Island of Tristan da Cunha

 Extracts from my book.



                                                                                                                                     (c)  Irene Schaffer

Chapter 1

Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha is one of the most isolated inhabited Islands in the world. It is situated in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, 1,700 miles west of Cape Town, 1,900 miles east of South America, and 1,500 miles south-south-west of St. Helena.  The island is 38 square miles in area, a circular cone-like volcanic mountain with cliffs of 1,000-2,000 feet that plunge directly into the sea.
[1] The crate at the top of the mountain (which is snow capped from June to October) is 6,760 feet deep and contains a lake. Inactive for many hundreds of years, it erupted in 1961.


Tristan da Cunha was discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese fleet under Admiral Tristan D A'Cunha. Because of bad weather no landing was made. (This was not accomplished until 1643. The Dutch Government surveyed the island in 1655 as did the East Indian Company in 1695, both reports were unfavourable.


Five other islands are in close proximity to the main island, Inaccessible (where the Blenden Hall was wrecked in 1821) and Nightingale, both 20 miles west-south-west and south-south-west respectively, with Middle and Stolenhoff adjacent to the north coast of Nightingale. The fifth is Gough Island.[2]


Accounts were kept by different Captains and amongst them was one that was recorded in 1659 when the ship Sgraveland arrived at Tristan da Cunha. Likewise the ship Heemstede in 1643.   In 1697 Captain Francis Cheyne of the Vlaming gave a very in depth description of the island. Observations were also recorded by Sieur Donat on board the Packet L'Heure DuBerger on passage to Mauritius in September 1767. Another account was in a journal of L'Etoile Matin M. D' Etchevery in 1767, where he reported seeing the mountain covered with snow. 


Later Alexander Dalrymple was to play a small part in bringing Tristan da Cunha to the attention of the British Government and the public. He proposed to the British Government in 1785 that it be used as a place to keep the growing number of convicts that Britain was accumulating with the loss of its America territories. Dalrymple was born near Edinburgh in 1737 and as a young man received a number of disappointments in regard to his career in the British Navy. His most hurtful was when Captain James Cook was appointed to go on the Endeavour and Dalrymple's application was turned down, and in the coming years he endeavoured to belittle Cook's achievements.[3]


 Addressing the East Indian Company Dalrymple advised against a proposed project for sending convicts to Norfolk Island, which was within the limits of the Company.[4]   His next proposal was that Botany Bay be abandoned for Tristan da Cunha, which he claimed was more suitable because of it being closer to England and the Cape of Good Hope. Botany Bay he implied:


            'Was surrounded by impervious woods, inhabited by cannibals who would           immediately devour the unhappy wanderer who lost sight of the Guard-ship.' 


In regard to his suggestion that Tristan da Cunha be chosen was that it would have no need for Governors, guards or supplies as only bread would be needed until they could grow their own potatoes. The abundance of sea lions and penguins at Tristan would secure plenty of provisions.  He regarded the main island as being too remote for them to escape, or be in any way dangerous, and suggested that the convicts could be reclaimed after a spell on the island, changing their names so that their new characters may not be lost, without fresh offences, bringing them to their senses of their past follies and in time some of them could go to India as recruits. The smaller islands could be used as a place of banishment for the very turbulent or refractory persons. If they were too small then other islands such as St. Pauls could be used.[5]


Dalrymple also gave some very interesting details in his Explanation of Plans and Forts:

 This island is steep to, about half a mile from the shoar (sic) 13 and 14 fathoms and so decreasing gradually to 3 fathoms close to the shoar; there is no shoal nor broken ground laying off it, except a small matter of the Points. It is very difficult to getashore with a boat in some places, for near the shoar there is large bodied trees     growing under water, the tops of which lye (sic) almost even with the surface, so that going ashore you are forced to row in and out amongst the boughs.  About a small bowshot from the shoar side there is fresh water to be had, but the way is very stony,so that you cannot well get it on board without rolling on boards, or handling it. There you will find abundance of seals, some of them being as big as elephants, which you may have to cut down with an axe, for they will not resist you. Here is abundance of drift wood; and several small Springs amongst the rocks, in some places you may easily land. There is neither Goats nor Hogs, nor by report, no other creature but these seals, except a bird which goes upright.


