ISLAND CUSTOMS AND FESTIVITIES
IT was "Alice in Wonderland " who divided presents into "birthday presents " and "un-birthday presents," and certainly at Tristan da Cunha we had to consider things received under these two heads, for there is no place where birthdays are thought so much of and are so well kept up. Everyone joins in the "keeping up" as a friend or relation. I had to keep a birthday book in order to see whose birthday was coming next.
On your birthday you keep open house; all your friends come to visit you during the day, and drink your health, and wish you many happy returns of the day. If it is a prosperous time you give them tea as a drink, but if it is "thin" times and no ship has called for ever so long, it will be milk and water. They all bring you a little present. You will perhaps give your visitors slices of potato pudding also.
When we were on the island everyone who could invited us to dinner on their birthdays, and all of their children, as well as grown-ups, came to see them, brought some small gift, and received something in exchange. They desired to make a special occasion of our birthdays, and we kept them by giving the school children a holiday, holding a special church service, and having sports in the morning and a dance at night, and inviting our chief friends to dinner. My husband's birthday was marked by the holding of the first "sports" ever held on the island, with prizes for the young competitors one year, and the next by a football match for the Boy Scouts. There was also a concert with acting by the children in the evening, an amusing performance of Mrs. Jarley's Waxworks.
The best birthday of all was "Baby Edward's Day."
At Tristan you have three special birthdays— when you are a year old, when you are twenty-one, and when you are fifty.
Baby Edward was a year old on September 21, 1923, and he was the Tristan baby, their baby as well as ours, so they were determined to make his first birthday something very special. Two days before, all the sheep were turned home from the Bluff, and eight of the largest were killed. It is to be noted that Tristan sheep are not really large, but rather like Welsh mountain sheep. Four of these were given by his godparents, and one and another provided potatoes and milk. Celebrations began early on September 21st. At 2.30 a.m. the bells were rung, and at 3.30 the baby was saluted by guns being fired outside the Parsonage, and by 4 a.m., or daylight, every house that could find one had hoisted a flag over the roof. At eleven o'clock a Thanksgiving Service in the church was held and well attended.
The cooks were kept very busy; the women made over forty puddings, and each family undertook to boil one or two, and, there not being enough saucepans on the island, they had to boil many of them in big tins. At 12.30 dinner was ready, and my husband and I received congratulations from all the grown-up people, who first shook hands with us and then sat down with us to a good dinner. The Parsonage was too small to hold everyone, so Mrs. Repetto and Mrs. Fred Swain had kindly lent their houses for the occasion, as these are next one another. The menu was stuffed roast mutton, plain roast mutton, boiled and baked potatoes, plum pudding, boiled suet pudding, potato pudding, jam tart with cream and sugar. Everyone was given tea after dinner, and when the cooks had washed up Mrs. Repetto and I divided all the remains of the feast for the people to take home for their suppers. Before they left, everyone came and shook hands again, and said, "Thank you, ma'am, for your good dinner." This struck me as rather comical, as they had provided it all themselves, keeping flour, sugar, etc., from the Dublin stores for the occasion, but it certainly showed very good feeling. The dinner was a rather quiet affair, as there was no cheering and no dancing owing to the recent death of Mrs. Tom Rogers. Everything went off very well, except that the dogs broke into one house and devoured a lot of meat. Everybody said afterwards, "This is one of the biggest feasts we have ever had on Tristan."
The entire population came up to the Parsonage some time during the day to visit baby and wish him "many happy returns of his birthday" and bring him presents. He received a most wonderful lot of things, very unique and characteristic of Tristan: over one hundred hen's eggs, twenty goose eggs, all kinds of socks and fancy mats, several frocks and bonnets, petticoats, three pairs of ox horns nicely polished, two pairs of moccasins, sea-shells, a coloured silk handkerchief, butter and milk, a silver-plated teapot, a tablecloth and a silver chain, and some medals and brooches. Each visitor went through the Tristan custom of giving the baby "a kiss and a slap." You have a slap for each year of your life to make you good, and a kiss to make you happy. Edward thought the slaps were a game and crowed with delight.
It was nine at night before our last visitor said good-bye. I think we and all the people were tired that night, but we had scarcely got to bed at 10.15 when there was a loud outcry of " Sail Ho! " and we all got up again to see the lights of a big steamer on the horizon. As it was very calm and moonlight, one boat with fifteen men got out from Little Beach. My husband hoisted our oil lantern on the wireless pole as a signal, hoping to attract notice, as the light can be seen a long way out at sea, but the steamer proceeded at full speed on her course, and the boat carried on and landed at the other side of the island, where the men relieved their feelings by collecting about five thousand penguin eggs and returning the next day with these as cargo. Later on in the same night two more steamers were sighted, but as they were far out and proceeding on their course the men would not go out.
