Chapter 15: St. Helena—Ascension Island—St. Vincent

For the first few days at sea after leaving Cape Town I was obliged to keep my bunk, but the care of the doctors, the solicitous attentions of Green, who went to all sorts of length to produce delicacies for me, and the good salt air worked wonders, and I began to regain strength and was soon up and about.

As I was in bed the following is quoted verbatim from Macklin’s diary:

July 14th.

A lovely sunny day with smooth sea, and the Quest behaving better than she has ever done before. Surely this is a prelude to something wicked—I do not trust the Quest when she is good.

Worsley took the ship close in to Sea Point to enable us to signal good-bye to our many friends there, after which we put out to the open ocean. We passed close to a small fishing boat and called her alongside to enable one of our members to pass over a letter for his latest best girl. A sailor, of course! with a girl in every port, but I omit his name. I took the opportunity of buying some fresh fish, for which I exchanged some tobacco and ship’s biscuits.

It was a lovely afternoon, and all about the ship were numbers of seabirds—gulls, albatross and shags.  In the water were penguins (a type not found in the Antarctic), seals, turtles and sharks. This part of the ocean must simply teem with life to support all these large animals.

About 5 p.m. a big Castle liner passed us homeward bound, and Wuzzles changed course to enable us to give a shout to Cookie, who was aboard. The skipper, however, must have been watching through his glasses, and, seeing what a crowd of toughs we were (Wuzzles prominent on the bridge), sheered widely off and passed us too far away to distinguish individuals.

Commander Wild is very limp. He had a very bad attack of “flu.” He’s a hard case, and it takes a lot to upset him. A few of Green’s egg-flips and the salt air will soon set him on his feet again.

Sunday, July 16th.

Yesterday was a fine day, most of which I spent below hatches making, with Marr’s assistance, a final stowage and getting things ready for sea.

To-day has been perfectly lovely. Had the 4.0-8.0 a.m. watch, and Dell, Mick and I had just scrubbed down decks, and made a jolly good job of it too, when the stokers started cleaning pipes and simply covered the whole ship with soot and ashes. We blessed them fervently for this good beginning to a Sabbath Day, the rest of which we spent trying to get our cabins and living quarters clear of the mess they had made.

Commander Wild is much better, though he is not yet all right, as he seems to think. I allowed him up to sit in the sun for a little while.

The Windsor Castle passed and signalled us “A pleasant voyage.” We dipped ensigns. There is something rather nice about these sea courtesies.

Bosson, Green’s new mate, entrusted with a carving knife, succeeded in nearly severing one finger.

July 19th.

Weather has continued fine, with fair, following winds. Commander Wild improving steadily and eating better than I have ever known him to do. He has a good deal to make up, for he lost a great deal of weight in Cape Town.

Yesterday I stowed some cases for Jeff and bound them with pyrometa wire. To-day Jeff and Dell removed the wardroom stove, which we shall no longer need, thank goodness, for with the down draught from squaresail and topsail the smoke nearly always went the wrong way.

July 20th.

Engines stopped, and we lay to for a bottom dredging. We wound in the line by hand. Good old man-power!—we always come down to it in the end. The whole job took about eight hours; it is good exercise, but towards the end becomes a bit of a toil. Whilst stopped we were surrounded by albatross, and Green and Watts succeeded in catching some alive. Good-looking birds were passed to Wilkins, the poorer specimens were set free (this is subject for a moral).
The next few days were uneventful. I had by now quite got over my illness and begun to go about as usual.

On July 27th we arrived at St. Helena, which was of interest to me because in my first voyage as a boy in an old sailing ship we had called here and I had not been back since.

This island has a most interesting history. It was first discovered in 1592 by Juan de Nova Castilla, one of the enterprising Portuguese navigators of those days, who claimed it for Portugal. Since then it has two or three times changed hands. The East India Company used it as a port of call for a long time, but handed it over to the British Government in 1833. Under the company’s administration the island prospered exceedingly. The famous navigator, Captain Cook, who visited the island in 1775, speaks of finding its people “living in delightful little homes amongst pleasant surroundings,” and describes them as the nicest people of English extraction he had ever met. The Government, on taking over, seemed to have a much less sympathetic understanding of the island and its people, for since that time its prosperity has steadily declined. It was used and is chiefly known to the world as the prison of such men as Napoleon, Cronje and others.

