NARRATIVE OF A RESIDENCE
ISLAND OF TRISTAN D'ACUNHA,
by Augustus Earle
SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN.
ON the 17th of February, 1824, I embarked at Rio de Janeiro, on board the sloop 'Dure of Gloucester,' Captain Amm, master, bound for the Cape of Good Hope. In dropping down to harbour mouth, we got 'athwart hawse' an American brig, but no damage was done. A sea breeze having set in, we were obliged to boat out; and, whilst thus engaged, we passed the ship which had the King of Owyhee on board. The 'Spartiate,' Sir George Air, was also lying in the harbour, with several French frigates. The Sugar-loaf and other mountains were covered with clouds indicative of a gale, though the day was perfectly calm.
On the 18th, there came on a very strong gale from the north, which continued the whole day without intermission; and at night we lay to, it still blowing severely. From the 20th we had fine weather and a fair wind; nothing material taking place, and the temperature getting gradually colder. The month of March came in with heavy weather; often obliging us to lower our mainsail, and hoist our trysail; whilst the little sloop laboured very much.
March 6th, we got sight of Tristan d'Acunha, but a strong S.E. wind prevented our nearing it; and after beating about for four days, in very hazy and disagreeable weather, we saw 'Nightingale Island;' the fog preventing our seeing the other two islands, though we perfectly well knew we were very near both of them. On the 18th we found ourselves abreast the above named one, bearing W. by S. distant twenty miles; and running down to it with a fair wind, we made Sandy Point, and saw the huts, but no appearance of any inhabitants. We ran down the coast; and until evening the weather was beautiful, the sea smooth as a lake indeed, a dead calm; when suddenly a squall came from the mountains, which very nearly laid us on our beam ends. All was confusion in an instant, the sea heaving up masses of foam in all directions, though not a cloud was visible in any part of the horizon. These sudden squalls are called 'Willies,' at least, such is the name given them by the sailors who frequent the island. By sunset we were blown completely off the land, and passed the night pretty close to the small island called 'The Inaccessible.'
19th.—There being a severe gale from the north-west, and no islands in sight, we lay to all day.
20th.—We saw land ahead, ran down to it, and when we got within ten miles of it, found it was 'The Inaccessible;' we then altered our course, and made for Tristan d'Acunha, with a heavy wind and sea. After a three hours' run, the hazy weather preventing our seeing land, though certain we were close to it, we hove to.
21st.—We had a continuance of bad, blowing, hazy weather. At noon we obtained sight of the island, but were kept off by contrary winds till the 26th, when a strong westerly breeze setting in, carried us down to the land. This was to me a most happy event, as I was completely tired of being tossed about so long on a rough sea, and rejoiced at the prospect of spending a few hours on shore.
On the north of this island, a long, low, green point runs a considerable way into the sea; at the end of which is erected a flagstaff; and just round this point is situated Falmouth Bay, a small inlet. Being come abreast of this bay, we saw several houses under the hill; and upon one of them was hoisted the British flag, a welcome sight to an Englishman! We hove to about a mile from the shore, and soon saw a boat launched from the beach, which presently boarded us; and these settlers seemed most happy at our arrival, as ships so very seldom can touch here. They assured Captain Amm he might anchor with perfect safety, as long as there was no north in the wind; but that the moment it touched that point, he must get under weigh, and be off as soon as possible.
At three o'clock we anchored half a mile from the shore, opposite Falmouth Bay, in twenty fathom water, with a rocky bottom covered with kelp. Our captain, finding the settlers had abundance of potatoes, agreed to purchase a few tons for the Cape market; and as I knew it would take a considerable time to get them on board, I determined to return in the boat with the men when they left our vessel: I did so, and took with me my dog, gun, boat cloak, and sketch book, hoping to be able to add a few interesting drawings to my portfolio, as this was a spot hitherto unvisited by any artist.
There is something really terrific in the appearance of this island as you approach the shore. The sea breaks with violence over rocks which are just rising above water, and the whole extent of beach is whitened with surf It is unsafe for any other than whale boats to attempt landing here. On quitting the boat, I found a road, formed of black lava, cut down the cliff, along which the islanders had brought their boat. The cliff is about fifty feet high, and at its summit there is an extended plain, reaching to the foot of a mountain; and this plain is covered with a coarse kind of grass, called by the settlers Tussek, which grows in clusters, and is as strong as a small reed. Arriving at the village, which consists of half a dozen houses, covered with thatch made of this native grass, I found two women, and a number of children, who were all equally delighted to see a stranger amongst them. The houses, and all around them, had an air of comfort, cleanliness, and plenty, truly English; and which was highly gratifying to my feelings, from the contrast it formed to those I had lately seen in South America.
They immediately brought me a bowl of new milk; after which I sat down to dinner with these hospitable people, and they showed every possible kindness and attention to me. In the afternoon the men were all busily employed getting off the cargo of potatoes.
27th.—The crew were all engaged in stowing away their fresh freight, while I passed the time in scrambling round the rocks, and making sketches.
28th.—So strong a north wind was blowing, that it was impossible to get off in the boat; the sloop remained in the offing.
29th.—As the wind had moderated, I prepared to set off I had purchased some stock, which was already placed in the boat, and they were preparing to launch her, to take me on board, when the sloop tacked, and stood out to sea! I concluded she was only making a lone stretch, and waited on the beach some hours; but she stood quite off to sea, and I never beheld her more!
I passed several days in the utmost anxiety respecting the vessel, for the wind was blowing tremendously. The surf along the beach exceeded every thing I ever before witnessed, or could have imagined; and the noise was almost deafening! The rocks and the beach, being composed of black lava, opposed to the snowy whiteness of the foam, produced a supernatural effect, and was, from the contrast of colour, particularly grand, especially as we were then on the weather side of the island.
31st.—We have now got fine weather, and the sea is considerably calmed. I still feel the most intense solicitude respecting the fate of the vessel and her crew: a week has passed since the sloop disappeared, so I must now give up all hope of her returning for me; being convinced that she has either borne up for the Cape, or perished in the gale, carrying every soul on board with her to the bottom! What an escape may not Providence, in its infinite goodness, have allotted me. Yet, whichever event may have taken place, I am certainly now in a most desperate situation, and likely to pay very dearly for the indulgence of my curiosity. I am left, with one of the men from the sloop, on this island, little better than a savage one, with no other preparation than the clothes we happen to have on. Winter, too, is approaching, and there is but a slight chance of any ship touching on this rough coast so late in the season! However, as we are without any alternative, we must bear our lot patiently, and endeavour to make the best of it; look around us, and prepare in the most skilful way we can for our future residence.
The chief person of our little community (commonly called the Governor) is Mr. Glass, a Scotchman, a ci-devant corporal of the artillery drivers; and he certainly behaves to me with every possible kindness: nothing within his power is spared to make me comfortable. I experience from him attention and hospitality, such as are rarely found in higher situations of life. Indeed, every individual seems equally disposed to serve me, and make me reconciled to my present situation. As to the man who landed with me, he is perfectly happy; he finds himself in the society of his equals, and knows that his pay is accumulating, during his residence here. My three other companions have all been private seamen, who have remained here at different times in order to procure sea elephant and other oils, to barter with vessels touching here; and they all partake greatly of the honest roughness of British tars.
Accustomed to be either in their whale boat, pulling through the most dreadful surf that can be conceived, or covered with blood and grease, killing and preparing for use the marine animals who assemble round this island, it cannot be expected their manners or appearance should partake much of elegance or refinement, or their conversation be such as would be tolerated in polished society; but it is altogether a new scene to me, and I take infinite delight in hearing them relate their different adventures in their own peculiar seaman's phraseology. It is a desirable thing, and one only to be acquired by travelling, to be able to accommodate oneself to the society Providence may throw us amongst.
Of the fair ladies of our colony, Mrs. Glass is a Cape creole, and Mrs. White a half-cast Portuguese from Bombay: their time is so fully occupied that I seldom see either of them; being constantly in the cook-house, which is separated from our dwelling. Children there are in abundance, all healthy and robust, and just one year older than another.