From Dalrymple's letters it is interesting to observe what may have come about if the British Government had been influenced by his report.  Being able to observe what did happen to over 60,000 convicts who came to New Holland and Van Diemen's Land it is easy to reject his ideas as being foolish. (I wonder what he was going to do with the women prisoners?) It is however interesting to allow our thought to roam and think what it would have been like for the First Fleeters to NSW, to have begun their new life on a very small isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.


Soon the island became a familiar landmark to sailors of all nations mainly because of its location right by what was to become one of the most heavily trafficked eastward sailing lanes. Adventures having heard of the abundance of sea elephants, fur seals and whales soon made it one of their stops. The first known man to have stayed on Tristan was a seal hunter named John Patten, master of schooner Industry out of Philadelphia in 1790. He was followed by a Frenchman in 1793.[6]


Britain laid formal claim to the island in November 1816 when a small garrison landed during the time Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena from the H.M.S. Falmouth leaving a small detachment of forty men under the command of Captain Josias Cloete of the 21st Regiment of Light Dragons. Amongst them were some of the soldiers’ families, plus several Hottentots from the Cape.  The garrison was withdrawn the following year on the advice of the Admiralty, who apparently saw no danger to Napoleon's security. Only a few artillery men with Lt. Aitchison remained on the island for a short time.


With the withdrawal of the last of the garrison, Corporal William Glass elected to remain, together with his wife and two children. There were two civilian members of the colony on the island at this time. They were Thomas Curry (Tomaso Corri) and Jonathan Lambert (John Nankevel.) It was decided that Glass and the other two men would form a partnership. Curry died suddenly leaving the other two to form this partnership. [7]


William Glass in his younger days had been a gentleman's servant in a family of note at Alnwick in Northern England, not far from his native town of Kelso in Roxburgh, Scotland. He enlisted in the Royal Artillery when he was nineteen in 1806, and was sent to the Cape of Good Hope, which was still a Dutch colony but under British occupation. [8]


Held in very high esteem by his superior officers the decision by Glass to remain on the island made him an excellent choice to become the Governor of the future inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha.[9] His wife Maria Magdalena Leenders was described as a Cape Cloete. She married Glass when she was only fourteen years old in July 1814 at Cape Town.  William Glass died of cancer in 1853 at the age of sixty-seven. His widow left the island in 1856 with all but two of her remaining family to join several of her whaling sons in New London Connecticut. The family later had a marble headstone made in America and brought to the island.


 William Glass headstone Tristan da Cunha



In memory of


Born at Kelso, Scotland,

the founder of this settlement of

Tristan d'Acunda,

In which he resided 37 years and

fell asleep in Jesus,

November 24th, 1853, aged 67 years.


Asleep in Jesus, far from Thee

Thy kindred and their graves may be,

But thine is still a blessed sleep,

From which none ever wakes to weep.




The status of the island remained uncertain until 1876 when an Order-in-Council declared Tristan da Cunha and its subsidiary islands to be under the British Crown. (The population at that time was 85).


Many shipwrecks have been recorded in the vicinity of Tristan da Cunha, of these the Blenden Hall was the most famous. Wrecked on Inaccessible Island in 1821 the passengers and crew were forced to remain on the island for four months, before being rescued by the men from Tristan and taken to safety on Tristan da Cunha. After two months they were rescued by the Nerina and taken to the Cape.


A young sailor named Stephen White befriended the young maid of one of the passengers, she was called Peggy. When the Nerina left it was found that Stephen had arranged for Peggy to leave the ship and return to the island. They were later married by William Glass. It was the first marriage on the island. Three of their children were born there before the couple left the island for England in 1826.


When the English artist Augustus Earle was marooned there in 1824 he was to feel at home amongst the truly English styled thatched roofed cottages.[10]


In his diary Earle records how he was left on the island when the Duke of Gloucerter called there for supplies in 1824.  He realised when he discovered that the ship was gone that he was in a desperate situation and could be on the island for months. If this chance of fate had not happened then the story of Stephen and Peggy would never have been known, as only a very short oral reference by a member of the family survived from this episode of their remarkable stay on Tristan. 


Earle's stay on the island was prolonged for eight months, during this time he saw a number of ship in the distance, but none of them ever came close enough to signal. He spoke in his diary of the village made up of half a dozen thatched roofed cottages that were clean and comfortable in a very English style, which he found a great contrast from those he had seen in South America. During his stay he had long conversations with William Glass seated in his chimney corner. 


