The values ranged from a halfpenny to ten shillings. They included such scenes as St Mary's Church, the Potato Patches, the factory on Big Beach, a group of mollymauks, the island of Tristan itself, Nightingale, Inaccessible, and the little flightless rail found only on Inaccessible. In the first year the stamps brought a revenue to the island administration, with a continuing demand from all over the world.​a The agriculturalist was appointed as part-time postmaster.

Though there were money, jobs, merchandise, taxes, and limited modern conveniences on Tristan, there was still no jail, no policeman and no crime.

The Outside families lived in small wooden houses slightly apart from the Settlement. Local women helped to clean, wash and baby‑sit, marvelling at the 'luxurious' furnishings. Times had changed since the years when the islanders had beaten a path to the mission door to beg for the used tea‑leaves. Yet in a way the 'imported' officials were almost as supernumerary as the imported gadgets. It was still public opinion which ruled the little thatched roost on the rock. If anyone lost face of  p237 favour with his fellows, he felt impelled to do something — resourceful, or vengeful, or boastful, or high-handed — to show that he could not be pushed around. He (or she) had to feel important — as it was possible to do among so few, where everyone stood out as an individual.

The mountain had not yet growled a reminder of its historic malevolence, but the sea did. In 1953 there was another shipwreck, the first recorded since 1898.

The victim was the smart aluminium-hulled yacht Coimbra with a crew of three Britons. She had struck heavy seas off the island, and the skipper's brother-in‑law was washed overboard. The others threw him a life-belt, but it missed him and he was swallowed up by a great wave. Captain Redfern was so unnerved by the tragedy — 'and what he was going to tell his sister when he got back to Hengland', as a Tristanian put it — that he fumbled his navigation and ran the yacht aground on the rocks off Big Beach, near the lobster plant.

The captain and Roger, the sailor, were rescued. They managed to save a good part of her stores, which they gave to the villagers, while various useful metal parts of the craft were turned over to the cannery.

With radio communication on the island, the two castaways did not have to scan the horizon for very long before a ship gave them passage. But the rustingº aluminium hull was to remain visible off Big Beach until 1961, when the lava flow buried it.

Up to the time of the volcanic eruption, about five to ten ships a year were calling at Tristan. The only regular vessels were the two Company craft. There were still gaps for months in the winter.

Another expedition visited the island in 1955, but no longer under such primitive conditions as the earlier ones. These were the young scientists of the Cambridge University Expedition to Gough Island. They stayed for six weeks on Tristan, surveying and making recordings of local speech and songs.

The object which struck them as most odd was the radio loud-speaker in the front room of every cottage. However, most listeners seemed more interested in eavesdropping on local radio-telephone  p238 conversions between ships and shore than in hearing broadcasts relayed from the Outside World.

A film projector was soon to be installed in the new Village Hall, for which the island men were preparing the site. It was a prefabricated building sent out from England. Here meetings were held; and a weekly 'bioscope' — the borrowed South African term for cinema; while the men gathered in the evenings to play a new game of billiards. The hall also became the scene of a regular Saturday night dance, when 'all the island' dressed up in their starched white best. But despite radio, gramophone, and foreign residents, most of the dance-steps were still the traditional jigs and twirls.

Romances started at the 'dawnces' as before. Yet nature — more intimately than the sleeping volcano or the unsleeping sea — may have been taking a hand in the living fate of the quasi-hermit community. With so many weddings between cousins or young couples with two or more grandparents in common, from 1952 to 1957 nineteen baby girls were born and only six boys. The infants were, as a matter of course, delivered by bouncing Mary Swain, the island's long-time midwife — herself with twenty‑two grandchildren.

The new prefab social hall was still roofless during the entertainment of a second Duke of Edinburgh in January, 1957, but in his honour the uncompleted building was christened the Prince Philip Club. The event occurred ninety years after the visit of his namesake. It was conveniently remembered that the settlement already bore the name of Edinburgh — seldom though this was used on the island.

With radio contact the second royal visit did not fling the islanders into an unexpected flurry of catching chickens and rounding up bullocks for feasting and barter. For weeks everyone had scrubbed and titivated.

When the royal yacht Britannia had anchored and been boarded by a welcoming committee, the tanned and bearded sailor prince himself took the tiller of a native boat and brought his passengers safely three the notorious surf — to the relief of his hosts. On shore, the men stood awkwardly at attention on the beach. Above the cliff the women, with babes in arms, waited in a colourful flutter of head-scarves.

When His Royal Highness was conducted up the garrison's old rough  p239 road to the Settlement, he beheld something which Tristan had never had before: a flower-decorated arch of welcome. Every cottage garden had been stripped of its summer roses, daisies, marigolds and flax blossoms. All the island donkeys had been banished to the other side, to keep them from munching.

Ceremonies were held in the roofless Prince Philip Club, where HRH presented the village with a new gramophone and records. In the afternoon a soccer team from the Britannia came ashore and played the islanders on the common. They found it rather strange to kick the ball uphill among the boulders and the droppings of the exiled sheep. There were warning cries of 'Mind the precipice!'

In the evening, after fresh primping, all the island returned for a dance. The Royal Marine Band was landed and its instruments conveyed up the cliff road in ox‑carts, with the carters' cries of 'Ho‑ho‑ho!' The genial Prince entered whole-heartedly into the stiff and vigorous hopping of the old island steps.

The Pillow Dawnce was, as always, the climax. To lead off, the Administrator's pretty wife chose the Duke; and in turn he tactfully chose a little girl of the Glass family.

He was quoted as telling his audience, 'You may not have a TV set on Tristan, but you won't get ulcers either.'

Another royal face reappeared — at about the same time.

Arthur Rogers, the kindly and gentle husband of Headwoman Martha, brought back from the Cape the signed portrait of Queen Victoria, which had been presented to Peter Green in the 1890's and taken away by emigrant members of the family after his death. The big gilt frame was hung in the little stone church.

'After all,' as Arthur said, 'the Queen gave it to the island.'

Thayer's Note:

a As with other small territories and countries, postage stamps continue to be a thriving source of income today; see The Tristan da Cunha Post Office website.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20