Glass is one of the garrison the British Government sent here some years since, and which was soon after given up; but he and his wife requested that they might be permitted to remain. On the arrival of the garrison, the only inhabitants they found, were an old Italian named Thomas, and a wretched looking half-cast Portuguese. They said they were the last survivors of the American party settled here under Lambat, who, as their story ran, was lost with a number of men crossing to one of the neighbouring islands; but, from all the intelligence I obtained from Glass, who described this Italian to be a morose, mysterious person, I suspected he and his comrade knew something more of the fate of poor Lambat and his party than they chose to disclose. A story was easily invented, of all their companions perishing 'at one fell swoop,' and, as a matter of course, the survivors became masters of all the property left on the island. There was but too strong evidence that these two villains despatched their comrades by some unfair means: for when the vessels arrived here from the Cape with the troops and settlers, the Portuguese got off quietly in another vessel; but the Italian, who always had plenty of money at command, remained with the garrison, and, tempted by the easy access his money gave him to the military canteen, he was constantly seen in a state of intoxication; and it was when he used to be half drunk, that he was accustomed to drop ambiguous phrases, and express the greatest horrors respecting Lambat and his companions. He likewise informed Glass that he had plenty of money buried there, and that he would (some day) show the place where his hoard lay, to that man in the garrison who pleased him most; thus insuring constant good treatment from the men, each hoping to be the favoured heir; but one day, after a dose extraordinary, he was taken suddenly ill, and expired before he could explain to his companions where his treasure was concealed, though evidently anxious so to do. A universal search commenced after his death; but neither money nor papers have ever been found: and even I, when not better occupied, used to examine every cranny and hole in the rocks about the houses, in hopes of finding old Thomas's treasure; for Glass said it must be near the houses, as he used to be away but a very short time when he visited his hoard for money. I once thought I had really made the discovery; for in a cleft of the rock, in a very remote corner, I found an old kettle stuffed with rags; but, unfortunately, with no other treasure. Glass well remembered the kettle belonging to Thomas, by the remarkable circumstance of its having a wooden bottom!
A little to the eastward of the settlement is Falmouth Bay, a dangerous rocky inlet, which proved fatal to his Majesty's ship 'Julia.' Parts of the wreck are still strewn upon the shore. Amongst the thick grass, beyond the beach, a high pole has been erected, marking the spot where the remains of the unhappy sufferers were interred. The wreck has been of great service to the inhabitants; for their houses and fences are principally composed of it.
The cause of this spot being so peculiarly dangerous to shipping at anchor is the swell that sets in before the wind, and which was the occasion of the loss of the 'Julia.' The night had been perfectly calm; but at two o'clock in the morning, heavy rollers set in, and she was driven by them into the bay, and, it being quite dark, she was dashed upon a rock: she split in two, and nearly 'all hands' perished.
April 24th.—To-day we found the body of a man named Smith, amongst some bushes, who had been missing nearly two months. The poor fellow had been in a state of derangement, and, having wandered away from the houses, lost himself, probably, among the high grass, and there perished. The body was in a sad putrid state; and we had to bury it on the spot where it was found. I read the funeral service over it; all the settlers being present, and behaving in the most serious and respectful manner during the ceremony. The fate of this poor man was peculiarly distressing, and furnishes another instance in proof of what a hazardous and desperate profession the South Sea fishery is. I understood that he formerly commanded a large ship on that service from London, which proved uncommonly successful. The owners, delighted with his good luck (for luck it was), again sent him out on a similar speculation: but his good fortune forsook him; and he returned, after an unsuccessful cruize of three years, to his employers. In consequence, he was turned off; could not obtain any employment; and, after experiencing every sort of misery in London, was finally obliged to embark as fourth mate, in a vessel which he himself used formerly to command. It was stationed off these islands; and Glass frequently saw him. They went from hence to South Georgia, to kill sea elephants; and, in that miserable high southern latitude, they put together the frame of a vessel, which they had brought out from England for that purpose; and the command of it was given to poor Smith. These vessels are called shallops; and are intended to accompany the large ships, and bring off the blubber collected on the beach. They occasionally make short trips; but sometimes are compelled to undertake long voyages, as proved the case with this one; for, missing the ship, after a great deal of useless cruizing in search of her, they had to run for Tristan d'Acunha, in hopes of finding her there; thus performing a long and boisterous passage in a little sloop of only fifteen tons, just nailed together, and with scarcely any provisions on board. However, they arrived here safe; but there was no anchorage or shelter for them. Worn down with fatigue and anxiety, Smith secured the shallop in the best way he could, and then went on shore and abandoned her. Shortly after, the ship arrived: the captain put fresh hands on board; and the late commander was so struck with the unfavourable appearance, and bad constructions that might be put upon his abandoning his vessel, that he fled into the woods in a state of distraction; nor did he return to the settlement till ship and shallop had both left the island. It was shortly after this that I arrived; and he was then in a state of most deplorable insanity; but still his misfortunes seemed to weigh as heavily as ever upon him. The idea of his having abandoned his charge seemed always present to his imagination. At length, quite exhausted with mental suffering, he perished in the manner I have related.
Since my arrival, I have been unanimously appointed chaplain; and every Sunday we have the whole service of the Church of England read, Mr. Glass acting as my clerk: and it is really a gratifying sight to behold the cleanly and orderly state in which the men appear; all the children are dressed in their best, and they all pay the utmost attention during Divine service. I am also schoolmaster to the elder children, who are pretty forward in reading; and their parents are so anxious for their improvement, that it gives me the greatest pleasure to be able to assist them in so laudable an undertaking; though, to be sure, we are sadly at a loss for books, paper, pens, and all other school materials. Their parental exertions (poor fellows) would not avail much; the state of literature being but at a very low ebb amongst them; but what little information they have, they all endeavour to teach the children. One of the men lamented to me the other day, that he had so little book larning, although he once had had the advantage of seeing the King's own printing-office at Portsmouth!
Our governor, Glass, who is the original founder and first settler of this little society, was born in Roxburgh. In the course of many long conversations I had with him, seated in his chimney corner, I learned that, in early life, he had been a gentleman's servant in his native town; and that he had an old aunt settled there, an eminent snuff and tobacco vender; but whether she claimed descent from, or affinity with, the celebrated lady of the same name and occupation whom Sir Walter Scott mentions in 'The Heart of Midlothian,' as being so great a favourite of the then Duke of Argyle, I could not discover. Indeed, he did not seem to know much about his ancestors,—an uncommon thing even with the lowest of his countrymen. Having (while still quite a youth) been crossed in love, he enlisted in the artillery drivers; that corps suiting him best, from his well understanding the management of horses, and being an excellent rider. He related many amusing stories of his first and only campaign in Germany, which was an unsuccessful one. His favourite theme was his various adventures at the Cape. He gave me the whole history of his promotion from a private to a corporal; for he rose to that rank. I was always pleased with his descriptions; for there was such an air of truth and candour in them, as convinced me of his probity and honour; as well as the high terms in which he always spoke of his officers, and of the service in which he had for so many years been engaged. He was of a happy disposition; for he seemed to forget all the disagreeables of his profession, and only remembered the comforts and pleasures he experienced during the whole time he was a soldier; and he always spoke in enthusiastic raptures of the government, which had so comfortably provided for old veterans. Glass considered himself particularly fortunate in his military career, by having been generally employed by an officer as his servant; and, being an excellent shot, a good horseman, and withal an honest, good-humoured fellow, was nearly the whole of his time with his master, on some hunting expedition: then, as the game at the Cape is very different from the timid, harmless description of that in England, he had to recount some perilous and fatiguing expeditions. One, in particular, I well remember his relation of—it was a circumstance well known at the Cape, and I have heard the account from several persons since. He and his master (accompanied by several gentlemen) were on a hunting expedition; and as bucks were in great plenty, they were tempted to remain longer than usual in the bush, and to penetrate further into the jungle than they intended: in the midst of their pursuit, a large full grown tiger sprung on the foremost of the party, and instantly brought man and horse to the ground. The gentleman, who was thus attacked, was a large, powerful, and intrepid man, and fairly gave battle to the monster; and contrived, in a most wonderful manner, to keep him at bay, till the party had time to come up and fire into the beast, at the imminent risk of shooting the person whom they were endeavouring to save: but there was no time to deliberate, or to be nervous: they fired; the tiger was killed, and the gentleman's life saved, though he was dreadfully lacerated, having been for several minutes actually in the fangs of the enraged animal.
As a convincing proof of Glass's integrity, and his noble qualities as an honest and faithful servant, he once gave me the account of the death of his master, whom he had served for many years; and showed me a letter he had written a few hours before he died, giving his servant such an excellent character as any man might be proud of receiving; and, at the same time, bequeathing him the whole of his property. Poor Glass was much affected when he gave me these particulars. It was in consequence of the general good character he bore at the Cape, that he was chosen to accompany the expedition sent from thence to Tristan d'Acunha; where he, with fifty Hottentots, formed part of the garrison. Glass always spoke in high terms of the corps of Hottentots he served with, as men peculiarly adapted for artillery drivers, from their firm and perfect seat on horseback, their fearless (helter-skelter) sort of character; since they would, he said, dash with their horses and guns over roads and precipices that would make a white man tremble to look at; added to which, he highly praised their invariable good humour, but stated the great, indeed almost only, drawback to their merit to be, their proneness to drunkenness, which no punishments nor disgrace could eradicate.
