Chapter 11: Tristan Da Cunha

By Dr. Macklin [13]

We arrived at Tristan da Cunha on May 20th, 1922, just as dawn was breaking. A fine rain was falling and all the upper part of the island was shrouded in mist. The islanders seemed to be still in bed, for we saw no signs of activity until Commander Wild blew the steam whistle, which brought them running from their houses in haste, evidently very excited, for we saw them pointing towards us. The men ran down a steep winding path leading to a beach of black sand where a number of boats were drawn up. They launched the boats and came out towards us as fast as they could row.

At first sight the people presented a curious spectacle. They were rather a wild-looking lot, and were clothed in every conceivable kind of male attire, which seemed to be the cast-off clothing of sailors who had called at the island. One man in particular was wearing the queerest mixture: an evening dress jacket, striped cotton shirt, dungaree trousers, whilst on his head was an officer’s peaked cap!

The majority of them were white, but many showed signs of a coloured ancestry in a dusky complexion and features of a distinctly negroid type.

Their boats attracted our attention, for they are made of canvas over a framework of wood. These are ingenious pieces of work and built on very shapely lines. The canvas is begged from passing ships. The crosspieces are made from the branches of small, stunted apple trees which are grown on the island, but for the pieces which form the keel and the main part of the frame they are dependent on chance bits of driftwood thrown up on the beaches.

On this day there was a considerable swell running, which made it dangerous for more than one boat to come alongside at a time, the others lying off at a safe distance. It was apparent that the islanders did not care to submit their frail craft to any more bumping than was necessary. In their excitement they made a tremendous noise, shouting to each other in voices which were curiously thin and high-pitched.

As soon as the first boat came alongside a strong active man with a cheery face leapt on to our gunwale and clambered aboard. He told us his name was John Glass, and he seized those of us whom he could reach in turn by the hand, exclaiming in a piping voice that contrasted strangely with his powerful frame: “I’m glad to see you all. How are you? Have you had a good trip?” Another man, taller and more slimly built, quickly followed him and made his way to the bridge. He was wearing an old khaki overcoat, and was shod on one foot with a worn-out leather boot and on the other with a sort of moccasin made of cowskin. Several others came aboard and started at once to ask for things, saying: “Say, Mister, you ain’t got an old pair of boots, have you?” or “Mister, I’m building a boat—can you spare a few nails?” “Mister, can I have a piece of salt beef?”—always the prefix of “Mister,” said in a most ingratiating tone. The requests were made to anybody whom they encountered, no matter how busily engaged. When told to “Wait a little and we’ll see what can be done,” they would say, for example, “Well, my name’s Swaine—young Sam Swaine, son of old Sam Swaine. You won’t forget, will you?” Often two or three of them bombarded one man at the same time, when they raised their voices, both in volume and pitch. They made themselves such a general nuisance in this way and, together with those in the boats, who kept calling continually to those aboard, raised such a pandemonium that Commander Wild approached John Glass and asked him if there was a “head-man” of the island or recognized representative of the community.

John Glass promptly replied, “I am!” but continued in the same breath, “There ain’t no head-man now. Bob Glass, my brother—that’s him on the bridge—he’s head-man. Anyways, he’s the best one for you to talk to. He’s got the larnin’!” Having “got the larnin’” meant that he could read and write.

Bob Glass was told to remain on the ship. The rest were packed off into their boats and sent ashore to await the blowing of the steam whistle as a signal for their return. Glass, the tall, slim man who had made for the bridge, proved to be an intelligent fellow. We asked him to have breakfast with us. He accepted the invitation without embarrassment, and showed himself much more at ease than one would have expected from anyone living in so remote a part of the world.

