Chapter 10: The Tristan Da Cunha Group

From South Georgia we proceeded first in a northerly direction in order to get into the belt of prevailing westerlies which would give us a fair quarterly wind for Tristan da Cunha.

Whilst still in the vicinity of the island a number of soundings were carried out by Worsley and his assistants.

From the first we had bad weather, and the winds increased in force during the next few days until, on Friday, May 12th, so fierce a gale was blowing that I was compelled to take in sail and heave to. We had a most uncomfortable time, though we could expect nothing less since we were now in the “Roaring Forties.”

Macklin’s diary of May 13th is fairly descriptive of conditions about this time:

Had the middle watch. Heavy seas were running and the wind was strong with violent squalls of rain and snow. It was a dirty night. The Quest rolled worse than anything I have ever known, with staggering jerks that made it impossible to let go a support.

At times the ship sagged down so heavily to leeward that my heart was in my mouth, for it seemed as if she could never recover herself. Peering to windward as the great seas bore down upon us I was reminded of Kipling’s

Be well assured that on our side
The abiding oceans fight,
Though headlong wind and heaping tide
Make us their sport to-night.

which is comforting to know. He always seems to catch just the right expression, as:

Out of the mist into the mirk
The glimmering combers roll.
Almost these mindless waters work
As though they had a soul—

However, as the Boss used to say: “When things are bad any change is likely to be for the better.” We pour some vile epithets upon the head of poor old Quest, but she really does not deserve them, for she is always at her best when things are bad. Commander Wild says she is like a woman, quoting something about “Women in our hours of ease, perfidious, fickle, hard to please!” I suppose he knows all about it. Anyway, she has brought us through what might well have caused many a more stately ship to founder. Things have remained much the same during the day—water keeps coming over the gunwales in huge masses and hundreds of tons pass hourly across “The Rubicon,” as we call the wash of water in the waist of her. Occasionally big green seas come aboard en masse, flooding the whole ship, and find their way everywhere, through cracks in the doors, spirting through the keyholes and through the ventilators, which, with all the ports tightly closed, must be kept open.

Macklin places in my mouth an incorrect rendering which I would never apply to the gentler sex, but which is certainly very appropriate to the Quest.

“Bridget,” the pig which was presented to us by Mr. Jacobsen on leaving South Georgia, had a very miserable time, and I was almost giving instructions to have it killed right away. It was totally unable to keep its footing on the slippery deck and it was very sea-sick. I handed it over to the care of McLeod, who found it a snug berth in the bathroom, where it quickly recovered its spirits and began to develop an insatiable appetite.

In passing I may mention that the bathroom, so-called, was a small recess containing a tub situated at the side of the engine-room and opening into the starboard alleyway. It was always warm from the heat of the engines and we used it chiefly as a drying-room for clothes. It was used occasionally also on very cold nights as a warming-room for chilled night-watchmen. We possessed nothing so luxurious as a real bathroom, and, sinking modesty, we bathed ourselves from a bucket on deck. In the very cold weather those who were able to ingratiate themselves with Kerr, the chief engineer, could sometimes take their tub in front of the furnace fires. This was a real luxury.

I was glad to notice on May 14th a falling off of both wind and sea, and McIlroy predicted a spell of finer weather. On the 15th it was distinctly calmer and we were able to continue the work on deck, which in a ship at sea is interminable, but which the heavier weather had compelled us to suspend temporarily. “Bridget” emerged from her retreat and started to move about the deck, where she quickly made friends with Query. It was highly amusing to watch the antics of the two of them. She also started to make friendships amongst the hands—notably with Green, whom she quickly learned to regard as the source of her food supply. At times she became too friendly, for she began to take an interest in the cabins and wardroom. Another bad habit was that of moving about the decks at night, where she had repeated collisions with the men working the sails.

In spite of the improvement there was still a big enough sea to cause the Quest to roll heavily, and on the 18th we nearly had a nasty accident.