Another proof of Glass's good sense was manifested in his wishing to remain here, when the garrison abandoned the island. 'Why, you know, sir (said he to me), what could I possibly do, when I reached my own country, after being disbanded? I have no trade, and am now too old to learn one. I have a young wife, and a chance of a numerous family; what could I do better for them than remain?' So he requested and obtained his discharge; and the few articles which the officers did not consider worth taking back again to the Cape, were given him: but the greatest treasure he obtained was a bull, a cow, and a few sheep, which stocked his farm; and, with his economy, and the care he bestows upon them, I have no doubt he will, eventually, become the possessor of extensive flocks and herds.
The next in rank (for even here we must have distinctions made) is a man of the name of Taylor, and he, being the oldest sailor, steers the whale-boat; and, as is usual amongst all gangs of men engaged either in fishing, sealing, or any boating work of that description, those who are at the helm assume a superiority over their comrades. The circumstance that induced this man to settle here is very curious, and shows, in strong colours, the peculiarities of seamen, and the very original notions they sometimes get into their heads. During the time the garrison occupied this island, it was occasionally visited by the squadron stationed at the Cape, and Taylor and a comrade of his belonged to a schooner acting as a tender to the Admiral. They sometimes served on shore; and once paid Glass a visit after the soldiers had abandoned the settlement. It then struck them, that it would be a most admirable plan to go home; and, after being paid off, to purchase a collection of things which would be useful to the farm, and come out again to join Glass. They went home, and were paid off; and I have no doubt fully intended laying out their money in the laudable way they had planned at Tristan d'Acunha; but, alas! the temptations on shore were too strong for their resistance. When all was gone, they determined to put their resolutions into practice; and accordingly these two men marched off to the Admiralty, to consult 'The Lords' on the subject. When they arrived there, they requested to be introduced; and as the Board was then sitting, they were formally ushered into their presence. They immediately informed their Lordships that they had each served upwards of twenty years in the navy, and were entitled, by length of service, and by their wounds, to a pension; that they would willingly wave that right, and had come to them to beg a passage to the island of Tristan d'Acunha. Taylor used to describe this interview with the Lords of the Admiralty with a great deal of humour, and the mirth they excited, and the numerous questions put to them by Sir George Cockburn, who, to Taylor's infinite delight, addressed him by the title of shipmate; for he had served under him some years before. They told their Lordships all the particulars of Glass's establishment, the wish they had to retire from the world, and the comfortable prospect that island offered them of independence; and that at a time of peace, when it was almost impossible for the most prudent and industrious to gain their bread. So humble, so just a request, was instantly granted; and all the gentlemen composing the Board cordially wished them success, and assured them that the first man-of-war bound round the Cape should land them, and all their worldly goods, on this island. Accordingly, they were put on board the 'Satellite,' bound to India. Thus were they added to Glass's company; and though a little addicted to the characteristic growling of old sailors, they jog on pretty smoothly, their quarrels seldom going further than swearing a little at each other. He and his partner built themselves a decent dwelling; and, being single men, dignified their abode with the appellation of 'Bachelors' Hall.' After a few years, Taylor's companion got tired of the solitude and sameness of the scene, and went off in a ship that touched here. His comrade, at the time I became a member of this society, was a dapper little fellow, as Taylor used to say, 'half sailor, half waterman, and half fisherman; born at Wapping, served his time in a Billingsgate boat, and occasionally vended sprats;' whilst, as a proof he was no pretender, he sometimes delighted us by going over the whole of those melodies which the fishwomen of the streets of London make familiar to one's ear. The name of this worthy was Richard; but he was always called Old Dick. He prided himself on being 'a man-of-war's man,' having, at the close of the war, entered the service, and was on board a ten gun brig; but every attempt he made at a nautical yarn was always instantly put a stop to by old Taylor, with such epithets of contempt that he was obliged to desist; but his local knowledge of Deptford, Bugsby's Hole, the Pool, &C. was truly extraordinary, and was his strong hold, from which his old hickory-faced companion never could dislodge him. But Dick had another equally strong position, which formed a part of his history quite incomprehensible to his companions, and which he usually resorted to when driven from the field in attempting to relate his adventures while in the Royal Navy; and that was, his having actually served as a dragoon in the army of Buenos Ayres: but here Glass always 'came athwart his hawse;' and the contempt he had for his dragoonship was equally as strong as that of Taylor for his seamanship. However, Dick described an army such as Glass could form no idea of; the half-naked, wild warrior of South America being so totally a different kind of soldier to what he had been accustomed to see. Poor Dick's story was a true and a melancholy one. By one of those sudden acts of treachery and cruelty which have been so common on the coast of South America, the vessel to which he belonged, while quietly engaged in picking up seal on the shore, was seized by an armed republican cruiser, on pretence of her occupation being unlawful, and the crew (for whom Dick had had the honour of cooking) and himself were lodged in durance vile; and the only chance they had of escaping from perpetual imprisonment was by entering the republican army; and they were all enrolled in what was then considered a very dashing dragoon regiment. These sailor dragoons proved a rich subject to Dick: he would amuse our humble fireside for hours by his description of the disasters which constantly befel these horse-marines, without clothes, without food, and almost without arms; and the manoeuvres they resorted to in order to keep themselves on their saddles, and also to prevent chafing. After a curious sort of campaign, these sailors made their escape. Some got safe to Monte Video, and were received on board an English vessel; but the cause of Dick's being on the island, was his being some time after wrecked here. He sailed from London in a small sloop going on a sealing trip, and obtained his old berth of cook. After cruizing for some time on the great Pacific Ocean, without obtaining a single skin, they touched here in hopes of being more successful; but got on shore, and the vessel was totally wrecked. Dick, preferring the sort of life led here to that he had been accustomed to, and tired of 'seeking the bubble reputation,' joined Glass's party; and on all our boating excursions he resumes his old occupation of cook.
The last, and youngest of our party, is named White. There is nothing very particular in his history. He is an excellent specimen of a young English sailor; and has all their characteristic warmth of feeling, and desperate courage, added to a simplicity almost childish. He was always the companion of my rambles whenever he could be spared from his share of toil, his manner of expressing his admiration of what he saw being highly amusing. He was one of the crew of the 'Blendenhall' Indiaman, which was wrecked on a neighbouring island. He had formed an attachment to one of the servant girls on board; and, in all the miseries they had endured after that event, had been her constant protector and companion; whilst gratitude on her part preventing her wishing to leave him, both chose to remain here; and he and his Peggy made the second couple married on this island, and no two people can be happier.
The cows, oxen, sheep, and poultry, all thrive here; but the pigs, owing to their eating so much kelp or sea-weed, have a very fishy, unpleasant taste. Fish is most abundant on this coast, and of various kinds. A few days since, I and two men took advantage of its being a smooth sea, and went out in the boat. We caught as fast as we could haul them out of the water; and, amongst other fish, a kind of mullet, which was delicious.
May 1st.—The day being remarkably fine, I walked out to one of the beaches, about four miles from our settlement; but the road was most difficult to get through—ferns growing up as high as the shoulders, and broken stumps continually striking the shins; but as there are no briars or thorns of any kind growing on the island, you may lay hold of every sort of bush without fearing to prick your fingers, when you find yourself falling. We saw numbers of sea elephants sleeping on the beach. They were all large, fat, and unwieldy.
Two years ago the 'Blendenhall' free trader, in trying to make this island, the weather being foggy, and it blowing hard, ran on a rocky island twenty-four miles to the westward. She was close to the land before she saw it, and then falling quite calm, and heavy rollers setting in, she struck; and soon after fell in pieces; the forepart (providentially the end where the crew and passengers had crowded together for safety) reached nearest the shore, and the greater part saved themselves; but naked, and on an uninhabited island, their situation was most deplorable; part of the wreck washing on shore, and, amongst other things, some bales of cloth, which was quickly converted into clothing; and in this miserable state they continued for four months, no one at Tristan d'Acunha knowing any thing about them. The sailors at length succeeded in making a flat-bottomed boat out of the wreck, and in that frail machine ventured to try to cross to this island; but these brave fellows were never seen or heard of more!
Still not despairing, those who remained constructed another machine, and another party volunteered to make the attempt to reach some inhabited spot; and the efforts of these intrepid seamen were crowned with success. They brought their frail bark safe into Falmouth Bay, and had the happiness of seeing the houses of the settlement, though quite by chance, as they were not aware that any English were living here. Mr. Glass and his men immediately prepared their whale-boat, and returned with one man for a guide; and after several dangerous trips, succeeded in rescuing the whole party from their perilous situation; after three months' residence with Glass and his people, they obtained a passage to the Cape, in a brig which fortunately touched here from Buenos Ayres, all but White and his wife, who chose to remain here. Thus were the settlers the happy means of rescuing forty persons from one of the most dreadful situations that it is possible for human beings to be placed in!