From him Commander Wild learnt that there had been only one ship to the island in the last eighteen months—a Japanese steamer, which had brought a missionary and his wife, but which had immediately proceeded without letting them have supplies of any kind. Glass had made his way to the captain in the hope that an explanation of their needs and of their peculiar situation might induce him to allow them some stores, but he was promptly ordered off the ship. The captain, relenting a little at the last moment, gave him as a personal present a bundle of coloured postcards, all of them with the same picture—a very highly coloured impressionistic view of Fuji-yama, the sacred mountain of Japan! They had received quite a considerable mail from people in the outside world who took an interest in this isolated community, but, as Glass remarked contemptuously, “Chiefly clothes for the womenfolk.” The missionary had brought some supplies, but, according to our informant, hardly enough for himself and his wife. The people were at the present time very badly off and were, indeed, destitute of what elsewhere might well be considered absolute essentials, such as articles of clothing, cooking and table utensils, wood, canvas for the upkeep of their boats, nails, tools, rope, wire, etc. For a long time they had been without luxuries in the way of food, such as tea, sugar, flour or biscuit, and commodities such as soap, candles, etc.

In the old days, said Glass, the settlement had been much better off, for ships had appeared within reach of their boats many times a year, and with them they had bartered live stock and potatoes, produced on the island, for what they themselves required in the way of general commodities. Nowadays, ships seemed to have entirely left the ocean, and they were in a bad way.

He and his brother, John Glass, are direct descendants of Corporal William Glass, who founded the settlement. He accounted for his “larnin’” and general knowledge of conditions by the fact that he had been away from the island for eighteen years, had apparently travelled a good deal on one job and another, and mixed with people. During the South African war he had served with Kitchener’s Scouts, and had received the Queen’s medal. We gathered that he was not lacking in common sense and had a pretty shrewd knowledge of the value of things.

Of the truth of his statements with regard to the condition of the community there could be little doubt, and a visit to the settlement made later in the day showed that he had not exaggerated. They made an earnest appeal to us for help, and Commander Wild decided to do all that was in his power to alleviate their hardships.

We had, fortunately, on board a considerable quantity of bulk stores in the way of biscuits, flour, Brazilian meal, beans, etc., which had been kept in reserve in view of the possibility of our being frozen in and compelled to winter in the Antarctic. These Commander Wild offered to Glass, with as much as could be spared from our stores of a wide variety of foods, such as tea, sugar, coffee, cocoa, dried milk, Quaker oats, lentils, split peas, jam, chocolate, cheese, tinned meats, tinned fish, salt beef, candles, matches and soap. We gave them also from the deck stores a quantity of planking, rope, wire, nails, paint, canvas, and two good spars.

In addition to this we had brought with us in the ship a large letter and parcel mail and numerous packages sent privately for the islanders, including several sent in gratitude by a sailor who had been shipwrecked there and who had been very kindly treated. We had a busy day getting all these goods out of the hold and stacking them along the ship’s side ready to be placed in the boats. When all was ready we signalled the return of the others, who, as soon as they had approached to within a measurable distance of the ship, started shouting innumerable questions to Bob Glass. The purport of them all was: “What are they going to give us?”

Glass clambered on to the gunwale of the ship and started shouting back in a high, piping voice. We saw their faces, which had worn a look of anxiety, suddenly break into smiles when they heard what we could do, and they became like a lot of schoolboys informed of a holiday, shouting gleefully to each other and singing snatches of song. Indeed, these people are very childlike in many of their ways.

The loading was an awkward job. Everything had to be lowered slowly and carefully over the side and placed gently in the boats, for, being made of canvas and frail craft at best, anything dropped into them with a bump would assuredly have gone through the bottom. The difficulty was increased by the swell and the rolling of the Quest, which caused the boats to rise and fall and surge in and out in the most awkward manner. We were interested to note that many of the islanders who came aboard were sea-sick, but recovered when they clambered back into their own boats. Evidently they were used to the short, quick motion of the smaller boats, whilst the more pronounced roll of the Quest upset them. They plied to and fro till everything was ashore, where it was stacked in an imposing pile at the top of the beach.

