CHAPTER XIII

THE LAST YEAR AND ITS DIFFICULTIES

EVERY day at Tristan da Cunha is a good deal like every other day. There is a great deal of sameness in island life. We had church, we gave lessons in school, we did our own housework. My husband attended to his meteorological instruments. We dealt with a succession of callers, who came for every reason under the sun at all sorts of times from dawn till dusk. We looked each day for the ship which never came.

The following entries are taken from my diary of 1924 and 1925—the period of greatest stress owing to the want of ships and the failure of island produce:—


June 22, 1924.—To-day is a typical day in the winter season—cold, windy, and steady heavy drizzle of rain. Up early to get breakfast. We lit the kitchen fire, but cannot have one in the parlour as wood is so hard to get and we are short, so sit in our coats.

June 23rd.—Very wet again to-day, and so only a few at church and day school. They have no clothes or footwear for wet weather. The little ones cannot get out at all. During recess a great hustle of men with guns and dogs. A boy had seen a sea-elephant come up, and it was at length shot amid general rejoicing, as they will now get plenty of oil for their lamps. It is over 18 feet long.

July 2lst.—For several weeks now we have had no milk or butter. Edward has been very ill all the week. I have been much worried and unable to go to church or school. All the children here suffer a great deal from the poor quality and short quantity of food, more especially when the winter months come on. My husband is looking very thin and worried, but the neighbours are very kind and the women help with cooking and washing, as baby cannot be left. The sea is very rough to-day, huge breakers crashing right up to the bank. Rather a terrible sight.

August 28th.—Very short of soap, and our last tin of coffee. I have been looking over the stores and only got scant consolation.

August 29th.—We have one family here which had practically nothing to eat for days, and I wanted to give them some of our food as there are young children, but was told rather gruffly "they could feed their own family." The people here are very proud and sensitive on some points, so I said no more.

September 7th.—Still worried over Baby Edward: he is not doing well—cannot get suitable meals. The people will be getting penguin eggs soon, which will relieve the food situation, but it would seem rather hard elsewhere to have to live mainly on penguin eggs. Potatoes are getting very short.

September 10th.—Many gone for eggs. A great avalanche of stones fell down the mountain last night, making a noise like thunder or big guns—very alarming, but nothing hurt luckily. Since we have been here so many stones and boulders have fallen that the island looks quite different.

November 7th.—The island boats have gone to Inaccessible to-day for birds for food and to look for wood. Some of the men showed very nice feeling, saying "Goodbye" to us, because they expect to be away some days, and a boat might come and take us off to the Cape in their absence. They "thanked us for our kindness and wished us good luck."

November 27th.—We always have tea and supper in one. To-day we had dinner, tea, and supper all in one, at five o'clock. The children of the island haunt any kitchen where a meal is preparing, and I do not blame them. The last six months has been the shortest time since the Dublin was here two years ago. The storm of wind and rain did so much harm to the potatoes this year.

December 13th.—Christmas is coming and we are all preparing to make the best of the rather hard times, according to the proverb that "It is a poor heart which never rejoices." We have had a busy week, numbers of anxious mothers and children trying to get the problem of "new clothes for Christmas" solved. We felt very sorry for them all, and soon I had given away every spare piece of calico or print I possessed to make new frocks or cappies or renovate old ones. One little girl managed it by having a nice white tablecoth converted into a frock; another fell back on mother's best petticoat, and one lad had trousers from a white sheet, two more used a mackintosh and a yellow canvas mail sack. Really they are wonderful contrivers.

January 16, 1925.—Will the New Year bring a ship? Our time is very nearly up now. Food is very bad still. Our meals for most of the week have consisted of a few boiled potatoes with one small cup of butter, and about one pint of milk daily between the three of us.



A MOUNTAIN SEA-VIEW, WITH TOM ROGERS AND GORDON GLASS
 
MR. AND MRS. ROGERS AND THEIR SON WITH THE OFFICERS OF THE "RAMON DA LARRINAGA" ON THE POINT OF DEPARTURE

Our last six or eight months on the island were perhaps the hardest we or the people had experienced in the whole three years of our connection with it. The general shortage of everything was acute. The food was the poorest in quality and shortest in quantity we had known. We were rationing food for a long time. We ourselves had given up everything in the way of imported stores for nearly a year save a daily ration of tea and a minimum of soap. A little flour and a little rice had been kept for baby, and were doled out at one tablespoonful per day and then exhausted. Our entire diet became such as the island provided, a limited supply of very poor mutton and a rationed supply of potatoes with a fish now and then and some berries, and occasionally sea-birds or their eggs and no vegetables. We all began to fall off in weight and to look very thin. My husband said he felt very sorry for the little ones. The parents also found it very difficult to keep the children adequately clothed, and every available source was drawn upon, and some very clever shifts were managed, clothes being fashioned from the most unpromising materials. There had been many discussions as to whether anything could be done to improve conditions of life on the island. My husband and the men had talked it all over a hundred times. Some had said that things are so bad they would all be better off anywhere else, and if they had a chance they would leave the island, but they all said, "This is easier talked about than done for many good reasons." Finally it was decided that my husband should draw up a petition to the British Government, asking for an annual mail and all the men should sign it. The petition was addressed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and I think every man over eighteen signed it, but it could not be sent forward to London for some months as there was no ship until we ourselves left.[1]