When the first settlers arrived here, they brought with them several cats; some of which unfortunately escaped into the bushes, and have increased so rapidly, that they have become quite a nuisance. Poultry had run wild, and the climate was so congenial, that they multiplied prodigiously, and were to be found in all parts of the island in abundance; but since the cats have been introduced, the poor fowls disappear rapidly. Indeed, these wild cats come so near the settlement as to attack and carry off the domestic poultry. I was out a few mornings ago, when the dogs caught one upon the beach. The nature and appearance of the animal seemed quite changed; all the characteristics of the domestic cat were gone: it was fierce, bold, and strong; and stood battle some time, against four good dogs, before it was killed.
There is an abundance of goats on the sides of the mountains, but too shy and swift of foot to give much chance of getting a shot at them.
Immediately at the foot of these mountains (and they are nearly perpendicular) is a slip of good land, gradually sloping down towards the sea; but it is cut suddenly from the beach by an abrupt precipice of about fifty feet; so that from every part is a fine commanding view of the ocean. This slip of land (between the mountains and the beach) is three quarters of a mile in width, and five or six miles in length; nearly level, and (except where the settlers have cleared a few acres) it is covered with a thick underwood, and small trees, all evergreens, easily cleared, and the soil is capable of producing any kind of vegetable, but particularly favourable for the culture of potatoes, which are the finest I ever tasted, and form the chief article of food as well as traffic. From the Peak, in the centre of the island, to the sea shore, the earth is cut into gullies, apparently by torrents. Those in the plains are deep, and cut straight to the sea. Two of these gullies, which are near our settlement, are, I should imagine, fifty feet wide, and as many deep, filled with huge masses of black lava. All the rocks on the island are of the same dismal hue, which gives a most melancholy aspect to all its scenery. The settlers call these ravines gultches.
9th.—Yesterday, the day being particularly fine, Glass, his eldest son, and myself, took the small boat, and pulled out about two miles from land, and commenced fishing. There being a great swell, our boat was terribly knocked about, and the poor boy was too sick to be able to render any assistance; but his father and I caught a great number of large fish called blue fish, weighing twenty or thirty pounds each. Before we could return we were caught in a squall; though, when we set forth on our expedition, it was a beautiful, calm, and clear morning; the weather here changes so suddenly. As a proof of which, Glass informed me, his wife once went off to pay a visit on board a ship; and while she was there a gale sprung up, the vessel had to stand off, and it was ten days before they could again make the island. Another time Mrs. White had a similar misfortune; the ship was driven off for three weeks, and very nearly lost!
Our house is (and all are built nearly after the same model) a complete proof of the nationality of an Englishman, and his partiality for a comfortable fire-side. Though the latitude is temperate, each room is furnished with a noble fire-place; and in what we call 'The Government House,' we meet every night, and sit round a large and cheerful blaze, each telling his story, or adventures, or singing his song; and we manage to pass the time pleasantly enough.
Looking out from my abode, no spot in the world can be more desolate; particularly on a blowing night. The roar of the sea is almost deafening; and the wind rushing furiously down the perpendicular sides of the mountains, which are nearly nine hundred feet high, and are masses of craggy rocks, has the most extraordinary and almost supernatural effect. No sooner does night set in than the air is full of nocturnal birds, whose screams are particularly mournful; and then comes the painful reflection, that I am so many thousands of miles from every human haunt, and separated from all my friends and family, who are in total ignorance of where I am, or what has become of me. But I force myself to struggle against dismal thoughts, unwilling that my comrades (who do every thing in their power to console me) should suspect how much I suffer; so I take my seat by the fire, shut out the night, pile on a cheerful log, and tell my tale in turn. I must confess that, amongst my companions, I never see a sad or discontented-looking face; and though we have no wine, grog, or any other strong drink, there is no lack of jovial mirth in any of the company.
Fortunately for me, when I came on shore, I brought with me some of my drawing apparatus, which now, in my forlorn state, has been the source of much amusement and improvement; making the time not hang so heavily on hand as it otherwise would do.
20th.—For the last ten days we have had a succession of wet, cold, uncomfortable weather, which has kept me much within doors; but constantly looking out, most anxiously, for the sight of a sail; yet, being winter, I fear there is but slight chance of such an event; and if we even do see one, should the wind be blowing high, she will not be able to approach the island.
A few days ago, it blowing a strong easterly wind at the time, Glass and I went to the east end of the island to burn the underwood and grass, in order to make pasturage for the cattle. This grass grows astonishingly fast, and if not burned occasionally would soon cover every thing. It is from eight to ten feet high, and so thick that it is almost impossible to get through it. We set fire to it in several places, and the wind catching the flame, it spread with dreadful and astonishing rapidity, running up the sides of the mountain with a roar like that produced by volleys of musketry; and it was accompanied with so much flame and smoke, as to make the spectacle truly sublime.
28th.—Yesterday being a fine morning, accompanied by two of the men, I determined to ascend the mountain. As several parties had before gone up, they had formed a kind of path, at least we endeavoured to trace the same way; but it requires a great deal of nerve to attempt it. The sides of the mountain are nearly perpendicular; but, after ascending about two hundred feet, it is there entirely covered with wood, which renders the footing much more safe; but in order to get to the wood, the road is so dangerous, that it made me almost tremble to think of it; slippery, grey rocks, and many of them unfortunately loose, so that when we took hold, they separated from the mass, and fell with a horrid rumbling noise; here and there were a few patches of grass, the only thing we could depend upon to assist us in climbing, which must be done with extreme caution, for the least slip, or false step, would dash one to atoms on the rocks below. By keeping our eyes constantly looking upwards, and continuing to haul ourselves up, by catching firm hold on this grass, after an hour's painful toil, we gained the summit, where we found ourselves on an extended plain, of several miles' expanse, which terminates in the peak, composed of dark grey lava, bare and frightful to behold. We proceeded towards it, the plain gradually rising, but the walking was most fatiguing, over strong rank grass and fern several feet high, with holes concealed under the roots in such a way, that no possible caution could prevent our occasionally falling down into one or other of them, and entirely disappearing, which caused a boisterous laugh amongst the rest; but it frequently happened, while one was making merry at the expense of another, down sunk the laugher himself.
A death-like stillness prevailed in these high regions, and, to my ear, our voices had a strange, unnatural echo, and I fancied our forms appeared gigantic, whilst the air was piercing cold. The prospect was altogether very sublime, and filled the mind with awe! On the one side, the boundless horizon, heaped up with clouds of silvery brightness, contrasted with some of darker hue, enveloping us in their vapour, and, passing rapidly away, gave us only casual glances of the landscape; and, on the other hand, the sterile and cindery peak, with its venerable head, partly capped with clouds, partly revealing great patches of red cinders, or lava, intermingled with the black rock, produced a most extraordinary and dismal effect. It seemed as though it were still actually burning, to heighten the sublimity of the scene. The huge albatross appeared here to dread no interloper or enemy; for their young were on the ground completely uncovered, and the old ones were stalking around them. This bird is the largest of the aquatic tribe; and its plumage is of a most delicate white, excepting the back and the tops of its wings, which are grey: they lay but one egg, on the ground, where they form a kind of nest, by scraping the earth round it; after the young one is hatched, it has to remain a year before it can fly; it is entirely white, and covered with a woolly down, which is very beautiful. As we approached them, they clapped their beaks, with a very quick motion, which made a great noise. This, and throwing up the contents of the stomach, are the only means of offence and defence they seem to possess; the old ones, which are valuable on account of their feathers, my companions made dreadful havoc amongst, knocking on the head all they could come up with. These birds are very helpless on the land, the great length of their wings precluding them from rising up into the air, unless they can get to a steep declivity. On the level ground they were completely at our mercy, but very little was shown them, and in a very short space of time, the plain was strewn with their bodies, one blow on the head generally killing them instantly.
The object of my comrades for taking this dangerous and fatiguing journey was neither to procure the feathers of the albatross, nor to admire the sublime scenery. Goats, of which there are thousands on these plains, were the ostensible cause of their coming; and a very fine dog was with us for the purpose of running them down. We soon surprised a flock, which made (as they invariably do) for the peak; but our dog soon separated one, which we caught, killed, and left on the plain, while the dog ran after others. A very large black he goat was selected, which gave him battle, and defended himself courageously for some time against us all; but we finally conquered him, and added his body to our other prize. My two companions were now quite delighted with their success; and though they had to carry these heavy carcases for a considerable way over the plains, not a murmur was heard from either: when they had got them to the edge of the precipice, we took out their insides, and stuffed them with fern, then tumbled them down, and they reached the bottom without much difficulty; occasionally they rested a moment on some projection, but the weight finally cleared the bushes and rocks, and the bodies were found by us on reaching the level.
After spending a most fatiguing and exciting day, we got safely down at night; the men perfectly satisfied with their goats and albatross' feathers, and I equally so with the number of my sketches.