Stephen White accompanied Earle on many of his hunting trips and walks over the island and was observed by Earle as being `an excellent specimen of a young English sailor'.  Mrs White, as Earle called Stephen's wife, was a half cast Portuguese young women from Bombay, who gave birth to a very fine daughter while he was there.  He described the young couple as being `two people could not have been happier'. Augustus Earle was finely rescued by the Admiral Cockburn bound for Van Diemen's Land on 29 November 1824.[11]


Nearly every island has some story of hidden treasure and Tristan da Cunha has its own intriguing story. When the garrison arrived on the island in 1816 they found two inhabitant. Thomas (Bastiano Poncho Camilla) and Thomas Curry who were the last survivor of an American party that had landed on the island in 1814, the others of the party having mysteriously disappeared. He told Glass that he had plenty of money buried on the island, and that some day he would show him where its hiding place was. At times he would disappear and return with coins to pay for the grog he acquired from the stores of the garrison. Unfortunately he died before he could tell where the treasure was hidden.


William Glass told Augustus Earle that he believed that it must have been hidden near the village as he was never away very long. Glass once found a old wooden bottomed kettle in the cleft of a rock belonging to Thomas, it was stuffed with rags, but no treasure.


The treasure had been sought by villages and visitors alike. The survivors off the Blenden Hall spent most of their time seeking it. Earle later made watercolours paintings from the sketches he had done while on Tristan da Cunha. This painting along with others that Earle had painted were later to be made into postage stamps, bringing much needed revenue to the island. By 1964 $20,000 had been raised from their sale.


In September 1961 there were 260 inhabitants on the island and when the first tremor was felt it was thought to be an isolated event until the earthquakes started. The eruption fist came with a cascade of rocks that rained down on the potato patch, some close to the village. After many days of indecision it was at last agreed that all the people should be evacuated. Radio contact was made with Cape Town and the Royal Navy moving fast in attempt to reach the island, and within hours the Leopard was on its way.


All of the villages had assembled on the small beach and in the almost freezing conditions had spent the night huddled together awaiting their fate. What would be the first to arrive, the lava from the mountain, or the ship to take them off.  The islands' two ships, the Tristania and Frances Repello next day loaded everybody plus all the belongings they had managed to bring with them and made their way to Nightingale Island where they were later picked up by the Tjisadana (a Dutch liner) and taken to Cape Town. The Leopard arrived shortly afterwards and proceeded to bring off everything they could that was left behind by the islanders.[12]


The Tristans were later taken to England and settled firstly in Surrey for a short time then rehoused in an empty R.A.F. camp at Calshot, Southampton. Jobs were found for them but they were not happy away from their island and by 1963 a large number had returned to Tristan. There they found that most of their homes were intact and that the main task was to rethatch their cottages and remove some boulders. While in England the children from Tristan who were of school age went to an English school, one of the teachers was a Mrs Fenger.  When the families returned to Tristan a number of children wrote to Mrs Lora Fenger. Some of the letters tell of their life back on Tristan. The letters were sighed by Maureen Repello, Laurian Rogers and Frances Green, The letters showed how much they liked Mrs Fenger. Most of the letters were written from the early months of 1966. However one was written at a much later date by Maureen in 1976. The letter began Dear Lorna, showing that the friendship and correspondence had continued over the years.[13]


Their life of cause would never be the same, the two years in England had brought them into the modern world and whereas they had not been happy living in such close proximity to this other life, they were to take some of it back with them. The English people were also were now aware of how this small English community existed and never again would they have to rely on the Society of Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to survive, This would now be done by the British Government. 


