ISLAND COTTAGE, WITH THE LATE BETTY COTTON IN THE GROUP


THE MISSION HOUSE, WITH MRS. ROGERS AND COMMANDER FRANK WILD IN FRONT



CHAPTER IV

LIFE ON TRISTAN DA CUNHA

MR. AND MRS. TOM ROGERS were very kind to us, and did everything in their power to make our stay in their house agreeable, but there were many inconveniences.

Our little room was almost full with our boxes. The family still lived in the kitchen of the house by day and slept out at night. There was one boy, "Paddy," who was a nephew—they had no children of their own and had adopted him. He was about twelve years of age. It was curious to find so many families of the same name as our own on the island; there were, in fact, five families with this surname. Before we did much unpacking we had to arrange with the men to bring up our tiny frame house, which we had brought out with us, from the beach, where it had been landed by the Japanese, and put it together. As it was too clumsy to go in the little boats, it had been put in the sea and rafted ashore. It got very wet and sandy, but the sun soon dried the timbers, and, as every board and section was numbered, it was not difficult to erect. We had to choose a site for it. The men remarked, "The whole Settlement is open for you to choose from. We will build wherever you wish." Tom Rogers said, "I will give a piece of my own land, near to my house, and my wife can help the Missus with her work." We accepted with thankfulness, although we could see some disadvantages as it was near to a lot of sheep-pens, but we had also access to a spring or water-brook, and there was a ready-made garden. The men worked with a good will, and on April 8, 1922, we moved into our own house, quite glad to have a place to ourselves. It seemed more private and homelike. The men had taken a good deal of trouble in preparing the ground before erecting the house, levelling the earth and getting up big boulders of rock which abound everywhere.

Directly we moved in, however, fresh difficulties arose. The house was terribly small, only 19 feet long, and divided into two rooms, bedroom and sitting-room. All our belongings except some cases of stores were crowded in, and we could scarcely move round. In my state of health I could not do any really hard work, so my husband had to do most things. Then Tom Rogers, acting as spokesman for the rest, came to us and said: "The men say that a lot must be done to make your house safe for you to live in it. It is so lightly built, of such thin materials, the big Tristan winds will blow it down and smash it all up, and you might get hurt. We must erect a high stone wall on three sides as a shelter, and fasten the house down with ropes and bolt the foundation to heavy timbers. The men are waiting to begin at once."

There was soon a great bustle round us. Ox teams, drawing stones in the carts peculiar to Tristan, plied busily to and fro, while a gang of hands worked at the building up as fast as the stones were unloaded. The walls were as high as the roof. The men then threw a couple of stout wire rope hawsers over the roof fixed to baulks of timber and placed a couple of supporting props. The foundations were secured by heavy iron bolts to stout timbers, and we felt we might sleep in security. The men used the wood they were saving for a new boat's keel, as it was the only long, thick timber available, surely a fine piece of unselfishness when you think how hard it is to get wood here and how invaluable boats are to them. I think they were still a bit anxious, and when a very heavy gale arose and the house timbers creaked ominously, we were sometimes roused in the night by hearing footsteps of anxious watchers come to see we were not in danger of being blown to pieces.

Our next bother was our cooking stove. It was of iron, with a high stove pipe and chimney outside, but it drew so fiercely that we could not bear the heat, and the walls began to scorch in spite of a sheet-iron protection. It was impossible to use it, as it was meant to burn coal and wood did not suit it. We asked Tom Rogers's advice, and he and the men decided to build us a small stone kitchen near the house and fit it with an island firegrate. This is of stone, with two iron crossbars to rest pots upon, and is generally on a level with the floor.

The people brought us a good supply of fuel, but the wood has to be fetched some considerable distance in boats, involving several hours' work to procure it. There is no longer any wood left near the Settlement or on the lower levels of the mountain. The firewood is from a big shrub-like tree called "Island tree" (Phylica nitida). It is only met with in the Tristan group, and one other lonely island, Amsterdam Island, in the Indian Ocean. It burns even in a green state. Curiously, it once grew at a much lower level, but was destroyed by the ravages of some insect years ago.