I had set a party, composed of Macklin, McIlroy, Jeffrey, Carr and Marr, to hoisting up from the lower hold a number of sacks of beans which had got wet and become offensive. The work, which was hard and difficult on account of the awkward motion, was being carried out, and to clear a space Macklin had sent up a large heavy ice-basket full of sundry stores, the whole weighing many hundredweights. Carr was on deck, and had received the basket when the ship gave an unusually heavy lurch. Both he and the basket were shot to the opening, and though he was able to save himself the basket fell with a crash into the hold where the men were working. Carr yelled a warning and they managed to leap clear, receiving the impact of some of the cases but escaping a direct blow. This is but one example of many “incidents” of the kind that occurred throughout the trip.

Worsley, Jeffrey, Carr, Macklin, Kerr and Green all at separate times fell through the hatch, and that none of them received serious injury is remarkable. I was fully prepared on any day to witness some accident, and that so few occurred can only be due to the special Providence that guards children, drunken men and sailors. “There’s a sweet little cherub that sits up aloft, looks after the soul of poor Jack” (sea song).

Leaving the “Roaring Forties,” the air became milder and the temperature rose, so that we were able once more to go about without heavy clothing and could cast aside mufflers, mitts and woollen caps.

We sighted Inaccessible Island just after midnight on May 19th. It appeared as a high mass with dimly marked outline obscured at the top by dark banks of cloud. As we came abreast of it the moon came out, creating a very weird effect. The island itself stood out in deep, almost Stygian, blackness, and from its summit smoke seemed to be belching in great rolling masses. High above all was the moon, showing fitfully from between scudding clouds, and in front, accentuating the effect, was a rippling silvery pathway. It reminded me of a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

I now set course direct for Tristan da Cunha, where we arrived about daybreak.

The summit of the island was entirely obscured by heavy clouds and rain fell thickly, so that everything had a dreary aspect. As the light increased we were able to pick out the little cascade which gives a good mark for the anchorage and dropped our anchor in 7¼ fathoms. Looking ashore I saw a number of small, thatched houses situated on a piece of flat ground bounded on the side of the sea by short steep cliffs. This was the settlement where the whole population of the island lived. As we saw it now, on this soaking early morning, it might have been a dead village, for there was no sign of life, either beast or human, not a wreath of smoke ascended from the chimneys, and nothing at all stirred. To attract attention I blew a blast on the steam whistle, when there was an immediate change. The people came running from their cottages and the settlement sprang to life. The men launched their boats and came off to us. The sailor’s eye was at once attracted by the boats, which are made of canvas over a wooden framework. The men themselves were an uncouth lot. They were very excited and talked a great deal in thin jabbering voices. They hastened to board us and started at once to ask for things. They proved to be a great nuisance, so I sent them all ashore, retaining only one man, Robert Glass, who seemed to be the most intelligent of them. I learnt from him that the islanders were very destitute. He asked in the name of the community for our help and, realizing that they were indeed in a bad way, I determined in the name of Mr. Rowett, who I felt sure would sympathize with my action, to give them all the relief I could.

I gave instructions to Worsley to see what could be done for them in the way of deck gear, nails, canvas, rope, paint, etc., things of which they were in great need, and told Macklin to find out what could be spared in the way of food and general equipment.

We had brought fifteen bags of letter and parcel mail from England for these islanders; we had on board also a large number of packages and cases which Macklin, who had been compelled to find room for them in the sorely restricted space at his disposal, was pleased at the prospect of being able to hand over. They included a large gramophone, a gift from the Æolian Company, and some Bovril sent by the firm as a present to the islanders.

As I was anxious to learn all I could about these people, their ways and customs and mode of life generally, I detailed Macklin to go ashore for this purpose. I also gave him instructions to take a complete census, which might be of use to the Cape Government. He remained there while the ship visited Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands, and as I have asked him to write his own account, to avoid repetition I will refrain from any further description of Tristan da Cunha itself.

The Tristan da Cunha group of islands includes the three just mentioned and two smaller islets known as Middle and Stoltenhoff respectively. They lie roughly in latitude 37 south and 12 west longitude, and they are approximately 4,000 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. Tristan is probably the most isolated inhabited island in the world.

