19 May 2010

Phil Lennox Scott Recalls Island Life

A bit of a departure today. Nothing gastronomic. Until I finish the four or five food/wine pieces I'm working on, here is an article I wrote for a magazine I edited in 2004 about the remotest inhabited island in the world...
OUR STORY concerns Phil Scott, administrator 1952-1954 of Tristan da Cunha, the largest and only inhabited island of three lying midway between South Africa and South America. With a base circumference of just 21 miles, it is dominated by Queen Mary’s Peak, an extinct volcano which rises to 6765 feet. It was discovered in 1506 by Portuguese navigator, Tristäo d’Acunha who named it in his own honour despite not being able to land in heavy seas. In 1816 the British garrisoned it fearing the French might attempt to use it to free Napoleon from prison on St. Helena, 1,510 miles north.
I meet Scott in his comfortable Cambridge home where we discuss island life, surrounded by maps and photographs and his collection of clocks, dunking ginger nut biscuits in leaf tea. It is a story that attracted much press interest at the time, and still fascinates.
‘I received a circular whilst working in the Colonial Service in Sierra Leone,’ says Scott. ‘It advertised a post for Administrator on a small island I knew very little about. I went home for lunch and asked my wife, “Anne, shall we go to Tristan?” Her first reaction was, “Why not?” then “Where is it?” I completed an application and forgot all about it.’
Several months later a telegram arrived. ‘In effect it said, “Would I confirm I really wanted to go to Tristan.”’ Scott briefly returned to England to prepare and awaited the ship bound for South Africa. ‘In those days it took a fortnight to travel from Southampton to Cape Town. And that was luxurious. However the next leg of the journey, from Cape Town to Tristan, was going to be harder. We were nearing the end of the winter, and winter is not the fishing season. So Anne and I and our one and a half year old daughter, Jane had to wait for a fishing boat – the only way across. After nearly two months I became short of money. I actually had to cable the Colonial Office for more money.’
Big Sea, Small Boat
Eventually departure day arrived. ‘I was instructed to look for a ship called ‘The Tristania’. Seeing all the large oceangoing vessels in the docks, I was a little surprised when we were steered towards a ship so small that it could barely be seen above the dockside! It would be our transport for the 2,000 mile crossing – it was rather crowded onboard to say the least.’
Was Scott beginning to have reservations about his post? ‘Actually, not at all. It was new and exciting, especially for Jane. I’d spent three years of my childhood in Bermuda, so travelling was in my blood.’
When the family eventually arrived at the island, the weather was relatively clement, unlike the general climate. ‘Tristan is in the ‘Roaring 40’s’ – you get some very strong westerly winds, deep depressions from West to East and sudden North to South gusts. In my second year we endured winds in excess of 100mph.’
The Tristania anchored a mile offshore. ‘We were rowed to the island in longboats. As Tristäo d’Acunha found in 1506, it can be impossible to land when the sea is too rough to land a boat on the open beach. It’s another factor that prevented tourism from ever seriously taking off.’
Scott’s role was to look after the 249 islanders and to ensure the fishing concession for rock lobster, negotiated with a South African company - and still maintained - was regulated fairly, ‘and not abused by the big bad world of commerce.’ Scott raises an eyebrow, ‘I also had magisterial powers which meant I could imprison lawbreakers, although no prison existed. Generally the islanders were very well behaved!’
Daily life continued peacefully. ‘By and large the actual administration part of my job was fairly minimal and managed by the Chief Islander and Island Council, set up by my predecessor. Instead, I became interested in the possibility of improving the village’s only water supply, a nearby stream.’ Scott shows me a large, intricately contoured map which he had produced so that experts in London could design a piped supply to every home.
‘I was helped by Roger, a South African Civil Engineer who came to the island via unorthodox means. In my second year we had just suffered a tremendous ten-day storm. One of the islanders tapped on my office window. “There’s a ship!” he shouted. At first I didn’t believe him – the islanders were great leg-pullers. However on venturing outside with my binoculars, I was forced to rub my eyes. There was indeed a ship sending out a red distress flare. We immediately put out three longboats and rowed the four miles to investigate.’
The ship, which turned out to be a large yacht, was in a shocking condition. ‘The owner told us they had been sailing from South America to South Africa, and had been caught up in the storm, “turned turtle” and lost a man overboard.’
‘Naturally we brought the three survivors to shore and welcomed them to Tristan da Cunha. Although the yacht was anchored, before long the typical Tristan weather blew it high and dry on the beach. A 20 foot gash had been carved right through the thick aluminium hull by rocks. The wreck’s still there.’
