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Bill Thayer

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Part V
Chapter 6
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 Five
Change and Eruption

 p259  7 To Stay or to Go

Human beings set foot on the smouldering island sooner than had seemed probable. Six days after the evacuees had moved to Calshot, the South African frigate Transvaal disembarked twelve members of a Royal Society scientific expedition with two Tristan guides. Led by Dr Ian Gass of Leeds University, the team were to make a geological survey, studying the causes of the volcanic eruption and its effects on vegetation and animals.

The relentless weather forced them to land on the opposite side, but it proved too stormy to cross the island even on foot. At last the Transvaal was able to anchor opposite the ghost town of the Settlement, and the sailors ferried the venturesome team and their equipment towards what had once been the beaches and the cliff road. They saw and photographed the white-billowing volcano with the subsidiary crater swollen from its side and a lava field beyond. The factory and one house, the Greens', were buried deep. Masses of six‑foot boulders tossed up from the sea were added to the lava which covered the two beaches.

Nevertheless healthy cattle were grazing on abundant grass very near the sulphureous cone. The men castrated the young bulls. But unfortunately such wagging dogs as had escaped shooting by the Leopard party had been killing the younger calves and destroying a great many sheep. The mongrels ran in packs and chased the flocks over the thousand-foot gulches and the seaside cliffs. For the  p260 second time it was necessary to shoot all the dogs known to remain on the island.

The eruption dwindled markedly during the seven weeks while the team were researching and map‑making. The red‑hot rock temperature, fifteen feet below the surface, had been 890°C, but it cooled off in the last few days before an ice patrol ship picked them up. The eruption was of 'an extremely quiet type', and seemed to be almost over.

On Dr Gass's return to London in early April, he went down to the Calshot camp. Everyone wanted to know when the next eruption was likely to break out. He could only reply that 'it might be a year, or five years, or a hundred years — one could not say'.

When he was asked whether it would be safe for the people to return, he answered, 'It would be a risk, but just how much of a risk we do not know.'

Some of the expedition's film was shown on television, with the small figures of the men moving along the fuming volcano. Afterwards the two guides, Joseph Glass and Adam Swain, were interviewed. They claimed stoutly that things were as good on Tristan as in England and they would go back tomorrow.

The islanders were excited and elated, and begged the Colonial Secretary Mr Reginald Maudling to let them return. He could only say, in effect, 'Wait and see.' But from then on, most of the community thought and talked constantly of going home.

Weighing caution and compassion, the Colonial Office finally agreed to send a reconnoitring party of islanders to Tristan for a few months. Expenses could be covered by the Fund. And so on August 9, twelve men sailed for Cape Town in the Stirling Castle which had brought them there. They were accompanied by Mr H. G. Stableford, an agricultural expert who had the responsibility of making a report. Even the Tristanians realized in advance that the greatest obstacle, short of further eruption, was the lava-covered landing beaches.

The leader of the scouting party was Johnny Repetto, aged 52. Blond, sturdy, one of the few islanders who looked not at all coloured or Italian, he was the younger brother of Willie and Martha. There were five Glasses, three Repettos, two Greens, a Swain and a Rogers. Most of the twelve men were young. This point was emphasized to  p261 refute the frequent claim that only the old wanted to return. In the near‑by village of Fawley it was hinted that as many as possible of the strong adaptable men were being bundled home early before they developed a taste for foreign life — since sturdy backs were needed to do the work for the elderly. None the less, reporters seeing off the dozen embarking islanders found them 'happy, for the first time'.

No, thank you, they didn't like TV at all.

Yes, thank you, 'heverybody had been wery kind'.

No, thank you, they weren't taking back any ideas from the Houtside Warl’ . . . No, they hadn't got any hints on farming in Hengland. 'There's nothing that would suit us.'

'Hengland's wery nice, but there's nothing I want here,' said 24-year‑old bridegroom Lars Repetto.

Six of the twelve men were to be employed, as before, on the same two lobster-fishing vessels, now owned by the South Atlantic Islands Development Corporation. The other six were to work on Tristan itself, if it seemed habitable.

The volcano was still smoking on September 9 when the Tristania landed the party. Each man headed straight for his own home, cruder and shabbier than ever in comparison with the brick-and‑concrete miles of houses and streets in England.

Communal effort, so long deplored as lacking, came to the fore at last. The six workers began the long job of cleaning and repairing the cottages, sheds and stone walls, planting potatoes, and rounding up the cattle — if these were tame enough. They also cleaned out the little church, carefully rubbing the volcanic dust and salty mildew off Queen Victoria's portrait.

Wild life around the island had regained much of its pristine tameness in the year's absence of mankind. Birds were more numerous than in living memory. The eruption apparently had not damaged the fish, which snapped at a hook immediately, while lobsters could be caught in swarms.

It had been arranged that the Royal Naval frigate Puma was to call at Tristan for two or three days at the beginning of October. She was to pick up Stableford, and to take supplies to the island men if they were safe and well and wanted to stay. Otherwise she would evacuate them.

The Puma was greeted with the traditional buffeting of the rocky seas, and damaged a screw while creeping in towards the lava-bouldered coast. Nevertheless, lacking a beach, the heavy stores were  p262 moved with a jackstay from ship to shore. A demolition party used explosives to make a small new landing-place and to blast a new track up the cliff to the Settlement.

Stableford, told of how he had walked in the crater 'without worrying', though the sulphur was still hot in places and there was some smoke.

When Leader Johnny Repetto had bade him good‑bye on board the Puma, he had given him a message to take back to England.

"Tell them we'll never leave again,' Johnny had said.

Now the exiles in Britain were buoyed up with optimism — indeed with certainty. No matter if they had to return to the nerve-racked subsistence of pre‑1948, nearly everyone wanted to go home, 'even if we's done got to swim'.

