5. King Jonathan


The year 1810 is a turning point in Tristan history. On September 27th, three men came to Tristan, and although none of them produced offspring, the island has been permanently inhabited ever since. The modern history of Tristan began at that time.

            The three were an Italian, Tomaso Corri (later Anglicised to Thomas Currie, also spelled Curry), and two Americans. One was probably a criminal named Williams, who was calling himself Millet. The other was Jonathan Lambert of Massachusetts, who had visited the island earlier on board the Grand Turk. On February 4th 1811 Lambert crowned himself King of the Kingdom of the Refreshment Islands. Tristan was re-named Refreshment Island, Inaccessible became Printard Island, and Nightingale Lovel Island. The King ruled a nation consisting of two people. His proclamation was published in the Boston Gazette of July 18th, 1811. The full text has been quoted in many sources so here I only give the first paragraph:


"know all men by these presents, that I, Jonathan Lambert, late of Salem, in the State of Massachusetts, United States of America, and citizen thereof, have this 4th day of February in the year of Our Lord Eighteen hundred and eleven, taken absolute possession of the island of Tristan da Cunha, so called, viz. the great island and the other two known by the names of Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands, solely for myself and my heirs, for ever, with the right of conveying the whole, or any part of thereof, to one or more persons, by deed of sale, free gift or otherwise, as I, or they (my Heirs), may hereafter think fitting or proper."


He also designed a flag, and promised to treat visitors with hospitality and good fellowship, offering trade in refreshments, and so on, and so on. The document was signed by himself and, as a witness, Andrew Millet. Lambert had great plans, writing to his friend Captain Briggs of all his business proposals.

            The Kingdom did not last long. On May 17th, 1812, The King, Williams (AKA Millet), and another American who had just joined them, perished at sea when out fishing and collecting wreckage. Thomas Currie was left as sole inhabitant. A year later, he was joined by John Tankard and John Talsen, so there were once more three inhabitants.

            During the Anglo-American war of 1812-1814, the Americans used Tristan as a base to capture British vessels, and several skirmishes at sea took place. The Americans often took vegetables or animals without asking the three men, much to their displeasure. Eventually, Tankard and Talsen left Currie, who was then alone again. Later, he got a new companion, Bastiano Poncho, from the Balearic Islands. Poncho agreed to serve Currie for two years, but he departed before this term ended. Maybe, Currie was not such pleasant company.

            In August 1816, a British garrison from the Cape occupied Tristan. The official reason was that Napoleon had been exiled to Saint Helena, and the British were afraid the French would use Tristan as a base to free him. That sounds like a ridiculous plan. In terms of distance, they might as well have occupied the entire west coast of Africa and the east coast of Brazil. A second motive could be that, in those days, although the Anglo-American war was over, there was still a great deal of American piracy around Tristan waters. Having a garrison on Tristan, meant that the sailing route to India could be better guarded.

            The soldiers interrogated Currie about the disappearance of Lambert, and his stories were sometimes contradictory. As a result, the soldiers formed the impression that Currie might have murdered them. Currie also had stories about a great treasure he had hidden, and substantiated it by showing golden coins every now and then. His money also gave him access to the canteen of the garrison, where he spent most of his time intoxicated. He promised to tell his best friend where his treasure were hidden, so many soldiers treated him to free drinks. In 1817, when all his best friends were still there, he drank himself into oblivion and died. Currie's treasure gave inspiration to Primo Levi for the chapter 'Mercury' in his book Il sistema periodico (1975).

            In the 1950s, a South African newspaper tycoon found out that Thomas Currie was one of his ancestors, and that this entitled him to lay claim to the treasure. He announced an expedition to Tristan to find it, using the latest techniques. The expedition never happened, and the eruption in 1961 covered all the places where it was likely to be found with several metres of thick lava.


King Jonathan was the second person I know of to see Island Cocks. He wrote to his friend Captain Briggs:


"We have the little black Cock in great numbers, and in the fall (they) are very fat and delicate. We caught some hundreds last year with a dog..."


Again there is no doubt: the King consumed the extinct flightless Moorhen of Tristan da Cunha.

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