Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties

Allan Crawford is considered a legend on Tristan da Cunha and by those who study the island. What started out in 1937 as an unexpected side-trip to Tristan working as a surveyor turned into a seventy-year love affair with the island and its people. Crawford is famous for creating the first ever survey of the island, and his map is still used today. When I travelled to Tristan aboard the Agulhas II I met his son Martin and daughter-in-law Marilyn. At first I had no idea who Martin’s famous father was, and while I was aware of Martin and Marilyn’s surname, I didn’t connect it to the Allan Crawford. I was drawn to Martin because he had brought a pile of books to sell on board the ship. I had stumbled into one of the Agulhas lounges and Martin was passing around second-hand books he had acquired on the subject of the south Atlantic islands. Some of the books were going to Tristan for their local archives, yet others were for sale to any passenger who was interested. I chatted with Martin and Marilyn for a long time, and got some recommendations for second-hand bookstores in Cape Town. It wasn’t until the following day when I ate with Martin and Marilyn’s son Murray and his wife Candace that I learned who their famous (grand)father was. Murray told me that his granddad had produced the first ever survey map of Tristan and I had a moment right out of a movie: I dropped my fork and stopped mid-chew and asked: “You mean your grandfather was Allan Crawford?”. So over the course of the rest of the voyage, the time spent on Tristan and during the trip back to Cape Town I got to know the descendants of Allan Crawford. On my final full day in Cape Town, I spent time with the Crawfords as Martin, Murray.and their dog Flicka and I climbed Table Mountain together.


While I was at Clarke’s Bookshop for the second time, where I went immediately after climbing Table Mountain, I had more time to look around the room housing the rare and out-of-print books. I had only had a quick glance at those shelves when I was there two days prior. I was calm yet excited when I pulled out Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties by Allan Crawford. It was an autographed copy, dated 1982, the year of its publication. Crawford’s books are not easy to come by and this one just appeared after I had spent that morning with Crawford’s son and grandson. Now I was spending the afternoon with the man himself in the form of an autographed edition that he had handled. (If I had any doubt as to the autograph’s authenticity, I sent a scan of it to Murray who corroborated that it was in fact the real thing.)


Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties was filled with photos, all of them reproduced in black and white, taken by the author himself. Crawford told the story of his first, and unexpected, trip to the island, where he served as surveyor:

“It was towards the end of 1937 that I first visited the island of Tristan da Cunha. I was travelling from Southampton to Cape Town in the mailship Arundel Castle in search of a job in South Africa, lured by posters proclaiming sunshine and opportunity. On board I was placed at the same table as Dr Erling Christophersen, leader of a Norwegian scientific expedition bound for Tristan. The other ten members of his party were sailing south separately, and more economically, on a whale-factory ship. Christophersen needed a surveyor, and, as I was otherwise uncommitted, he persuaded me to join his expedition. I had never used a theolodyte in my life before but had the opportunity of a crash course in surveying at the University of Cape Town. The understanding was that, if I failed to produce a satisfactory new map of Tristan, I should undertake other duties. This was the first scientific expedition to the island: it was virgin territory for us all.”

In my Tristan da Cunha blog posts, I wrote about the local idiomatic characteristic of placing an aspirate H before any word that starts with a vowel or a vowel sound. Thus one hears h’Internet and h’Admin (the short form for the island’s Administrator). I loved to hear the initial H, and it was a trait exhibited by all generations. I will cherish most of all hearing two-year-old Lucas Swain when he visited the home of Shaun and Renée Green, where I stayed while on the island. He said, repeatedly, “Can I have a h’apple?”. Note that there is no need to say an when the word that follows starts with an aspirate H. I pleasantly recalled little Lucas when I read the following reminiscence:

“Captain Roberts was amused to witness a heated argument on the beach, as the boats were preparing to depart, in which one irate islander accused another of having taken ‘his h’oar’. Roberts was unaware of the islanders’ habit of adding an ‘h’ before words starting with a vowel, and in his innocence could hardly blame the first man’s anger!”