Nightingale Island | Photo: Dr. Macklin
Inaccessible Island | Photo: Wilkins
The Wireless Pole In Process Of Erection For The Missionary At Tristan Da Cunha. Mcleod, Watts And Commander Wild Standing By Pole | Photo: Dr. Macklin
Carr And Douglas With Two Tristan Guides Henry Green And Glass | Photo: Wilkins

After lunch I went ashore with Worsley and some others of the party. We went in an “island” boat. Worsley, known amongst the South Sea Islanders as “Tally ho,” from his habit when approaching through the surf of shouting the well-known hunting call, “Yoicks! Tally ho, tally ho, tally ho-ooo-oh!” insisted on taking the steer oar, and as the boat neared the beach raised his cry, to the amusement of the crew and the people on shore. They enjoy little jokes. On the beach there was a scene of activity. The goods were being loaded into small carts, each drawn by two bullocks. They were rough and primitive affairs. The wheels were made from sections of a tree which had been blown up on the island some years previously. The oxen were small but strong looking.

The way from the beach led up a winding rocky pathway to the top of a cliff, and thence along to the settlement, distant about half a mile.

Tristan da Cunha, in the greater part of its extent, is very mountainous, but on the northern side there is a stretch of flat land about six miles long and from half to one mile deep. Behind it rises the mountain, sheer and steep, to a height of from two to three thousand feet, from where it slopes more gradually to the summit. In front cliffs, fifty or sixty feet high, drop abruptly to the sea, but are broken here and there by beaches of black sand.

The settlement, composed of a number of small stone cottages, is situated on the eastern end of the flat land, which is grass-covered and strewn with boulders. The western end provides good grazing ground for sheep and cattle, and in the sheltered spots small portions are set aside for growing potatoes.

On the way we met several women and children. The women were well built and healthy looking, and wore, like the men, a variety of clothing. They also showed differences of colour and feature, one whom I noticed being quite blonde. The children are attractive, very quiet and demure in their deportment—what the islanders themselves call “old fashioned.” I do not think their demureness was altogether due to the presence of strangers amongst them, for before I finally left the island I had had a chance to observe them in their play and made friends with a number of them, but I never saw anything approaching boisterousness.

In many respects the settlement differed little from an Irish village. Geese waddled about the common and showed their resentment of too close an approach with the usual hissing and stretching of the neck. All about were little pigs—long-nosed and lean-flanked, obviously not far removed in type from the original “wild pig”—which were rooting up the earth with their snouts. Each had an attendant fowl which accompanied it in its movements and picked at the newly turned earth. There are a number of dogs on the island, mongrel curs of which one would grudge even the admission that they were “just dog,” and there seems to be a regular feud between them and the pigs. Whenever a dog, accompanying his master on a walk, encounters a pig, it rushes up, barking furiously, and only desists when the pig, squealing violently, is stretched at full speed. The pig gets very angry, but immediately after goes on rooting. There was something very ludicrous about this little piece of byplay, which always provoked a laugh from us. On the slope behind the settlement a flock of sheep, numbering a hundred or so, was grazing. Here and there about the common I saw donkeys, all of them very diminutive.

At the entrance to the settlement we came to a brisk little stream of clear water, which we crossed by a ford. We were met by Mr. Rogers, the missionary, who had recently come to the island.

There are in all about twenty completed houses and others of which the walls have been built, but which, from lack of material, have never been roofed over. The first one we came to belonged to Henry Green, a small, self-reliant man whom we had already met on the ship. He gave us a cordial invitation to come in at any time we cared. He had a small flagstaff, from which flew a Union Jack that had been presented to the islanders.

Commander Wild had detailed me to stay on Tristan da Cunha whilst the ship proceeded to Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands, and I now made inquiries as to where I could stay. Bob Glass said immediately: “You come right ’long to my house, and I’ll tell my wife she got to look after you and give you everything she got, which ain’t much, I may tell you.” He now led me to it, and introduced me to his wife and family, which numbered eight—six boys and two girls. His wife, who was a second wife and not the mother of any of his children, was a very pleasant woman, with quiet, natural manners. She told me she would be glad to put me up for as long as I cared to stay on the island. The members of the family varied in age from a young man of twenty-two years—who was married and had two children of his own—to a bright lad of eight. The girls, aged twenty and seventeen respectively, seemed to be very pleasant, but had little to say, being, I think, rather shy and bashful in the presence of a stranger. Bob Glass said to me after: “That gel Wilet”—Violet, the elder—“she’s a foine gel; me and she never had a crōss word. But that there Dōrothee—she’s wery loively.”

