This article was originally published at David Nigel Lloyd’s website: http://davidnigellloyd.com/
If islomania is, as the Oxford English Dictionary states, “a passion or craze for islands,” then what should we call the most acute form of the malady? I suggest Tristanomania. Whatever it is or might be called, I developed it at the age of seven when the entire population of Tristan da Cunha appeared in England, seemingly out of Nowhere.
Like the BBC announcers long ago, I pronounce it Tristan duh COON-yuh. I am concerned, however, that I have been mispronouncing it all these years. A more common symptom of tristanomania is the Tourette’s-like urge to yell, “I’m moving to Tristan da Cunha and I’m not coming back!” whenever the world at large makes no __ing sense at all. I suspect there is a lot of Tristanomania going round now.
With a population of about 250, the small volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha [correctly pronounced duh COON-uh] is in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately halfway between South Africa and South America. On it is the the most remote human settlement in the world.
It takes about a week at sea to get to Tristan from Cape Town. There is a harbor in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (the name of the island’s only settlement) but no anchorage for large ships. Visitors must take a longboat ashore. Sometimes, the seas are too rough, however. There is no airstrip on the island.
The idea of being too far away for anybody to want to bother with bothering me is very appealing. The thought of a fifteen hundred mile buffer of stormy seas between me and the __ing world is comforting. There’s not much on offer on the island aside from its famed hospitality and its rugged beauty. However, one can dine on potatoes and penguin eggs for breakfast and, for supper, rock lobster (AKA: Tristan crawfish, the island’s major export [along with postage stamps]). What else could I need?
A pub. [there is one: The Albatros Bar] And an immigration policy blind to romantic runaways just like me. [No such luck] To be a Tristanian is harder than it looks. A diagnosis of Tristanomania does not —nor should it— grant immigrant status.
By every indication, the islanders would love it if you came for a visit. But… not now because of coronavirus; the island has no cases and is shut tight for obvious reasons. You could also (when the island is opened again) come to work for two years at the school, the police station, the medical center or for the island governance.
But, when your contract is over, you must go home. There are few exceptions.
The Music and Musicians of Tristan
Until the Second World War, the life’s blood of Tristanian society was what we would call live music and what Tristanians would have simply called music; they had few opportunities then to hear anything else. Many kinds of holidays, birthdays and other life-events were celebrated with a community feast and a dance. There you might have found fiddler Andrew Swain and accordionist Alfred Green supplying the tunes. During a lull, you would have heard one of the islanders, Arthur Repetto or Fred Swain for example, sing a British ballad, a sea shanty or an American minstrel song —- all songs which had arrived with the original settlers or with visiting sailors.
To be a singer on Tristan de Cunha then was to be what we in the folklore business call a traditional singer. And —unlike anywhere else on the planet— to be a traditional singer on Tristan da Cunha was to be a person of high status.
Thanks to the work of a Norwegian Expedition to the island in 1937/38 [described below], we know a great deal about these singers and their repertoires.
The island was discovered in 1506 by the seafaring Portuguese imperialist, Tristáo da Cunha. After naming the uninhabited island for himself, he continued east round South Africa and then north to wage war on Somalian city states and various strongholds in India.
In 1816 the British annexed Trsitan da Cunha, establishing a small military garrison there. They feared that the French might use the island as a base from which to free Napoleon from exile on the island of St. Helena, 1,300 miles due north. The French never came and the British went home a year later.
The Settlement Starts
With flexible, though not vague, utopian ideas, Corporal William Glass and two masons remained. Thus began the settlement and the core ideas that thrive on Tristan today.
Glass, a Scotsman, may have felt at home on the island, much of which, to my eye, resembles Scotland. I’m guessing that he and his friends were also simply tired of being ordered around, and happy to share both labor and the spoils of their labor. Glass was accompanied by his South African wife and their two children.
Other hardy like-minded men from Europe and America joined the community. Some were returning as sailors or whalers; a few had in fact been shipwrecked there. During the days of sail, because of the way the trade winds blew, Tristan da Cunha became a supply stop for the many ships sailing round Africa to India and beyond.
An earlier failed American attempt at settlement had even tried to change the name of the island to The Isle of Refreshment. It had not been as good for business as they had hoped.
In 1827, six women arrived from St. Helena to answer a call for wives. Newly emancipated slaves, they seem to have changed their names specifically in preparation for their new roles. Little is known about their prior lives. Government officials from St. Helena required the Islanders to swear and aver that these women would become wives in name, stature and affection and would in no way be mistreated. That seems to have been the intention all along. To the extent possible in the real world, they all seemed to live happily ever after.
Tristanians sport a healthy melange of Western European, Asian and African genes. They also have Northern European —most likely Russian— genetic markers, but nobody is talking about how they got into the gene pool. Not surprisingly, the 19th century variety of English the islanders speak derives from the eastern United States, southern England and Italy.