They informed me, that the very last time they had ascended the mountain, on their return, one of the party got too close to the precipice, without being aware of it, and fell down several hundred feet; they found the corpse the next day, in a most miserably mangled state. They interred it in the garden, near their settlement; and placed at the head of the grave a board, with his name and age, together with an account of the accident which caused his death; and a pious remark to the reader, that it happened on a Sunday,—a dreadful warning to Sabbath-breakers. The people all say, they never more will ascend the mountains on that sacred day; indeed, from all I have seen of them, they pay every respect to the duties of religion which lies in their power.
31st.—This day have I experienced the mortification of seeing a brig pass the island; but the wind was blowing to that violent degree as to preclude all hope of speaking to her, though, for several days previously, the weather had been remarkably calm. I seem to be doomed to disappointment.
June 6th.—Very unsettled weather, gales blowing for some hours, and then becoming calm and mild. This is now the middle of winter, the winds are changeable and boisterous. I saw to-day, for the first time, what the settlers call a pod of sea elephants. At this particular season these animals lay strewed about the beach, and, unless you disturb them, the sight of a man will not frighten them away. I was determined to get a good portrait of some of them, and accordingly took my sketch-book and pencil, and seated myself very near to one of them, and began my operations, feeling sure I had now got a most patient sitter, for they will lie for weeks together without stirring; but I had to keep throwing small pebbles at him, in order to make him open his eyes, and prevent his going to sleep. The flies appear to torment these unwieldy monsters cruelly, their eyes and nostrils being stuffed full of them. I got a good sketch of the group. They appeared to stare at me occasionally with some little astonishment, stretching up their immense heads and looking around; but finding all still, (I suppose they considered me a mere rock,) they composed themselves to sleep again. They are the most shapeless creatures about the body. I could not help comparing them to an over grown maggot, and their motion is similar to that insect. The face bears some rude resemblance to the human countenance; the eye is large, black, and expressive; excepting two very small flippers or paws at the shoulder, the whole body tapers down to a fish's tail; they are of a delicate mouse colour, the fur is very fine, but too oily for any other purpose than to make moccasins for the islanders. The bull is of an enormous size, and would weigh as heavily as his namesake of the land; and in that one thing consists their only resemblance, for no two animals can possibly be more unlike each other.
It is a very curious phenomenon, how they can possibly exist on shore; for, from the first of their landing, they never go out to sea, and they lie on a stormy beach for months together without tasting any food, except consuming their own fat, for they gradually waste away; and as this fat or blubber is the great object of value, for which they are attacked and slaughtered, the settlers contrive to commence operations against them upon their first arrival, for it is well ascertained that they take no sustenance whatever on shore. I examined the contents of the stomach of one they had just killed, but could not make out the nature of what it contained. The matter was of a remarkably bright green colour. They have many enemies, even in the water; one called the killer, a species of grampus, which makes terrible havoc amongst them, and will attack and take away the carcase of one from alongside a boat. But man is their greatest enemy, and causes the most destruction to their race: he pursues them to all quarters of the globe; and being aware of their seasons for coupling and breeding, (which is always done on shore,) he is there ready with his weapons, and attacks them without mercy. Yet this offensive war is attended with considerable danger, not from the animals themselves, they being incapable of making much resistance, but the beaches they frequent are most fearful and dangerous; boats and boats' crews are continually lost; but the value of the oil, when they are successful, is an inducement to man, and no dangers will deter him from pursuing the sea elephant until the species is extinct.
Whales abound round this island, but the dreadful weather which generally prevails is much against the fishery. Many whalers have been out here, but have been obliged to abandon the pursuit, after sustaining serious losses by casualties among their men and destruction of boats.
June 26th.—For the last week the weather has been a succession of tempests, one immediately following upon another, and scarcely any possibility of going out of the house; but this morning a considerable change has taken place for the better, though a tremendous swell is on the sea. At ten o'clock A.M., saw a sail, which appeared to be standing towards the land: all employed making signal fires. She fell to leeward of the island, and there lay to, evidently anxious to speak with us; but being to leeward, our boats durst not venture off. so after laying to for about four hours, she filled and stood off on her course. This is the second mortification of the same kind I have experienced. To-day the vessel came so near, that we could distinguish her decks crowded with people, and we imagined her to be a Botany Bay ship; and if so, she was most likely bound for the Cape, the very place I wished to arrive at. If any thing could add to my anxiety, at being shut up a prisoner in Tristan d'Acunha, it is thus to see chances thrown in my way of being released, and not being able to avail myself of them; none but those who have experienced similar disappointments can judge of my sufferings, nothing that ever before occurred to me so completely depressed my spirits. And I feel now the sickening sensation of 'the hope deferred.' From one week's end to another I station myself upon the rocks, straining my eyes with looking along the horizon in search of a Sail, often fancying the form of one where nothing is, and when at length one actually presents itself, and the cheering sound of 'a sail! a sail!' is heard, it puts 'all hands' into commotion, as all these island settlers are anxious to communicate with every vessel that passes,—we see she notices our signal fires,—she lays to for us,—but an insurmountable barrier is still between us,—all attempts to launch the boat are vain,—she passes on her trackless way,—again the horizon becomes vacant, and again I retire to my lodging with increased melancholy and disappointment!
A few days since, walking along the beach, I discovered a number of penguins just landed; their extraordinary appearance at first startled me, they do not fear the approach of man, but stand still and suffer themselves to be taken or knocked on the head. Those I saw are called the Macaroni Penguin. They are about the size of a common duck; they stand bolt upright; the back and head are of a glossy black, the belly, neck, and part of their legs a beautifully clear white, and from the head, just over the eyes, is placed a bunch of bright yellow feathers, hanging down on each side the face, which gives the animal an animated and beautiful appearance; it is from these fantastic feathers (I should imagine) they receive their name of 'Macaroni.' The eyes are very bright, large, round, and sparkling; they have two small flippers, which in the water serve as fins, and on shore in place of wings, not to fly withal, but merely to assist in swimming and running. I caught one of them, and took him home, in order that he should sit for his picture, but had to take especial care of his beak, which was large and strong, and which he used most unceremoniously, making desperate pecks at my hands, and I received several severe wounds before I reached my dwelling with my captive. They are very heavy and fat; but too fishy for eating, unless in a case of great necessity, which too often happens to the people of this island; but their eggs are quite as good as those of a duck, and are most abundant during the season, and as they are laid upon the sands, they are easily procured, and prove a very comfortable addition to our frugal repast.
July 15th.—The weather has been for some time very fair, and the wind moderate, but again I have encountered the excitement of hope and despair, another vessel has passed, and must have seen our signals, and yet kept too far out to sea to afford the least possibility of our boats reaching her! Nothing else has occurred to change the monotony of the life I now lead.
I had yesterday an accident which nearly cost me my life. I was fishing off the rocks, which I do every day that the weather win permit me. The part on which I stood was at each returning wave covered; but wetting me no higher than the knee, I did not consider that circumstance attended with any danger, and as I was catching fish very fast I did not like to move away from my station; but suddenly came a wave, of so much superior size, as nearly hurried me within it, and swept me instantly off the rock, into the sea; encumbered as I was, with a large bag of fish hanging round my neck, and a huge pair of (Tristan d'Acunha made) boots on. As I was alone, I was certainly for some time in imminent danger; twice I was swept back in attempting to reach the shore, but by swimming and struggling with all my strength and skill, I, at length, after a complete ducking, and considerable fright, reached the shore in safety.
29th.—Last week Mrs. White was confined of a very fine girl, and in a few days after, she was out, and employed in her usual occupations, looking just as well as before.
Whales are now playing about, opposite our settlement, in great numbers; and, in their gambols, seem almost to jump out of the water. They raise themselves up, so that the greater part of their bodies is seen, and then fall down (like a person bathing), and in their plunge send up a tremendous foam, and make a noise which may well be compared to distant thunder.
August 1st.—Yesterday I and one of the dogs went on a goat-hunting expedition. Clambering up a steep hill, we caught sight of a flock in the rear; and, after a fine chase, and some difficult scrambling, I succeeded in shooting a fine female, which I carried on my shoulders back for home consumption. These animals are here particularly fine, and in good condition; but their flesh has a strong flavour of celery, which is to me very unpleasant: this herb grows wild, and most luxuriantly on the sides of the mountains; and the animals being particularly fond of it, eat a great quantity. I have no doubt there are many epicures who would consider the goat's flesh much better on account of its peculiar flavour, and that if once brought into fashion, it would be reckoned a great delicacy.
