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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Scottish Geographical Magazine
Vol. 21 No. 6 (June 1905), pp301‑309

The text is in the public domain.

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 p301  Tristan d'Acunha​a

The three islets known as the Tristan d'Acunha Group lie in the South Atlantic Ocean due south of the Island of Ascension, and, roughly speaking, half‑way between Monte Video in South America and the Cape of Good Hope. The volcanic peak in the principal island, which gives its name to the group, is in lat. 37° 5′ 50″, long. 12° 16′ 40″, and it stands 7640 feet above the level of the sea. In his address to the Geographical Section of the British Association in Edinburgh in 1892, the present President of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society pointed out that these islands, like those of St. Paul's and Ascension, spring from the back of the Great Dolphin ridge, and were the result of volcanic action, accompanying crustal movements in the oceanic trough. They emerge from obscurity into history in the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese led the van in oceanic exploration and discovery. The Portuguese Tristan d'Acunha who first discovered them, however, did nothing but give his name to the largest island of the group. They were known to the Dutch in 1643. In 1767, however, the French, under command of M. d'Etchevery, landed and explored all three islands; and he gave to the one on the west of the main island the very appropriate name of "Inaccessible," while to the smallest of the group, i.e. the one on the south, he gave the very inappropriate name of "Nightingale."​b All these islands remained uninhabited till the year 1790, when an enterprising American, Captain Patten, landed with a few men and collected seal-skins, which he disposed of profitably in China. It was not till the year 1810 that a serious attempt to colonise the island was made. In that year three other Americans landed, and  p302 one of them, Jonathan Lambert by name, declared himself sovereign proprietor, and with his companions began to clear the land and till the soil, as well as prosecuting their main business of killing seals for their skins. Jonathan, however, soon tired of his throne, and taking with him one half of his subjects he returned to America, leaving the other half, viz. Thomas Currie, alone on the island till 1814, when a Spaniard, Camella by name, joined him.

After the fateful battle of Waterloo in 1815 the captive Emperor Napoleon was deported to St. Helena, and the British Government deemed it necessary to take every possible precaution against his rescue. Amongst other measures for this purpose they decided on the annexation of the Tristan d'Acunha group, and this was accomplished on the 14th August 1816. The first commandant, Lieutenant Rich, R. N., remained on the island only three months, when he gave place to a captain of dragoons, Josiah Cloete by name, who held office for a year. Captain Cloete brought with him about one hundred men and seventeen women, with some horses, pigs, cattle, and poultry. By the end of a year the British Government had recovered from its nervous fit of anxiety as to the possibility of an attempted rescue of Napoleon from Tristan d'Acunha, and it was decided to withdraw the military from the island. So in November 1817 the force returned to the Cape of Good Hope, leaving behind him three men, viz. Corporal Glass and  p303 two privates, with Glass's wife and two children. These six persons may be considered the original settlers of Tristan d'Acunha, and their descendants are still to be found on the island. Corporal Glass remained governor of the island till his death in 1853, and seems to have exercised his authority with discretion and humanity. From time to time the little community was reinforced by victims of shipwreck and by volunteers, so that at the time of Glass's death they numbered over eighty. Before Glass died the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had sent a clergyman, the Rev. W. F. Taylor, to supervise the educational and spiritual needs of the colonists, and on Glass's death Mr. Taylor was recognised as governor. Mr. Taylor, however, got tired of the place, and left it in 1857, when he was succeeded by Peter William Green, a mariner, who had been shipwrecked on the island. He lived to the extreme age of ninety-seven. "As a preserver of life from homework Governor Green's record stands almost unique. The exact number of people of all nationalities whom he has assisted, in fact taken the lead, in rescuing from destruction, amounts to hundreds."

In the early days of the colony shipwrecks on one or other of the islands were not uncommon, and must have been a source of considerable profit to the colonists. With regard to one of them, viz. that of the  p304 Blenden Hall, which was wrecked off Inaccessible Island in July 1822, there is now in existence, in the possession of one of the descendants of one of the shipwrecked passengers, a manuscript giving a vivid description of the disaster and the subsequent misfortunes of the survivors. Among the passengers in the ill‑fated Blenden Hall was a Lieutenant in the Indian Navy — a scion of a good old English family in Kent. The Peppers of Tenterden can trace their family in Kent as far back as 1450, that is to say, to the times of the Wars of the Roses, or half a century before the discovery of Tristan d'Acunha. Other branches of the family appear in Lincolnshire, and in County Meath in Ireland, about 1660; and they may also be connected with Colonel Pepper of Pepper's Horse, who did good service under Cromwell. The member of the family on board the Blenden Hall was John Pepper, who at Dover — shortly before he went on board — married Ann, the daughter of Captain Evans, H. E. I. C. S. His age was only twenty-seven, but he had already seen service in the Far East, and had taken part in the taking of Java. His wife was not quite twenty‑one, and to judge from the miniature of her still in existence she must have been an exceptionally beautiful girl.