On the Sunday after baby's birthday we dedicated the new piece of ground given by the members of the Glass family for an extension of the cemetery. There is a wall round it and a gate, and it is planted with flowers. There was an outdoor service conducted by my husband in surplice and cassock, with choir, Boy Scouts, myself, and the congregation walking in procession singing hymns from the new church. The cross-bearer headed the procession, then came our banner and the Scouts singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" with intense enthusiasm. It was very impressive, with the rough sea roaring below us and the weather-beaten faces of the island fishermen round us, all the men and boys with bared heads as my husband prayed aloud and we sang his favourite hymn, "Jesu, Lover of my Soul."
The old cemetery is filled right up and could be used no more. Luckily it was a fine day, but there was a terrible gale blowing, and no one could hold a hymn book, so we sang without. As the beautiful tune of "Holling-side" swelled up from the throats of the hundred and thirty islanders with a note of pathos akin to tears, I felt very deeply moved. It is such a lonely life and such a lonely spot.
Tristan da Cunha might seem the queerest spot on earth to choose as a place to spend one's twenty-first birthday, but it was where I spent mine. The people were full of sympathy and kindness, and quite resolved to make a festival of the day for me.
I got up at daylight, having spent rather a disturbed night, as during the night the bells were rung and guns fired, and Bob Glass came early as "first foot" and called "Many Happy Returns" at two o'clock in the morning. We overheard an amusing dialogue outside the Parsonage windows, where three young men were endeavouring to fire guns: "'E won't go off! 'E won't go off!" and finally two loud bangs instead of three, James Swain's old muzzle-loader having failed to be persuaded to go off at all, much to the delight of his two cronies, Jack Rogers and Joe Repetto. There was a great display of flags, and someone had hoisted a large Royal Ensign on the wireless pole in our garden. Visitors began to arrive at five o'clock, and we made cups of coffee for them and received congratulations and presents. I soon had sixty visitors and sixty presents. Thirty of the presents were pairs of Tristan stockings. All my school children and the Boy Scouts came to see me and brought little gifts.
We had the usual church service, to which everyone came, all in their best attire, and my husband preached from the text, "If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another," saying, "Birthdays gave us our opportunity of showing love to our neighbours." We had the hymn for "absent friends," for, in spite of all the kindness, we could not help feeling a little sad thinking of those dear ones far away who would have us specially in their minds that day. It was very long since we had received any letters, and on a birthday one thinks of that when so far from home.
The whole island was at dinner, the children in one house and the grown-ups in another. We went in and had a look at the children at dinner, and they seemed to be having a real good time. Our dinner with the grown-ups was very nicely served, and Bob Glass, who rather fancies himself as a speaker, got up and proposed "Long life and good health to the Missus," a toast which was drunk in tea. I thanked them all very briefly, and, after grace had been said, got up and waited outside till the children came out, as they all wanted to give us three cheers, and this was done with a right good will. In the afternoon the children danced very prettily at Charles Green's house, and in the evening there was a dance for the grown-ups, and, as it was "special" this day, the old people and married couples joined in.
An interesting island custom obtains in connection with the potato-harvesting. The farmer "calls" whoever he will to work in his vineyard, generally his own relations first, men and boys to the required number. They are notified the day before. Then so many cooks are called in to prepare the meals. The only wages given are food for the day, and the hands expect a payment of three good meals, which, to give full satisfaction, must be meat, potatoes, and pudding, and if possible drink (i.e. tea). The cooks have a lot to do preparing potatoes by peeling and grating, and stuffing the meat with more potatoes.
Very early on the day of the working party the employer mounts on the roof of his house and, like the Mohammedan muezzin, calls his hands in stentorian yells. They come armed with spades, often bringing donkeys and bullock-wagons; breakfast is served at once, and, when partaken of, a cheerful train of hands sets out for the scene of action, in this case the potato patches. They will not return until dark, so about midday a party of girls will set out loaded with luncheons for the men "all hot," packed into tins with lids, for the men at work. Often they will walk briskly, but sometimes will go riding or leading donkeys with packs, and we saw one amusing mischance: a donkey got restive, ran away and spilled all the cakes, which were found and eaten by the boys, so more had to be cooked, and the workers waited hungrily till they came. At lunch there will be much laughing and joking, pipes will be smoked if everyone is not out of "baccy," as happens too often, and then the girls will return home to see about supper, which is the meal of the day, and the potato harvesters will set to with renewed vigour.
