4. Early shipping around Tristan


In this chapter I limit myself to shipping up to 1800. After that, there are too many ships. Others keep lists of all the ships up to the present, usually stamp collectors, like Smith (1986, 1991, 1994) and Taylor (2001-2008).

            The time up to 1800 can conveniently be divided into three centuries: the 16th, 17th, and 18th century, which can be called the Portuguese, Dutch, and English era, respectively. In the 16th century, there were only Portuguese ships near Tristan, on their way to India and the East Indies. In the 17th century it was almost exclusively the Dutch, when they took over the eastern trade from the Portuguese. In the 18th century the British replaced the Dutch as rulers of the southern oceans.

            The English era is well documented. French were also prominent in those days, as were the American whalers and sealers later in the century. Our knowledge of the Dutch era is mainly based on the work of Brander (1940). Being Dutch himself, he had relatively easy access to the Colonial Archives in The Hague. Since Brander's days, access to these archives (no longer colonial) has become much easier, so, being Dutch too, I could find some interesting additions for my earlier book (1997), which I will relate below.

            Brander thought he was the first to write about the early Dutch voyages (he says so in his introduction), but it appears that the Italian polar geographer Arnaldo Faustini mentioned them much earlier, around 1925, in his Annals of Tristan da Cunha. The Annals had not yet been published when he died in 1944. His daughter found the manuscript in the attic after her mother's death, in 1990. She had it transcribed into English, and published it on the internet in the early 2000's, where it can be downloaded as a PDF document (see URL in reference list). Faustini's handwriting must have been pretty awful, and the transcriber probably had a hard time, names of ships and captains often being corrupted beyond recognition.

            The Portuguese era really is the great blank in Tristan's shipping history. Most writers only know the voyage of Tristão da Cunha, who discovered the island in 1506. Smith (1991) mentions a Portuguese fleet, visiting Tristan in 1583, and Faustini adds two voyages, in 1520 and 1557. There must have been more. One indication is that in a peat core from Tristan, pollen were found of Ribwort Plantain Plantago lanceolata, going back to about 1570 (Ljung & Björk 2011). This is an invasive European species, introduced worldwide by people with dirty feet, or by bringing domestic animals with seeds in their pelts. The early Portuguese had the habit of intruducing goats to islands they found, as a food source for future visitors, and around 1570 only the Portuguese had been near Tristan. None of the visitors (the ones we know of) in the 17th and 18th centuries ever mentions seeing goats, but they probably did not venture far enough inland to encounter them. In my view, they have been there all the time, but did not like the dense, almost impenetrable bush at lower levels and retreated to the higher ground on the mountain, with more open vegetation. The first visitor mentioning goats is Patten, who stayed six months on the island in 1790 (see below). I think they were of Portuguese origin going back to the mid-sixteenth century.

            A Portuguese colleague drew my attention to some old history books, and via him I came into contact with naval historian José Manuel Malhão Pereira, who wrote a thesis about early Portuguese voyages (Malhão Pereira 2001). We exchanged dozens of emails, and he overloaded me with digitised old maps, roteiros (pilot books), and other publications. His thesis already gave me one or two new voyages. His most spectacular find is a shipwreck as early as 1508, just two years after the island was first seen!

            I learned a lot about the early Portuguese navigators. After Bartolomeu Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500, and Tristão da Cunha found Tristan in 1506, their scientists and pilots soon started to understand the global circulation patterns of air and sea in the Atlantic Ocean. It took Da Gama nine months to reach India. Cabral did it in six, in spite of his Brazilian detour. Others soon followed his course, using the trade winds, from the Cape Verde Islands to the easternmost point of Brazil. Then they would sail south, and turn southeast towards Martin Vaz and Tristan da Cunha, to reach the Cape, making optimal use of prevailing winds and currents. On the return voyage, they would simply sail in a straight line from the Cape to Saint Helena, using the southeast trade winds. Then they would again cross the Atlantic in a wide arc far to the west, and finally return to Portugal with the westerlies, via the Azores. Thus, their sailing itineraries in the Atlantic would describe a huge figure of eight (just like the Greater Shearwaters of Nightingale - aren't they clever too!). In their roteiros, the pilots advised to stay well north of Tristan da Cunha, because of the risk of strong gales further south, so most ships would not go further south than 35 degrees, hundreds of kilometres further north than Tristan. That may be a reason why we see so few Portuguese sightings of the island.