The kitchen took a few days to construct, and in the meantime we had to get all our cooking done at Tom Rogers's house. When at length the kitchen was finished Andrew Swain, who seemed to be fiddler-in-chief to the island, fetched his fiddle, and, sitting on the floor in a corner, played a lively tune, and the builders took turns in dancing round and round the tiny room in couples and in and out of the door. Afterwards one or two men with good voices favoured the company with some quaint old sea songs, all present joining in the chorus. This is done in every newly finished house, "for good luck," they say. Before they left I gave to all cups of tea and some biscuits. Mrs. Tom Rogers helped me prepare the refreshments and handed them round. We then shook hands with all the men, and said, "Thank you all very much for your work in building us our kitchen." The men replied, "Very welcome, marm." As we were moving in our belongings a few curious passers-by peeped in "just to have a look," and two of the women came along and swept up the room and gave the floor a scrub down. Tom Rogers put up some neat shelves for us with hooks for cups and jugs, and also made me a nice little corner cupboard. The kitchen had a thatched roof with a loft under to hold stores. We had very little furniture in our house as we could not bring out much from England.

All we had were two camp beds, a deck-chair, two other small chairs, two arm-chairs of light construction, a couple of tables, and a few pictures. My husband had a book-case with a few books in it. I think ours was one of the smallest and most modestly furnished parsonages in the world, but even so it was better filled than most of the Tristan houses. Many houses are worse furnished than a prison cell.

We lived fairly comfortably during the first part of our stay at Tristan, as we had brought a certain quantity of stores with us, enough for about twelve months. We were very economical, but we gave away a lot to our needy neighbours, for we felt very sorry for the people who were without, and this was especially hard in times of sickness. They gave us meat, potatoes and milk, and sometimes butter and eggs as well as firewood, each family taking it in turns for one week at a time in accordance with custom. We had fish given to us also, but we found it did not suit us. Sometimes also the meat was very poor in quality, and in winter the milk was scarce. Now and again it came really hard on people to keep us supplied, as on two occasions while we were there the potato crops were partial failures and we all had to go rather short.

The average island menu is very simple. They have fish and boiled potatoes or sea-birds or sea-birds' eggs, and sometimes potato puddings or cranberries in addition. Meat is considered rather a luxury and only to be had at times. Fat is scarce, and fried or baked potatoes are thought luxuries. All the cooking, or rather the baking and roasting, has to be done in big iron pots about 14 inches across, with iron lids. The wood fire is put on top and only a little firing underneath. I found it hard to get the lid off with the fire on it when I required to examine progress of the cooking. Usually I dropped burning embers on the top of my precious cakes, but at last I got so used to it I could cook anything without accident. The women, coming in occasionally, remarked, "they had never seen anything so lovely cooked." I introduced the one and only seed-cake ever seen on Tristan. I made it on my twenty-first birthday and all hands had "just a taste."


THE SCHOOL CHILDREN OF THE ISLAND OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL-HOUSE

Whilst our house was being erected we were employed for several days in a public distribution of the gifts our kind friends in England and South Africa and the S.P.G. and the Tristan da Cunha Fund had provided. We tried to make the sharing-out as fair as possible by giving a rather larger share to all the bigger families, but in general we were guided by the island custom. The method is peculiar. When all are met together at one of the houses where the things have been brought for distribution, an equal share is allotted to each family until all is used up. So many pounds of tea, so many cakes of soap are counted out in small lots, even down to spoonfuls, or a bar of soap is cut up into bits. Much care is exercised to secure equality of distribution. Clothes, household necessities like saucepans, plates or cups, are shared by means of a book which contains the names of all adults or heads of families, and if there is not enough to go round "this mail," the next on the list wait until "next mail" and then have first call. Perhaps you might have to wait a year or two for a skirt or a shirt or a pair of trousers. Some things are shared by a method peculiar to the island. The things are placed on the ground with one man or woman facing them, and another with back turned to them, and the one calling out the name of the thing to be allotted and the other the name of the person to receive it. This method, strange as it is, seems to suit the people, and cause less jealousy than any other, so we let it go on without remark. I must say we gave out a queer assortment of things—mouse-traps, rat-poison, fish-hooks, nails, tobacco, tea, soap, coffee, cocoa, clothing, rice, clothes for men, women and children, sweets and toys, books and papers.

As soon as the work of distribution was over, my husband was anxious to get the day-school started, so he interviewed several of the islanders to try and get a big room. Mr. Andrew Hagan, who has the largest room in the only two-storey house on the island, kindly offered this for our use. He said, also, we could use it on Sundays to hold church services in, as he had only a small family, and, to make it more useful, we could move the partition between two rooms and throw them into one. When this was done we had quite a big room. Afterwards we had concerts and all public meetings in it, and it was often used for dances after the church was built.