Eventually the crew were taken to Cape Town. Roger was the last to leave, remaining for insurance reasons. ‘However, after his daily duties he took pleasure in helping me survey for the water project.’
What the islanders were like? ‘Whilst the national language was English they had their own dialect. For instance they would never conjugate the verb “to be”, instead saying “I is”, “You is”, and so on. They also said “y’all”, like Americans from the South. They had an odd way of questioning too, for example they would say “What time it is?” and “Good morning, how you is?” My daughter picked this up and on our return to England her grandmother complained that she couldn’t understand what was being said!’
The main crop was potatoes, grown to the west of the settlement in an area called ‘The Patches’, protected from animals by stone walls. ‘There were also cattle, fish and petrels, a rather unpleasant sea bird, as well as the Cape Albatross. Occasionally we ate penguin’s eggs. Did you know that the yolks are pink and the whites blue? I also had groceries and the odd tipple imported from Cape Town.’
From Line Caught to Liner
Scott recalls one day’s fortunate fishing. ‘I remember making plenty of fish cakes and stacked as many as possible in my kerosene-fired freezer. They lasted months and tasted delicious.’
By the mid-1950’s, the island had a resident doctor, teacher, factory manager, agriculturalist, public works department official and running water. The health of the islanders appeared greatly improved, as was the quality of their crops and livestock.
‘And my posting was up. In 1954 we sailed back to Britain aboard, in sharp contrast to The Tristania, a very comfortable cargo ship to Cape Town and then by Union Castle liner to Southampton. As we neared dock, a very smart representative dressed in a blue suit knocked on my cabin door. “Shall I tell the press to wait, Sir?” he asked. Our moment of island life had gained the public interest, and we were considered celebrities. After speaking to the press we were ushered into a first class train compartment (we normally travelled second) and returned to London where yet another reporter confronted us.’
‘“Had we been lonely living on the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world?” he asked. In truth, I told him that actually we hadn’t, and that London was somewhere where people might feel lonely. He then reported under the headline, “Scott: Alone in London!”’
I ask Scott about the historic 1961 evacuation of the islanders. He doesn’t hesitate. ‘Well it was the right decision - the only decision. I am told there were a series of earthquakes with sulphurous steam and red-hot boulders that October. A new 300 foot mound emerged separate to the extinct volcano, and lava cascaded towards the shore. This was happening a cat’s whisker from the village. Being a British dependency, the administrator of the time decided to evacuate all the islanders to Calshot Camp, near Southampton.’
However England was having one of its worst winters for decades. ‘The islanders were suffering terribly. Having lived in such a secluded environment, they had less immunity to infection, meaning even the common cold caused severe reactions.’
To compound their distress, journalists and medical research teams disturbed them relentlessly. ‘When they complained some reporters printed stories claiming that the islanders disliked England. The truth was they had been through a lot, and just wanted to go home.’ In addition the Tristan Development Company in Cape Town was anxious to re-establish the island’s lucrative crawfish cannery, the original factory having been completely destroyed by lava.
A Different Island
‘I went to visit the islanders and they were obviously pleased to see a friendly face. I cared for these people and it was a shame to see them in such foreign surroundings.’
A resettlement party sailed for Tristan aboard The Tristania the following year to prepare for the islanders return. In November 1962 the Colonial Office agreed to repatriate all 268 islanders of the 1961 evacuees. ‘14 decided to remain in England, five elderly islanders had died, but eight babies had been born. 10 island couples had married, and four Tristan girls married Englishmen.’
Ironically only one house had been burnt down, not by molten lava but by stray red hot cinders. ‘On seeing the remains of their destroyed home, the family decided there and then to turn around. I went to visit them just 10 years ago. They live near Southampton. Ada, who as a young girl had helped us in our house on the island now had a good job, as did her husband. It was great to see them living well with everything they wanted to hand.’
It appeared that some of the houses had been looted and the door of the safe in the post office had been forced open. Whilst most of the domestic animals had fared well, the dogs and cats had reverted to the wild.
‘Life returned to normal on Tristan, albeit slowly, though memories of the outside world were foremost in many people’s minds.’
A period of relative prosperity ensued, and the island’s harbour was built in 1965. It was named Calshot Harbour after the islander’s temporary haven in England.
In early 1966, 35 islanders chose to return to the UK. By now, Tristan was well known and, when possible, ships frequently called at the island, including the QE II in 1979.
I ask Scott if he would ever return to the most remote inhabited island in the world. ‘I would like to go back in theory, although a lot’s changed. Tristan has moved with the times. It now has a radio station, café, video shop, golf course (shared with grazing cows) and a swimming pool, not to mention the odd car…’
Images (Tristan da Cunha 500 years)