2d.—This day another brig hove in sight of the island. 'All hands' were again employed in making fires; and, its being a remarkably fine and calm day, I entertained the most sanguine hope that we should have been able to board her; but notwithstanding all our endeavours, she kept at so great a distance from the land as made it totally impracticable to reach her! I begin, with reluctance, to alter my long-cherished opinion of the seafaring part of my species, and to think they are not much incommoded with humanity; for three vessels have passed in sight of our signal-fires, and their commanders must have known full well there were some poor creatures in distress on this desolate spot, and by our efforts, might judge of our anxiety to be relieved; but two out of the three would not put themselves the least out of the way to enquire into the nature of our misfortunes. They knew not but there might be several persons perishing of want, when they might have brought relief and comfort by altering their course a very little, and easily have bore down abreast of our settlement, without incurring the smallest risk!
The precarious tenure of a seaman's life, and his liability to encounter similar accidents, would, one might naturally imagine, make him most anxious to relieve every one placed in my present situation; but, no: for here, in one of the most remote parts of the globe, separated from the rest of the world by thousands of miles, they see signals of distress; they know on that spot there is some poor creature in want of their assistance; that assistance and relief they have it in their power to bestow, by merely giving themselves some little labour; and yet two ships have now passed during fine weather, and their captains have not put themselves in the smallest degree out of their course, even to enquire into the nature of our distress! This does not correspond with the exalted character given of the British sailors in both song and story; nor with the generally-received opinion of their humanity and valour. I would have ventured a considerable wager that the first vessel that passed would at least have attempted to communicate with us, on sight of our signals: even curiosity, one would think, would be a sufficiently strong motive to induce them. I cannot help fearing there is as much selfishness and meanness amongst 'the sons of Neptune' as amongst their brethren on shore; and this opinion has been strengthened, by anecdotes I have heard from Glass and his companions. I hope the following account is without parallel. I shall not give the name of the vessel, or her commander; but should these pages ever meet his sight, I hope some feeling of shame may prevent his again acting in so unfeeling a manner. A seaman, more than any other Christian, should ever bear in mind, 'To do to others as we would they should do to us.'
It is now nearly a year since they had sickness amongst the settlers, and were in great distress for want of a few medicines; when a vessel hove in sight. They launched their boat, and pursued her, and after a long and very fatiguing pull, at length came up with her, and made their wants known. The first question asked by Captain—was, 'How am I to be paid for them; what money have you brought with you?' Money is unknown at Tristan d'Acunha: Glass had none. After various demurs, a few doses of Epsom salts were produced, but not given up till Glass had signed a receipt for them; and, notwithstanding their being so many miles from land, and had been tugging at the oars so desperately to gain the ship, and had many hours of hard toil to pull back again, no refreshment was offered to any of the party, not even a glass of grog from any of the sailors: and this from a countryman, and meeting unexpectedly so far from home!
The 8th proving a very fine day, and several of our party being in want of shoe-leather, we launched the boat to go in quest of a bull elephant. After pulling a few miles, we came to a beach where these creatures resorted; and, landing through a high surf, and hauling the boat up, we proceeded to business, and singled out a monstrous creature. My companions boldly attacked him with lances, thrusting them repeatedly into his sides, he throwing himself about furiously, and struggling and rolling towards the sea; but he being soft and fat, the lances sharp and long, they perforated his heart; the blood flowing in torrents, and covering the men. just as he had obtained the edge of the surf, to make his escape from his merciless enemies, he fell, and expired. He measured sixteen feet in circumference, and twenty in length!
It is remarkable that these unwieldy masses of animated nature, so seemingly helpless, and incapable of exertion, should be delicate and ardent in their amours. In the early part of the spring, the females come out of the sea, for the purpose of propagating and bringing forth their young. The males are always on the beach to receive them; and the moment the ladies appear, the males make a terrible snorting noise, the signal for them to commence a dreadful battle, in order to determine which shall be the champion of the strand. The monsters raise themselves up on their flippers, and throw themselves on each other, and as their mouths are wide, and armed with formidable teeth, the wounds they give and receive are of a terrific nature. Glass once saw two of them fighting on this very spot, in which one struck the eye of his opponent completely out. When this fighting has been continued till one remains 'master of the lists,' he becomes the gallant of all the females, who lie around, seemingly in fearful anxiety till the battle is ended. The authority of the conqueror is absolute amongst his mistresses, and no bashaw ever assumed more importance in his seraglio than he does: though, like most other conquerors, his dominions are liable to invasion, and the frontiers are often entered by small parties of the discomfited foe. The bulls which have been driven off, prowl around, and often smuggle off a frail female; who, if her lord is engaged in dalliance with another, and his attention diverted from her, receives the homage of the banished and unfortunate kindly; but if, by chance, they are seen by the enraged master, he sends forth a dreadful noise from the snout, and shuffles after the disloyal couple, and, if he cannot come UP with his rival, takes vengeance on the fair, by inflicting on her several wounds with his sharp teeth. His empire is seldom of long duration; either some one of the vanquished enter the fists with him a second time, or some more powerful adversary rises from the deep: he then must once again try the conflict, and, being wounded and weakened by former encounters, he (like his betters) must give place to a stronger opponent: his ungrateful females lavish their favours on the new comer as on the first. Thus the beach is, during the whole of that particular season, one scene of love and war, presenting a savage picture of what is going on amongst the human race; excepting that in these creatures we only trace the rude outline: it is not filled up, as with us, by fraud, dissimulation, and falsehood!
The whole body of the creature they had killed was covered with scars, but particularly about the neck; there the cuts and scams crossed each other exactly like the curious needle-work in an old-fashioned quilted petticoat. Some of these wounds were still open and bleeding, so that we imagined him to have been a champion on several occasions; but we proved too subtle for him at last, and made capture of his skin and blubber: the latter weighing three quarters of a ton. This valuable article, my comrades, with incredible labour, difficulty, and some danger, got into their boat; and the skill and address used in getting off the beach in such a situation, and through such a strong surf, proves what men can accomplish when prompted by necessity or the hope of gain.
16th.—This morning, at day-break, perceiving a schooner close to the landing, we all ran down to the beach, and got the boat to the water's edge; but again the sea ran too high, and was too rough to allow of our attempting to launch it. This was a grievous disappointment, as the vessel beat up abreast of us, evidently anxious to communicate. For several days past the weather had been moderate, the wind calm; and on our side of the island, 'the lee,' even the very day before, had been one of the finest that heaven ever shone upon; but this very morning, when so favourable a chance presented itself for my escape,—when the commander of the schooner evidently wished to give relief,—the wind suddenly changed round to the north, bringing our settlement on the 'weather side,' which, with a rising sea and tremendous surf, completely separated me from the proffered deliverance. Though so anxious was she to give us every possible chance of assistance, that she stood in so close as to render her situation dangerous. May happiness, long life, and pleasant cruises be the lot of those unknown, but kind-hearted men! To complete my misfortune, the unfavourable wind soon increased to a severe gale, which lasted three days without intermission, and which completely prevented the vessel hanging round the island. This is the fourth which has now passed since I have been left here. God only knows whether I am ever to be relieved, or what is to become of me. I find increasing difficulty in rallying my spirits to meet my companions with cheerfulness.
24th.—My time drags heavily on. As long as my paper and pencils lasted, they were a source of infinite amusement; but now, alas! all are entirely used, and sketches made on both sides of my paper. A few blank leaves of some old tracts left here for the use of Glass and his comrades, dirty and sea-stained, are all that I have left, and must reserve to record my melancholy thoughts upon; but as they are the last specimens of paper remaining on the island, I must economise, and am thus cut off from one of my chief sources of occupation. Fishing and hunting, my only pastimes now, are both most fatiguing here; and my old clouted shoes are not in a very fit state to allow me to go clambering up rough rocks: and yet I am compelled; and as some of the goats are generally within sight, I occasionally have a shot at them, though their extreme shyness, and the ruggedness of the mountain passes, render the approach to them very difficult. I am sometimes, however, fortunate enough to bring one back with me. When the wind is favourable, or affords a hope of the possibility of a vessel passing, I am afraid of venturing too far from the settlement, lest I should lose any chance of leaving the island: yet I ought, and am most thankful when reflecting how much worse my situation might have been had I fallen amongst a set of selfish, unfeeling men, instead of these kind-hearted, worthy creatures. I am an uninvited pensioner on their hospitality, with but a slight chance of my ever having it in my power to prove my gratitude: and yet, they are all unremitting in their exertions to cheer my spirits, and make my situation comfortable. Glass is as eager in watching for a sail as myself, and says (and I fully believe him), that should a vessel arrive, the master of which refuses to take me without payment, he shall have all his cattle and stock of potatoes, rather than I shall be disappointed of a chance of returning to my family. While speaking of Glass, I may be permitted to record a circumstance highly characteristic of national feeling, and of that love of country which never forsakes a Scotchman. As he is an experienced tailor, as well as an excellent operative in various other trades, I proposed to him, when my clothes were completely worn out, to make me a full dress suit out of my tartan cloak. He agreed to do so; but still my clothes were not forthcoming. One evening, on my return from a fatiguing day's hunting, Glass came to me with a most melancholy face, and began,—'It is no use holding out any longer, Mr. Earle; I really cannot find in my heart to cut up that bonnie tartan. I have had it out several times, and had the scissors in my hands, but I cannot do it, Sir; it is the first tartan that ever was landed on Tristan d'Acunha, and the first I have seen since I left Scotland; and I really cannot consent to cut it up into pieces.' I replied, he was most welcome to keep the cloak for his own use as it was; but that, as I could not make my appearance, even at Tristan d'Acunha, quite in a state of nature, he must contrive to make me a pair of trowsers out of any thing he might happen to have amongst his stores. His face instantly brightened UP, and I was soon after equipped in a costume which, even here, excited no small curiosity: the front of these 'Cossacks' consisting of sail cloth, and the back of dried goat's skin, the hair Outside, which they all assured me I should find very convenient in descending the mountains. I laughed heartily when I first sported this Robinson Crusoe habiliment. 'Never mind how you look, Sir,' said my kind host; 'his Majesty himself, God bless him! if he had been left here, as you were, could do no better.'