Quite what form the liveliness took I never learnt, but his words led me to believe that Miss Dorothy was a less dutiful and obedient daughter than Violet.

This house resembles all the other houses of the settlement, which are erected to more or less the same design, being long, low, oblong structures built of stones of considerable size and weight. The side walls are usually a little more than two feet thick, and the end walls are heavily buttressed. They all face the same way, so as to be end on to the prevailing winds, which blow at times with great strength and with sudden violent gusts.

The roofs are composed of wooden beams, and are thatched over with tussock grass, which is made into bundles and lashed securely to the beams so that they overlap from above downwards. A layer of turf is placed to cover the apex where the two sides meet. The ceilings and floors are made of wood—odd pieces begged from ships, taken from packing cases or found along the seashore—collected only with much patience over a period of months or years before enough is accumulated for the purpose. Much of the planking in the older houses has been derived from ships wrecked on one or other of the islands. In the house of Mrs. Repetto there is a piece from the stern of a small vessel bearing the name Mabel Clarke which had gone ashore forty years previously. The insides of the stone walls are faced with wood in the same way. The space left between thatch and ceiling is used universally as a store room. Windows, except in the case of one of the houses, are on one side only, and face the sea to enable a good look out to be kept for passing ships. The exception is in the house just mentioned, that of Mrs. Repetto, whose husband (deceased), an Italian sailor, survivor of a ship wrecked on the island, must have been a man of much ingenuity and practical ability, for the house is much better equipped and furnished in every way than any other in the settlement.

Taken on the whole, the houses keep remarkably dry and are durable, though the tussock thatch often requires renewing in patches and the turf is often lifted away in the fiercer gales. They are divided, in the majority of cases, by a single wall into living-room and bedroom, but a few have an additional room. There is a fireplace at one end of the living-room made of stone, with two or three pieces of iron let in. In some of the houses the cooking is done in these fireplaces, but in others, especially where the family is a large one, an annexe is built on to the end of the house to act as a kitchen. In one or two of the better houses a separate kitchen is included in the main building. Each house boasts a table and some chairs, often very rickety, and most of them have also a wooden settee, or “sofa,” as it is generally called. Some possess tablecloths and sofa covers and have a few bright pictures on the walls. Others are lacking in these luxuries, the walls being bare or adorned only with one or two tracts. As a rule the houses are kept clean, but in this they vary very much, depending upon the occupants. One must understand some of the difficulties they have in this respect. Brushes and brooms are a rarity; they use whisks made from the “island tree,” which answer only moderately well. They are often without soap, and when there is any on the island it has to be used with the greatest economy. Taking everything into consideration, I think they are to be congratulated upon what they achieve in this way.

Rats came ashore from a ship called the Henry B. Paul, wrecked on the back of the island. They increased and multiplied so rapidly that they have overrun the place and are found in the lofts of every house. To combat them a few cats are kept, but whilst I was living ashore I preferred the company of the rats to that of the cats, which are most unpleasant brutes and more than half wild.

Fleas swarm all over the settlement, and none of the houses seem to be wholly free from them. As a doctor, I had occasion to examine many of the people. Nearly all of them were extensively flea-bitten, but some seemed to have escaped their ravages. I found no trace of other body parasites.