The group was discovered by the Portuguese admiral whose name they bear, in 1506. The Dutch, at the time of their settlement in the Cape Colony, examined it with a view to making it a naval station. The East India Company also sent a ship to see if it would be worth while forming a settlement there. No one lived there, however, till early in the eighteenth century, when a man named Thomas Currie landed and decided to remain. He was joined by two American whalers, named Lambert and Williams respectively. There is a vague report, too, of a Spanish boy having somehow or other joined the party. Lambert and Williams were drowned whilst making a visit to Inaccessible Island. What happened to the other is not clear. The history of the present settlement is dealt with in the following chapter.

A British naval officer, named Nightingale, visited the group in 1760, and the crew of a sealing vessel, under command of John Patten, spent six months about the islands, collecting the skins of fur seals. The first accurate survey was made by the hydrographic staff of the Challenger, which in the course of her historic voyage round the world spent a short time here in 1873.

All hands having been recalled from the shore, we left Tristan da Cunha at 7.30 p.m. on May 20th and proceeded in the direction of Inaccessible Island, which loomed up in the dark ahead of us about midnight. We reduced speed, waiting till daylight should give us a chance to see what we were doing.

I took with me on the Quest three of the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha to act as pilots and guides about the islands. They were Bob Glass, his brother John Glass, and Henry Green.

In the early hours of the morning the wind increased and blew from the north-east with very heavy rain squalls. A landing on Inaccessible Island seemed quite impossible, so I ran for shelter under the south-west end of Nightingale Island, which we reached at about 7 a.m. I put out the surf boat and sent ashore a party, composed of Wilkins and Marr, for natural history work, and Douglas and Carr for geological purposes. Jeffrey was in charge of the boat, and I sent with him Henry Green and John Glass. They effected a landing on the south-east corner of the island, at a point where the rock rose sheer from the water, but where there was a rough ledge, on which they managed to get a footing and place their equipment, which consisted of theodolites, guns, pickaxes, bags, etc.

Here the parties separated, John Glass accompanying Wilkins, whilst Henry Green acted as guide to the geologists.

Marr writes in his diary:

We climbed a short way along the jagged rocks with our baggage and came to a flat table-like area backed by high cliffs with gigantic boulders at their base. The other party went right on up a narrow gully with the intention of inspecting a guano patch at the far side of the island. We remained here for a short space whilst Wilkins shot a number of birds and then followed up the hill. From the ship we had thought that this would be easy going up a grassy slope. We were sadly disillusioned, however, for the grass was rank tussock and grew high above our heads, from six to ten feet in length, and was extremely difficult to break through. Underfoot the ground was rotten and soaking, and at every step it gave way and we sank knee-deep and further. Mr. Wilkins kept shooting birds on the way up, but we had great difficulty in finding them in the grass. We were drenched to the skin by the time we arrived at the top, where there was open land covered with small trees and loose rocks and a peculiar round-bladed grass which grew in close tufts very difficult to walk upon. Here more birds were shot, and we started on the return journey, sliding down the soaking rotten earth, stumbling blindly through the long grass and slipping into the holes.

On reaching the bottom the party returned in the boat to the ship without waiting for the geologists. The latter had crossed the col to the northern slopes, finding, like the others, that the going was very hard on account of the tussock grass. “These (grass reeds) grow to about eight feet high,” says one of the party, “and are about half an inch in diameter, and are so dense that a man five feet away is invisible.” Examinations were made and survey work was carried out, and when it was finished the party set off back to the landing-place. Douglas writes:

… Upon reaching a small eminence we saw the Quest steaming around the north-east point. This was one of the few occasions when she added to the picture and not, through the ugliness of her lines, detracted from it. In the brilliant sunshine as she came into the mouth of the passage between Nightingale and Middle Islands, gently dipping in the north-east swell but still rolling, she made a very pretty picture.

I suppose Douglas is right when he remarks that the Quest is not a beautiful ship, for her lines certainly cannot be described as yacht-like. Yet as my affection for her grew she appeared more and more beautiful in my eyes, till, thinking of her in retrospect, I have almost a feeling of resentment at any such criticism. After all, beauty is largely a matter of what we are educated to regard as such, and our ideas change, as witness what are to us to-day the extraordinary “fashions” of only fifty years ago! The Quest is neither stately nor graceful, but she certainly has a beauty of her own. What “she” has not?

