Short URL for this page:
Abruptly at the end of September the two nearest cliffs began to give way: the one towering directly behind the settlement, and the other straight above the lobster plant on Big Beach. Both had a facing of loose stones and rubble. Now, with an explosive echo, rocks fell away p242 from the precipices and thundered to the base. The effect was not unlike blasting in a quarry. Bleating sheep fled for their lives, a tail's-breadth from death. Close to the settlement a cow was killed by a boulder, while clouds of dust hovered hundreds of feet in the air. Peering faces and anxious chatter filled the cottage doorways.
The sliding avalanche cut the waterpipe which fed the factory from the mountain spring at the farther end of Big Beach. To keep the plant going, the men hastily built a pipeline from the main village water supply. But day by day the rocks began to topple on to the concrete shield over the spring.
Each time an earth tremor shook the plateau, more rocks tumbled down. It was hard to believe the sanguine experts abroad. The Tristania and the Frances Repetto were away lobster-fishing. Government and cannery officials were getting seriously worried about 'the bombardment of stones', though the settlers were used to being stoical about their harsh bullying by nature.
Again, with Job‑like repetition, it was a Sunday during evensong when the next crisis occurred: October 8. While the rockfalls clattered down, many residents in the eastern half of the settlement discovered that some vast weird hand seemed to have moved their cottages. The doors and windows stuck: they could no longer open and shut them. Sinister cracks were scribbled along the stone walls of the houses, and snaked across the hard-trodden yards and paths.
Then, in the dark cold evening, there began one of those telepathic mass movements which earlier observers had noticed in times of less melodrama. No order had been given, no word passed around. Hearth fires were banked up, bags packed. More or less at the same time, moving torches began to flicker here and there among the houses. Like small flocks of migrating night-birds, the families from the east side carried their babies and bundles towards the west. There was an eerie and fateful quiet about the procession. Silhouettes wavered, with a muffled cadence of voices. They were moving into the homes of relations in the western half, where the frightening cracks had not appeared. They bedded down for the night in blankets on the floor, or sat uncomfortably in chairs or on chests.
To the children, when they told of it later, the experience was still an exciting adventure — like camping out. Even the grown‑ups had not yet grasped what it might mean.
The next morning some of the people went gingerly back to look at their empty houses. Uncannily, the doors and windows could now p243 be easily opened and closed. Strangest of all, many of the cracks in the ground had disappeared.
Meanwhile an avalanche had toppled down upon the concrete installation protecting the spring from which the water was piped. Now the village was back where it had been until a few years before, dependent on dipping buckets into the Waterin's again.
By afternoon fresh cracks and fissures streaked the slope about 200 yards beyond the most easterly cottage. At a spot behind the lighthouse and only •about a quarter of a mile from the centre of the village, Mr Wheeler and his companions saw something incredible. One of the cracks was flanked by level ground on the one side, but on the other the earth had been pushed up precipitously more than •ten feet. On the top edge there teetered and quivered a boulder 'as big as a piano'. The invisible pressure which suspended this balanced rock was like a giant's conjuring trick. Obviously some force far greater than another 'tremor' must be seething underneath.
Willie Repetto recalled afterwards that the upheaval had begun as a stirring in the earth 'like a plough moving the stones and rocks'.
The Administrator hurried back through the Settlement and banged the old naval shell-case which commonly served as a gong to summon the men to fishing or other pursuits. Its echoing clang drew the men of the village and station to an emergency meeting in Prince Philip Hall. Quietly, without delay, Mr Wheeler discussed plans for possible evacuation. The men went home to tell the women to pack warm clothing and blankets.
Then the Administrator sent a radio signal to the Cape, informing the Royal Naval Headquarters that the earth was cracking, and asking for help.
Immediately the frigate HMS Leopard was stocked with relief supplies and despatched at full speed from Simonstown. She carried enough provisions to feed the Tristanians for ten days, if necessary. But she could not be expected to reach the island for several days.
Anxious eyes kept watch on the strange swelling on the slope. It had been gradually rounding into what was described as a 'bubble' of rock and rubble, •about fifty feet wide and ten feet high. It was growing by some •five feet per hour.
'For a few hours,' remembered Sidney (pronounced 'Sindey') Glass, 'it was pretty terrifying. First they was great rumbles. Then rocks started falling.'
The Englishmen could not help wondering whether the whole island might blow up, as Krakatoa had done in the East Indies in 1883. There was, of course, the possible threat of a tidal wave also.
By a lucky chance the Tristania had arrived off shore the same morning, in time for Captain Scott to watch the diabolical anthill through his binoculars. There had been some discussion, in the late afternoon, of embarking the community, but the little ship of 628 tons was not big enough to hold a whole village. (The population was now 289, of whom 264 were islanders.) A radio SOS started the Frances Repetto on her way back from fishing off Inaccessible.
The alternative — if uncertain — refuge was the Potato Patches, where there were a few crude huts. As twilight dipped down over the slit of land between the throbbing mountain and the ocean, the dispirited little family groups started trudging along the •two‑mile track to the Patches. Men 'backed' rucksacks, women carried heavy babies, dogs pattered at their heels. The night fell very black and cold. It was almost freezing, uncommon on lower Tristan.
