Around 1875 - Frank Bullen, Whaler
Land Fall at Tristan da Cunha
After a few days of our present furious rate of speed, I came on deck one morning, and instantly recognized an old acquaintance. Right ahead, looking nearer than I had ever seen it before, rose the towering mass of Tristan d'Acunha, while farther away, but still visible, lay Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands. Their aspect was familiar, for I had sighted them on nearly every voyage I had made round the Cape, but I had never seen them so near as this. There was a good deal of excitement among us, and no wonder. Such a break in the monotony of our lives as we were about to have was enough to turn our heads. Afterwards, we learned to view these matters in a more philosophic light; but now, being new and galled by the yoke, it was a different thing.
Near as the island seemed, it was six hours before we got near enough to distinguish objects on shore. I have seen the top of Tristan peeping through a cloud nearly a hundred miles away, for its height is tremendous. St. Helena looks a towering, scowling mass when you approach it closely but Tristan d'Acunha is far more imposing, its savage-looking cliffs seeming to sternly forbid the venturesome voyager any nearer familiarity with their frowning fastnesses. Long before we came within working distance of the settlement, we were continually passing broad patches of kelp (Fucus Gigantea), whose great leaves and cable-laid stems made quite reef-like breaks in the heaving waste of restless sea. Very different indeed were these patches of marine growth from the elegant wreaths of the Gulf-weed with which parts of the North Atlantic are so thickly covered. Their colour was deep brown, almost black is some cases, and the size of many of the leaves amazing, being four to five feet long, by a foot wide, with stalks as thick as one's arm. They have their origin around these storm-beaten rocks, which lie scattered thinly over the immense area of the Southern Ocean, whence they are torn, in masses like those we saw, by every gale, and sent wandering round the world.
When we arrived within about three miles of the landing-place, we saw a boat coming off, so we immediately hove-to and awaited her arrival. There was no question of anchoring; indeed, there seldom is in these vessels, unless they are going to make a long stay, for they are past masters in the art of "standing off and on." The boat came alongside—a big, substantially-built craft of the whale-boat type, but twice the size—manned by ten sturdy-looking fellows, as unkempt and wild-looking as any pirates. They were evidently put to great straits for clothes, many curious makeshifts being noticeable in their rig, while it was so patched with every conceivable kind of material that it was impossible to say which was the original or "standing part." They brought with them potatoes, onions, a few stunted cabbages, some fowls, and a couple of good-sized pigs, at the sight of which good things our eyes glistened and our mouths watered. Alas! none of the cargo of that boat ever reached OUR hungry stomachs. We were not surprised, having anticipated that every bit of provision would be monopolized by our masters; but of course we had no means of altering such a state of things.
The visitors had the same tale to tell that seems universal—bad trade, hard times, nothing doing. How very familiar it seemed, to be sure. Nevertheless, it could not be denied that their sole means of communication with the outer world, as well as market for their goods, the calling whale-ships, were getting fewer and fewer every year; so that their outlook was not, it must be confessed, particularly bright. But their wants are few, beyond such as they can themselves supply. Groceries and clothes, the latter especially, as the winters are very severe, are almost the only needs they require to be supplied with from without. They spoke of the "Cape" as if it were only across the way, the distance separating them from that wonderful place being over thirteen hundred miles in reality. Very occasionally a schooner from Capetown does visit them; but, as the seals are almost exterminated, there is less and less inducement to make the voyage.
Like almost all the southern islets, this group has been in its time the scene of a wonderfully productive seal-fishery. It used to be customary for whaling and sealing vessels to land a portion of their crews, and leave them to accumulate a store of seal-skins and oil, while the ships cruised the surrounding seas for whales, which were exceedingly numerous, both "right" and sperm varieties. In those days there was no monotony of existence in these islands, ships were continually coming and going, and the islanders prospered exceedingly. When they increased beyond the capacity of the islands to entertain them, a portion migrated to the Cape, while many of the men took service in the whale-ships, for which they were eminently suited.