The Settlement At Tristan Da Cunha From The Sea | Photo: Wilkins
View Of The Settlement From The East | Photo: Dr. Macklin
Landing At Big Beach, Tristan Da Cunha | Photo: Dr. Macklin
A Tristan Bullock Cart | Photo: Dr. Macklin

The geological party also was safely taken off, and we lay off for the night about a mile from the land. In the morning I brought the ship closer in and, feeling my way carefully with the hand-lead, proceeded to the north of Nightingale Island. I was anxious to put Douglas ashore on Middle Island, and sent off the boat with Jeffrey, Dell and the three islanders. Douglas and Henry Green effected a landing, and in the meantime I dropped anchor in the passage where we were in shelter, the wind having come round to the west. Whilst waiting here we fished for sharks, which abound in considerable quantity and of which we caught several. They were of little use, but I have the sailor’s hatred of these rapacious brutes and had no compunction in destroying as many of them as my men could catch.

During the afternoon a strong wind blew up, and Jeffrey and Dell had the greatest difficulty in getting in to the island to pick up the party. During the more violent squalls they shipped oars and clung to the kelp which grows about here in long, strong strands. Dell describes this as the worst row he had ever experienced. They succeeded eventually and returned with the party to the ship.

Weather conditions at this time of year are not very suitable for carrying out an extensive survey and examination, and I was unable to allow Douglas any great opportunity for accurate work. He made good use of his few chances, however, and his observations are likely to prove of value.

A landing (was effected) at the south-east corner (of Nightingale) where a platform of lava extends from the foot of the low col which forms the easiest passage to the north of the island. The island is rectangular in plan, about one mile by three-quarters. The south shore is bounded by fairly high cliffs, except for one or two small platforms. The east shore is also high, and the highest point of the island rises here in very steep slopes. The col above mentioned is the low feature joining the high peak with the other high points to the west and interior of the island. It is probable that the island was once a volcano, as the central depression and various agglomeritic occurrences would testify. From the centre the island slopes down gradually towards the north, ending in low cliffs of about thirty feet high.
Nightingale Island has a single sharp peak about 2,000 feet high. Middle Island lies to the north, and is separated from it by a passage half a mile in width. Douglas says:

… The island owes its existence to two causes—first the lavas from Nightingale … must have extended well to the north, and secondly, there has been local out-welling of lava. The latter lava is extremely hard and has formed the col which has resisted the action of the sea. The first lava is so soft that it is easily worn away, which accounts for its separation from Nightingale. The island is comparatively small, being less than half a mile on its longest axis. Being close to Nightingale its flora is similar. The island does not rise higher than two hundred feet, and is girt with vertical cliffs on the west, north and east sides. The landing is at the south-east point, and there is a large cave at the most southerly point.

The island of Stoltenhoff, a little more than half a mile distant, is a huge flat-topped rock rising from the water for two hundred feet. No landing possible. The island is probably an extension of “Middle” to the north, but may represent another separate centre of activity.

We remained at anchor for the night in the passage between Nightingale and Middle Islands, and sailed at 4 a.m. for Inaccessible Island.

This island has been the scene of several shipwrecks, including that of the Blendon Hall in 1821. It does not belie its name, for as we approached it certainly looked inaccessible enough. No low land is apparent, and the whole rises sheer from the sea on every side. The weather was so uncertain that when sending the party of scientists ashore I gave instructions that stores sufficient for several days should be taken in the boat in case it should be impossible to pick the men up when we wanted to. The party took also biological and geological gear, surveying instruments, two good Alpine axes and a coil of good Alpine rope.

A landing was effected near the north-east corner, largely through the help of the Tristan islanders, whose intimate local knowledge proved of the greatest value during the whole time we spent about these islands. The beach was steep and stony, and big curling seas were breaking on it. Intervals of comparative calm occur, and by taking advantage of them a boat can be fairly easily beached. The landing effected and the gear removed, the boat was hauled up whilst the party went about their work. The beach is about a mile long and forms a very narrow strip, behind which the cliffs rise vertically for an average height of from three to four hundred feet. Half a mile to the south-east of the landing-place a narrow waterfall drops in a cascade over the edge of the cliff about three hundred and fifty feet up and has hollowed out a deep pool below. The ascent to the summit lies beyond this, and here Douglas, with John Glass and Henry Green, started the climb. These two islanders are strong, active, nimble men and wonderful climbers. Douglas gave them the greatest praise, and said that but for their assistance he could never have attained the summit. On one occasion during the descent they had to lower him over a particularly steep part with the rope. Douglas writes:

