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Bill Thayer

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Part V
Chapter 3
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 5

Part Five
Change and Eruption

 p247  4 Evacuation

'Tristan luck', terrible though it was, perversely relented a little. There were two favourable chances. After all the generations which had waited in vain for vessels, this time by an extraordinary coincidence a Dutch liner, the Royal Interocean Tjisadane,​a had been due to touch at Tristan the next day. Bound from South America to Cape Town, she was to take aboard several members of the station personnel who were returning home after two years' contract. (They included the British Government nursing sisters and one of the managers of the South African cannery staff with his wife and daughter.)

The Tjisadane, forewarned by wireless, now altered course and was making for Nightingale instead. The captain had agreed to transport as many refugees as possible to the Cape. The rest would be picked up by the Leopard on Friday.

The other lucky coincidence was the weather. After five months of stormy seas, on the actual day of evacuation there was 'only' a heavy swell. Not only could the whole colony be rowed through the kelp to board the two foreign vessels without mishap, but in turn the small boats were able to set them ashore on Nightingale. One remembers how often seamen had been unable to land at all on the craggy, castle-shaped little island. This afternoon, October 10, was one of the days when the boats could slip in past the rocks, so that the men, women and children could hop ashore on to the shelf which more often was wildly awash.

A number of the British and South African evacuees remained aboard ship for the night. Their slight extra comfort was not begrudged by the Tristanians, who drew upon their familiar philosophy toward hardships, 'We's used to it.'

'There was no grumbling or pessimism,' recalled Father Jewell.

Again, as the Dutch mate had found in the seventeenth century, the myriad squawking seabirds rose 'like snowflakes' as by far the largest party ever to disturb them flocked disconsolately ashore among the harsh rocks and the greedy tussock.

In recent years some rude shacks had been erected as shelters for the men collecting birds, eggs and guano. Like castaways, the Tristanians  p248 lit their campfires and prepared to spend the night in the huts and the bird-haunted caves.

For the children this was Travel indeed. Some of the boys had previously been to Nightingale with their fathers on the foraging expeditions. And some of the older children soon were sent along the nearer shore to help collect driftwood — followed by shrill warnings about the sharks which lurked notoriously beyond the rocky pools.

One of the great drawbacks was still the 'Nightingale beer' — the guano-polluted water. There were only a couple of ponds high on the 1,105-foot mountain where it was untainted. Food, too, would have been a worry if the Tjisadane were not on its way. But this knowledge, plus their usual fortitude, cheered the weary groups clustered in lighted circles of weatherbeaten faces and kerchiefed heads around the salt-blue fire.

The luck — the weather — held. The next morning, October 11, after the noisy birds had gone flapping in their thousands off to sea, the smudge and dot of the Tjisadane was sighted on the horizon. Soon it took shape and anchored; a real ocean liner, on which many of the islanders had never dreamed of setting foot. Again, with the almost biblical miracle of continuing mild seas, the people were able to hop from the quay-like rock into the small boats and to be ferried out to clamber up the swaying ladder to the deck.

The Dutch captain, his crew and passengers — fascinated by this exciting detour — were all pronounced 'wery kind'.

Mr Wheeler saw off his wife and three children (including a 3‑year‑old, buoyantly unafraid throughout) and then remained behind with a small party. He was staying on board the Tristania, to keep an eye on Tristan and to reconnoitre, if possible, while awaiting the arrival of the Leopard.

Inevitably the evacuees were overcrowded in the Dutch liner, but after all, they were not used to much comfort or privacy. Blinking with awe, they settled down — and often got lost — in the bewildering network of tidy cabins, passageways, modern lounges, dining-saloons and washrooms. The children, first timid and bashful, were shortly skipping around the well-scrubbed decks.

Everyone was crowding the starboard rails as the tall bulk of Tristan loomed nearer under a clear sky. Soon, poignantly familiar, the plateau edged abreast. First there were the ancient dead cones ('The Pyramids,' the Rev. Rogers had called them) marking the Potato Patches. A few grazing animals looked tiny as insects in the distance.  p249 Then came the deserted toy village. The eruption was glowering more than ever above it. Two new cones had arisen, one of which had merged with the one reported on the previous day. All three were smoking violently, and big rocks were tumbling down their hot slopes.

'As the people gazed,' Father Jewell noticed, 'there were many tears.'

The next day, after inspecting the development of the volcano, Mr Wheeler told the Colonial Office in a wireless message from the Tristania that though the lava was encroaching fast, it had not yet engulfed the houses, and unless there was another violent eruption it was not likely to endanger them in the next few days.

