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Three Years in Tristan da Cunha By K. M. Barrow Characters: 10904

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


We woke up next morning realizing that we were at last, after more than a year of anticipation and months of travel, amongst the settlers on Tristan da Cunha.

The present settlement dates from 1816, when a garrison was sent by the Cape Government to occupy the island, as it was thought that Tristan might be used as a base by Napoleon's friends to effect his escape from St. Helena. In February 1817 the British Government determined to withdraw the garrison, and a man-of-war was dispatched to remove it. Three of the men asked to remain, the chief being William Glass of Kelso, N.B., a corporal in the Royal Artillery, who had with him his wife-a Cape coloured woman- and his two children. Later, others came to settle on the island, three by shipwreck; and some left it; the inhabitants in 1826 being seven men, two wives and two children.

Five of these men, who were bachelors, asked the captain of a whaler to bring them each a wife from St. Helena. He did his best and brought five coloured women-one a widow with four children. Of these marriages only one, I believe, turned out happily. A daughter of this marriage was Betty Cotton, our landlady. She was the eldest of seven daughters, and had five brothers. Her father, Alexander Cotton, was born at Hull, and was an old man-of-war's man, and for three years had guarded Napoleon at Longwood, St. Helena. Thomas Hill Swain, another of the five, came from Sussex and served in the Theseus under Nelson. He married the widow, and used to tell his children, of whom there were four daughters living on the island when we were there, that he was the sailor who caught Nelson when he fell at Trafalgar. This old man was vigorous to the last. At the age of one hundred and eight he was chopping wood, when a splinter flying into his eye caused his death. The result, of course, of these marriages was a coloured race. Some of the children are still very dark in appearance, but the colour is gradually dying out.

Another well-known islander, Peter William Green, came nearly twenty years later. He was a Dutch sailor, a native of Katwijk, on the North Sea, whose ship in trying to steal the islanders' sea elephant oil got in too close and was wrecked. He settled down and married one of the four daughters of the widow, and became eventually headman and marriage officer. Queen Victoria sent him a framed picture of herself, which, unfortunately, has been taken away to the Cape. He died in 1902 at the age of ninety-four.

In the next decade came Rogers and Hagan from America; and in the early nineties the two Italian sailors Repetto and Lavarello of Comogli, who were shipwrecked.

I believe the population has never numbered more than one hundred and nine. At the time of our arrival it was seventy-one, of whom only ten had ever been away from the island. The language spoken is English, but their vocabulary is limited.

The soldiers pitched their camp at the north end of a strip of land stretching about six miles in a north-westerly direction, where it is crossed by a constant stream of the purest and softest water. It is said they built two forts, one commanding Big Beach and Little Beach Bays, and one further inland to command what was thought the only approachable ascent to the mountain heights. The position of the first fort is known, the raised ground for mounting two guns being distinctly visible on the top of Little Beach Point; but the islanders do not think the second fort was ever built.

The settlers naturally chose this camp as the site for their settlement, and there they built their houses. When we arrived there were sixteen, three of which were uninhabited. They all face the sea; and run east and west. On account of the very high winds the walls are built about four feet thick at the gable ends, and about two feet at the sides. Most of the stone they are built of is porous, in consequence of which the walls on the south side are very damp and are often covered on the inside with a green slime. The houses are thatched with a reed-like grass called tussock, which is grown in the gardens or on a piece of ground near. The thatch will last from ten to fifteen years, that on the sunny side lasting considerably the longer. Turf is used to cover the ridge of the roof, but this is not altogether satisfactory as the soil works through, and when there is a gale the rooms below are thick with dust. Perhaps the dust is also caused by the innumerable wood-lice which work in the wood and make a fine wood-dust. Every house has a loft running the whole length of it. We found ours the greatest boon as it was the only place we had in which to keep the year's stores. The woodwork of nearly all the houses is from wrecked ships; boards from the decks form the flooring, masts and yards appear as beams, cabin doors give entrance to the rooms.

The houses when I first went into them struck me as most dreary; no fire, hardly any furniture, just a bare table, a wooden sofa which is nearly always used as a bed, a bench, and perhaps a chair, with a seaman's chest against the wall, a chimney-piece covered with a pinked newspaper hanging, on which stood pieces of crockery, on the walls a few pictures and ancient photographs. There are large open fire-places, but no grates or stoves, the cooking being done on two iron bars supported by fixed stones.