From the sea the island is very unprepossessing, rising steeply from the water’s edge and looking bare, hot and dry. Jamestown, the port, lies in a valley which runs backwards and upwards from the sea in a straggling and ever-narrowing line. From the anchorage one gets a refreshing glimpse of green on the inner slopes. One of the first things that catches the eye on looking ashore is a huge ladder, nearly a thousand feet long and over six hundred feet high, which passes from Jamestown to the summit of Ladder Hill. It contains seven hundred steps, to the top of which, in days gone by, a postman carrying his bag of letters used to run without a halt.

Having passed through the usual port formalities, I got ready to go ashore. Whilst preparing to leave, the ship was called up from the “Observatory,” and I received an invitation from H.E. the Governor to lunch at his house, together with two or three of my officers. I took Worsley, McIlroy and Macklin with me.

Jamestown is protected from the sea by a wall, and we entered through iron gates which no doubt in the days of Napoleon always had an armed guard. There is nothing of that sort to-day, and, indeed, St. Helena is an island that has “seen better days.” At one time a flourishing settlement and an important military station famous as the prison of Napoleon, it is now almost forgotten by the rest of the world.

We procured a carriage, drawn by two small but sturdy horses, and set off for the “Plantations” at the summit of the island where the Governor’s house is situated. The climb was a stiff one, and to ease the horses we walked up most of the way. At first the road was bare and dry, cut from rocks of obviously volcanic origin, the only vegetation an occasional dusty cactus growing here and there. As we mounted, however, we entered a greener area, with vegetation which increased in luxuriance till, at the top, we saw that the inner parts of the island were really very fertile. The air also was purer and more fresh. I was struck by the appearance of the “mina” birds, which have a pretty dark brown and white colouring, and at first sight resemble magpies. They were introduced to the island for the purpose of killing insects.

We had a most pleasant lunch with H.E. the Governor (Colonel Peel) and his wife. The house has a very fine outlook down a valley to the sea, and is situated in very beautiful grounds which contain a number of interesting trees: oaks, Scotch firs, spruces and Norfolk pines, and a tree with dark foliage and brilliant scarlet blossom. Numerous white arum-like lilies grow in profusion, and many other flowers, including a beautiful small blue flower with a pleasant fresh scent. It was a very happy change from our sea life. We were introduced to a huge tortoise, reputed to be two hundred years old, which sometimes leaves the grounds for the road and causes all the horses which encounter it to shy. When this happens a cart is sent out to fetch it home. It takes six men to lift it off the road.

After lunch we paid a visit to the tomb of Napoleon and the house at Longwood where he lived whilst on the island. The tomb is in a deep hollow, and for so great a man is very unimposing. It is covered with a large marble slab, blank, with no inscription of any sort. Some time after his death his body was exhumed and taken to Paris, when it was laid finally in Les Invalides, where a magnificent and more fitting tomb has been erected to his memory. The house at Longwood also is unimposing. One can imagine how his restless spirit must have chafed at its confinement. The rooms are kept spotlessly clean, but are bare except that in the small chamber where he died there is a bust set on a long pedestal hung with a few bedraggled pieces of tricolour ribbon. It contained also, when we were there, a baby’s perambulator, but was otherwise empty. The sight of this house caused me to feel a great pity for its prisoner.

I learned from the Governor that whilst alive he had been well treated, having had an allowance from the English Government of £12,000 per annum.

The island inland from the sea is very hilly and divided into numerous ridges and valleys. There is not a really good piece of flat land anywhere. The valleys are very fertile. Owing to the steepness of the roads we proceeded most of the way on foot, leaving the paths, which zigzagged, and making straight traverses across the fields. Brambles grow profusely, and at this time a number of blackberries were ripe. Gorse and broom covered the hillsides with yellow. The chief industry of the island seems to be the growing of New Zealand flax and the making of it into fibre. During the war they obtained the most phenomenal prices, which, however, have since dropped to normal. The flora generally of St. Helena is very interesting, for there are over sixty native species of plants, nearly all of them peculiar to the island. Every now and then we caught glimpses of pretty little residences situated in gardens of their own. We met numerous people, including a number of British folk, driving in their carriages—it seems to be the custom here to greet everyone one meets.