Any man starting to build a house here sets himself a difficult task. The stone is fairly easily obtained and set up. Boulders carried down from the mountain strew the lower slopes, and there are plenty in the neighbourhood of the settlement. They are brought in by securing them with chains to which bullocks are attached, the number of animals varying with the size of the boulder. They are dragged bodily over the ground, the work, however, being the easier in that most of the distance is down hill. Soft boulders are selected, and are cut to shape with small axes. A number of men sit or kneel about the boulder to be cut, chipping away little pieces in turn with rapid strokes of the axe.

Wood presents to the prospective builder a much harder problem, and many a young man anxious to marry or a young married couple eager for their own home have to spend long weary months, or even years, in accumulating the wood necessary to make the roof, the ceiling or the floor. The shores, not only of Tristan da Cunha, but also of Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands, are eagerly searched for driftwood. Especially is it difficult to collect the crossbeams, those in existence having come from wrecked ships. The islanders regard it as a regrettable fact that “wracks” are becoming more and more scarce. Many of the occupied houses are only partially ceilinged over, and have holes in the floor which their occupants are unable to complete or repair for lack of the necessary wood. The holes in the floor, if not too large, are covered by boxes in which belongings, the lares et penates, are kept.

When completed, the houses make snug little dwellings and adequately meet the needs of the islanders.

As Commander Wild was not leaving for Inaccessible Island till next day, I slept that night on the Quest, but told Mrs. Glass that I should come ashore the next day to stay. I felt that my board might be a bit of a burden to her, and was anxious to bring with me sufficient stores amply to cover my stay.

The next day (May 20th) was beautifully fine, with bright sunshine. Commander Wild sent ashore the scientific staff, with assistants, to carry on their special work. Jeffrey verified the position of the settlement and took bearings of all the more salient points on the northern side of the island. Wilkins took his cameras and cinematograph machine, and had a busy day photographing the people in the various stages of their work, family groups, cottages and, indeed, anything of interest. Carr made observations of the flat land to the west of the settlement with regard to its future usefulness as a landing-place for aircraft. Douglas made an ascent to the peak of the mountain for geological purposes, whilst McIlroy seized the opportunity of discussing with Mr. Rogers, the missionary, meteorological work and observations.

The most interesting event of the day was a parade of the Tristan troop of Boy Scouts, which was turned out for Commander Wild’s inspection. The troop was instituted by Mr. Rogers on his arrival, and was, of course, still very raw. It was surprising to note how well these boys looked and how altered in appearance they were after changing from their nondescript garments to the smart new uniforms. After considerable manœuvring, they were finally drawn up on parade, when Marr, in full Scout uniform with kilt, formally presented a Scout flag specially sent out by Sir Robert Baden-Powell for this purpose. The boys felt a little bit overcome by the occasion and responded indifferently to the words of command, but under the circumstances any but the most friendly criticism would be unfair. The boys appeared to be keen, Mr. Rogers was keen, and it is probable that the next people to hold an inspection will see a very different turnout. Everyone on the island witnessed the ceremony, and all the women donned their best clothes for the occasion. I had thought that they would have taken a greater interest in the kilt, but they seemed hardly to notice it—unlike the women of France and Italy, who during the war were so fascinated by the Highland uniforms. Mr. Rogers and Marr had quite a lengthy talk on Scout matters.

The islanders very hospitably looked after all who had come ashore, which included most of the crew of the Quest, inviting them to their houses for meals. Jeffrey and I had both lunch and dinner with Bob Glass, waited upon royally by Mrs. Glass, “Wilet” and “Dōrothee,” whilst a large number of peeping faces grouped themselves about the door and windows.

After the parade of Scouts Commander Wild went back to the ship. He permitted the others to stay longer, but gave instructions that they were to go aboard before dark. There was some delay, however, and to hurry them up he fired a detonator, which burst with a loud report and a spangle of stars and reverberated in numerous echoes from the hillside. The effect was extraordinary. Every living thing on the island was thoroughly startled; dogs bolted and yelped, girls and children screamed and ran for the houses, whilst sheep, pigs, geese and poultry scampered in all directions in the wildest confusion.