The Lieutenant was on his way to join his ship at Bombay, but the Blenden Hall, partly owing to fogs and partly to bad weather, was allowed to get out of her proper course, and was wrecked on Inaccessible Island. This island, as we learn from its description in The Cruise of the Challenger, which contains much the best account of the Tristan d'Acunha group which we have yet seen, and to which we are greatly indebted for much of the foregoing remarks, "next in size to Tristan, and the most westerly of the group, receives its name from its appearance; and certainly this name seems most applicable when the island is viewed from a distance of two or three miles. A nearer approach, however, discloses the fact that beaches exist, here and there, at the foot of the almost perpendicular cliffs, all around the island, and on the north-east and north-west sides these beaches are occasionally so wide as to afford space for building purposes, or pitching tents; and from two points where the cliffs are somewhat broken it is possible, by the aid of the Tussock Grass, which grows on every available spot, to climb to the undulating table top of the island. Inaccessible Island is quadrilateral in shape, the sides being nearly equal, each about two miles in length, and the angles pointing in the direction of the cardinal points of the compass. Its highest point, on the west side, is 1840 feet above the level of the sea. . . . The north-west coast has no rocks off it above water, but there are rocky shelving points projecting from the beach, which extends the whole length of this side of the island."

It was on one of the reefs to the north-west of the island that the Blenden Hall struck and soon became a total wreck. It was with the utmost difficulty that the passengers and crew, with the exception of two men, were got to land, where they at first supposed and hoped they were on Tristan d'Acunha. Several of the sailors behaved very badly, becoming hopelessly intoxicated. The Lieutenant, in language which to us now seems stiff and stilted, but which is quite in accordance with the style in common use in the early part of last century, says: "Night  p305 approaching we retired to the rushes about fifty yards' distance from where we landed for the night, in the distressed state we were in, some of the Passengers being without any other Clothing than a Shirt. Some Spirits which had drifted on shore gave an Opportunity to those who first landed to get intoxicated, of which they availed themselves, and added to the horrible scene around us. The Island affording no shelter we were exposed to the Rain, which fell very heavy during the night, without sleeping, and were frequently annoyed by such of the Crew as were drunk, together with the noise of the Chain Cable and Anchors striking against the rocks. At Daylight, about 6 A.M., all was confusion, the men shaking off the yoke of subordination, and taking upon themselves an equality with the passengers, which they did not hesitate to avow in terms accompanied by the most opprobrious Language." With daylight, however, returned hope and the necessity for action, and various parties were despatched to explore the island and to select places where it was possible to rig up tents, and, what was necessary more than anything else, to find something in the way of food. But all they could find in that way was some roots of wild celery, so the Lieutenant goes on: "Our Food this day consisted of Penguins and Raw Beef which we had picked up, being unable to make a Fire for want of materials, and the dampness excluded the Possibility of obtaining one by friction. Nothing but extreme hunger Could have induced us to partake of food in a State revolting to the feelings of Human beings." During the course of the next day a number of very useful articles floated on shore from the wreck, including a box of instruments, which fortunately contained a flint and steel, by means of which they managed to light a fire, whereupon the Lieutenant says: "Miserably as we were off the warmth of the Fire afforded us much comfort, particularly the Ladies, who had suffered extremely from Hunger, Wet and Cold — in fact several of the Passengers were so much exhausted that apparently they were near expiring." After this they began to vary their diet with the brains, head and tongue of female sea‑elephants and a soup made of penguins and wild celery, in which they "found considerable nourishment, notwithstanding it was very mawkish." The weather, however, now improved, and with it the health and the spirits of the company, who set about diligently to explore the island and to rig up boats with a view of the making for Tristan d'Acunha. Something very like mutiny, however, soon appeared to add to their troubles. "Fourteen of the Seamen, who had united and separated, requested one of the Kettles which the Captain and Passengers acceded to by granting the smallest of the two we had, which did not hold more than the proportion their number entitled them to — but hearing dissatisfaction existed among the others, he called them together and explained his motives for complying with their demand, upon which they unanimously refused to assist in the Ordinary employments assigned them by the Captain, at the same time offering to do everything for him and his Son, leaving the