Shelter from the Spray


I have long had an interest in Tristan da Cunha and the islands in its neighbouring archipelago. I am aware of many out-of-print books about these islands and have often looked on-line through the catalogues of antiquarian booksellers in order to find them. In September of 2013, while I was aboard S. A. Agulhas II en route to Tristan I met some bookish South Africans whom I was sure to pester for recommendations for their favourite second-hand book retailers in Cape Town. It was my plan to go book shopping after my visit to the island. With all the other activities I wanted to do in Cape Town and the surrounding area, I was lucky to find the time for book shopping. I certainly made the time, although it was too short. After my hike up Table Mountain with Martin and Murray Crawford, I had time to visit two bookstores. Unfortunately I left myself only half an hour to shop at Select Books before its posted closing time, so I raced around the store’s subject areas grabbing every book I was interested in. I put those books in a pile by the cash. I’d look at each book carefully later. I was amassing quite a tall pile, and when I nervously expressed to the shopkeeper that I would hurry up to get out of the store by closing time, he, seeing my growing pile of books, told me that there was no rush and that I could take my time. Whew! I mean, what good would it have been to prematurely kick out someone who could very well have been your best customer of the day?

One of my finds at Select was Shelter from the Spray by Eric Rosenthal. By coincidence, I had bought this book from Martin Crawford en route from Cape Town to Tristan. Martin had brought along a selection of books about the south Atlantic islands to sell to passengers and I was amazed to see Shelter from the Spray for the first time. That copy however did not have a dust jacket yet the copy I saw at Select had one. I decided to buy this second copy and I gave the Crawford copy away as a gift.

Shelter tells the story of brothers Frederick and Gustav Stoltenhoff, who had fantastical Robinson Crusoe ideas (or delusions) to settle the aptly-named Inaccessible Island, which lies 40 km southwest of Tristan, in 1871.

The Stoltenhoffs came to know about Inaccessible Island after they were shipwrecked on Tristan da Cunha. The title of the chapter that tells this part of the story was entitled “A Floating Volcano”, and I liked the imagery in that it evoked both the circumstances of the shipwreck as well as the island itself. The brothers were aboard the Beacon Light, an English ship loaded with coal that caught fire. The ship became a living incarnation of its own name, “a floating volcano” upon the south Atlantic. It sank and the crew was rescued by the islanders of Tristan da Cunha, which is itself a volcanic island. The volcano on Tristan last erupted in 1961, forcing the evacuation of the entire population for a year and a half.

Once the brothers heard about the seal population on Inaccessible and the Tristanians’ cull of pelts, they decided to return to the south Atlantic to get a piece of the action. After saving enough money and gathering resources, they sailed from England to St. Helena, then on to Inaccessible. They planned to stay on Inaccessible for only a few months, spending all their time trapping and skinning seals. However, no amount of advance planning could prepare the Stoltenhoffs for an extended stay on an uninhabited island. The brothers often found themselves without an essential item. I found it funny how Rosenthal conveyed the surprise when Frederick or Gustav made the sudden and shocking discovery that they had forgotten to bring along a supply of rope, or when they almost forgot to bring along reading material. They almost forgot to bring along their own boat! The funniest moment of ignorance came when the brothers realized that they had no experience cutting up or flaying animals. Not just the goats or pigs found on the island, but the seals they intended to profit from.

Inaccessible Island was named for a very good reason, and in spite of the reasons the brothers gave for wanting to sail there,

“From their neighbours and friends they received far too much advice for their liking.”

When the Tristanians found the Stoltenhoffs on Inaccessible, they were not pleased. They rightfully looked at them as squatters, invaders of their personal space and pilferers of their rare fortunes. While the Tristanians were civil to the brothers each time they visited Inaccessible and even tried to help them at first, they soon grew irritated by their presence and tried various ways to compel them to leave. The Stoltenhoffs certainly didn’t ingratiate themselves to their island neighbours. They’d either ignore the valuable advice the Tristanians were offering or flout it openly.

I spent over three weeks on Tristan da Cunha and the experience with the elements was unlike anything I had ever encountered. In the south Atlantic, the winds roll across the water like a 747 racing down a runway, and the rain blows around in all directions. Umbrellas are useless. I could identify with the scene described below:

“The gales howled almost incessantly across Inaccessible, and the waves, piled up for thousands of miles across the Atlantic, reached such mountainous heights that even on solid land the adventurers were appalled.”

In spite of their setbacks, such as suffering through food rationing, losing their boat, having their knives allegedly stolen by the Tristanians, and not amassing any quantity of sealskins to profit from, the brothers decided to remain on Inaccessible even when the rare ship made a stop to offer them passage. While enduring near starvation and soaking conditions, the brothers might at first have said they wanted to leave the island, yet whenever a boat miraculously appeared, they declined to go. Their dream of making a fortune kept them anchored on Inaccessible, yet after two years of suffering through the torrential rains, and now having to cope without working guns as well as a depletion of tobacco, they were ready to jump on the next ship that came calling. They enjoyed sharing their adventures as modern-day Robinson Crusoes, although they never visited the south Atlantic again.

Rosenthal, who in spite of using Frederick’s island diary as a source for Shelter, made the error of adding names to the story who, as far as Tristan da Cunha history is concerned, would have been an anachronistic impossibility. Frederick and Gustav were based on Inaccessible from 1871 to 1873, yet Rosenthal made repeated references to visits to the island by several Tristanian men, among whom were “Repetto” and “Lavarello”. These names refer to Andrea Repetto and Gaetano Lavarello, yet they weren’t shipwrecked on Tristan until 1892. Rosenthal thus used Tristanian names from the time when he originally wrote the book (published in 1952), not realizing that Repetto and Lavarello hadn’t arrived on Tristan when the Stoltenhoffs’ story took place.

I visited Tristan da Cunha from September to October 2013, and Inaccessible Island is visible from the island. In the photo below, it lies to the right of Hillpiece and the Hardies, 40 km to the southwest:

092 Hillpiece and Inaccessible

A close-up of Inaccessible Island:


While on an outing to Nightingale Island (and here for part two), we bounced around in our RIB, waiting for the smaller inflatable to take us to shore (although “shore” is indeed a misnomer for rocky Nightingale). Two islets north of Nightingale are in the photo below. Middle Island, also known as Alex Island, in on the right, behind former Tristanian Chief Islander James Glass. On the left, the three tall sea stacks form the collective known as Stoltenhoff Island:


Stoltenhoff and Middle Island as seen from Nightingale, with Tristan da Cunha in the distance:


Close-up of Stoltenhoff Island. Its highest point is 99 m:


On my last full day on Tristan da Cunha, I climbed to the top of the Base. The volcanic peak is visible from the Base. In the background on the left side is Nightingale Island and on the right is Inaccessible:

149 Nightingale, Craig and Inaccessible

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