Soon afterwards I saw the lights of the Quest passing out in the direction of Inaccessible Island. With her went three of the islanders whom Commander Wild had taken to act as pilots and guides. They were Robert and John Glass and Henry Green.

I had spent the day in seeing sick people or people who thought that, seeing a doctor had come to the island, they might just as well get him to have a look at them. The men came to see me at Robert Glass’s house, and later Mrs. Glass conducted me on a tour of the settlement to see a number of women patients. There were numerous minor ailments: sprains, old fractures, or “brocks,” as the islanders call them, which had reunited with serious deformity, rheumatism, and a condition they call “ashmere,” meaning asthma. This seems to be the most prevalent complaint on the island. Taken on the whole, however, they are a very healthy little community.

I had with me in my medical equipment a small portable electric battery. In the evening a man named Tom Rogers, who had received an injury to his arm some time before, came for treatment, and I gave him some electrical massage. He was delighted with the sensation, and made everyone who came to the house take the terminals and feel it also. I got several of them to join hands, and passed the current through all of them at one time. Tom Rogers kept sending for more and more people to “feel the electricity” until the house was full. Finding that the current passed through any part of the body that was touched, he determined to play a joke on a new-comer, suddenly touching his ear whilst a strong current was passing. The new-comer, Gordon Glass, who had never seen such a thing before, was considerably startled, to the great joy of all the others, who thoroughly appreciated the joke and retailed it all over the settlement, to my undoing, for I had to demonstrate the experiment again and again.

I found that these islanders, when gathered together, were a genial, pleasant lot, very good tempered, and quick to see humour. Though intelligent in many respects, most of them had absolutely no interest in anything happening outside the island; but, considering their isolated position and lack of communication with the rest of the world, together with their inability to read, this can easily be understood.

Bob Glass had given his family instructions to put me in his bed and to clear out of the house and leave me to myself. Goodness knows where they went to. I turned in and quickly fell asleep, to awake very soon with a sensation that all was not well. The trouble proved to be a countless host of small marauders, which were very persistent and voracious. I had no more sleep that night.

The next day (Sunday, 21st) I was up early. Mrs. Glass brought me a cup of very strong black coffee without sugar or milk. Acting probably on her husband’s instructions, she brought me also some hot water for shaving. This accomplished, I sallied forth to the clear brook and started sponging down, to find myself, much to my embarrassment, an object of interest to sundry small children of both sexes.

Breakfast was served to me in solitary state, which was a disappointment, for I had hoped to sit down with the family. The meal consisted of mutton and potatoes, as did all the meals I had whilst remaining on the island. Mrs. Glass would have fed me on her share of the stores from the Quest, but I told her I was tired of ship’s food and wanted a change.

The weather had changed; it was raining hard, and the wind having come round to the north-west, from which direction it blew up strongly, it looked as if a landing would not be effected on Inaccessible Island. I wondered what the Quest was doing—at least, I knew very well what she was doing, and felt glad I was on terra firma.

I called on the Rev. and Mrs. Rogers, and later went to church, the service being held in the little schoolroom. It was well attended. One side of the room was filled by the women, who left their husbands to get in where they could. They looked well in their best cotton dresses, with bright-coloured handkerchiefs tied over their hair. This form of headgear is very picturesque, very practical, and eminently suited to this wind-blown island. I was accompanied by my hostess, and hoped to get a back seat where I could see all that was going on; but room being made for me on the front bench, I was bound to accept. I regret to say that I was guilty of many turnings of the head. The service was short and simple. I was surprised at the hearty way in which everyone, both men and women, joined in the hymns, which, as most of them could not read, they must have learnt by heart. I was told that the wife of a previous missionary had taught them a number of the best-known hymns, and that the “New Missus” (Mrs. Rogers) was bringing them up to scratch again in their singing. A larger place is necessary, for the room was filled and several people hung about the door unable to find a seat. All the missionaries who have been on the island have tried to persuade the people to build a church for themselves, but without success.