The natives we met showed unmistakable signs of a very mixed origin. In the days of the East India Company labour was imported from India and from China, and on frequent occasions natives of different parts of Africa have been introduced. The African type predominates.

We next visited the station of the Eastern Telegraph Company, where we met the manager and his wife. They have a very nice place, situated in beautiful grounds containing masses of bougainvillæa, geranium, scarlet hibiscus and many other kinds of blossom. They have bananas and guavas in abundance, but oranges do not grow well.

They told me that the natives of the island, of which there are about 3,000, are very badly off, for there is practically no work for them to do. Some of them look half starved. A lace industry was started about twenty years ago by an Englishwoman. The lace is said to be of good quality, but I did not have the opportunity of seeing any.

We returned to the ship about 6.30 p.m., and immediately set off for Ascension Island.

In the meantime Douglas had made a brief geological examination of the main features of the island. There was not time to do more.

Bosson, the new hand taken on at Cape Town, whom I had allowed to go for a run ashore, fell into a cactus bush, and did not forget the fact in the next few days.

We had an uninterrupted run to Ascension Island, where I intended to take in coal. As we approached we saw hundreds of birds, which flew squawking overhead, but were apparently intent on their fishing, and took very little notice of the ship. We arrived and dropped anchor about 8 p.m. on August 1st.

From the shore we received a signal to ask if we had a clean bill of health, and soon after the officer commanding the station came off to visit us in a boat pulled by several hefty bluejackets. He announced that at the moment of our arrival an interesting and unusual event had taken place: the birth of a child. I learned from him that I could get what coal I required to take me on to St. Vincent.

August 2nd was a rather muggy day. The ship was surrounded by thousands of fish of a dark purple colour with white patches on their tails. They rushed at anything edible that was thrown overboard, and the water was lashed into foam by their efforts to get at it. It was really a wonderful sight. They could not be induced to take a hook and fought very shy of anything with a line on it. Green, the enthusiast, tried all morning to catch some, but without success. He succeeded, however, by putting out more line, in catching a red spiny variety at a deeper level. He also caught a shark.

I sent ashore the scientists, and later went myself with McIlroy and Macklin. On landing, Macklin saw an officer of marines to whom he said: “Your face is familiar to me. Where have I seen you before?” Apparently they had met somewhere in Russia. It was rather extraordinary meeting again in this out-of-the-way little spot in tropical mid-Atlantic. We went on to the “Club,” where we met several more officers of the station and a number of the Eastern Telegraph Company’s officials.

The island is bare, sandy and desolate looking. The barracks and officers’ quarters are at sea level. The latter consist of neat little bungalows, about which some pretty blossom has been induced to grow.

The troops and naval ratings wear solar topees, khaki shorts and shoes. Usually they have no stockings. The soldiers have khaki shirts, and the ratings white jumpers. There are a number of women on the island. They wear light cotton dresses and often have no stockings—a sane and healthy fashion for this part of the world.

After lunch Macklin went off to see one of the sights of the island—the nesting-ground of the “Wideawakes.” He writes:

After leaving Commander Wild and Mick, I walked out to “Wideawake Valley,” so called because of the number of birds which nest there. It is an extraordinary sight. There are millions of them, covering the ground for acres. They lay a single egg, about the size of a bantam’s and spotted. Many of the chicks had hatched out. If one goes too near they rush frantically about and lose their parents, and if they intrude too much on their neighbours sometimes get pecked to death. Many of the birds rise up and come flying, with raucous din, all about one’s head. The noise is maddening. Having seen what I wanted to see, I was glad to get away. I left the track I had come by and returned across country. The going off the tracks is very bad indeed, the surface of the island being much broken and covered with a short dry grass amongst which were numerous stones and boulders, which tired one’s feet very much. The heat, too, was considerable, and I was glad when I reached the club and obtained a long, cool drink, which was very comforting to my parched throat.