Passengers to provide for themselves. This was rejected, and the Line of Conduct they pursued called forth a strong remonstrance from the Second Officer, who had determined to remain  p306 by his Captain and Passengers in their feeble state, which had no effect. Consequently the Passengers were obliged to act entirely for themselves, although they offered from £8 to £10 per month to assist in getting food, which was not accepted — observing that the Island Inaccessible carried no Passengers and that all were on one footing." The next misfortune to befall the company was the disappearance of the penguins and female sea‑elephants, "which left us with the forlorn prospect of being destitute of Food, when the store we had accumulated should be expended until the season of their return — the impression on our minds at the approaching scarcity began to be visible in every countenance. We also found great loss from want of wild celery, which could not be had without great difficulty, having to ascend the Hill on the brink of Precipices to the imminent danger of our Lives to gather the few remaining Roots." But the absence of the female sea‑elephants was compensated for by the appearance of plenty male ones, and of petrels; but unfortunately they stayed on the island only eight or ten days. In the meantime the passengers had constructed four boats, "which did very well alongshore but could not fully be depended on to risk the Voyage in Contemplation as the Tools used in their construction were a Hand Saw, an Old Chisel and a Bolt as a substitute for a Hammer, with a Post Hinge rubbed to an Edge instead of an Axe." At last, taking the advantage of a fine day one boat did succeed in getting to Tristan d'Acunha, where its crew were warmly received by Corporal or Governor Glass, who next day brought two boats to Inaccessible Island with milk and provisions. On the 11th November the Lieutenant and his young wife were safely landed at Tristan d'Acunha, "where we were gratified beyond the Power of expression to see something approaching in appearance to Domestic Comfort," which comfort was dispensed by the Corporal at the moderate cost of 2s. a day. But they were now safe, and the Lieutenant remarks, "The wide difference we now experienced compared with the Conduct of the Crew occasioned feelings of Disgust and enhanced the Value of favours rendered us, nor is it possible to convey a just idea or conception of what passed in our Breasts on seeing the Boat with the last of our unfortunate Companions on the shore of Tristan d'Acunha. Our feelings choked utterance, and it was only with tears of Mutual Sympathy we embraced each other." On the 10th January 1822 the Nerina, bound for the Cape of Good Hope, hove in sight, and the captain promptly undertook to take the whole party on board, and they were all safely landed at the Cape on the 21st January. From the Cape the Lieutenant made his way to India, where he was appointed first assistant to the master attendant at Bombay. On his promotion to the rank of commodore he joined the Amherst, and took a prominent part in the suppression of piracy on the Arabian coast. There he blockaded the pirate fortress of Aboothobee,​d and compelled the surrender not only of their prizes but of their whole fleet and plunder, valued at many lacs of rupees. For three years he was commodore at Surat, afterward he went to China as commodore of the squadron there. On the conclusion of the Chinese War he returned to Bombay, where he became acting storekeeper, and ultimately  p307 acting commander-in‑chief. He died at Poona in August 1848. The memory of the incident of the shipwreck is perpetuated in the family by the name Nerina being given to several of the female descendants of the beautiful Ann Pepper even to the present day.

Nightingale Island, which seems never to have been inhabited, is just one mile in length and three-quarters of a mile wide. The seals which were once abundant are now comparatively scarce, the result of reckless and indiscriminate slaughter. Penguins are as numerous as ever. There is a large amount of guano on this island, but an attempt to make a fortune out of the guano in Nightingale Island has hitherto been a failure, not so has the attempt to discover treasure in the shape of bullion hidden on the island by pirates of former days. In the April number of the Nautical Magazine of 1901 there is a curious story to this effect. It appears that in October 1900, the yacht Kwasimel started from New Orleans to an island on the African coast, having on board a search party headed by an old sea‑captain who had been a pirate and knew of a treasure buried by pirates on the island half a century before. They missed the bulk of the treasure, but found another chest the bullion in which was sufficient to make the venture profitable. One of the successful party announced that he knew of a still greater fortune buried on Nightingale Island, but he was not aware of the exact spot where it is hidden. In the same article we are told of a lawsuit going on in America, where a Mr. Summers sued a Captain Henderson for £17,500, the half of a treasure known to have been found on an island near Tristan d'Acunha. Apparently, then, there are possibilities of considerable gain to adventurers in the shape of treasure-hunters in these islands.

