6. Dugald Carmichael


When Emperor Napoleon went out campaigning, he travelled in his personal chariot, with all sorts of fancy things on board. He had a large collection of beautiful uniforms and a fine collection of weapons, including two pistols with mother-of-pearl grips. He had a chest, ornamented with gems and filled with money, crystal caraffes with booze, and, for his personal hygiene, two silver pos, a box of black ivory containing sandalwood tooth picks, and a golden tongue scraper. Napoleon lost his chariot, with its valuable contents, in Waterloo. He was exiled to Saint Helena, and the British garrison arrived at Tristan.

            On November 3rd 1816, HMS Falmouth left Cape Town, with 50 soldiers, mostly enlisted Hottentots, under the command of Captain Cloete. They also carried a huge quantity of varied equipment and cattle. On board was Captain Dugald Carmichael, who joined the garrison as a naturalist. The voyage was terrible. It took them 25 days to reach Tristan, 13 more than planned (we will see later that this is not yet a record...). They were tossed around so badly in heavy gales that all the cattle, horses and sheep broke their legs and died or had to be euthanised. After the encampment on Tristan was established, the Falmouth returned to the Cape, taking Comilla, who had seen enough of Currie.

            In May 1817, the British decided that the occupation of Tristan made no sense, and the garrison was withdrawn. They sent the Conqueror to pick up the soldiers and their effects, but it was not possible to take everything on board. A small group of men stayed behind, to keep an eye on the remaining material. The commander of Saint Helena, who also supervised things on Ascension, saw an opportunity. There was a terrible shortage of drinking water and materials on Ascension, so he sent the Julia to Tristan, to take fresh water and as many of the goods as possible. The Julia anchored off Tristan on October 1st, and was loaded, but during the night the ship was lifted off the anchor by sudden swells, and thrown on the rocks. Almost thirty men drowned.

            On November 17th, the Eurydice came to take the last people and materials. Most men were happy to return to sunny Cape Town. The exception was Corporal William Glass from Kelso, Scotland. He loved the climate of Tristan, which reminded him of home. He came to Tristan with his wife and a little child, and they enjoyed their time on the island. His wife was a Cape Coloured woman, Maria Magdalena Leenders, whose father was Dutch. Glass asked permission to remain and occupy the island for the British Crown. Two companions stayed with him, Samuel Burnell, and John Nankivel. The three of them signed a co-partnership agreement, containing the following sentences:


"1st. That the stock and stores of every description in possession of the Firm shall be considered as belonging equally to each. 2nd. That whatever profit may arise from the concern shall be equally divided. 3rd. All purchases to be paid for equally by each. 4th. That in order to ensure the harmony of the Firm, no member shall assume any superiority whatever, but all to be considered as equal in every respect, each performing his proportion of labour, if not prevented by sickness."


Therefore, after having been a Kingdom, Tristan had now become the first communist country in the world. Later this agreement became a sort of constitution for Tristan, the essence of which is still valid today.


Dugald Carmichael had left Tristan in March, so he only stayed during the summer months, with relatively nice weather. Yet he recorded rain every other day, as well as frequent storms, which usually lasted less than a day. He found the rain frustrating. Under the cloud cover he could always see the sun shining on the sea in the distance. That was the effect of the mountain, where the rising air would cause cloud formation and rain.

            Carmichael described the vegetation and the rock formations in great detail. He noted that the plateau on the NW side of the island, where the garrison camped, and where earlier adventurers had lived, was covered by a dense, almost impenetrable vegetation of Phylica trees with dense undergrowth. Only a small part, near the landing place, had been cleared. He found the black soil of good quality, and saw a great potential for further clearing and agriculture.

            On January 4th 1817, Carmichael, together with some friends, was the first to climb the peak. This was quite an achievement, as there were no trails, and fighting your way through the dense vegetation, climbing more than 2000 m from sea level and back is no easy feat. First they had to struggle to get to the foot of the cliffs, and then find a way up through one of the steep ravines. Today there are only three places from where you can climb up that are within walking distance of the Settlement: Pigbite, east of the Settlement, Burntwood at the southern end of the Settlement Plateau, and Hottentot Gulch (named after the Hottentot garrison) just above the Settlement. For the rest, the cliffs are virtually unsurmountable. In all likelihood Carmichael went up through Hottentot Gulch.

            With great difficulty they reached the top of the cliff from where they admired the views of distant Nightingale and Inaccessible. From there, it sloped gently upwards, first through wet, soggy swamps, later, where it got steeper, through loose gravel. At the top they found a clear crater lake, with not a single sign of life. Wild, and desolate. On the steep sides of the mountain, they had to balance on narrow ridges, with deep ravines on either side. They had to take great care not to fall down, as they were sometimes almost blown off their feet by sudden wind gusts coming down from the mountain. On those ridges they found many albatrosses nesting or resting. Albatrosses are great flyers, and can cover thousands of miles without any effort, but just like like real aeroplanes, they need a runway to get airborne. Carmichael saw how they would run downhill, faster and faster, with outstretched wings, until the wind lifted them off the ground. As a scientific experiment he took an albatross by the wingtip and threw it over the edge of the ravine. He watched the bird spiral down,  hopelessly flapping its wings, unable to recover flight, eventually falling down like a brick.

            During his stay on Tristan, Carmichael collected many plants, fish, and birds. He made a fine collection of seabirds. He also captured thrushes, and the now extinct bunting. About the land birds he writes:


"The only land birds on the island are a species of thrush (Turdus Guianensis?), a bunting (Emberiza Brasiliensis?), and the common moor-hen (Fulica Chloropus). These birds have spread over the whole island, and are found on the table-land as well as on the low ground. The Fulica conceals itself in the wood, where it is occasionally run down by the dogs."


Dugald Carmichael is my third eyewitness to see the Moorhens of Tristan da Cunha. It is remarkable he does not mention that these birds could not fly. Maybe he never noticed, because our Common Moorhens also have the habit, when disturbed, to run to safety, instead of flying. For Carmichael, they were just ordinary Moorhens (that he calls them Fulica instead of Gallinula, is of no importance).

            Carmichael brought his collection to England, depositing his specimens in the London Museum. Unfortunately, this museum no longer exists. Many of his bird skins ended up in other museums. Most of his seabirds are now in the British Museum at Tring. The thrush and the bunting are in Berlin. The 'ordinary' Moorhens Carmichael collected on Tristan have vanished.

Back to table of contents