            The Portuguese already knew how to use the declination of the compass to estimate their longitude. The declination of the compass is the angle between the true north and the needle pointing at the magnetic north pole (somewhere in northern Canada). Obviously, this angle depends on where you are, relative to these two poles. The magnetic north and south pole are not opposite each other on an axis through the centre of the world. They both lie more or less on the same side of the earth. The lines between them, connecting points with the same declination, called isgones, show all sorts of strange curves, in some cases even forming completely inexplicable (for me...) loops. Also, as the magnetic poles are moving, the pattern changes over time. In the Portuguese era, the line with zero declination (the agonic line) ran north-south through South Africa. At the Cape, the declination was about three degrees east, near Tristan it was almost twenty degrees east. The Portuguese sailors knew this. As the isogones ran parallel to the coast of South Africa, the declination gave them a fair idea of the distance to the Cape. Ships would often note in their journal that they passed Tristan da Cunha norte-sul (north-south), based on the observed declination, usually still far to the north of the island.

            Today, the isogonic pattern in the South Atlantic is completely different. The agonic line moved westward, passed Tristan around 1730, and now lies much further to the west. The declination at Tristan is now about twenty degrees west, instead of east! Near South Africa, the isogones no longer run parallel to the coast, but hit the shore perpendicular. So today, they would be useless for sailors for establishing their longitude. Fortunately we have other methods now. But I greatly admire the old Portuguese sailors for already knowing all this!

            Portuguese captains were also asked to note all the animals and plants they would see, which they called sinais (signs or signals), such as birds, floating seaweed, driftwood, smell and colour of the sea, and so on. In European waters they knew birds were a sure sign of nearby land, and in the south they thought so too. Gannets and gull species certainly indicate a nearby coast, but petrels and albatrosses do not. They roam widely, all over he ocean, New Zealand species frequenting the South Atlantic, and vice versa. When approaching Tristan waters, they often noted corvas pretas, bicos brancas, black ravens with white beaks. These must have been White-chinned Petrels (Procellaria aequinoctialis), which are very common in the Southern Ocean, and often follow ships in their wake. Near Tristan they could even have been the closely allied Spectacled Petrels (P. conspicillata), endemic to Inaccessible Island. They also saw black-and-white checkered birds, which they called feijãos, speckled beans, a very strange name for a bird. They must have been Cape Petrels (Daption capense), which also like to follow ships. Seeing those was no indication of nearby islands at all, they just appeared because the ships approached the nutrient rich subantarcic seas. Feeding frenzies of these birds can be seen anywhere between Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, wherever they find a local patch of krill. The nearest breeding stations of the feijãos are South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, and Bouvetøya, more than thousand kilometres further south. Floating seaweed is also an unreliable sign. On one of my South Atlantic voyages we saw floating seaweed all the way between Tristan and Saint Helena.

            Let's turn our attention to Tristan visitors.


In 1505 Gonçalo Alvares, sailing as a pilot with Pero d'Anhaya, was blown too far to the south. On his way to the Cape he saw a godforsaken island which was named after him, Ilha de Gonçalo Alvares, which was later rediscovered as Gough Island. Gonçalo Alvares was erroneously changed into Diego Alvarez (Spanish spelling). According to Uhden (1939) this happened as late as the early eighteenth century, as he found the name Conçalo Alvares or Alvarez on the maps of Diego Ribeiro (1529), Desceliers (1546), Gastaldi (1562), Jansonius (1560), and d'Isle (1700). I found some more in maps dated 1519, 1539, 1544, and 1570, but in a map of 1560 I already saw the name Diogo Alvares (Portuguese spelling). The other maps often showed the name abbreviated to Ilha de go Alvares. De go could easily be misread as Diogo. People have suggested it would be nice to change the name of Gough back into the old name Diego Alvarez. But that is not the old name. It should be Gonçalo Alvares. Or, to avoid the confusion about Diogo, Diego, de go, or Gonçalo, let's just call it Alvares Island, instead of the ugly-sounding Gough.