During the afternoon the Durham Castle came in. This is a bi-monthly event, and throws the whole island into a fluster. I took Worsley, McIlroy and Macklin aboard, when we met the captain and the ship’s doctor. I dined in the evening with the commandant.

On August 3rd preparations were started for the coaling. The coal is of the poorest quality, consisting of dust and slag, and the price we were charged was exorbitant, but I was obliged to the commandant for being at pains to give us the best he could under the circumstances.

Scientific work was continued, and Macklin and Kerr went off in the boat to another part of the island to obtain some different varieties of fish.

In the evening we dined at the mess of the Eastern Telegraph Company, where we had a very merry evening. Most of us slept ashore, being kindly put up by members of the telegraph company. Douglas and Marr, who had ascended to the high part of the island, were very kindly accommodated by Mr. and Mrs. Cronk at their pretty house on the hill.

The Abandoned Wireless Station On Ascension Island | Photo: Dr. Macklin
Flowering Plants Growing In The Volcanic Ash At Ascension Island | Photo: Wilkins
Wideawake Plain, Ascension Island, Which Is Covered With Thousands Of Birds
A Wideawake

Coaling was continued on the 4th. The coal is put into bags at the dump and loaded into lighters, which are taken off by a tug and laid alongside the ship. The work is often awkward on account of the swell. It was a messy business, and the ship soon became covered in every part of her with dust. It took us many days to get really clean again. In order to keep an eye on things, I stayed near the scene of operations. Macklin ascended to the summit, and the following account from his diary is fairly descriptive of the island:

I went ashore early with Wilkins, who had with him his camera and cinematograph machine. He was going off with the commandant in a pinnace to an island where there was a large number of birds.

I first of all walked about the station and took a number of snapshots, after which I set off up the dusty track leading to Green Hill. It was a blazing hot day, and I wore nothing but singlet, shorts and shoes, and had a good sun hat. This garb was cool and gave a delightful sense of freedom in movement, but it proved, to my cost, to be an inadequate protection from the sun.

I passed en route the wireless station, which has been abandoned. Its six immense poles are cemented and stayed in such a manner as to make the removal of them not worth the labour. The track led up a gentle slope over sandy ground that supported a few low-lying shrubs but very little else. Farther towards the summit the vegetation increased a little, with cactus plants and a few aloes. Still farther up an attempt had been made to plant trees along the sides of the track, and, considering the dry, hard nature of the earth, they were growing not badly, but gave little impression of greenery. I continued along the main track till I reached eventually a point marked by the two halves of a boat which had been set up on either side of the road. The gentle slope was now replaced by a more steeply rising mountain face, up which the main track zigzagged so much as to make the total distance a very long one. I accordingly left it for a steeper but straighter track. The air was now fresher, and the higher one climbed the more abundant became the vegetation, which included trees—palms, pines, firs, eucalyptus—and a tree with bright yellow flowers which I did not recognize. There were ferns of several sorts, small flowering shrubs, thistles with a yellow flower, and, higher up the mountain, a species of scarlet hibiscus.

Grasshoppers were numerous. They hopped off the ground in much the same manner as an English grasshopper, but were capable of a certain power of flight. I saw also a number of beetles, rats and land-crabs, but animal life generally is scarce.

Near the top of Green Mountain there are a few little residences situated in very pretty gardens. Indeed, the whole of the island above a certain level is very beautiful and a paradise as compared with the hot, dusty garrison at the base.

Near the summit I came to a house surrounded by a picturesque garden containing many trees and shrubs with bright blossom. I learned that it belonged to the “Farm Superintendent.” At this point a corporal of marines approached me, and remarking that I looked hot, asked me if I would like a glass of beer. I was hot, and the suggestion was too alluring to be refused, though I had doubts as to the wisdom of it, seeing that I had still many miles of hot walking ahead of me. There is a small signal station here, and the corporal took me to his quarters, from where I had a magnificent view of the slopes of the island and of the sea, covered with twinkling points, stretching like a flat board to a far distant horizon. There is a small farm which supplied the station with fresh meat, milk, etc. I had a look at the cowhouses, which literally swarmed with rats of enormous size. There are also some hen-runs and pig-sties, and a number of sheep graze on the hills.