Exercise and temperance we all believe to be greatly conducive to health. Five months' residence on this island has convinced me of their wonderful effects on the constitution,
Here our food is of the coarsest description: bread we never see; milk and potatoes are our standing dishes; fish we have when we chance to catch them; and flesh when we can bring down a goat. In order to procure materials to furnish forth a dinner, I go early in the morning to the mountains; and the exertions I go through make me ready to retire to bed by eight o'clock in the evening, when I enjoy the soundest sleep; and though certainly I have nothing here to exhilarate my spirits,—on the contrary, much to depress them, as anxiety for absent friends, who are ignorant of my fate, and my irksome situation, thus shut out from the world,—yet, in spite of every disagreeable, I never enjoyed so calm and even a flow of spirits, which is doubtless caused by my abstemious living, and the exercise I am obliged to take. These last four months' experience has done more to convince me of the 'beauty of temperance' than all the books that ever were written could have done. I now begin to think the life of an anchorite was not so miserable as is generally imagined by the gay and dissipated, and that his quiet enjoyments and serene nights may well be balanced against their feverish slumbers and palled appetites. The temperate man enjoys the solid consolation of knowing he is not wearing out his constitution, and may reasonably look forward to a happy and respected old age; while the votary of sense soon loses all relish for former enjoyments, and pays the penalty of early excesses in a broken and diseased frame. He finds himself helpless, and has the mortifying reflection that he has only himself to blame; that he has piloted himself into this misery, contrary to his own common sense and the admonition of his friends; that no helping hand can save him; whilst the memory of his former enjoyments aggravates his humiliating situation; and pain and sorrow are the only attendants to conduct him to his last home!
30th.—This being a tolerably fine morning, we started off early for Elephant Bay to procure the skin of a pup, in order to convert it into caps. We found, lying on the beach, three bulls, with about a dozen cows, each with her young one alongside of her. The females seemed dreadfully scared on our approach, as if they knew the nature of our errand. The bulls made off immediately into the sea; but the females only retreated to the water's edge, roaring out most boisterously. The pups were nearly all black: they kept a continued barking, very much resembling the yelping of a dog. They are unable to take to the water till they are some weeks old, so their dams had to leave them to our mercy, and removed to some distance till we had despatched one of them: though the extreme distress manifested by its mother made me repent having disturbed them. This creature, which is generally so timid that she plunges to the bottom of the ocean at sight of the human race, and which, unless caught when asleep, it is almost impossible to approach, so much are they terrified at the appearance of man; yet when their helpless young are around them, their very nature seems quite altered: maternal affection conquers their fears, and they remain on the beach, as though to protect them. If they had been provided with any means of defence, they would not have suffered us to destroy their pups with impunity; but their vast strength and bulk are of no service to them on shore. They lie in a helpless mass; and the only danger to be apprehended is getting between them and the sea; for in their struggles to gain that element they may pass over, and crush you. Though their mouths and teeth are most formidable in appearance, yet their extreme unwieldiness prevents their committing much damage with them, except on each other. A man can always most easily get out of their reach. The most disagreeable occurrence of this day was, that, about ten O'clock, it came on to rain most violently and incessantly; and as our road home, for about ten or eleven miles, lay through a thick wood, tangled with grass as high as my shoulders, the whole party were completely drenched; but I, who have now only a few rags to cover me, felt truly deplorable. I am obliged to be content with the few 'odds and ends' of clothing the settlers can spare me: and people in their condition are not expected to possess very extensive wardrobes.
September 10th—In this wretched island, where there has been a succession of cold drizzling rain, boisterous winds, and severe gales, we now hail with sincere pleasure the evident signs of returning spring. The feathered inhabitants of the deep begin to muster in couples on the sides of the mountains, and fill the air with the sound of their noisy courtship. Nature, ever true, points out to these creatures the exact time when they are to commence the pleasing cares of providing for their young. In this insulated spot we have a number of amphibious animals, whose manners are very singular, and, to an inhabitant of the Northern hemisphere, highly interesting.
12th.—This day we visited what they call a 'penguin rookery.' The spot of ground occupied by our settlers is bounded on each end by high bluffs, which extend far into the sea, leaving a space in front, where all their hogs run nearly wild, as they are prevented going beyond those limits by those natural barriers; and the creatures who, at stated periods, come up from the sea remain in undisturbed possession of the beaches beyond our immediate vicinity.
The weather being favourable, we launched our boat early in the morning, for the purpose of procuring a supply of eggs for the consumption of the family. We heard the chattering of the penguins from the rookery long before we landed, which was noisy in the extreme, and groups of them were scattered all over the beach; but the high thick grass on the declivity of the hill seemed their grand establishment, and they were hidden by it from our view. As we could not find any place where we could possibly land our boat in safety, I and two more swam on shore with bags tied round our necks to hold the eggs in, and the boat with one of the men lay off, out of the surf I should think the ground occupied by these birds (if I may be allowed so to call them,) was at least a mile in circumference, covered in every part with grasses and reeds, which grew considerably higher than my head; and on every gentle ascent, beginning from the beach, on all the large grey rocks, which occasionally appeared above this grass, sat perched groups of these strange and uncouth-looking creatures; but the noise which rose up from beneath baffles all description! As our business lay with the noisy part of this community, we quickly crept under the grass, and commenced our plundering search, though there needed none, so profuse was the quantity. The scene altogether well merits a better description than I can give,—thousands and hundreds of thousands of these little two-legged erect monsters hopping around us, with voices very much resembling in tone that of the human; all opening their throats together; so thickly clustered in groups that it was almost impossible to place the foot without despatching one of them. The shape of the animals, their curious motions, and their most extraordinary voices, made me fancy myself in a kingdom of pigmies. The regularity of their manners, their all sitting in exact rows, resembling more the order of a camp than a rookery of noisy birds, delighted me. These creatures did not move away on our approach, but only increased their noise, so we were obliged to displace them forcibly from their nests; and this ejectment was not produced without a considerable struggle on their parts; and, being armed with a formidable beak, it soon became a scene of desperate warfare. We had to take particular care to protect our hands and legs from their attacks; and for this purpose each one had provided himself with a short stout club. The noise they continued to make during our ramble through their territories the sailors said was, 'cover 'em up, cover 'em up.' And, however incredible it may appear, it is nevertheless true, that I heard those words so distinctly repeated, and by such various tones of voices, that several times I started, and expected to see one of the men at my elbow. Even these little creatures, as well as the monstrous sea elephant, appear to keep up a continued warfare with each other.
As the penguins sit in rows, forming regular lanes leading down to the beach, whenever one of them feels an inclination to refresh herself by a plunge into the sea, she has to run the gauntlet through the whole street, every one pecking at her as she passes without mercy; and though all are occupied in the same employment, not the smallest degree of friendship seems to exist; and whenever we turned one off her nest she was sure to be thrown amongst foes; and, besides the loss of her eggs, was invariably doomed to receive a severe beating and pecking from her companions. Each one lays three eggs, and, after a time, when the young are strong enough to undertake the journey, they go to sea, and are not again seen till the ensuing spring. Their city is deserted of its numerous inhabitants, and quietness reigns till nature prompts their return the following year, when the same noisy scene is repeated, as the same flock of birds returns to the spot where they were hatched.