            On the early maps, Alvares Island is drawn a bit too far to the north, at 39 degrees instead of 40, which later confused Dutch sailors. Because of the name change, Gonçalo Alvares' discovery is often given as a 'maybe', but I think we are now confident enough to remove the question mark.

            The story of Tristão da Cunha finding the islands in 1506, which were named after him is well known, but needs some clarifications. According to MacKay (1963) Tristão's ship was called Capitão Mor. This is an error, which has been repeated by other authors, including myself, I am afraid (Beintema 1997). Capitão-mor was not his ship, but his title. His ship was the Espirito Santo. In a fleet, every ship had her own captain, but only one of them would be the chief captain, or captain-major: capitão-mor. This was not a permanent title, like Admiral, but just an assignment for the voyage. The size of the fleet varies between sources: 14, 15, 16 or just 6. I think they sailed from Lisbon to Brazil with 16 ships. One was sent back to Portugal with sick men, one ship was lost, and 14 reached the waters around Tristan da Cunha. Da Cunha sailed with Afonso de Alboquerque (or Dalboquerque), future viceroy of India. D'Alboquerque commanded a sub-fleet of six ships, with fourhundred men, with a special assignment to control the Moors on the African eastcoast, so he was a capitão-mor too, and captain of the Flor de la Mar. Having two chief captains on one fleet is asking for trouble, and indeed, there were a lot of disputes between the two. D'Alboquerque was especially irritated because da Cunha's ship was slow, and they often had to wait for each other. It was already late in the season and it was questionable whether they would still be able to safely round the Cape. After discovering Tristan, the weather took the matter in hand. In a heavy gale the fleet was dispersed, and the ships arrived on the east coast of Africa at different times. Since 1509, the charts show seven little dots, with the remark 'Ilhas que achou Tristão da Cunha' - islands found by Tristão da Cunha. Malhão Pereira found a very nice drawing, in colour, of the entire fleet of fourteen near Tristan, with small boats filled with rowing men, exploring the islands.

            We sometimes see Tristão spelled as Tristam. Note that ão and am are pronounced the same in Portuguese (aaung, with a nasal ending, like in the French bon). Similarly, we often see Sam instead of São (Saint).

            We all agree that Tristão is the one who discovered Tristan. But was he really the first to see the islands? In June 1503 the French adventurer Binot de Paulmier de Gonneville left the Harbour of Honfleur with his ship L'Espoir. He heard of the riches brought back by Vasco da Gama and Cabral and wanted his share, ingoring the fact that the route to India was forbidden for non-Portuguese ships. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Cabral and Tristão da Cunha all travelled with large fleets. De Gonneville sailed solo. On November 9th, they encountered large fields of floating seaweed, with roots. They first thought that it meant they were close to the Cape, but because they never saw Gannets, which are always seen there, they figured it must have been somewhere else. They also found it was suddenly much colder. Then L'Espoir had strong contrary winds for several weeks, and they had to reef to prevent being blown back to the north. They drifted in all directions and were utterly lost. The crew was suffering from scurvy, and several men had already died, including the all important Portuguese pilot. What made them decide to travel west in the end, instead of east, is totally unclear. Eventually, they ended up on the coast of southern Brazil, where they met the same kind of friendly natives Cabral had seen. They had found paradise, and stayed there for six months, having a wonderful time, then gradually moved north along the coast, to return to France in 1505. De Gonneville had no idea he had been in South America, and claimed to have found the fabled Great South Land that everybody was hoping to find. He called it Les Indes Méridionales, the South Indies. His stories became a myth, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, and were the basis for several French expeditions to find the Great South Land, leading to the discoveries of Bouvet in the South Atlantic, and Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean. De Gonnevilles log was lost. It surfaced as late as 1869, and was made available for scientists. The log was thoroughly analysed and historians could even identify the various places where De Gonneville had been ashore (Perrone-Moisés 1992, Bueno 1998). They concluded that the seaweed must have been near Tristan da Cunha, and one of them even says that the island was seen. In the version of the log I have read, there is no mention of seeing an island at all, only the seaweed, which could have been anywhere. So in my judgment, de Gonneville never saw Tristan.