They are, as might be expected, a hybrid lot, the women all mulattoes, but intensely English in their views and loyalty. Since the visit of H.M.S. GALATEA, in August, 1867, with the Duke of Edinburgh on board, this sentiment had been intensified, and the little collection of thatched cottages, nameless till then, was called Edinburgh, in honour of the illustrious voyager. They breed cattle, a few sheep, and pigs, although the sheep thrive but indifferently for some reason or another. Poultry they have in large numbers, so that, could they commend a market, they would do very well.
The steep cliffs, rising from the sea for nearly a thousand feet, often keep their vicinity in absolute calm, although a heavy gale may be raging on the other side of the island, and it would be highly dangerous for any navigator not accustomed to such a neighbourhood to get too near them. The immense rollers setting inshore, and the absence of wind combined, would soon carry a vessel up against the beetling crags, and letting go an anchor would not be of the slightest use, since the bottom, being of massive boulders, affords no holding ground at all. All round the island the kelp grows thickly, so thickly indeed as to make a boat's progress through it difficult. This, however, is very useful in one way here, as we found. Wanting more supplies, which were to be had cheap, we lowered a couple of boats, and went ashore after them. On approaching the black, pebbly beach which formed the only landing-place, it appeared as if getting ashore would be a task of no ordinary danger and difficulty. The swell seemed to culminate as we neared the beach, lifting the boats at one moment high in air, and at the next lowering them into a green valley, from whence nothing could be seen but the surrounding watery summits. Suddenly we entered the belt of kelp, which extended for perhaps a quarter of a mile seaward, and, lo! a transformation indeed. Those loose, waving fronds of flexible weed, though swayed hither and thither by every ripple, were able to arrest the devastating rush of the gigantic swell, so that the task of landing, which had looked so terrible, was one of the easiest. Once in among the kelp, although we could hardly use the oars, the water was quite smooth and tranquil. The islanders collected on the beach, and guided us to the best spot for landing, the huge boulders, heaped in many places, being ugly impediments to a boat.
We were as warmly welcomed as if we had been old friends, and hospitable attentions were showered upon us from every side. The people were noticeably well-behaved, and, although there was something Crusoe-like in their way of living, their manners and conversation were distinctly good. A rude plenty was evident, there being no lack of good food—fish, fowl, and vegetables. The grassy plateau on which the village stands is a sort of shelf jutting out from the mountain-side, the mountain being really the whole island. Steep roads were hewn out of the solid rock, leading, as we were told, to the cultivated terraces above. These reached an elevation of about a thousand feet. Above all towered the great, dominating peak, the summit lost in the clouds eight or nine thousand feet above. The rock-hewn roads and cultivated land certainly gave the settlement an old-established appearance, which was not surprising seeing that it has been inhabited for more than a hundred years. I shall always bear a grateful recollection of the place, because my host gave me what I had long been a stranger to—a good, old-fashioned English dinner of roast beef and baked potatoes. He apologized for having no plum-pudding to crown the feast. "But, you see," he said, "we kaint grow no corn hyar, and we'm clean run out ov flour; hev ter make out on taters 's best we kin." I sincerely sympathized with him on the lack of bread-stuff among them, and wondered no longer at the avidity with which they had munched our flinty biscuits on first coming aboard. His wife, a buxom, motherly woman of about fifty, of dark, olive complexion, but good features, was kindness itself; and their three youngest children, who were at home, could not, in spite of repeated warnings and threats, keep their eyes off me, as if I had been some strange animal dropped from the moon. I felt very unwilling to leave them so soon, but time was pressing, the stores we had come for were all ready to ship, and I had to tear myself away from these kindly entertainers. I declare, it seemed like parting with old friends; yet our acquaintance might have been measured by minutes, so brief it had been. The mate had purchased a fine bullock, which had been slaughtered and cut up for us with great celerity, four or five dozen fowls (alive), four or five sacks of potatoes, eggs, etc., so that we were heavily laden for the return journey to the ship. My friend had kindly given me a large piece of splendid cheese, for which I was unable to make him any return, being simply clad in a shirt and pair of trousers, neither of which necessary garments could be spared.
With hearty cheers from the whole population, we shoved off and ploughed through the kelp seaweed again.
The Cruise of the Cachalot
Vol. 1, Leipzig 1899