Supper is served rather late; the men have to go home and get a good wash first and change their clothes. It will be quite a social gathering. They will sit long over the meal and "spin yarns," and perhaps someone will sing or play a bit on the accordion. To-morrow the "hands" will tell what a good time Henry gave them.
The potatoes are first dug up, laid in the sun to dry, then sorted over into four classes— eating potatoes, or large ones, first and second seeds, and pig potatoes, or the very small ones. The next process is packing all into different sacks. They are then loaded into the bullock-wagons and brought home and unloaded into the potato shed, being placed all in separate bins according to quality. Sometimes the women and children assist at the potato harvest, but this is to save employing hands all the time, which is too expensive.
Island wedding customs are curious. The marriage ceremony, if there was a missionary on the island, would take place in the ordinary way in church, with a crowded congregation, though instead of bridesmaids the bride would have some married women as her supporters. Otherwise, the couple would be married by an islander who could read, a man by preference, and it would be like a marriage by registration. There would be the witnesses, and, if under twenty-one, the parents' consent would have to be obtained, and perhaps later on the blessing of the Church would be sought.
We had two sets of double weddings when we were at Tristan da Cunha, and so had a good opportunity of seeing their curious customs. The couples about to be married must look sufficiently smart, so they go round borrowing clothes. The girl gets a blouse from one and a skirt from another and a pair of shoes from somebody else. The ring also will be borrowed for the occasion. In the case of a double wedding the danger is that the other party may be before you and get all the best things. The would-be bridegroom has had a worrying time also, for ever since he first contemplated matrimonial bliss he has been striving after an outfit to start a new home. He has had to wait the advent of ships to get an axe or a shovel; he has had to tramp around the island far and wide along the sea-shore after each storm in search of pieces of driftwood to enable him to build his house. It will need many pieces, for the house must be furnished with table, bench and bunk, and partition between bedroom and living-room.
There is an old yarn on the island that the Tristan girls' prayer used to run this way: "God bless father, God bless mother, and send a good shipwreck so I can get married." It would be no use now to wait for a shipwreck. There is another tale of a Tristan girl who sent to England for her wedding frock, and it arrived in time to provide shortcoats for the second baby some three years after.
The first weddings were those of Violet Glass and Willie Lavarello and Dorothy Glass and Ned Green. The two brides were sisters, both daughters of Robert Glass and descendants of William Glass, the founder of the Settlement. They were the first couples married in the new church, and I "stood for" Violet.
There was a great starching of frocks, the brides all like to be married in white. Flowers and gloves are not the fashion, but beads and brooches and a big sash of coloured ribbon is worn round the waist. Before marriage the girl does a great deal for her future husband, knits him socks and cooks him savoury dishes, but in this topsy-turvy place he seems to do little for his fiancee. The girls and women were immensely amused one day when I said in conversation that I had knitted my husband some pairs of socks before we were married. They said, "So the girls in England do their courting the same as Tristan?" The joke was quite against me and I had to laugh with the rest. Wedding presents are given, and we gave wood for the houses, tea, flour, and sugar.
The parents provide the wedding feast, which is a big affair, with many guests. All friends and relations must be asked or great offence would be taken. The cooks work hard preparing the dinner.
The couples were rather shy and very quiet; no public display of affection is considered good form at Tristan da Cunha, and we were much amused by hearing Dr. Macklin describe his experience of a Tristan " courtinV' He was staying at the house of Bob Glass when the young men engaged to the two girls appeared, and Bob was heard exhorting them behind the scenes with, " Don't be shoiy, lads, come in," and they came in looking rather sheepish and sat down in silence. When silence grew oppressive the good-natured doctor announced that "he was going for a bit of a walk and would be gone some time." He returned after an hour and a half and found the lovers had never moved or spoken a word. No endearments or pet-names are used in families or between husband and wife. They live in the prim, stiff, early Victorian age still.
The Captain of H.M.S. Dublin endeavoured to obtain a complete census of the island families, but the people did not make him a very accurate return. For example, one man omitted all mention of his wife's children by a former husband. I give in Appendix I the more exact census taken by my husband.
At the time it was taken the oldest women were Martha Green, 87, Sarah Rogers, 81, Mary Glass, 86, Susan Swain, 78, and the eldest man was Samuel Swain, 67. The lower average age of the men was accounted for by the fact that one generation was practically wiped out in the terrible boat accident in 1886. Twelve married men and three single men were drowned then.
Among the population were one deformed person and one mentally deficient. In the matter of religion there were two Roman Catholics and the rest were members of the English Church.
During our stay on the island there were three deaths—Betty Cotton, aged 94, Rebekah Rogers, aged 47, and a new-born infant.