            In April 1508, a fleet of seventeen sails departed for India, divided into two captaincies. Jorge da Guiar was capitão-mor of thirteen ships, eight of which would go for spices, and five would stay on the Arabian coast. The remaining four vessels were to explore Malacca, under command of Diogo Lopes de Segueira. Jorge da Guiar lost his ship Sam João during the night on the shores of Tristan da Cunha. There are beautiful drawings of the accident, in colour, in two different Portuguese pilot books, clearly made by the same artist who produced the drawing of Tristão's explorations (Soeiro de Brito et al. 1992).

            In his thesis, Malhao Pereira (2001) plotted the itineraries of various voyages. Most of them stayed well north of Tristan, but in 1535 Fernão Peres de Andrade, with the Espera, came very close, and indeed the text says he saw the largest of the islands, on June 17th. He found the island 'well shadowed' and supposed it was not very high, which probably means the mountain was hidden in clouds. Two years later, in 1537, André Vaz (no ship's name mentioned) passed the island even closer, but did not mention seeing it. Perhaps clouds or fog blocked his view, or perhaps he saw it without saying so. But as he was so close, I add him to my list with a question mark.

            For the 16th century, Faustini gives us two more Portuguese visitors, both questionable: in 1520 the navigator Ruy Vaz Pereira, captain of the ship Las Rafael, called at Tristan for water, on his way to Muscat. And in 1557 Luis Fernandez de Vasemcellos, captain of the ship Santa Maria de Carca, sailed with the new Portuguese governor from the Canary Islands to Brazil, and then on to Tristan da Cunha, which he sighted at the beginning of July.

            Rui Vaz Pereira's ship's name was Sam Rafael (mis-spelled by Faustini's transcriber). We could not find any mention of Tristan. All stories about him are about catching a giant fish, almost the size of his ship, near the Cape. It is a complete mystery how Faustini got the information about fetching water and sailing to Muscat. Unfortunately, the list of references has not been included in the transcribed Annals, so we have no idea where Faustini found this information. We keep this voyage on the list, with a huge question mark.

            Regarding the 1557 voyage: the captain's name was Vasconcelos, and his ship the Santa Maria da Craça. Malhão Pereira found the voyage, but there is no indication that Vasconcelos saw the island. So here is the next question mark. Finally, there is the 1583 fleet, mentioned by Smith (1991). He refers to an earlier listing made by Butler in 1952. I have not been able to find this document, and even my English, stamp-collecting Tristan friends had never heard of it. They knew Butler was a philatelist too, who even designed new stamps for Tristan which were never produced. We could not find a 1583 voyage. This leaves us with another big question mark. That concludes the Portuguese era. Lots of uncertaincies, and no landing with goats could be identified.


A hundred years after the Spanish and the Portuguese conquered the world's oceans, the Dutch entered the naval scene and sailed to the East Indies, where they ultimately replaced the Portuguese. The East Indian Spice Islands would become a Dutch colony. Dutch pilots did their homework. They were a bit bolder, or perhaps more reckless that the Portuguese, and ventured further south to make better use of the strong westerlies. Following that course, Tristan da Cunha appears more regularly in shipping reports.

            According to Faustini, the second Dutch voyage to the East Indies, under Jacob van Neck (spelled Heck by his transcriber) sailed close to the northern shores of Tristan. It was on this voyage, that the uninhabited island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean was discovered and named after Prince Maurits. The crew found prolific wildlife. They rode on the backs of giant tortoises and killed the first Dodos, the most famous of all extinct animals. The journals of this voyage have been republished by the Van Linschoten Society in five volumes, from 1938 to 1949. I read all the reports of the ships involved, and none of them mentions seeing Tristan da Cunha. They all mention large numbers of birds at a latitude of 34 degrees south, which made them think they might be nearby, but they were still a few hundred kilometres north of the island. They saw albatrosses, Cape Pigeons, and probably the endemic Spectacled Petrels from Inaccessible. And large numbers of birds like Turtle Doves, which most likely were Broad-billed Prions. They just ran into a rich food patch which had attracted the birds, but did not see Tristan. They stayed at 34 degrees until they reached the Cape.