Excellent sailors, Tristanians always had a lifeboat at the ready to assist ships in distress. In 1885, however, the entire crew of the lifeboat and that of the the ship they were attempting to rescue drowned in a storm.
Two thirds of the male population of the island were wiped out. Many of the shattered remnants of the decimated families left the island.
In 1948, the island was similarly ravaged by a flu epidemic. As it had before, the population bounded slowly back.
William Glass’s spirit of rugged adaptability and utopian ideals seems to endure.
The deep isolation of the island began when steam began to replace sail. The trade winds were no longer a factor in ocean navigation. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Tristan da Cunha stopped receiving visitors almost entirely. Between 1909 and 1919, not a single ship visited the island, and then only to tell Tristanians of two cataclysms they had avoided: the First World War and the Spanish Flu.
The Norwegian Expedition of 1937/1938
The settlement seemed fully self-reliant by then, it’s musical customs well-established and locked in place, almost unchanging. Peter A. Munch, the sociologist of a 1938 Norwegian expedition to the island describes what he found in the Song Tradition of Tristan da Cunha. Published in 1970 by University of Indiana Folklore Institute in Bloomington, its epilogue details Munch’s findings upon returning to the island thirty years later.
The islanders lived by what Munch called an “orderly anarchy.” It impressed him deeply. Among the many articles he wrote about Tristan da Cunha is Anarchy and Anomie in an Atomistic Community . It was the British who would eventually insist, for convenience sake it seemed, that the islanders embrace democracy. Being adept at anarchy, the islanders have no problem with democracy.
To see the University of Oslo’s short account of the expedition, Click Here [The embedded slideshow itself is worth the click.]
Munch describes with barely concealed rapture his journeys with the islanders to the far off parts of the island to tend cattle, harvest apples, gather penguin eggs. Most of the labor on these trips fell to the men. Women came to prepare meals and refreshment, often in their finest clothes just because. At night, there would be a bonfire, on a beach perhaps, the southern stars still poking through the rippling air and smoke. And then everyone sang.
How could something like that not haunt you for the rest of your life?
All the Singers of the Island
Munch’s main informant was a wild-haired freckle-faced 21 year-old named Alice Swain. She knew all the singers on the island and she knew what songs each singer had — much like a 21 year-old today. Certain songs sung on Tristan belonged to one singer or another. All the islanders knew the shanty “Little Powder-Monkey Jim,” for example, but it belonged to Fred Swain, Alice’s father, then aged 44. For any other singer to sing it was tantamount to copyright infringement.
Alice’s great great grandfather, Thomas Swain, came to Tristan da Cunha in 1826. He told his three daughters that he had been the unnamed sailor who had held the dying Admiral Lord Nelson in his arms at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. No evidence exists to the contrary. The historical accuracy of “Little Powder-Monkey Jim” was, Munch suspected, evidence in the affirmative. The song concerns a fearless mid-shipman in the Battle of the Nile, a naval battle seven years before Trafalgar.
Separated by nearly 150 years and 3,000 miles and left to the ravages of the oral tradition, background details would normally have become garbled by the time the Norwegians encountered the song. So why, Munch wondered, were the sequence of historical events and the names even of the French ships in the battle all correctly remembered.
Little Powder-Monkey Jim Reveals the Truth
The answer, as Peter Millington shows in his 2015 article “Tristan da Cunha and the Original Powder Monkey Jim,” is quite simple. The song was written by professional songwriter W. Michael Watson in 1881. It was not 150 years old. So popular was the song that it did wander the world disguised, as it were, as a genuine folk song. It was also published as sheet music and recorded many times.
Isolated or not, Tristan da Cunha in the 1930s had two phonograph players and many of the islanders, including Fred Swain, owned phonograph records. If Fred Swain had learned the song in his 20s —either by oral transmission, from a recording, or even from sheet music— it would have been little more than 30 years old. Munch had not asked the seemingly obvious question of Fred: Where had he learned the song?
Fred Swain had been attracted to it simply because it concerned a naval battle in which his great grandfather had been involved. Even trained sociologists tend to look for the loftiest answers when it comes to this far flung community.
In his defense, Munch frequently reminds his readers that he is a sociologist and not a trained folklorist. However, as Millington points out, others who should have known better, committed the same sin of omission. Roland Svensson recorded 75 year-old Fred singing the song in 1970. The song had by then indeed, as might be expected, fallen into a state of considerable disrepair.
[I highly recommend Peter Millington’s article, which can be downloaded here. Tristan da Cunha and the Original Powder Monkey Jim ]
You may be wondering, Dear Reader, why, as “an iconoclastic loner of acid folk,” this is so important to me. In one sense, it underlines my, if not our, preconceptions about a people who choose to live in the most isolated place the in the world; simply put, Tristanians do not fearfully shut out the world.