The long intervals between mails at the island, often extending over periods of two or three years, are the cause of great distress and inconvenience among the people. The natural resources of Tristan da Cunha are perhaps the most limited in the world; there is little arable land; internal communication over the island is extremely difficult; there is a struggle with rats and climatic conditions; the livestock has deteriorated, and pasturage is poor. There is no trade opportunity for barter with ships. The people are not idle, but what can they do to better things without mails or regular outside assistance and supervision?

In the last year there was more sickness than usual, and great demands on our medicine chest. For example, I got very short of Epsom salts and castor oil and pills. I used all my embrocation. Everyone had stomach and bowel trouble. It got very much on the nerves of the people. We all dreamt of ships. We watched for them day and night. There were false alarms of "Ship!" There began to be disputes which now and then threatened to become serious. There were accusations of theft and dishonesty, and some quarrels and much discontent and grumbling. If it were not that Tristan people have grown used to such a hard struggle and hand-to-mouth existence, it would all have been much worse; but it is looked upon as almost inevitable, and they assume a sort of fatalistic attitude. "It is God's will." My husband was apt to argue, "It is rather man's folly or neglect." Surely on grounds of humanity and public policy some arrangement might be reached to place the colony on a sound footing, spiritually and materially.

Various solutions present themselves rather than the callous one of letting things drift, or become dependent on chance mails and chance missionaries. There is the policy of offering the surplus population a chance to emigrate and settling them with State-aid at the Cape. Such an offer might be accepted by the younger families if generously conceived and presented sympathetically. The islanders themselves always urged the primary need of an annual parcel and letter mail from South Africa by warship or other means. They regard it as essential to the needs of the colony in the matter of food, clothing, and medical and other stores, for it is only by means of periodical intercourse that a system of barter can develop. They also desired a permanent missionary and schoolmaster, preferably a married man, but one who should be supplied with all necessary stores for himself and his family and his work on the island, independent of what the island could supply.

The people, as things are, find it very difficult to supply even such things as meat, butter, milk, and potatoes. These they are glad to supply as some practical return for the work of the missionary among them. But if times are bad the missionary should be so provided as not to suffer from the inability of the people to feed him. The missionary should be a person selected for some gifts of an organizing and governing ability, able to lead and guide the colony as an administrator as well as perform spiritual and scholastic functions. It needs firmness with strong sympathy and much diplomacy or tact. The Government might in this exceptional case entrust the missionary with lay powers, which would be used in a paternal rather than a judicial way.

The islanders regard the visit of a warship with great respect. For them it is the visible and outward sign of Imperial authority and of their Empire connection. In spite of the objection, urged on economic grounds, of the expense of such a visit, it might surely be revived if the colony continues, for its influence for good is immense. Its moral suasion tends to law and order and right living. It helps both missionary and people. It would always do this. If there were a resident magistrate or missionary magistrate it would be to the commander of the warship that he must look to urge and enforce his regulations or judgments. The commander would ensure the peace of the community by deporting undesirables—this as a last resource—and by warning the islanders and advising them as to their good behaviour and well-being. The annual visit of a warship was a precedent as late as the Boer War, but most unfortunately for the island it has seemed necessary to the Admiralty to discontinue it.

The result of the almost complete absence of shipping at Tristan da Cunha makes it almost like living in the moon. It was the merest chance that the end came for us when our three years' period of voluntary service was just completed. We had long felt as if we were living out of the world altogether. We were naturally wrondering how we should get away, ignorant if our friends or relations at home were dead or alive, ignorant as to what efforts were being made on our behalf or on that of the island. Of course our work went on as usual, but we could not help seeing how the people were hard-pressed and weary, and much disheartened in spite of trying to keep up a cheerful front.

It was on February 4, 1925, that the strain was broken. We were still in bed, and it was just after dawn that someone shouted "Sail Ho! Steamer to west'ard ho!" We tumbled out of bed in frantic haste, and dressed and ran outside with Baby Edward bundled up in our arms. There was movement everywhere—no one cares for a meal at such times. We left breakfast to its fate, as did the people who ran to catch fowls and geese and other livestock for trading. My first thought was for our mails, and whether my husband might now at least get a little decent food for baby, who for months had not had anything suitable for a little child. He slung the mail over his shoulder, said a hurried good-bye, and was off to the beach where the men were quickly getting the big boats ready for launching. We could now see it was a large cargo steamer heading for the island, and as the boats hastened to meet her there was much excited talking amongst those on shore. "What might happen? Should we leave the island? Might it be the mail?" Everyone was uneasy. Many went down to the shore to watch for the return of the boats; others crowded up to the Parsonage, where I was making an effort to pack our things, in case the captain was willing to give us a passage home.