            The first non-Portuguese ship, the Dutch Bruinvis, skipper Willem van Westzanen, in a fleet commanded by Jacob van Heemskerk, arrived at Tristan in 1601. Van Heemskerk was famous for sailing with Willem Barentsz in 1596, discovering Spitsbergen, and wintering on Nova Zembla in a failed attempt to find the NE-Passage to China and the Spice Islands. Willem van Westzanen saw land during the night, and sailed at a safe distance until morning. Then they returned to the island, saw the impressive cliffs and snow on the peak, found no safe anchorage, and when sudden wind gusts came rolling down from the mountain, they fled for safer water.

            In 1610, allegedly, the first sighting of Tristan by a British ship, the Globe, took place.

I think this is a wrong interpretation of the journal. The ship's log mentions passing the Abrolhos near the Brazilian coast on April 14th. The next entry is May 14th, when they had reached 34 degrees south. On May 18th they saw the Cape of Good Hope. That means that on the 14th, they must have been closer to the Cape than to Tristan, as it usually took about two weeks to sail the distance from Tristan to the Cape. From the 14th till the 17th they had a severe storm from the west. They reefed, fearing that they would be blown onto the coast, which must have been Africa, not Tristan. They found the compass declination to be only three degrees, indicating they were near the Cape, but figured they were a bit farther away because of the birds they saw:  for wee saw dyvers foules that keepe aboute the Cape, etc. These followed us from the island of Tristan d'a Chuna to the Cape. The log does not mention an actual sighting of the island, which they must have passed north of 34 degrees, more than 300 km away. It is quite normal to see large numbers of petrels that breed in the Tristan archipelago in the waters between Tristan and the Cape, but that does not mean you are close to land at all (see also van Neck). So I don't believe they saw the island. The name was only used, together with the Cape, to indicate the huge ocean area between the two places. Minor detail: the voyage took place in 1611, not 1610.

            According to Brander, the Dutchman Willem IJsbrantsz. Bontekoe saw Tristan in 1618, but Bontekoe's report explicitly states that they must have passed close, but did not see the island. Faustini also mentions Bontekoe (spelled Brutekoé), but for the year 1619.

            Faustini names three French ships in 1620, Montmorancy, Esperance, and Hermitage, skipper Beaulieu.  They tried to approach the island but found their way barred by large fields of floating seaweed.

            Smith (1991) mentions a Dutch fleet and an attempted landing in 1626. I found no trace of this visit in any other source, and since Smith does not give a source for this one (which he otherwise does), and the failed landing went exactly like Speckx's attempt that according to Brander took place in 1628, I conclude that this is a duplication, 1628 being misread or misprinted as 1626. I checked the visit of Jacob Speckx, where Brander does not name a ship. In fact, Speckx visited Tristan in 1629, not 1628. He left Texel in December 1628, and arrived at Tristan on 7 June, 1629, with the ships Hollandia, Der Goes, Oostzaenen, and Westzaenen. An attempted landing failed. Admiral Speckx was appointed Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, after Jan Pietersz. Coen, the first Governor General, died. When digging into Speckx, I found a 'true new' visitor: Artus Gijsels, who was sent as governor to Ambon, with the DeventerMiddelburg, and Hof van Holland. On 3 August 1630 he saw the islands of Tristan. Like Speckx the year before, he was impressed by their beauty and ruggedness, but he did not attempt a landing.


The first documented landing on Tristan took place in February 1643, with the Dutch ship Heemstede, skipper Claes Gerritszoon Bierenbroodspot, from the city of Hoorn. Extensive reports on this visit, and the subsequent Dutch expeditions later in the 17th century, are found in several books and publications on Tristan, so here I keep it brief.

            The Heemstede found the anchorage opposite the waterfall, and stayed there for eight days in fine weather. People went ashore several times, found the drinking water of excellent quality, and praised the taste of the wild celery they found. The beach was loaded with Elephant Seals and Fur Seals which they killed as often as they could, bashing in their heads. Their report recommends that it would be advisable for the East India Company to claim the island as a refreshment post as it lay so perfectly halfway between Holland and the East Indies.