Inaccessible Island is pear-shaped, the longer axis being about three miles and the shorter two and a half miles. The land rises around the island in almost vertical cliffs about five hundred feet high. On the south and south-east there is a gradual slope up to the highest point, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. On the north and north-west sides the rim continues to rise to about 1,300 feet, and then it slopes down towards the interior and the foot of the slope of the central cone. In fact, it is a great caldera, with the southern side blown out and having a central small cone.

The interior is really a beautiful landscape of broken country, clad in verdure with a stream running through it.

Wilkins, assisted by Carr and Marr, carried out natural history investigations on the lower slope and shot a number of birds for preparation as museum specimens.

During the years 1871-73 two brothers, Germans named Stoltenhoff, lived here. They gave their name to Stoltenhoff Island. Nightingale Island derives its name from the British navigator who visited it in 1760.

All the islands of the Tristan da Cunha group have a similar flora and fauna. They are covered in parts with tussock grass (spartina arundinacea) and bracken. One small tree, the “Island tree” (phylica nitida), grows at levels up to about 2,000 feet. The smaller plants include twenty-nine species of flowering plants and twenty-six ferns and lycopods. Numerous seabirds nest on the islands, including mollymauks, terns, sea-hens or skua gulls, prions, black eaglets, “Pediunkers,” and several kinds of petrel. On the rocky beaches we saw a number of small land birds, one species of which resembled a thrush and the other a finch. They were very tame and could be easily caught. The islanders showed us several rookeries where rockhopper penguins congregate in large numbers during the nesting season. The rockhopper is a pretty bird with a crest of yellow and black feathers. Its call is rather deep and harsh—“Alōh-ha!” as nearly as I can write it.

But for the difficulty of landing Inaccessible Island would be almost as suitable a spot for a small settlement as Tristan da Cunha. A few cattle are kept there. The islanders from Tristan make frequent visits in their boats. Experience has taught them what are the most suitable weather conditions for effecting a landing. It appears that the winds follow a fairly definite cycle, and the islanders can predict with some degree of certainty the conditions likely to be met with in the next few days.

One has to give the islanders credit for their boatmanship, for their craft are frail and require the most careful handling to prevent their being stove in.

Of the men taken with us on the Quest, Henry Green and John Glass had never been away from the islands. They were really two extremely nice men. Douglas writes of Henry Green who accompanied him:

Henry proved to be a delightfully refreshing character. His simple outlook on life, facts being facts to him and needing no reason, the pride he took in his ability to climb and find his way over the islands, notwithstanding his years, and his love of his own hearth, marked him out as one of the best, if not the best, of those who live on Tristan.

What a strange life they lead, passing day after day of their long lives in this restricted environment with the same outlook, amongst the same people and with only occasionally the sight of a new face, which passing, never returns, for no one ever goes back to Tristan. As Macklin shows, their longevity is remarkable; few seem to die under ninety years of age.

I returned to the settlement via the southern side of Tristan to enable Worsley to carry out a series of soundings, and arrived there at daybreak on May 24th. We proceeded in through the kelp and came to anchor.

I allowed most of the hands ashore for the day, and detailed a party to install a portable wireless receiving apparatus which Mr. Rogers, the missionary, had brought from Cape Town. One of the masts for the aerials broke whilst being erected, and the pieces fell amongst a crowd of islanders who had gathered to watch proceedings, causing them to scamper wildly in all directions. Mr. Rogers told me that he had not learned the code, and as there are several mechanical details to be mastered it is doubtful if the apparatus is likely to be of great value.

I was up before daybreak on May 25th, to find that the wind had come round to the west and a strong swell had started to run into the anchorage. I saw that the sooner we were off the better, and blew the steam whistle for the recall of those who had spent the night ashore.