After church I called on Gaetano Lavarello, one of the shipwrecked sailors from the Italia, a Genoese by birth. I spoke to him in his own language, which he understood, but found when he attempted to reply that he had lost the fluent use of his mother tongue, having for nearly forty years spoken nothing but English. He expressed himself as quite content with life on the island. He had married a Glass, and had several children. He said the thing he felt the lack of most was tobacco. He had not had a smoke for a long time, and asked me if I could give him some plug or a stick of hard tobacco, offering in exchange a sheep. He said: “I have the largest flock and the best sheep on the island, and I will give you a good one.” Unfortunately, I had no tobacco, but told him I had no doubt that Commander Wild would give him some when the ship returned, and would not require the sheep.

I then called on Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. They are known by the islanders as “Reverend Rogers” and “The Missus,” which names I adopted, for there are so many “Rogers” on the island as to be confusing. They asked me to have lunch, during which they told me of the difficulties and heavy expenses they had been put to in order to come out and take up their work on this island. Apparently it was an entirely individual enterprise, and the Church organization had taken no part in it at all. The first assistance of any sort which they had received was at Cape Town, where considerable interest is taken in this little outpost.

The “Missus” was only nineteen years of age, and had had no previous experience to guide her in her preparations for the life she was to lead. It takes a lot of pluck for a woman to cut herself off from all home connexions and bury herself in a small spot like this, shut off entirely from the outside world, without guidance or counsel in the changes and chances which fall to the lot of every married woman. I admired the courage and enthusiasm with which she faced her self-imposed task, which included not only the instructing of the unwilling youth of Tristan da Cunha in cleanliness, morality and the “three R’s,” but also such multifarious duties as nurse, midwife, scribe, reader and general adviser to the womenfolk.

In the afternoon I again visited some of my patients. One woman was really very ill and in need of hospital attention. I did my best to persuade her to go to Cape Town. The husband, on having things represented to him, was agreeable, but there were numerous objections. I asked “The Missus” to use her influence to persuade her to seize the chance of a passing vessel to go. It must be admitted that this reluctance to leave the island is natural. These people have no money and are not well off for clothes (I believe this was the chief objection in the mind of the good lady herself), and the leaving of the island to those who have known nothing else resolves itself into a great adventure into an unknown world.

Commander Wild had asked me to take a census of the island, and this I proceeded to do, visiting the houses in turn. There was considerable vagueness about ages, and in many cases about names also. On more than one occasion a man (it was always the stupid male sex) did not seem clear about his own name, sometimes contradicting himself or appealing to bystanders for confirmation. As may be gathered from the history of the settlement, with comparatively few exceptions everyone on the island is either a Glass, Green, Swaine or Rogers. Consequently, individuals are better known by Christian names than by surnames, which probably accounts for their vagueness. It is rather remarkable that with so few names amongst them the new chaplain should be a Rogers.

The history of Tristan da Cunha is interesting. The island was discovered in 1506 by a Portuguese navigator, Tristão da Cunha, from whom it takes its name, and though individuals on different occasions lived on it for short periods at a time, for three hundred years it remained nobody’s property. It was formally annexed by Great Britain in 1816, and a garrison, consisting of about one hundred men, placed there, with the object of resisting any attempt by foreign Powers to use it as a base of operations for the rescue of Napoleon from St. Helena. The garrison remained for a year only. Corporal Glass, of the Royal Artillery, a native of Kelso, in Scotland, asked for, and received, permission to stay. He had married a coloured woman from Cape Colony, and had at the time two children. It was no doubt the possession of this black wife that chiefly influenced his decision. He was joined by Alexander Cotton and Thomas Swaine, two members of the relief ship. This little party was augmented by some shipwrecked American whalers, but none of them remained long, the only names persisting to-day of the original settlers being Glass, Swaine and Cotton. Some twenty years later Pieter William Green, a Dutchman, was wrecked on Inaccessible Island, and having made his way to Tristan da Cunha, elected to remain. About the middle of the century two American whalers, Rogers and Hagan, also settled there, and more recently, within the present generation, two Italian sailors, Andreas Repetto and Gaetano Lavarello, survivors cast upon the shores from the wreck of the sailing ship Italia, were so determined never again to risk their lives upon the ocean that they also threw in their lot with the islanders and stayed.