            In 1652 the Cape Province became a Dutch colony, and the governor, Jan van Riebeeck, organised an exploratory mission to Tristan da Cunha. So, in November 1655 the galiot 't Nachtglas, skipper Jan Jacobz, left the Cape for Tristan, the first true Tristan expedition. 't Nachtglas stayed for eight days at Tristan, in January 1656. They first landed on Inaccessible, which was unnamed yet, and named it Nachtglas Eylandt. They also visited Nightingale, which they called Gebroocken Eylandt (Broken Island). They tried to land at several places around Tristan, but found it was only safe to land near the same waterfall, where they found a plaque, nailed to the rocks by Bierenbroodspot in 1643. Wherever they landed, they had to kill seals left and right, to create passage. The report from 't Nachtglas states that generally speaking, the waters around the island are too dangerous. The usefulness of Tristan as a station for the company would be doubtful. No further steps were undertaken.

            In 1659, the Dutch ship Graveland visited Tristan. They made an easy landing near the waterfall, and reported favourably about the island. Thus, the interest in the island was renewed. In 1665 the Pimpel was sent to explore and compare the usefulness of Martin Vaz, Tristan da Cunha, and Diego Alvarez. The Pimpel did not get any further than Martin Vaz, and never reached Tristan. In 1669, The Grundel, captain Gerritsz Riddermuis, visited Martin Vaz and Tristan with the same purpose. Their conclusion was that, with favourable winds, small ships could get close enough to go ashore for refreshments, but that this would be impossible for larger ships because there was no safe anchorage.

            A 'new' visitor to Gough comes from the report of the Grundel. After visiting Tristan they searched for Diego Alvarez in vain, at the 38th parallel. Therefore, the captain concluded that twelve years earlier Rijklof van Goens, who saw an island at 40 degrees, which nobody believed could have been Diego Alvarez, must have seen that island after all! So I dug out Van Goens' report. With his ship Orangie he circled around the island in February 1657. Diego Alvarez was at that time believed to lie further north, so Van Goens did not know what he was seeing. Meanwhile, Gough has been moved to the right place on the map, and, judging from his descriptions, Van Goens cannot have seen anything else.

            Faustini mentions a French fleet sailing along the southern coast of Tristan in November 1666, under the command of Marquis de Mondevergne. They observed: 'The main island has a peak higher as that of Teneriffe', which of course is not true as we now know. The Pico the Teide is almost twice as high as Tristan, and has long been believed to be the highest mountain on earth.  In 1676 there was another French ship, the Vautour whose crew observed: 'We found three islands, one large and two small', and 'The peak is covered with snow. The island is uninhabited'.


Regarding the early Dutch visits, most Tristan books or ships' listings rely heavily on Jan Brander (1940). Brander, a Dutch teacher in geography and history, did a lot of digging in the archives of the Dutch East India Company, and since most Tristan authors cannot read Dutch, nobody followed him there. I did. This was a rewarding exercise, because today these archives are much easier to access than in Brander's days. An important source for instance is Dutch Asiatic Shipping, by Bruijn et al. (1979), which sums op over 4700 outgoing voyages of the Dutch East India Company. It mentions the following hitherto 'unknown' visits to Tristan:


1646: Witte Olifant, skipper Klaas Bot,

1646: Koning David, skipper Reinier Egbertz,

1646: Witte Paard,

1658: Elburg, skipper Pereboom,

1681: Ternate, skipper Jan Gerritz.


These visits are also mentioned by Headland (1992), with reference to Bruijn et al. However, I discovered that the first four never visited Tristan, so Brander overlooked less than I at first thought.