The two tents were erected for the old and ill. With Tristanian ruggedness, a young mother took her chance among the rest with a new‑born baby girl, tiny Margaret Sylvia Green. The oldest inhabitant was Grannie Jane Lavarello, aged 85, widow of the sunny little Italian castaway. The women and children squeezed into the chilly stone sheds. Someone brewed a pot of the inevitable 'drink'. It was the first time most of the people had ever slept outside their own homes. Many had to sit up all night.
The men huddled in the ditches or behind the rat‑scuffling stone walls, trying to find a barrier from the bitter wind off the sea. The only solace was the lights of the two fishing vessels rocking at anchor.
But despite their discomforts, the hardy refugees — foreigners and all — slept so soundly that they were not even roused when the ships fired rockets to attract their attention, and sparked insistently on the wireless. Then at 5 A.M. someone came and shook Mr Wheeler as he lay among his family under an old mailbag in a ditch. Captain Scott was on the radio.
He announced quietly that at about two o'clock the bubble had 'blown its top'. It was tossing up a mass of rock and hot cinders. There was smoke, but from a distance, no noise.
Throughout the emergency the Tristania's radio sent bulletins to the p245 Royal Navy's Headquarters at the Cape and to the approaching HMS Leopard. The news was flashed to the Press in South Africa and Britain and around the world. The fly‑speck island made big black headlines.
In the delayed dawn on the west side of the mountain, the women and children waited in the sharp sea wind while the menfolk reconnoitred. The men went back along the rutted lane into Hottentot Gulch — scene of such disastrous cloudbursts — and up the opposite rise which looked down on the Settlement. On the far side they could see their enemy; the new cone was flinging up a pale mass of writhing smoke.
Fatalistically they slogged down into the helpless cluster of deserted cabins in the Settlement. It seemed like a ghost village already. There was that premonition of an uninhabited island — a sinister power of stillness which earlier observers had noted not only on the other islands but in the empty parts of Tristan itself.
The fresh eruption above one of the deserted cottages
While some of the men hurried down to Little Beach, most of the party clumped into the silent houses (no Tristan door had ever been locked). Each gathered up a couple of armfuls of clothing and necessities — only as much as he could carry. Then they started plodding back towards the Potato Patches.
'Watching lava flow,' radioed Captain Scott to Headquarters. 'Cone seems to be getting brighter and lava seems to be flowing.'
At about nine o'clock he announced the start of the attempts at evacuation. 'Volcano pushed up •150 feet of lava. Flowing freely and smoking. No actual things flying out. Now trying to get longboats off shore and going down to pick up whole crowd. Hope squeeze whole population on both Repetto and Tristania.'
There was obviously not enough space for the community to live on the two small foreign vessels. It had been agreed to transfer the people to the nearest possible bit of land: Nightingale.
Meanwhile, on Little Beach, only 200 yards from the growling cone, the boatmen had dragged down four longboats from the shelter of the grassy bank. They waded in and launched them, and made for Boat Harbour Bay. This was the meagre little indentation in the rocky shore below the Potato Patches.
The people were awaiting them at the foot of the cliff. Twice the boatmen tried to land the craft, but the choppy west wind beat them into the whirl of surf and rocks. One boat was almost lost. They had to give up. Doggedly they headed their bows back towards Little Beach.
Chilled, exhausted and hungry, the stranded refugees in turn toiled p246 back along the stony road from the Patches to the Settlement. Little Beach was slightly more sheltered than Boat Harbour Bay. The cannery's tractor-trailer helped to move the limited mélange of rescued possessions down to the water's edge. The two small ships lacked space for more than the bare essentials.
'We heard the rumbles again,' Sidney Glass later told The Times reporter. 'First you'd get a small one, thanº a right one . . . I saw big boulders being thrown out of the volcano. They was shooting out and rolling down the hillside above the Settlement. Red cinders came rolling down after the boulders. I didn't actually see any lava. But there wasn't much time for looking — we was busy looking out for the women and children. Nearly everyone lost something — some nearly everything,' he added.
Back and forth the longboats ferried the women and children, and at length the men with their bundles of salvage, to the Tristania and the Frances Repetto. The people were so crowded that they were almost sitting on each other's laps. But they were quiet and calm.
Only a troop of mongrels, uneasy at such total abandonment, remained to gaze after their owners from the black shingle.
As the two little ships weighed anchor at midday, a big cloud of smoke was spouting up from the island. The passengers could see a second seething bubble starting to erupt in the middle of the swamp behind the easternmost cottage. 'The second eruption,' recalled Willie Repetto, 'seemed worse.'
Passive and dry‑eyed, the Tristanians watched their island diminish over the waves. Each could pick out his own thatched roof becoming in perspective so tiny, so vastly menaced. In part, their apathy was relief at being safe and alive. But William Fred Swain said later that it was because they were all 'too dog‑tired to feel anything'.
Soon afterwards Naval Headquarters at the Cape informed the world Press that there was 'no longer any direct communication with Tristan, which was visibly erupting'.
Looking back over all the adventures and disasters since the founding of the colony, one cannot but wonder what would have happened if the eruption had occurred even as little as twenty years earlier, when there was no radio, no small ship likely to learn of the colonists' plight, much less to evacuate them, for months, even years. Would the people have taken their chance on ferrying by longboat to starve on desolate Nightingale, where the Tristania and the Frances Repetto were moving them now?
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Tristan da Cunha
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 13 Dec 20