THE LONELY ISLAND

CHAPTER I

SOME GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY

TRISTAN DA CUNHA is one of a group of three islands situated in mid-Atlantic in latitude 37° 5' 50" south and longitude 12° 16' "40 west, or midway between South Africa and South America, and 1,320 miles from St. Helena, which is the nearest inhabited land. It is an extinct volcano, rising at its summit to a height of nearly 8,000 feet, with a circumference at its base of 21 miles. In the summit is a crater lake of icy cold water. The other islands of the group, Inaccessible and Nightingale, are distant about 20 miles from Tristan and some 10 miles from each other. Inaccessible has precipitous cliffs rising to a height of 2,000 feet, and is about 4 square miles in area; while Nightingale, with two small islets adjoining, is about 1 ½ miles across and has two peaks about 1,000 feet high. Tristan da Cunha is the only island of the group that is inhabited, and the Settlement is situated at the north-west corner on a narrow plateau about 9 miles long by 1 ½ broad, at the foot of the mountain, and about 100 feet above sea-level.

The island was discovered, by a Portuguese navigator, Tristan da Cunha, in 1506, and he gave it his own name. It became part of the British Empire by annexation in 1816.

The early history of the island has its romance of pirates and buried treasure. One Jonathan Lambert, said, with his companions, some half a dozen men and lads, to have been fugitive from justice, was the first settler. The party arrived in 1811 in a small sailing lugger with a big iron chest of loot, the plunder doubtless of many wild affrays upon the Spanish Main. At Tristan for a season the pirates settled down to a peaceful life as cultivators of the land and traders with passing ships. The island had become a port of call for many ships in those early days, the crews seeking fresh water or vegetables, and the pirates found honesty pay better than evil courses and began to grow rich. Lambert called himself by the swelling title of "Emperor of Tristan da Cunha," and issued a proclamation inviting "all the world to trade with his kingdom, and bidding none molest or injure his sovereign rights."

The pirates, however, were all addicted to rum, and, finding honesty dull, began to quarrel over their shares in the treasure of Spanish gold and gems. They had buried it for safety, it is traditionally alleged, between the two waterfalls that descend over the cliffs on to the beach. When the British garrison arrived in 1816 to take over the island there was only one survivor, an Italian half-caste, by name Thomaso Corri. The old pirate in his cups would sing of the bloodstained days of the buccaneers and boast of his untold wealth in its secret place. Sometimes he would vanish into the bush and return with handfuls of gold, but he died suddenly without telling the exact spot where the treasure is hidden and the soldiers searched in vain.

Corri boasted of silver plate, pearls and diamonds, besides rolls of golden coin, and the grandfathers of some of Tristan's oldest inhabitants repeated the story to their children in his words to them. Old Betty Cotton, who died aged ninety-four, told my husband that Corri said to her father, "The treasure is hidden somewhere on the right-hand side of the last house on the Settlement down in the direction of Little Beach, between the two waterfalls." Old Betty's mother had seen Napoleon in the flesh at St. Helena scowling from the deck of H.M.S. Bellerophon at his island prison. The ex-Emperor was dressed in tight duck trousers, a green coat and a black waistcoat, and wore a cocked hat with a huge feather. When he landed a guard of soldiers marched beside him. The people said his favourite dish was roasted bullock's heart, and he was to be seen often enjoying his chief amusement of riding on horseback.

A tragedy marked the departure from Tristan da Cunha of the British garrison only one year after its arrival. The ship sent to remove the troops, H.M.S. Julia, sloop of war, ran upon the rocks driven by a sudden gale, and over sixty souls perished. I have seen their place of burial by the lonely sea at Big Beach, but no memorial marks it now.

One William Glass, a native of Kelso, Scotland, an officer's servant and corporal of artillery, with two companions got leave to remain at Tristan when the rest of the garrison were removed by a second warship, and they were soon joined by three others, Riley, Swain, and Cotton. These were nearly all men who had fought under Nelson or guarded Napoleon at St. Helena. Swain was reported to be the very sailor who caught the dying Admiral in his arms as he fell mortally wounded on the deck of H.M.S. Victory. He lived to be a centenarian, and was buried in the island cemetery, where the inscription on his grave still remains as follows:

THOMAS SWAIN
Born at Hastings, England.
Died on 26th April, 1862.
Aged 102 years.

An amusing story of the early days relates how the first settlers obtained wives. Glass was a married man, and his neighbours, envying his domestic felicity, commissioned the obliging captain of a Norwegian whaler, one Captain Amm, to fetch them wives from abroad. He remarked, "I will do my best," and one fine summer day returned with five ladies of colour from St. Helena who had agreed to take pot-luck in the marriage market. They were lined up on the beach, inspected, admired, and each man picked the lady of his choice. They were married duly, and all lived happy ever after, or so the tale runs.

But to turn from gay to grave, William Glass was a deeply religious man, and had a good education, coupled with administrative gifts of no mean order. He was chosen headman, and in the course of a long life governed the growing community with vigour and justice.

He regularly held religious service, reading morning and evening prayer daily, and adding one of Dr. Hugh Blair's sermons on Sundays. Of these discourses he remarked, "They are very good, but no one can understand them much," and pleaded for something simpler The islanders still keep much of the patriarchal way of life instituted by William Glass, who used to assemble all his family in the house on Christmas Day, his own birthday, and other high occasions. Rev. W. F. Taylor, the missionary at the time, was of the company the year before the old man's death in 1853, and on that occasion thirty-four persons, all his descendants or connections by marriage, sat down to dinner. Glass had the remarkable family of sixteen—eight boys and eight girls. Like Swain, he is buried in the island cemetery. His monument, subscribed for and sent by his sons in America, is a handsome piece of marble. The inscription is rather an interesting one:

In memory of
WILLIAM GLASS.
Born at Kelso, Scotland,
the Founder of the Settlement of Tristan da Cunha
in which he resided 37 years, and fell asleep in Jesus
November 24, 1853, aged 67 years.

Asleep in Jesus, far from thee
Thy kindred and their graves may be
But thine is still a blessed sleep
From which none ever wakes to weep.

The next Governor of the island was Peter Green, a native of Holland, who came to Tristan some twenty years later. His ship was wrecked there, but he decided to settle on the island and he married a Tristan woman. Queen Victoria sent him her picture with an autograph signature, but when some of his family emigrated to the Cape this picture was taken away by them. He lived to be ninety-four and died in 1902. He was of fine presence and a commanding personality, and both he and his predecessor, William Glass, were instrumental in saving many lives from shipwrecked vessels.

About 1850 came Rogers and Hagan from America, and some forty years later Repetto and Lavarello, two Italian sailors, from the neighbourhood of Genoa, were shipwrecked on the island and elected to marry Tristan girls and settle there. Repetto had been a petty officer in the Italian Navy, but he became a member of the Church of England, having married a daughter of Peter Green, and, when the missionary and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Barrow, left the island in 1909, he acted as lay reader and marriage officer. He was spokesman for the island, and exercised a very good influence, until his decease a few years later.

The present population of 140, consisting of about thirty families, is the largest ever recorded in the history of the island. Their language is English, spoken with a drawl, and a peculiar high-pitched intonation. They have many local idioms, but the vocabulary is very limited.



Chapter 2