At considerable risk of being pelted by another rockfall — or even worse — a working party from the fishing-vessel crew went ashore on Big Beach. The pale block of the factory stood silent among the litter of fallen stones and buried pipeline. The men dragged away as much as possible of the movable equipment. The cannery owned twenty-seven longboats and many more dinghies, a long string of which, roped end to end, was towed off to safety.

A fortnight later the factory, the whole of Big Beach and Little Beach had all vanished. Sizzling cinders had buried them in a great steaming hummock which was creeping onward out to sea. Thus the island's only two half-decent landing beaches were gone for ever.

On Friday the thirteenth the Leopard had hurried up to the anchorage. At noon she radioed that the volcano was still smoking, with occasional puffs of sulphur.

In sunshine and blue shirt-sleeves, shore parties trooped across the deserted plain a few stones'-throw from the roaring fumes. Touched and awed by their errand, they entered all the silent dusty cottages, and filled cartons and sacks with little personal treasures, with the church plate from St Mary's and with mementoes from the village hall. Their hardest task was to shoot all the dogs they could find, to keep them from savaging the sheep. Two chubby puppies were adopted as mascots, named Tristan and Cunha, and brought back to England.

 p250  The cats were left to combat the rats, which were already having a festival, undisturbed. As for the other animals — the cattle, sheep and donkeys — Mr Wheeler ordered that these should be left to fend for themselves. Since agricultural conservation had been practised there was plenty of fresh pasture.

Two days after her arrival off the smoking island the Leopard sped back toward the Cape, with Mr Wheeler on board.

'The volcano continues to grow slowly,' was the final wireless bulletin.

When the refugee liner was welcomed by a cheering crowd of Cape Towners under the comforting bulk of Table Mountain, welfare workers and reporters swarmed aboard.

'We know we can't go back,' Father Jewell was quoted as saying sadly, in the international headlines. 'The volcano was a pretty big affair when we left, and is bigger now.'

But Willie Repetto insisted, 'When it's over, we'll go back.'

Though it seemed a lifetime, it was just a week after the eruption when the Tjisadane anchored in handsome Table Bay, in the early morning light of Monday, October 17. The villagers from the hermit isle were bewildered to find themselves world news. Queen Elizabeth II had personally sent them a message of sympathy — as Queen Victoria had done after the Boat Disaster of 1885. Only half a dozen had ever been abroad before. All were over-awed, but the first impression of Press and public was of their 'quiet fortitude'. They gazed at the great skyline of Table Mountain — chopped off flat, unlike their own seldom-seen Peak, and with a dazzling modern city clustered beneath.

'We can't take out eyes off these things — the tall buildings and cars and all,' they confessed.

There had been a generous response to a Red Cross appeal for clothing and funds. The British Embassy had been asked by HM Government to arrange passage to England for as many as wanted to go; and though some were offered jobs at the Cape, in the traditional way they agreed to stay together. The Dutch shipping line said that they were welcome to remain aboard the Tjisadane until Tuesday,  p251 when the British Union Castle liner Stirling Castle would have reached port, and they could then transfer to her to await departure for England on Friday.

Meanwhile they were at liberty to go ashore whenever they liked. There had been many offers of hospitality from organizations and individuals. Groups were entertained at meals and taken for sightseeing trips around the city and peninsula. They were easily recognized, with their gipsy-peasant Tristan look, as they meandered around the streets, gaping at the rows of shop windows full of spring clothes, the luxurious homes, the parks and gardens and trees and flowers. Often they jumped back on the kerb from the alarming motor traffic. Strangers spoke to them cordially, and cameras clicked.

Most attended a service of thanksgiving for their safety at the stately St George's Cathedral. In the great awesome nave they roused from their daze whole-heartedly to sing the hymns which they knew. The service was conducted by the familiar voice of an old friend, now the Bishop of Cape Town — the Rt. Rev. R. W. F. Cowdry, who had been a post‑war chaplain on Tristan.

Another service was held at a Roman Catholic church by the smaller party of converts grown from the ardent teachings of Irish Agnes Rogers.

Later, again clutching their shabby bags and bundles, the whole community plodded on Board the Stirling Castle, which was to take them across the world to Southampton. Before their kindly send‑off, the Leopard arrived from the sulphur-steaming island. They beamed on receiving the cases with a few of their belongings which the young sailors had so carefully packed and labelled. There were even the four longboats in which they had been rowed away from Little Beach. And there was still that vocal symbol of Tristanian unity, the church's new harmonium, given by the Queen, and again off across the waves amid adventure — as its first squeaky predecessor had arrived.

Thayer's Note:

a The interesting history of the Tjisadane is told on Clifford Bossie's page with a dozen photographs, including one of the postage stamp later issued by Tristan da Cunha. (See also this more detailed page, focusing on the technical aspects of the ship, on a site devoted to Sulzer diesel engines; and maybe the best photo online, at

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20