The people's hearts were so firmly set on return that for months they had been stocking up with clothing, tools and gadgets.

'We's got enough to last a lifetime,' said Willie Repetto.

In November Harold Green chanced to win a lucky prize in a competition sponsored by a Southampton store. He was given a choice, and selected a long-playing record-player with two LP records included. The machine was battery-operated — suitable for use on Tristan. Others bought transistor radios.

Joseph Glass expressed a wish for a new sheep‑dog to take back, and a generous donor sent him a pedigreed puppy named Sweep, from the Derbyshire dales. (Later, the Royal Navy conveyed a tom‑cat and three pregnant tabbies to the island, to help cope with the thriving rats.)

Jazz, pop, twist, cinemas, soft drinks, iced lollies, coffee-bars, TV with its western or detective films and noisy streets and shiny shops — these were not despised by the young. Hints of varying adaptability were to be picked up more in action than in words. Tristan upbringing had kept to the Victorian tradition that the parental wish was law and the first loyalty and duty were owed to the family. Community solidarity had been more or less a geographical necessity on the island; but abroad it was exaggerated emotionally in the passionate need for esprit de corps. Even though some of the young people might be willing to stay in England, or at least undecided, most of the colony would have felt treacherous to say so.

Yet even among the youthful there was still the old unease of  p263 inferiority towards people of the Outside World. 'I could never marry an English girl,' Lars Repetto had said. 'I could never get used to her ways.'

'Chief' Willie Repetto, and others echoing him, made the courteous excuse that 'We can't get used to the English climate' as their main reason for wanting to leave. True, it had been the hardest winter in more than a century — 'Tristan luck' again. But even in the mild summer they chafed for their own far stormier rock — hurricanes, squalls, avalanches, cloudbursts, crashing surf and all.

Encouragingly, the South Atlantic Development Corporation arranged to send an expert early in the New Year to make sure that conditions were suitable for setting up a new lobster-freezing plant. Then at least the colonists would not be semi-starved. But there was still the worry of over-population, which had plagued the island since the mass migration of the Glass clan to America in the 1850's. The problems of eugenics and further inbreeding continued to disturb officialdom. These threats meant little to the Tristanians themselves. When someone rather sententiously questioned them, they replied that they 'would take a chance' — with the usual fatalism which for a hundred and fifty years had ignored 'tomorrow'.

With their faith the people were not at all astonished to receive the good news on November 27, when Mr Nigel Fisher told them that the Government had decided in their favour. Within a few months a working party would be sent home to prepare beaches, tracks and houses and to plant potatoes in readiness for the main body's return a half-year later. The group was to be augmented by an administrator, a doctor and an agriculturalist and their families. The rejoicing was only diluted by pleas that the whole community might go together, and earlier, before the start of the southern winter.

To test various rumours, the Colonial Office decided to hold a secret ballot to find out how many of the people really wanted to go, and how many would prefer to stay but did not wish to let down the others by admitting it. The vote would not commit anyone who might change his mind.

The ballot was held suddenly, to forestall campaigning or personal influence, on Sunday morning at ten o'clock.

'There ain't no need for them to vote,' said a young man. 'They's nearly all done packed now, ready for to go.'

The results were overwhelming: 148 had voted to return and only five to stay. The teenagers and children had not, of course, had a  p264 voice, even if they had cared — or dared — to lift it. At any rate everyone was now tingling with curiosity about the five dissidents.

There was one young man — handsome, Italian-looking, 29-year‑old Basil Lavarello — who, except for the headman and headwoman, had become the most publicized of all the Tristanians. This because from the first he had been completely frank about preferring to stay in England. He was earning high wages in a yacht-building yard at Lymington. With his savings he had bought a motor-cycle. He had flown on business to Manchester and even to Canada. In pre‑eruption days he had already drawn away from the womb of the island with an Antarctic surveying expedition in the Shackleton — as other enterprising young islanders had been setting sail to see the world for more than a century.

One of the most striking facts of the whole Tristan perspective has been the reversal of the turning wheel. In later generations the bold pioneers have not been those who have stayed at home on the grim isle, but those who have had the spirit to go to seek their fortunes. The stamina needed to live on the island has been the less colourful stamina of conservatism. It has taken imagination, courage and self-confidence to feel at ease among worldly strangers. As in any community, their initiative has been less common than conformity. In the hamlet on the rock, each individual is magnified giant-size against so small a setting. By contrast each has felt insect-tiny in the myriad swarms of Britain. Few Tristanian egos have not minded such a dwarfing.

The 148 to 5 vote against the hectic, gadgety, modern way of life became a leading theme in the Press, on the air, and from the pulpit. The affluent society felt humbled by the Old Testament simplicity of its rejection. Morals were drawn about seeking a return to the good old‑fashioned values.

Yet it was this money-grubbing civilization which had made possible the people's rescue from the island, their comfortable maintenance in England, and their ultimate return home and subsidy by the Outside World. Since the days of sail and whale the colonists could never have existed on the island without help from abroad. In the nineteenth century they more than pulled their weight by their help to shipwrecked crews and vessels — risking their lives and sharing their scanty resources, usually without recompense. In the twentieth century they had not been so called upon. But the tradition has remained in their blood to this day. They still regard themselves as donors of hospitality and kindness to strangers; conversely they feel  p265 that it is not charity when strangers in turn share their much greater means with them. Much of their costly freedom is being made possible by other people's slavery to the clocks and the clamour on which they are turning their backs; earned by Britons who have accepted the discipline which they refuse.

And yet, who can blame them — especially the elders — for wanting to be free to move in the fresh air where they own their own houses, land, boats, livestock and time?

'A poor thing, but mine own.'

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20