Of the original settlers, only Glass was married. The others obtained wives through the good offices of the captain of a whaling vessel, who brought five women from St. Helena. It was a funny way of choosing their mates, and the islanders of to-day speak of the incident as a great joke, guessing at the feelings of their great grandsires when they went to meet their brides and speculating upon the methods adopted in the selection. Occasionally the settlement has been temporarily augmented by other shipwrecked sailors, who seized an early opportunity to get away in some passing ship. There is evidence to show that they introduced a certain amount of new blood amongst the islanders, for some of them had children which were born after their departure. No new names were introduced, however, for the children adopted the names of the mothers. This factor must be taken into account when considering the effects upon the present generation of intermarriage and consanguinity.

The original garrison brought to the island a considerable quantity of live stock in the shape of cattle, sheep, pigs, geese, poultry, donkeys and goats, and were responsible for the laying down of the “potato patches,” small walled-in potato gardens situated about two miles to the west of the settlement under the lee of some high mounds. The live stock throve, and there are representatives to-day of every species except the goats, which took to the hills, but were destroyed by the heavy torrents which rapidly form and sweep down the gullies whenever there is heavy rain.

From time to time attempts have been made to introduce corn, maize and vegetables of different sorts, but owing to the violent winds which prevail they have never been a success. Practically the only vegetable grown in useful quantity to-day is the pumpkin, and this is in no great abundance. In the sheltered gullies at the back of the island there are some very stunted apple trees which produce small crops of apples.

The herds, from which they derive their supply of meat, milk and butter, and the potatoes have met the chief food requirements of the islanders, but for everything else they have relied upon trade with passing merchant ships and whalers.

John Glass And Family | Photo: Dr. Macklin
The Mission House On Tristan Da Cunha | Photo: Dr. Macklin
The “Potato Patches” On Tristan Da Cunha | Photo: Wilkins

In the days, not very remote, when a number of sailing ships were making the Australian passage round the Cape of Good Hope and during the period of whaling activity, the islanders throve, for the ships were glad to obtain fresh meat and potatoes, and gave in exchange things of general value, such as clothes, tools and materials, and flour, sugar, tea and soap. With the establishment of fixed whaling stations ashore and the rapid disappearance of sailing ships in favour of steamers, which are more or less independent of winds and follow fixed routes, carry refrigerating plants, and to whom delay means loss of money, this trade by barter has languished and died away. They are a prolific people. The population has increased and is likely to increase more rapidly with every generation, so that their needs to-day are greater than they have ever been since the foundation of the settlement.

For this history of the island I am indebted to Miss Betty Cotton, an interesting old lady of ninety-five years, to whom I paid many visits. In spite of her age she is still very bright and active, with a clear memory for past events, of which she took a pleasure in narrating to me the salient facts I have set down, together with a wealth of more intimate detail which might well fill a volume. In everything which it was possible to verify I found her to be very accurate. Indeed, she was really a wonderful old lady, for she still moved actively about the settlement on fine days. She regretted, however, that she was no longer able to face the fiercer gusts of wind and her sight was very bad. She asked me to give her some pills, not because she felt ill, but had, I suppose, the general impression that some pills would do her good.

It is extraordinary how all the inhabitants carry their age, many of those who should normally be entering the “sere and yellow” being still bright and active and in appearance middle-aged. Many middle-aged people, in the same way, give the appearance of youth. This applies to both sexes, but more particularly to the men.

Certainly in this island, situated “far from the madding crowd,” there is little of the nerve-racking wear and tear of modern civilization. Freedom from epidemic diseases, the impossibility of over-indulgence in tobacco, alcohol or faked-up foods, the pure atmosphere and the healthy open-air life which they are compelled to lead are, no doubt, factors in producing this longevity.

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