We began school on Monday, April 24, 1922. We had been on the island just three weeks, so I do not think much time was lost. On the first day there were forty-two scholars of all ages present, and the numbers varied a good deal, sometimes reaching sixty. It was hard to teach scholars of all ages from three to thirty years in one class, and we had afterwards three divisions or grades. We found that some of the young married couples had been at the school kept by the Rev. J. G. Barrow when he was on the island with his wife, and these could read and write quite nicely.

At first we used slates entirely for writing on, and it was a hard job to keep the little ones from running off with their pencils, or losing them. Once my husband said to a small boy, "Cyril, where is your slate pencil? " and the little fellow pointed an accusing finger at his neighbour, "Please, sir, Teddie has eat it up." Some of the big girls were so shy at first that when one was asked a question she hid her head behind the back of the next girl instead of answering.

I think our first church services were as interesting as the school. We had the altar screened off with a curtain, as we were using the same room for both church and school. We had only landed on the Saturday, but at our first service, the next day, Sunday, April 2, 1922, "Palm Sunday," everyone, including dear old Betty Cotton, the oldest inhabitant, aged ninety-three years, was present. She was a remarkably intelligent old woman, with fine manners, and could remember the first missionary, the Rev. Mr. Taylor, who arrived in 1851. The people came carrying forms for each family to sit upon. The harmonium, by some odd mischance, had been lost en route, and we had to wait until the next year for one, but the people can all sing readily by ear and are very fond of hymn-singing as recreation, some of the men having fine tenor voices, while there were good sopranos among the women. The men had placed the altar in position the night before, and we brought new frontals with us, candlesticks and a cross, so it looked quite "churchy." There was a lectern with a huge family Bible and the historic font which survived a shipwreck in Mr. Dodgson's time. We had a shortened form of Evensong, with an address from my husband of a simple kind, at the end of which he read the letter from H.M. King George V, which was listened to with great attention.

After church we went for a short walk over Hottentot Gulch. When the soldiers were here more than a century ago a large party of Cape Hottentots resided for a time across this gulch, hence its name. The high point in the cliffs here is named Hottentot Point. Over the gulch we had a fine sight of Inaccessible Island in the far distance. The whole of Tristan is everywhere intersected by these deep gulches running from all sides of the Central Peak like spokes in a huge wheel. They are made by water floods washing out the gravel and big stones, and are often many feet deep with dangerous precipitous sides. They go right down towards the sea and break off high above it very steeply. There had been a heavy flood or cloudburst about a year before we reached Tristan. It happened in the month of May. Some of the people had narrow escapes from being drowned and some livestock were lost. The flood, roaring down Hottentot Gulch, shook the island like an earthquake, and huge rocks weighing tons were swept along and out towards the sea.

An interesting story is connected with one of these cloudbursts, or excessive rainstorms, which come on with peculiar suddenness, and are recorded to have happened at regular intervals of about fifteen years. Old Betty Cotton related to my husband that when she was quite a young child her father and younger brother were out at work some distance from the Settlement and the clouds broke so suddenly they had no chance to get to shelter. The gulches filled with tons of water and the roar was terrific. Cotton and his boy fled for their lives, and, descending a cliff, sought to find their road home along the beaches. All the gulches, however, end in abrupt precipices above the beaches, and over all this were pouring vast volumes of flood waters. The descending torrent at one spot caught the unfortunate boy, and he was swept away and drowned before his father's eyes. The remarkable part of the disaster is this. The boy's mother was at the Settlement, and she told her neighbours that she knew her husband would return with bad news, for she had had a vision at the moment of her son being swept away by a flood and drowned while his father was near but powerless to help. People at Tristan believe very much in dreams and visions and are rather superstitious, and her neighbours did not think of making light of her tears, but tried to console her, and the whole Settlement was filled with lamentation. When Cotton returned home, to his surprise he found everyone aware of the disaster.

I do not know if our surroundings influence our minds to an extra and abnormal degree, but it was more than curious that each time we had a ship, even up to the last that brought us away from the island, I had a presentiment of its coming. I told my husband of the approach of the Quest, the Dublin, the small whaleships and the Ramon da Larrinaga. I seemed somehow aware twenty-four hours previously. I told him the Bishop would be on this ship, referring to the Dublin, and that we should not be on the island for his birthday in 1925. My husband seemed sceptical, but made a note in his diary on each occasion.