The rooms are divided off by wooden partitions. There are generally two bedrooms; the

end one is also nearly always used as a kitchen, and the groceries are usually kept there. On account of the high winds there are generally windows only on the north of the house, which is the sunny side, due to Tristan's being south of the equator.

Every house has a garden, but not used to grow vegetables or flowers, which the people do not seem to care about, and certainly there are difficulties owing to high winds, rats, fowls, and, not least, children. They sometimes grow a few onions, cabbages and generally pumpkins: a few pink roses and geraniums may be seen. Potatoes are their staple food, and are grown in walled-in patches about three miles off. Each house has one or two huts, in one of which they stow away their potatoes, and also a lamb-house.

In the matter of clothing, the men have not much difficulty, as they barter with the sailors on passing ships, giving in exchange the skins of albatross and mollyhawks, the polished horns of oxen, small calf-skin bags and penguin mats made by the women, and occasionally wild-cat skins. They usually wear blue dungaree on week-days, and broadcloth or white duck on Sundays. With the women and children it is different, for they depend on parcels sent by friends, and as of late years there has been no regular communication with the island they have been at times very short, especially of underclothing. Now that whalers have begun to call again, two or three appearing about Christmas time, they can sometimes get material from them, but, except the dungaree, it is very poor stuff, and they have to pay a high price in exchange. The women usually have a very neat appearance, no hole is allowed to remain in a garment, which is at once patched, and many and varied are the patches. They wear blouses which they call jackets, and in the place of hats, coloured handkerchiefs (occasionally procured from ships), which are worn all day, from morning to night, and only taken off on very hot days, or when they are going to be photographed, when as a rule no amount of persuasion will induce them to keep them on. The little girls wear sun-bonnets, "capies" they call them, and very well they look in them. The little boys wear short jackets and long knickers. The women and girls card and spin their own wool, which they knit into socks and stockings.

As regards food, potatoes take the place of bread. There are about twenty acres under cultivation, each man having his own patches. They never change the seed and rarely the ground. A man may enclose as many patches as he likes provided he cultivates them. They used to manure their ground with seaweed, but found its constant use made the ground hard; then they tried guano, and finally sheep manure, which they use in large quantities. They get it by driving their sheep during the lambing season four or five times a week into the lamb-houses, penning them up from about five in the afternoon until eight or nine next morning. The poor sheep must suffer considerably both from being driven so much and because they get no food while penned in. In spite of this barbarous practice the mutton when we first went was very good-equal, we thought, to the best Welsh mutton, but latterly its quality much fell off, and we found the sheep were largely infected with scab. The people occasionally have beef in the winter. Their method of killing the ox is very cruel, for often the poor animal is chased about over the settlement by men and dogs, and only killed after many shots. There is generally a good supply of milk. Betty Cotton at one time milked sixteen cows, and made a large quantity of butter which she sent by the man-of-war to her relations at the Cape. The making of cheese has been quite given up. From July to October the men get a great number of eaglet, penguin, and mollyhawk eggs-all sea-fowl. Fish can be caught all the year round. Any groceries obtained must come from passing ships. Sometimes months go by without tea, coffee, sugar, flour, salt and soap being seen.

The cooking is done mostly in large pots and frying-pans, as there are no ovens, though a temporary one is made on special occasions such as a great feast. The chief meat dish is stuffed mutton, the stuffing consisting of potatoes and parsley seasoned with pepper and salt. The greatest delicacy is the stuffed sucking-pig which takes the place of our turkey.

The animals on the island are cattle, sheep, donkeys, pigs, geese, fowls, dogs, cats and rats. There were about seven hundred head of cattle in 1905, far more than there was pasture for. Between the months of May and November of that year nearly four hundred died from starvation. From the same cause a loss of cattle occurs every few years, but never before had there been so great a one. The number of sheep was about eight hundred; of donkeys there were about thirty, and perhaps there were as many, or more, pigs, which usually have to find their own living, as also do the geese and fowls. A great number of dogs are kept, some families keeping as many as four. Most of these too have to find their own living, which occasionally they do by hunting the sheep and by night raids on the geese.

The rats came from the Henry B. Paul which was wrecked on Tristan in 1882. Only about half-a-dozen got ashore, which Mr. Dodgson urged the men to kill, pointing out what trouble they would cause if not destroyed, but the men thought a few rats wouldn't hurt, and did nothing.

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