Angry Island: The Story of Tristan da Cunha 1506-1963 by Margaret Mackay was published in 1963, the year the Tristanians returned to their island after its volcano erupted in 1961 and forced the evacuation of the entire population to England. Mackay tells a very detailed history of Tristan da Cunha since its discovery over five hundred years ago, sharing many shipwreck tales and early yet failed attempts to settle the island. Some of the tales revealed facts about the island I didn’t know, such as at one time it was home to tortoises:
“In 1775 Capitaine d’Après de Mannevillette warned other French skippers of danger from currents, winds and ‘big trees which grow under the water’–the kelp, no doubt. He is the only mariner to have recorded finding on Tristan ‘a quantity of tortoises, many the size of a sea-calf’. As they made no resistance, they were easily taken alive, or knocked out with the blow of a hatchet. Being edible, the giant tortoises were a prized source of portable fresh meat for sailing-ship crews. The species must have become extinct on the island soon afterwards.”
Yet oddly, no mention of the mysterious lion that found its way to shore after a shipwreck, which I had read in another book.
Mackay told a story that often brought a chuckle, even in stories about life or death (more likely leaning towards death) at sea. When the schooner Blenden Hall was shipwrecked on Inaccessible Island, located 45 km southwest of Tristan in 1821:
“A nightmare of those many weeks was the carousal and threats of the crew, whose discipline traditionally lapsed with shipwreck. They soon fell to insulting the passengers, especially the overbearing Indian woman, Mrs. Lock, who called them ‘common sailors’. Many times she was heard screaming as they vowed they would eat her children.”
As the most isolated inhabited island on Earth, the Tristanians have had to adapt and develop innovative ways in order to survive. In the first days of the permanent settlement in the early nineteenth century, islanders depended on passing ships to trade with for necessary provisions. They would even ask for the crew’s clothes if need be. There might not be a boat sighting for months, or even years, and the islanders would have to make do with what they had, and in the following example had to make pants in the most unique fashion:
“The ‘cossacks’–Glass’s old tailoring term–had a front of sailcloth and a back of dried goatskin with the hair outside. The inhabitants told Earle that he would find this handy in coming down the mountain. He led the laughter when he first appeared in his ‘Robinson Crusoe outfit’.”
The only settlement on the island is formally called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, or Edinburgh for short, yet no islander calls it that. “The Settlement” is the term they use. It has in fact been visited by two Dukes of Edinburgh. The first was Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, who visited Tristan da Cunha while on a world tour in 1867. The settlement adopted the name Edinburgh of the Seven Seas after this Duke. Mackay wrote about a funny moment between the children and Prince Alfred’s hat:
“The Duke did not know that while he was having dinner, the children were competing for turns in trying on his hat.”
The second Duke of Edinburgh, the current Prince Philip, visited Tristan in 1957 aboard the royal yacht Britannia.
Tristan da Cunha had another famous visitor: in 1873 the HMS Challenger brought Charles Darwin and his team of oceanic explorers. They moved on to Inaccessible Island, which was covered in tussock grass higher than a grown man. Mackay told a sad story about one of the team’s dogs:
“Having started through the mass, the several exploring parties found that there seemed to be no end. The spiky tussock stuck up above their heads, and they could not see where they were going…Unable to see each other, they were separated from their leaders and joined anyone they could find in the thicket…”All the men succeeded in battling their way out, as did one of the spaniels, but not the other. Kindly old ‘Boss’ was lost in the rookery. Yelping, cringing, he had fled hither and yon, and vanished into some unknown hiding-place. Before the men left the beach they called and whistled until their throats were dry. But they had to board the boat and leave him behind, where he would probably be a victim of the vicious skua gulls.”
The south Atlantic could be treacherous for days on end, making landing, or even launching impossible. Islanders visiting Inaccessible could be stuck there for as long as a week until the ocean quieted down. Likewise when the islanders were in need of provisions:
“As ships became fewer, the skilful boatmen would sometimes go more than twenty miles out to sea to try to intercept them.”
In 1885, with stores almost exhausted especially after the island’s potato crop having failed, fifteen men set off to try to intercept a ship to conduct trade for much needed supplies. The turbulent sea engulfed their boat and all fifteen men drowned, in effect turning Tristan instantly into an island of widows. If there was one moment in the island’s history that wrought more devastation, it was the loss of these fifteen men in a single day.