In another sense, it is an example of how music, songs especially, work. As such, though I can’t say how, it informs my own processes of songwriting, and not just those songs in which I freely pillage from oral traditions.
On the Low Status of Original Compositions
Most other songs on Tristan showed expected signs of wear. Munch noted that the very well-known ballad “Bar’vry Allen” seemed conclusive only; it was as if everyone knew how things got the way they got for the ill-fated lovers and therefor they had made most of the verses redundant.
Andrew Swain, Thomas’s grandson (Alice’s grandfather), provided an extreme example. He had an Italian song. Munch, however, was certain that no Italian would recognize the song’s sequence of strange vocables as Italian.
Most of the ballad material seemed to come from Britain, but some of it bore marked indicators of American versions. Munch was not sure there was not an African inflection to be heard throughout all the songs and dance tunes of Tristan da Cunha. He could not, it seems, put his finger on what or how. The notion, of course, is intriguing. Given the African identities of the venerated women founders, I found it odd to find songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” not to mention “The Happy Darkey,” among island favorites. Islanders had their own ideas about race and, Munch observed, they little resembled those of the rest of the world.
I was disappointed to find there were no songs or song-adaptations about Tristan da Cunha itself. There was a reason for this: the purpose of these songs, precluded if not forbade original compositions.
The traditional singers were high-status islanders because their songs were the island’s windows on to the world. Through them, the islanders could sing with authority, if not a metaphorical sort of experience, of distant places like Kentucky, Egypt, and London.
Tristanians burst onto the world stage in 1961 when Queen Mary’s Peak, the volcano that is their island, erupted. I was seven and fascinated. The islanders, having escaped to nearby uninhabited Nightingale Island, had eventually made their way to England where the Colonial Office mistakenly thought they would give up this Isolation Nonsense and become British. They were comfortably housed at an RAF base while the eruption continued to destroy their homes — or so it was assumed.
The world and I watched in wonder as these agreeable people discovered television, public transit and Rock ‘n Roll. How could they want to go back home, now? True enough, they took many modern amenities and gadgets with them when they went back in 1963, but back they went. Their homes were waiting patiently, unharmed.
When Munch returned to Tristan da Cunha in 1965, he found only two of the old singers —Fred Swain and Arthur Repetto— still alive. Though island life had not changed, the islanders tastes had. A record player replaced the accordion and the fiddle at dances. A song interlude, however, was simply not needed. As a point of courtesy, if not pride, they could be sung for visitors and folklorists. They were simply no longer part of island life.
Meanwhile, many of the younger islanders had purchased guitars and harmonicas in England. They entertained each other with American songs played in a style they had learned, according to Munch, from mostly Zulu crew members of South Atlantic fishing boats on which Tristanians also worked. What must that music sound like?
The Singer NOT the Song?
It is thought that the islanders’ tastes changed greatly during their two year stay in England. They did not. Their tastes had changed much more during the Second World War when the Royal Navy had established a signal station on the island; there they could monitor the activities of German U-Boats in the South Atlantic. The British, having arrived with their families, had built a general store, a cinema, a new school. All of which —along with the ability to remain in radio contact with the outside world— were left with the islanders when the war ended.
There is also the matter of aesthetics. Through recored media, it had become much easier for Tristanians to hear other singers —some with world class voices— besides their own. Forbidden fruit, as it were.
Peter Munch concludes his epilogue by noting that the last of the old songs to be sung on the island was “the Golden Wanity [sic].” It was Arthur Repetto’s song and he sang it at the new Island Administrator’s home on New Year’s Eve, 1964.
That was apparently a sad day for Arthur Repetto, born on Tristan da Cunha in 1900. Island Administrator? Arthur’s mother, Frances Repetto, had become the Chief Islander without need of appointment, election or coup. She held the position for many years. Her death during the flu-epidemic of 1948 had caused deep grief among the islanders.
Did it seem obvious to Arthur that the old songs would not be so missed? Munch seemed to think so. Upon turning 66, Arthur Repetto went back to England and the ballad tradition in Tristan da Cunha, having served its purpose, ended.
Any award-winning movies been made on Tristan Cunha? Yes! 37°4 S – Trailer
Need stamps? Tristan da Cunha’s web site: Tristan da Cunha
What about now? From the New York Times: A Visual Dispatch from Tristan da Cunha
David Nigel Lloyd
Working on the periphery of American and British Isles folk traditions, Guitarist/song-poet David Nigel Lloyd built a small but international reputation while working professionally as an arts advocate and teaching artist in the California counties of Kern and Siskiyou.
He accompanies himself on the 8-stringed octar, and on guitar in modified lute tuning tuning. DNL has performed at folk venues in the British Isles, Canada and throughout the US. He is known to introduce his songs with jokes, True Facts, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies.
David Nigel Lloyd’s website
The Singers of Tristan da Cunha
At the Still Point of the Turning World