One of the most noteworthy of all the incidents in the history of Tristan d'Acunha was the visit of H. M. S. Galatea in August 1867 with the Duke of Edinburgh on board — a visit still commemorated in the island by the name of Edinburgh being applied to the principal settlement. Probably it was on this occasion that the islanders started their own national anthem, of which the following is the first verse: —

"Wrapt in the solemn sound

Of ocean all around

Upon our rugged wind-swept island home;

Far from the busy world

The Atlantic waves are hurl'd

Against our rocky shore in mist and foam."

Some twenty-five or thirty years ago, when the whaling industry was profitable, the islanders received many visits from passing ships. Of late years, however, they have been more isolated from the world, but they are still visited with more or less regularity by government ships. From a Blue-Book published in 1903, we gather that another attempt was made in 1902 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to induce a married clergyman to go and settle in the island; but after thinking over it for three or four weeks the missionary  p308 in question changed his mind and refused to go. The latest report regarding the island is to be found in the Blue-Book referred to, and it indicates that the community has not been nearly so prosperous of late years. The population consists of seventeen families and seventy‑six persons, of what thirty‑two are children. The oldest man, "Sammy Swain," is only forty‑six, while there are eight women over fifty-five — a state of matters explained by a disastrous boat accident in 1885, in which nearly all the adult male inhabitants were drowned. All the inhabitants except four were born on the island. "The majority of the islanders, though rather sunburnt and weather-beaten, are practically white. . . . The women are decidedly finer specimens than the men. Several are quite tall, and they all have well-developed figures. Their features are regular, pleasing, and of somewhat Semitic type. They appeared rather more intelligent than the men. The children are clean, fat, healthy, and well cared for, and surprisingly well clad. There is no definite sign of any mental or physical deterioration arising from the system of intermarriage." The island is reported to be healthy, except for a mild type of asthma which is successfully treated by inhaling saltpetre. There has been no form of government on the island since the death of Green, as "the men were curiously averse to any individual being considered to have more influence than the rest." There is no crime, and the population are much more anxious about education than about religion, a state of affairs which may possibly be accounted for by the fact that when there was a missionary on the island, absentees from religious services were fined. Sacks of tracts are often sent to the island, some of which were found lying untouched under the shelter of a cliff. It appears that the islanders have an ample supply of potatoes, milk, beef, mutton and poultry, but for flour and luxuries they depend on passing ships, and thus are often reduced to great straits. Rats are the curse of the island, preventing grain from growing and eating the grass used for thatching. The colony owns some 600 head of cattle, 700 sheep, and 100 donkeys, and they have abundance of fish. The water-supply from the cliffs is excellent. The Blue-Book report contains the ominous and suggestive remark, "Should there be no wrecks, the islanders will shortly be hard up for a good many things." But wrecks and the visits of passing ships are precarious resources on which to depend. Moreover, of late there has been a proposal to discontinue the periodical visits of men-of‑war from the Cape Squadron, and the minds of the islanders have naturally been much perturbed; so much so that many of them have expressed a desire to be taken off to the Cape. Some are willing to go unconditionally; the majority, however, were prepared to go only if they could realise their live stock. Two women, the one aged seventy-four and the other aged seventy‑two, expressed no desire to leave the island. It is suggested that if a schoolmaster were sent out, or some arrangement made for the education of the children, the colonists would not be so ready to leave. It would certainly be a matter of regret if Tristan d'Acunha again became uninhabited. "The island may in the future have a value should a large carrying trade be established between South America and the Cape, as an intermediate station for wireless telegraphy.  p309 . . . This, and the occasional assistance given to shipwrecked people, seem to be the only reasons that can be imagined for occupying the island." So writes the officer in command of the Thrush in the report from which we have quoted do freely, and in this he merely reiterates the views expressed by the writer of the Cruise of the Challenger, who, however, added an useful and feasible suggestion, viz. that a schoolmaster or missionary should be sent to the island with the position of Governor. If this were done, it is most likely that no more would be heard of the proposal to abandon the island.

Thayer's Notes:

a Although this article contains a fair amount of information not found elsewhere on my site, especially as to the wreck of the Blenden Hall, it is of necessity by no means as full as the two complete books on the history of Tristan da Cunha onsite, which also correct some of its minor inaccuracies. See the navigation bar below.

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b Although Captain Etcheverry did name Inaccessible (its previous name was 't Nachtglas), he did not name Nightingale, merely translating the existing name into French as Rossignol, still seen in French works. The island is not named for the bird, but for a previous visitor (Mackay, Angry Island, p25).

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c The miniature from which the lithograph was made does her better justice:

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d Abu Dhabi.

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