Need for supplies was often conveyed to the captain of one departing ship to pass on to the next vessel headed for the island. Sometimes, though, the message got muddled in the transoceanic delivery:
“At the request of the Customs House in Cape Town, the Barrows [the resident chaplains] had taken along some supplies sent by a French firm in gratitude to the Tristanians who had helped when one of its ships was on fire. The Company had asked what would be useful and had misread ‘soap’ as ‘soup’. They sent four cases of tinned soup, much to the disappointment of the recipients, ‘for soap is prized more than anything’.”
Innovative islanders found various uses for different products as it might be many months or years before the proper product was delivered:
“We [the Rogers family, resident chaplains after the Barrows] had to be careful over bandages as some would pretend to be sick or hurt to get bandages to mend their clothes. They came in handy for everything, from shirt-cuffs to boat-sails.”
One observation I was troubled to read throughout Angry Island was the impression visitors had of the islanders. These were often prejudices about their level of intelligence, their apparent lack of vocabulary and laziness. No wonder the Tristanians of today have such a dim view of journalists and filmmakers. For example, the skipper of a visiting ship remarked:
“So, ‘on more mature consideration’, he softened his judgement of the Tristanians. He allowed for their ignorance and isolation. In the end he conceded that he was ‘surprised they were not more wild and uncivilized’. And he summed them up as ‘a lot of grown-up children’.”
When the volcano on the island erupted in 1961, the entire population of 290 was evacuated first to Cape Town, and then to London where they stayed for a year and a half. They were treated like zoo animals, gawked at and poked by microphones. Mackay herself met the Tristanians after their evacuation to England and had opportunities to interview them:
“What the pupils all liked least in England they were too courteous to tell me, so Miss Downer [the Tristanian children’s teacher] said it for them: the constant nuisance of reporters and photographers.”
Footage is available on YouTube showing British interviewers talking to the Tristanians. Some of the most xenophobic questions I have ever heard were asked of the Tristanians, and the islanders are seen looking dumbfounded–no doubt they were struck silent by such imbeciles annoyingly sticking microphones into their faces. The questions were leading, intended to elicit a certain response. When the Tristanians didn’t supply the answers the interviewer was expecting, they were made to appear simple-minded and technologically backward. In these interviews children were shown television for the first time and the interviewer couldn’t believe it when they displayed not the slightest interest. This colonial power superiority was offensive, and never let up the entire time the Tristanians were in England, as someone always wanted to examine them, from linguists interested in their dialect of English, to doctors who wanted to find out why so many of the islanders were afflicted with asthma, to sociologists for any number of reasons. No wonder all but five of the Tristanians voted to return home as soon as the island was deemed safe. Being in England was too much of a culture shock:
“One islander told me [Mackay] that though they all marvelled at the traffic and the towns, he most minded walking down the street among ‘all strange faces, and nobody saying hello’.”
Many of the islanders found jobs while in England, yet while the following observations do have their merit, I can’t help but read between the lines a subtle xenophobia:
“The chief problem was the fact that very few had ever worked indoors. Furthermore, as diarists and researchers had been pointing out for decades, the people had never lived, worked and eaten by the clock. It was a struggle against all experience to catch a bus and to check in regularly as a whistle blew; not to be free to down tools and wander off to gaze or chat.”
“The people’s almost oriental casualness about time made appointments seem irrelevant–used as they were to a lone village where everyone just dropped in.”
An air of colonial superiority over the Tristanians permeated Angry Island, however I am not narrow-minded to believe in any of this supposed backwardness. With the world growing ever smaller under the broad net of the worldwide web, Tristanians are more connected with the rest of the world than ever before, however I am of the belief that the islanders weren’t even “country bumpkins” even before the age of the Internet. To portray the residents as primitive, animal-skin-wearing illiterates makes for a dramatic story and casts the storyteller as a modern-day heroic Columbus. Mackay ends her book by conveying the outside impression of Tristan da Cunha from 1963 and while fifty years later, this impression still stings.
Volcanic eruption on Tristan da Cunha in 1961