It is still to this day out of reach of most scheduled shipping, planes or helicopters. The island relies on fishing vessels engaged in their crayfish (crawfish) industry for delivery of their mail, which often takes four to five months between mails.[14] Mail in the past often took years to be delivered. Between 1906 and 1916 no mail was received from Tristan at all.[15]

 Tristan da Cunha 2000

In Professor Arnaldo Faustini “The Annals of Tristan da Cunha he records the records of Tristan da Chuna from 1506 when it was first discovered and naming many ships and those who sailed  on them, that were known to have arrived at or near the island up until 1925 [16]


Not being occupied until 1816 there is little recorded of sightings or disasters before that date. One instant however was recorded in Lt. James Grant’s journal:


All things being ready for our departure, they sailed from the Falkland’s Islands for the Cape of Good Hope on the 27 January (1802), with favourable wind, which began to fail us as soon as we reached the island of Tristan da Chuna. We were now becalmed; and this was our situation from about the middle of February to nearly the latter end of March – a dreadful interval of time! The like of which I most devoutly pray I may never again experience. ……………By the end of February our provisions totally failed, I found myself reduced to a single biscuit. When we had no other prospect before us than to perish through hunger and thirst, we were partially relieved when we fell in with an English ship which replenished some of our stores and I was offered to join them on board. This I declined thinking it could not be too far to the Cape. This was soon regretted as we were becalmed again. Our stock of water, in particular, was short; and the weather was warm we experienced great distress from the wont of it. I often walked the deck until I was thoroughly fatigued, that might sleep through weariness in spite of extreme thirst...[17]


Grant reached the Cape in very poor condition where he soon recovered and returned to England, where the following year he published his journal. If he had nor survived this ordeal then we would not have know so much about the Lady Nelson’s voyage from England to New Holland in 1800. [18]


Over the years Tristan da Cunha has been talked about and  studied. From as early 1829 the Australian newspapers informed their readers of some of the interesting happenings of the island.


The Sydney Gazette 21 July 1829 page 2, tells the story of William Glass and his followers informing the readers that there were 7 men, 6 women and 14 children residing on the island.


The Sydney Gazette 21 February 1833 quoting from the Van Diemen’s Land News that on the 11 December the brig Camilla of Greenock, for Launceston, sailed from the former place in September, they purposed calling at Tristan da Chuna for water etc. All well.

The Sydney Herald 21 August 1834 page 4.  Tells that the Americans are proposing to send convicts to Tristan.


The Argus 4 November 1916 page 6. Again repeated the story of the island’s history.


The Mercury 6 January 1917 page 10. Two columns were given to a visit to Tristan and what a gentleman reported on his findings there.


The Argus 6 October 1923 page 8.  Relates the story of the wrecking of the Blenden Hall and the passengers plight on Inaccessible Island. It also speaks of the many quarrels between Mrs Lock (Keys) and Mrs Painter (Pepper) even after they left Tristan. An interesting extra piece of information was that the ship’s hole was carrying a load of mules.


The Argus 2 May 1925 page 8.  Tell of the plea from the Rev. M Rogers on behalf of the people on Tristan who are in need of many items etc. Mainly rat poison as the island is overrun with rats.


The Argus 5 April 1930 page 11.  Island S.O.S for seven brides for the island.


The Argus 12 September 1936 page 32. Again revises the story of Tristan


The Argus 15 June 1940 page 4. This time a full page on the history of the island, including photos and maps.


Canberra Times 1949. 20,000 penguin eggs due in South Africa for shipment to England.


Plus many more.




 See book list.




[2] Tristan da Cunha information paper. The Past and the Present

[3] Mackaness. G, Australia Historical Monographs  Vol XXXVIII (new series)

[4] The East Indian Company had been granted years before, a charter for the exclusive  trade and navigation from the Cape of Good hope to the Strait of Magellan . It was to the Company that the British Government had to apply, when after much deliberation it found that it necessary to convey convicts from Britain.

Mackaness p 27

[5]  ibid pp 30-32

[6]  Munch . P., Cricis in Utopia. p19. 1971

[7]  Ibid  p29

[8]  Ibid  pp24-26

[9]  Ibid  p26

[10] Munch. p15

[11] Gane. D, Trisran da Cunha  p28

[12]  National Geographic Magazine 1962 pp678-695

[13] Letter written by the children to Mrs Fenger in 1966 and  sent to the author by a relation of Mrs Fenger.

[14] Tristan da Cunha paper. Past and Present  p1

[15]  History of St. Helena Apendex  p169

[16]Under The Early History of Tristan da Chuha, on line.

[17]Grant. James, The Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery, performed by His Majesty’s vessel the Lady Nelson.

[18]Schaffer. Irene, Lt. James Grant 1772-1833 & H.M. Colonial Brig Lady Nelson 1798-1824.