On Crawford’s third trip to Tristan in 1946, he was entrusted with the authority to change from Greenwich Mean Time to the local Zone Time. This changed was welcomed by the islanders however sometime in the last 67 years the official time zone of Tristan da Cunha has reverted to Greenwich Mean Time.

He then spent the next decades in various roles such as meteorologist and postmaster. Crawford wrote with excitement of the various special occasions which led to new stamp issues, although I felt he was more excited in his descriptions of the stamps and first-day covers themselves, some of which he had designed himself. In 1948 Crawford was appointed head of the new weather station that was to be built on Marion Island, a South African island located 1769 km from the mainland. It was chapters such as this, which detailed Crawford’s excursions to other south Atlantic islands, that captivated my interest most of all. So little has been written about Marion, and little has been written about Gough Island or the ultima Thule of all islands, Bouvet. Crawford wrote one chapter about Gough and three about Bouvet Island, where he was able to visit in 1955 and 1964. Tristan da Cunha may be known as the most isolated permanently inhabited island on the planet. Bouvet, however, is the most isolated island, period, be it inhabited or not. The Tristan da Cunha group is just that: a small archipelago, with the uninhabited Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands nearby. I even visited Nightingale Island. But there’s nothing anywhere near Bouvet, so if you’re on that island, you’re further away from any other land mass on the planet. That Crawford had the opportunity to visit Bouvet twice, and to include so many photos from these trips, made Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties such an exciting read.

When the volcano on Tristan erupted in 1961, the entire population was evacuated, first to Cape Town and then to England. By then Crawford had been appointed by the Colonial Office as Honorary Welfare Officer for Tristan. He was inundated with letters from unhappy Tristanians who wrote to him in desperate longing to return to their island home. The Tristanians spent eighteen months in England, suffering one of the worst winters England had had that century:

“Newspaper reporters meantime seemed to thrive on their misery, descending in hordes to interview not only the islanders but also medical and sociological experts, and others connected with their welfare. Pessimists prognosticated that if the community returned to isolation, hereditary influences would begin to have adverse effects on their health. Some went so far as to predict a high incidence of blindness resulting from the rectinitis pigmentosa [sic] which already existed…Unhappily, scientists and medical research teams were beginning to make the islanders’ daily lives a misery, insisting on endless tests and intruding into the most personal aspects of their lives. The islanders felt they were being treated more as guinea pigs than human beings.”

The Tristanians have Crawford to thank for his efforts in convincing the authorities to investigate the island after the volcanic eruption, and then for their eventual repatriation.

Since I have travelled to Tristan I have received countless questions about what life on the island is like. Near the end of Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties,Crawford writes about questions he often hears, such as:

“I have often been asked what it is like living in such a remote place, and whether the people in Tristan are happy. In such an isolated, close group, every member of the community is involved in what happens to everyone else: the birth of a child is an occasion for general rejoicing and even subsequent birthdays (especially the first and twenty-first) involve the whole village in tea parties and dances. Similarly, when somebody dies the whole community is in some way involved…
“On the whole, I believe, the islanders are contented.”.

Everyone depends on each other in all aspects of life, from house building, fishing to boat operation. No one can truly live as an island while on the most isolated inhabited island on Earth. Crawford wrote one line that puzzled me:

“All medical services are free for both islanders and outsiders.”

which may have been the case in 1982, but I don’t believe the same applies now. I was speaking to some Tristanians who had returned to the island after living many years abroad. They were telling me that in order to qualify for free health care, they had to regain their status as resident Tristanians. In spite of being longtime residents of the island at one time in the past, they had to live on Tristan for two consecutive years since their return to requalify as Tristanian residents.

After a visit to Tristan da Cunha, it seems right that I should read a personal account of one frequent visitor. Allan Crawford’s Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties was a memoir written with wide-eyed enthusiasm and wonder, capturing events that had happened decades ago with as much ebullience as if they had happened only yesterday.

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