After raising a tremendous tumult in this numerous colony, and sustaining continued combat, we came off victorious, making capture of about a thousand eggs, resembling in size, colour, and transparency of shell, those of a duck; and the taking possession of this immense quantity did not occupy more than one hour, which may serve to prove the incalculable numbers of birds collected together. We did not allow them sufficient time, after landing, to lay all their eggs; for, had the season been further advanced, and we had found three eggs in each nest, the whole of them might probably have proved addled, the young partly formed, and the eggs of no use to us; but the whole of those we took turned out good, and had a particularly fine and delicate flavour. It was a work of considerable difficulty to get our booty safe into the boat—so frail a cargo—with so tremendous a surf running against us. However, we finally succeeded, though not without smashing a considerable number of the eggs.
October 1st.—To-day I complete six months' miserable imprisonment on this wretched island, and have no more prospect of getting off than I had the first week that I came on shore. Instead of becoming reconciled to my situation, I think I am lately more and more wretched: every species of pastime or occupation I could think of or invent, I have exhausted. I sit for hours together watching the horizon, with the faint hope of catching sight of a vessel, and thinking of my friends in England. Previous to the return of Spring, my gun was a source of amusement, though my game, generally speaking, was no better than gulls and various kinds of aquatic birds: but now, even that employment is denied me. This being the breeding season, they strew themselves in all directions about the island; and as they place their nests in the most exposed situations, it totally destroys any pleasure I might have in the pursuit of them; for, however unaccountable, it is the fact, that the principal pleasure of shooting is the excitement, the uncertainty, and difficulty of following and bringing down your prize. Now, that I am so surrounded with birds, that I might easily take a wag on load with my hands, I do not feel the slightest inclination to touch any of them.
I go almost every day in pursuit of goats, of which I have taken great numbers; but the intolerable fatigue and risk are almost too much for me, and I am getting still more unwilling to go far from the settlement, from a nervous fear that a ship might heave in sight during my absence. We have now had fine weather for a considerable time, except the morning of the 2d, which proved blustering with a heavy sea, and surf breaking on the beach. At about eleven o'clock, a ship hove in sight, and passed quite close to the island; when abreast one of our houses she hoisted Dutch colours; we all imagined her to be a corvette. It is needless to repeat the impression another vessel passing and leaving me still a prisoner made upon me. Let those who are always complaining bitterly, and lamenting over the merest trifle, be placed in my situation, that they may know what it is to feel, as it were, the very acme of disappointment. Of this fact I am quite certain, that ever after this painful sojourn, I shall look on ordinary vexations and troubles with the greatest and most philosophic composure!
On the 11th, the weather being apparently settled, and all their potatoes being planted, Glass determined to have a grand goat hunt on the summit of the mountain; and persuaded me, notwithstanding my determination not to go far from home, to join the party. All our fire-arms, ammunition, and dogs were put in requisition for this formidable event. At daybreak we started, and at about twelve o'clock reached the top of the mountain; we had just gained a glimpse of three gangs of goats, and were laying down our plan of attack, when suddenly a cloud came over us, which completely enveloped us, and we were at once struck, like the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, blind and helpless, groping and stumbling like men in the dark! From the hour of the day, we knew there was no chance of its clearing off; we were in a moment wet to the skin, and left on the summit of this horrid precipice. We had to grope and feel our way, for we could not distinguish three yards around us, till we came to that part where we generally had descended, every instant running the hazard of being precipitated down the rocks, which are several hundred feet in depth. After wandering several hours, cold, wet, and hungry, we at length reached the plain in safety, and the only game we had obtained, were some young albatrosses. These birds I had seen five months before, sitting on their nests, and they had never moved away from them. They remain there for a year before they can fly, and during that long period they are fed by the mother. They had greatly increased in size and beauty since my first visit to them. The semblance of the young bird, as it sits on the nest, is stately and beautiful. The white down, which is its first covering, giving place gradually to its natural grey plumage, leaves half the creature covered with down; the other half is a fine compact coat of feathers, composed of white and grey; while the head is of a dazzling, silvery white. Their size is prodigious, one of them proving a tolerable load. Upon skinning them, on our return, we found they were covered with a fine white fat, which I was told was excellent for frying, and other culinary purposes; and the flesh was quite as delicate, and could scarcely be distinguished in flavour from lamb. Besides our albatross, the dogs caught some small birds, about the size of our partridge, but their gait was something like that of the penguin. The male is of a glossy black, with a bright red, hard crest on the top of the head. The hen is brown. They stand erect, and have long yellow legs, with which they run very fast; their wings are small and useless for flying, but they are armed with sharp spurs for defence, and also, I imagine, for assisting them in climbing, as they are found generally among the rocks. The name they give this bird here, is simply 'cock,' its only note being a noise very much resembling the repetition of that word. Its flesh is plump, fat, and excellent eating.
24th.—Feeling a great depression of spirits, I persuaded one of the men (White) to accompany me in an excursion to the hills, to have a hunt after the goats. When we were about half way over the plain, we discovered some fresh hog's dung, an evident proof that one of these wild animals was in the neighbourhood. These creatures being rather more formidable than the game we were in pursuit of, we had to be more circumspect, and cautious in our approaches. I put a new flint into my gun, and took charge of it myself; White, who had hitherto carried it for me, not understanding the use of fire-arms. Our dog soon took the scent, and followed to its den, which we were made aware Of, by his furious barking. The place to which our dog led us was full of high grass, higher than either of our heads; and we heard the monster rustling it violently about, and charging the dog; but not being able to see where our enemy was, we were both much intimidated; for myself I confess I was greatly alarmed. I heard this creature champing its tusks close to me, and yet it was entirely concealed! I clambered up a little eminence, and obtained a sight of the animal's back, or rather of its bristles, as they were erected, while keeping our dog at bay. I took a steady and deliberate aim, fired, and down the animal fell. It proved to be a wild boar of enormous dimensions, one that the settlers had often hunted, but which had hitherto escaped. We had some difficulty in getting the carcase home, and had to return for assistance, as it required two of our strongest men to carry it, weighing between three and four hundred weight.
November 8th.—This morning, at nine o'clock, saw another brig at a great distance in the horizon; observing her anxiously, perceived she was standing along land, without showing any signs of approaching our island; but, it being a fine day, we determined to try to cross her bows; accordingly we launched, and pulled in the direction of the vessel for two hours; but then losing sight of her, and the weather getting squally, we were compelled to return, and, in pulling back, got caught in a heavy squall; and it was with the greatest difficulty we got safe to our settlement, having run the risk of being blown to leeward of the island. Thus another vessel is added to my melancholy list; and I think that every succeeding disappointment proves severer than the last.
29th.—This morning, at eight o'clock, observed a ship to leeward of the island, working up towards our settlement: all hands were instantly employed getting the boat ready to launch,—for they never tire of their exertions in my behalf, and all take the greatest interest for my safe return to my own country. After the vessel had made two tacks to windward we launched, and had a narrow escape through a heavy surf, but we succeeded in boarding her, about twelve o'clock!
The reader, who has accompanied me through the detail of my various disasters, will imagine, better than I can describe, what were my sensations of joy and gratitude on finding myself once more actually on board an English vessel, surrounded by my countrymen! She proved to be the 'Admiral Cockburn,' bound for Van Diemen's Land, Captain Cooling commander. Though my personal appearance must have been truly deplorable, no sooner was my sad story made known, than every hand was held forth to give me cordial welcome; every one opened his chest to accommodate me with clothes of every description, and I was soon completely new rigged.
I was almost overcome with the various sensations that came crowding on my mind,—humble thanksgiving to the Almighty,—sincere gratitude to Glass and his companions, for their unremitting kindness, notwithstanding all the trouble I had given them,—and now feeling that I was about to part from them for ever, without its being in my power to show my gratitude, except in words!—added to all this were the attentions and generous treatment I was then receiving from entire strangers!
A most extraordinary circumstance must wind up this eventful story; which, if recorded in a romance, would be thought unnatural. Conversing, the following day, with Captain Cooling, and telling him of my extreme anxiety respecting the welfare of my friends, of whom I had not heard for so long a period, and the anxiety I should still have to undergo, as one more year must be spent in uncertainty, before I could possibly receive letters from England, I found him to have been late lieutenant on board his Majesty's ship 'Adventure,' commanded by my brother Captain W. H. Smyth; that he had sailed with him for several years, during the time he was making his well known survey of the coasts and shores of the Mediterranean, undertaken by command of the Lords of the Admiralty. He informed me, that previous to the ship's having been paid off at Woolwich, a breakfast had been given on board by my brother, at which my mother, sisters,—in short all those for whom I was most deeply interested,—had been present; and that he had seen them all in good health and spirits only a few weeks before he left England!
Paintings of Tristan Da Cunha by Augustus Earle
Earle painted a number of water colours of Tristan da Cunha. These are at the National Library of Australia (NLA), Canberra, as part of the Nan Kivell Collection. Details (NLA catalogue number, picture title, size as height times width, NLA image number) are given below. Online images of these water colours are available at the NLA. Earle's paintings were commemorated in a 1988 stamp issue.