When I had told Glass on our arrival that I would be able to leave a considerable amount of general supplies for the islanders, he had said that he did not think they had stock enough on the island to pay for it. When I replied that I did not require any payment, he was most agreeably surprised, and promised to send us two or three good sheep and some fresh potatoes. I had also asked for a number of geese and poultry with the idea of placing them on Gough Island in the hope that they would settle there and breed.

The blowing of the steam whistle caused the most marked excitement amongst the islanders, who came rushing to their boats, which they launched, and, having rowed out to us, crowded aboard in dozens. Immediately there was a noise like babel let loose. Many of them approached Bob Glass, saying: “Can’t you get nothing more out of them, Bob?” As I had emptied the holds and stripped the ship of everything I could spare, and in the name of Mr. Rowett given all the relief I could to these people, I was not very well pleased at their attitude. On my asking for the sheep and potatoes and the live stock for Gough Island they suddenly remembered that they owed us something in return, and dragged up from the bottom of the boat what looked for all the world like two large and skinny rabbits. They proved to be sheep, the most miserable creatures I had ever set eyes on. They dumped aboard also two bags of potatoes which in size resembled marbles and some very indifferent-looking geese and poultry. They seemed to lose all restraint and begged for anything which caught their eye or their fancy, each man trying to get in his request before his neighbour or endeavouring to overshout him. There were no longer any requests on behalf of the community, each man trying to scrounge what he could for himself. A boatload containing some of the steadier men brought off six bags of mail, six bales of feathers and about nine bags of potatoes. These were dumped over our rail, and when I sent Macklin to find out what it was they had put aboard, they replied that they were parcels which they wished delivered to their friends in Cape Town who would send them something in return. These casual folk had made no arrangements and had not even addressed them sufficiently.

Rain had started to fall and Macklin, who knowing nothing of their coming had not prepared a place for them in the hold, turned to a group of the islanders and asked for some help to put the bales in the shelter of the alleyway, where they would be protected from the rain. Not a man stirred, each saying it had nothing to do with him. Macklin had to search out each man in turn to help with his own bag for none of them would touch anything that did not belong to him personally. We were all thoroughly disgusted with their behaviour, and on this last morning they undid any good impression we had gained of them whilst ashore.

One group of men brought me some bundles of whalebone which they asked me to buy for twenty pounds. As I had no idea of the value of the stuff I could not do it, but offered to take it to Cape Town and hand it over for disposal and have the value sent them in general goods. This arrangement they regarded with suspicion and tried hard to induce me to barter with them. It was a curious thing that all the islanders seemed to think that we had a mysterious bottomless store from which we could go on supplying quantities of pipes, tobacco, foodstuffs, etc. etc., in exchange for the most valueless trash. Knowing that as a community they stood in great need of copper nails for their boats I offered them a seven-pound bag, our all, which we could ill spare. No one man would burden himself with this on behalf of the community and it was finally left aboard.

I made full allowances for the limitations of these people, but at last they became so troublesome that I ordered them back to their boats and got ready to put to sea. Just before the last lot left some of the older men came to me and thanked me for what we had been able to do. They included Henry Green, John Glass, Tom Rogers, Old Sam Swaine and Lavarello, the Italian. I told them that they must not thank me altogether, for they owed what I had given them to a man named John Rowett far across the sea in England. John Glass said in his high piping voice: “You will see Mr. Rowett again? Then tell him that he is the koindest man that I ever know.” I promised I would. Bob Glass also brought me a letter which he wanted me to send to Mr. Rowett for him. In return I thanked them, etc. etc. Just before leaving I received a long letter from the missionary Mr. Rogers, in which he expressed the appreciation of the islanders and sent a message of gratitude to Mr. Rowett.

Though very disgusted at the time with the behaviour of these people, I felt on more mature consideration that one could not fairly judge them by instances like this. They are ignorant, shut off almost completely from the world, horribly limited in outlook, and they realized that at this moment there was slipping away from them the only possible source of acquiring the many things they so badly needed. Indeed, looking back on the whole visit to Tristan da Cunha, I am surprised that they were not much more wild and uncivilized than we found them, and they were, I believe, at any rate the older men among them, really grateful for what we had been able to do.

I think their characters may be somewhat roughly summed up by describing them as “a lot of grown-up children.”

Top of Page | Next Chapter