The steamer was some distance out from the island when my husband's boat got alongside. It proved to be the Ramon da Larrinaga, Larrinaga Line, Liverpool, Captain J. V. Jones, bound for Durban and Australia, returning from South America. She had come into Tristan to try and get fresh meat, as in this direction the stores were short, she having been turned by wireless before touching a South American port. Captain Jones received the boats very kindly, promised to convey the mails, announced he would remain off the island for two hours to give an opportunity for a little trading, and instructed his steward to pay for fresh meat in such stores as the people desired up to value. He also kindly offered us a passage to Durban if we would get ready at once, and blew a loud blast on the siren as a signal to me that the passage had been granted. He and some of his officers came ashore, and kindly allowed a special gift of grocery stores he had prepared for the missionary and his wife to be shared by us amongst the people.

These last two or three hours on the island stand out indelibly in my memory. We had to work our hardest for the time was so short, but it was a grievous parting in many ways. We were very much touched by the behaviour of the people. Everyone was at the house. There was a succession of little children bringing some farewell gift. The men and boys were eager to help in cording our boxes and carrying them to the beach. Men and women would come and wring our hands, and in a few hurried, broken words try to thank us for our work. I was busy giving out presents of household stuff to this one and that one as a remembrance. My husband had gone to pay a farewell visit to one or two sick folk, and was arranging for a farewell service in the little church we had built ourselves.

Two couples had for some time been contemplating getting married, Rosa Swain and Jack Rogers and Lizzie Rogers and David Hagan. They were going to be married on the 22nd, my husband's birthday, but now they were in much alarm lest the opportunity of being married by the Chaplain would be lost. I quickly dispelled their fears, and by tremendous exertions got the whole party in order for the ceremony, I borrowed or gave clothes to the bridal party, wedding rings had to be borrowed, in fact, nearly everything. Captain Jones had fitted out each of the bridegrooms with a suit of clothes and a flannel shirt, and the brides were resplendent in smart blouses and a hat apiece. The wedding hats are remarkable, as they usually wear handkerchiefs, and there is a yarn that one of them has been on the island fifty years, and it is carefully preserved to do duty at successive weddings. Where the couples would sleep or find bedclothes I have no idea.


A TRISTAN BULLOCK-WAGON


THE LAST FAREWELL ON THE BEACH

The church was crowded for the weddings. I was the brideswoman (for instead of bridesmaid at Tristan the bride is supported by a married friend) and organist and choirmistress and general mistress of ceremonies. Everyone seemed bewildered, and the cheerful strains of the wedding marches and hymns were dolefully interrupted by the sobs of the disconsolate congregation. Even my husband seemed to lose his usual presence of mind, and got mixed over the names of the couples and I had to correct him. During the few farewell words from my husband in which he "thanked the people for many kindnesses, and expressed our sorrow that the time of parting had at length arrived, and urged them to live at peace and have faith in God's love," and especially when we tried to sing the hymn we had practised for the inevitable day of farewells, "God be with you till we meet again," most people were weeping aloud. Some could bear it no longer and were taken out of church, and the big, strong men broke down and wept with the little children. Even the bridal party were in tears.

At the door the Marconi officer snapshotted the wedding group, and afterwards we both went across to the house of Bill Rogers, where there was a curious wedding breakfast of dry bread, jam, and tea. They had just got it from the ship, and were kindly anxious for us to break bread once more for the last time, as we could not stop for the usual Tristan wedding dinner of mutton and potatoes.

We got down to Little Beach, where two boats loaded with bags and boxes were waiting to convey us out to the Ramon da Larrinaga, which was waiting with steam up ready for us to embark. Some of the women clung hold of me desperately as if they could not let me go and sobbed aloud, but my husband came and gently pulled me away and put me in the boat. It seemed strange to see the women without their knitting, but they had all been making special white socks for presents for my husband's birthday, and they seemed not to know what to do with these, and their large dark eyes were streaming with tears. As we steamed away the men in the island boats stood up and waved their hats and gave us three parting cheers, and the little crowd on the beach joined in the demonstration, but as we watched the familiar panorama of the little lonely island fade away our own eyes too were dim. All the islanders stood about in dejected little groups until we turned the point and the Settlement was lost from view.

We owe many thanks to Captain Jones, his officers and his owners, for consistent kindness on our nine days' voyage to Durban. We had most comfortable accommodation, and everything kindness could suggest was done to make us forget any hardships we had been through at Tristan da Cunha. Near the Cape a wireless was sent to inform our friends of our return and make their minds easy as to our health. At Durban we were met by Press men and photographers, and the Church authorities had kindly arranged for our being hospitably entertained. Edward howled at leaving the ship: he wanted Captain Jones to take him back to Tristan, but I think we both thanked God from our hearts during the short service the Archdeacon held, for all His Fatherly kindness and tender care since 1921, when we first offered to go to "The Lonely Island."



  1. The petition was eventually forwarded to Mr. Gane, who presented it to the Colonial Office. A copy of it, and of the Government reply, is given in Appendix III.

Appendix 1