On Easter Monday 1922, which was a bright cold day, two of the men, John Baptist Lavarello and William Rogers, called to invite my husband to ascend the base of the mountain at a place named "Burnt Wood," where it is possible to get up fairly easily. The party started after an early breakfast, and, walking about four miles, began the climb. My husband was a pretty good walker, and as Lavarello and Rogers are very active themselves they were pleased at his capabilities in that direction. The last fifty yards from the top were almost perpendicular, though a sort of hold was afforded by the grass and heather. Once up, the view was extraordinarily fine, as it is over 2,000 feet above the sea, and the atmosphere was very clear. They could see Nightingale Island, which my husband afterwards visited and explored. They had meant to try for the Peak, but had omitted to bring any food, so after getting up 3,000 feet had to turn back. They came down to the level by way of Ankerstock Gulch and back by a narrow cliff foot-track high over the sea. At the same place a sad accident once befell a young man who visited Tristan on the ship Pandora. While exploring the island on his own account without a guide, he was returning to the ship at dusk and somehow fell over the cliff and was drowned, or maybe he was trying to cross a cliff and was swept off by a high wave. He is buried in the little island cemetery within sound of the vast Atlantic surges, and a little wooden cross pathetically marks the spot, "Ronald McCann, aged nineteen." At the request of his mother in England we planted fresh flowers on the grave each Christmas and Easter.


THE PENGUIN GROUP RECEIVING THE CHIEF SCOUT'S PRESENTATION
FLAG FROM SCOUT MARR, OF THE "QUEST"

In May a night school for young men was started. It was held in Mr. Hagan's house and was well attended, but we were obliged to give it up after a time as we had no means of illumination. My husband was very anxious to improve the conditions of life on the island, so amongst other things he got the men to start building new boats and repairing the old ones. When we arrived there were only two or three seaworthy boats, but at the time we left the people had fifteen—five large ones and ten small. The big boats are about 30 feet long, and the small ones called "dinghies" are from 15 to 18 feet in length. They are of canvas, and have to be frequently painted to keep them watertight. They carry two small sails, have one mast, and hold about eight hands, but as many as fourteen will often squeeze into them. This overloading I thought rather dangerous.

My husband was a very great believer in the Boy Scout movement, and before he went out to Tristan he planned to have a Scout troop on the island, and Sir Robert Baden-Powell himself showed a great personal interest in the idea. Headquarters made a special grant for uniforms and equipment, and we took out with us a signed portrait of the Chief Scout to hang up in the Troop Club-room.

Thirteen boys joined, but at first there was some reluctance among the parents to allow them to join, as they believed that they would have to go away and fight. My husband dispelled their fears in this direction, and the 1st Tristan da Cunha Troop "Penguin" Patrol, named after the most characteristic Tristan sea-bird, was duly launched. Headquarters allowed my husband the special privilege of conferring badges at his discretion. I was appointed Assistant Scoutmaster, Donald Glass Patrol Leader, and Joe Glass second.

One of the saddest sights to me when I first arrived at Tristan was to see all the little children, whenever they were not hard at work, hanging listlessly round, children who did not know how to play. They just moped or quarrelled. School soon changed all that: we taught them to play organized games. When we came to Tristan we found the boys endeavouring to play cricket with a barrel stave for a bat, a ball made out of a lump of kelp, and a pile of rocks for wickets; but my husband wrote away for proper bats and balls, and we got them a year later on H.M.S. Dublin. He was an ardent football player—the Association game—and he taught his schoolboys to play, and, in spite of his age, always played with them. His place on the field was back or half-back, but none of them could get past him. The Boy Scouts and some of the bigger Tristan lads became immensely keen on football, and I think would have liked a season to last all the year round. We made flags and goal posts, and laid out a fairly decent football ground with great difficulty, as the island is so rough naturally. Sides were picked for every game, and my husband captained one and Joe Repetto the other. The games were usually very strenuous, and there was a good deal of cheerful noise about them.

Christmas was the great cricket season, and in the Christmas holidays a match lasted three or four days between married and single and was a great feature in the festivities. The singles generally won, but the number of players on a side was quite unlimited, and the players included all the men and bigger boys. Nobody, however, seemed to mind much who won or lost, as at Tristan they certainly do not take their pleasures sadly, and there was always much merriment at the expense of the players among the onlookers.



Chapter 5