Thanking the friendly corporal, I pushed on over a grassy slope dotted about with trees, and finally reached the summit, where there is a thick plantation of bamboos, the stems of which rattled in the strong south-east trades. In the middle of it there is a pond of very stagnant water. The view from the top is wonderful, every part of the island being clearly visible. All about the upper slopes are asphalted watersheds leading to storage tanks. All the water for the garrison and the other buildings at the base of the island comes from the summit, and is conducted there by pipes.

Descending the farther slopes, I came to the entrance to a long narrow tunnel cut through the hill. It had been dug by the military detachment many years before, quite for what purpose I did not learn. It is low, narrow and pitchy black, but there is a hand-wire by using which as a guide one can go steadily forward. It emerges in a corner of the farm superintendent’s garden.

I had lunch on the summit with Mr. and Mrs. Cronk. They have two pretty children. Mr. Cronk has been farm superintendent for twenty-five years. It must be a funny life in this remote spot. He is responsible for all the vegetation, and takes a great pride in his work—certainly he has made his mark on the world. The whole garrison is being removed, and is due to leave in a few months. He goes too, and regrets that no one is being left to carry on the work he has so carefully inaugurated. He has had to overcome many difficulties, and is disappointed that the labour of so many years will be thrown away. The big plants grow all right and do not require much attention. The young ones must be shaded from the fierce sun, and unless this shade is provided artificially the only seeds that flourish are those which fall beside the parent plant and derive shade and a certain amount of moisture from it. The summit of the island, being often clouded in mist, is very damp, and those who live there for any length of time suffer considerably from rheumatism.

I descended towards “Wideawake” Plain again, visited the circular crater of a volcano, and crossed it to enter a belt of loose, broken pieces of cellular lava. The inside was covered with sand, was bare of vegetation, and had round it a circular track which gives it the name of the “Devil’s Horse-ring.”

On my way back I passed again over a sandy plain, where I saw a number of small rabbits. I enjoyed my day immensely and was pleasantly fatigued after my climbing. I suffered badly from sunburn, which will probably get worse in the next few days. My neck and legs are chiefly affected. Marr, who had spent the day with Douglas on a geological expedition, was also badly burned, and had a temperature of 103° F. I had to put him to bed….
The coaling was completed during the afternoon.

We had many visitors to see us off, and left finally at 4.30 p.m., setting course for St. Vincent.

The next part of our journey proved uneventful. We crossed the equator to run into hotter weather, the sun being near its northern limit of declination. With a light following wind there was no draught, and the ship was covered daily with dust and ashes from the very dirty Ascension Island coal. So bad did it turn out that Kerr and his staff had the greatest difficulty in maintaining a sufficient pressure of steam, and the work of the stokers was consequently very hard. Young, Ross and Murray (a new hand taken on at Cape Town) stuck splendidly to their work during this uncomfortable and trying stage of the journey.

Weatherpost Hill, Ascension Island, Looking East | The Whiteness Is Due To The Laterite, Which Is A Weathered Product Of Trachyte | Photo: Wilkins
A View In San Miguel In The Azores | Photo: Wilkins

We obtained at Ascension Island a number of live baby turtles, which I proposed to present to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Plymouth. On its staff are two old shipmates of mine, Messrs. Hodson, of the Discovery, and Clark, of the Endurance. We placed the turtles in one of the waterbutts on the after deck, where Wilkins fed them on small pieces of flying fish. They spent the whole day diving for pieces and fought with each other for possession of them. They are curious little creatures.

One of the men brought off a small rabbit, of which a few run wild on Ascension Island. It became a great pet and was most extraordinarily tame.

We arrived at St. Vincent on August 18th, where we completed our coaling. Here, as on our outward trip, we received kindness from the members of Messrs. Wilson, Sons and Company, Limited, and were entertained by the Eastern Telegraph Company mess.

Douglas and Wilkins carried on their investigations. Macklin, Jeffrey and Green, our fishing enthusiasts, went off to bring in a supply of fish, but returned with a small result, their time having been spent apparently in sailing the surf-boat out to Bird Rock and in bathing.

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