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Bill Thayer

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Part V
Chapter 1
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 3

Part Five
Change and Eruption

 p240  2 Earthquakes

In October, 1961, a Tristanian wrote to a friend in England, mentioning simply 'a heavy chaking [sic] which was from the six of August and are still going on yet'.

Mild tremors continued for more than two months. Mr P. J. F. Wheeler, the Administrator, reported by radio to the volcanologists in England. They decided that the shocks came from a minor settling of the earth's surface along a possible fault line. So the villagers and even the station people accepted the 'shaking' as part of the accustomed buffeting of life on the island.

Tristan had in any case been storm-bound since July, in the worst winter since the terrible season of 1906 when Mrs Barrow had counted the corpses of the cattle. The quakes were less uncomfortable than the shivering, the hardships — and, again, the comparative isolation. When the cannery's little ship Tristania finally arrived near mid‑September, no vessel had touched at the island for five gale-swept months.

The Rev. C. J. Jewell, the chaplain, estimated that there must have been several hundred shocks in the two months. Gradually the rumblings increased in tempo and intensity. The South African geologists commented, 'The Central Atlantic Ridge is basaltic rock in which this kind of explosion is unusual.'

The first hint of possible disaster was felt during evensong on Sunday, September 17, according to Administrator Wheeler. 'Suddenly the walls heaved, the floor trembled, and for a sickening second the roof threatened to cave in.' The jolt was the heaviest so far, but it lasted only a moment, and Father Jewell continued with the service.

On Monday morning Dennis Simpson, the Agricultural Officer, with a small scouting party, journeyed in the Tristania over the rough channel to Nightingale, to see if the quakes also affected the nearest neighbour island. The group returned a week later, reporting that not a single shock had interrupted its rolling surf and whining seabirds. Meanwhile, day and night watches were maintained on Tristan. During the first five days Father Jewell noted eighty-nine quakes. A scale of three grades was used in keeping score: a slight shock was A, a somewhat longer and louder one was B, and a really rattling one, C.

Abroad, the volcanologists still disbelieved that the Tristan quakes  p241 were caused by volcanic activity, nor did they see any significance in the absence of tremors on Nightingale. Again the residents felt re‑assured. 'Hearthquakes' were another topic over the eternal knitting needles or the boat-painting of early spring. School children, bright-eyed with awed expectancy, awaited the next shaking over their sums and alphabets.

A group of islanders went down to Stony Beach on the south shore to look after the wild cattle. Dark, stormy weather stranded them for several days. At Stony Beach they felt no tremor at all. But the worst one yet occurred at the Settlement — the first to be graded D. A heavy bump was followed by a long shuddering vibration. The impact knocked clocks from the chimney-pieces and clattered the crockery on the shelves. Mothers clutched their babies: animals recoiled at the unsteady footing.

Now it began to seem indeed that the earthquakes might be confined to the inhabited area. This, in the words of Mr Wheeler, was 'disconcerting because our homes might be threatened, encouraging because somewhere on the island itself we might find a haven'.

Three more parties were sent out to reconnoitre. Several men half froze in a camp above the snow-line, two thousand feet up Plantation Gulch on the north shore beyond Big Beach. Another group waited in a similar snow-line camp on the mountain at the western end of the plain. On comparing the times, it was found that these two parties had felt only a slight tremor — while simultaneously a second shock of D violence occurred both at the third camp, near the Potato Patches, and in the settlement. Clearly, then, the heaviest quakes attacked the small shelf of the mountain where human beings lived and worked.

While they waited helplessly, the inhabitants began to wonder whether their narrow foothold was going to be shaken off into the sea.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20