            On April 6th, 1646, the Witte Olifant, Koning David and Witte Paard left Texel. On September 5th they are said to have arrived at Tristan. From archives kept in Batavia, it appears that the story is different. The three ships sailed in the company of two others, the Zeelandia and the Patria. On the 5th of September, 'about Tristan da Cunha', they had to split up, because the first three ships ran out of drinking water and had to divert to the Cape of Good Hope. Zeelandia and Patria arrived in Batavia on November 12th, the three others in December. The captains were reprimanded, because they would have been on schedule, had they taken more water at the Cape Verde Islands. From this story I must conclude that none of these ships reached Tristan. They did not mention actually seeing the island, and the name Tristan only appears in that one sentence about splitting up.

            The Elburg was said to have been forced to spend four weeks at Tristan, because of ... calms. Who can believe that? The diary of Jan van Riebeeck, Governor of the Cape, says that the ship arrived at the Cape on 13 April 1658, that no place was visited on the way, and that the ship had been troubled by calms for four weeks, between Tristan da Cunha and the Cape. So this is another non-visitor.

            Remains the Ternate, which touched Tristan indeed: it nearly wrecked. The Ternate left Texel on 31 May 1681. In thick fog it scraped the rocks of Tristan and sprang a small leak. Fortunately it was able to get away and proceed to the Cape, where it arrived on 27 September. The Ternate continued its voyage to Batavia, but never sailed again.

            There is a wonderful story about the expedition of the Tonquin Merchant in 1684. British colonists in Saint Helena were looking to expand, and wanted to colonise Tristan da Cunha. People interested were promised free passage, a salary, and free supplies. According to Faustini, the ship sailed to Tristan. Captain Knox was ashore, but when he wanted to go back on board, the crew cut the cables and sailed away, leaving him behind. However, the real story is different. The incident of the crew leaving the captain behind did take place but not at Tristan. It happened in Saint Helena when the expedition was about to leave. So the expedition never took place, and the disappointed Captain Knox had to return empty-handed to England from Saint Helena.

            There are two more British voyages in the 17th century. There was a 'maybe' landing on Gough by Antoine de la Roche in 1675, and the visit of the Welfare, Kent and Rainbow in 1685.

            There was another Dutch visit which we do not often see in Tristan literature. In 1690 the French Huguenot François Leguat (after fleeing from France) sailed from Texel with the Hirondelle (in English sources named Swallow) to Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean. He saw Tristan, but a landing could not be made. Leguat became famous for his reports on now extinct birds on Rodriguez (e.g. the Dodo-like Solitaire).

            The last Dutch expedition took place in 1696. Three ships left Texel, the frigate Geelvinck, the hooker Nijptang, and the galiot 't Weseltje, under the command of Willem de Vlamingh. They were asked to look for the ship Ridderschap which had vanished after leaving the Cape, in early 1694, and to investigate Tristan da Cunha once more. The ships lost each other in bad weather, and did not arrive at Tristan together. Only the Geelvinck managed to make a landing on Nightingale, and their judgment was that, especially in winter, (they were there in August) the islands were pretty useless, because of strong winds, mist, and generally bad weather. After Tristan, they visited Amsterdam Island and St.Paul in the Indian Ocean, and eventually they reached the west coast of Australia, thinking it was the Great South Land at last!

            The Tasmanian historian Irene Schaffer wrote The Sea shall not have them (2010), about the Tasmanian descendants of Stephen and Peggy White, survivors of the famous Blenden Hall shipwreck at Inaccessible Island (see chapter 8). In an appendix about Tristan da Cunha she mentions a ship I had never heard of, the Vlaming, with Captain Francis Cheyne, visiting Tristan in 1697. This is an error. When England wanted to establish a convict colony in Australia in the second half of the 18th century, Alexander Dalrymple, hydrographer for the East India Company, suggested using Tristan da Cunha instead, as it was closer and guards would not be needed. In 1786 he wrote the pamphlet A serious Admonition to the Publick on the intended Thief Colony at Botany Bay, later re-published by George Mackeness in his series of Australian Historical Monographs (1943). Dalrymple added a description of Tristan da Cunha, which Schaffer quoted. I found Dalrymple's text on the internet (see URL in reference list). He took his description from the English Pilot for Oriental Navigation which has a footnote at the end, saying that the 'Burgomaster' (whoever that may have been) told him of Vlaming visiting the island in 1697. On the next page there is another description of Tristan from the journal of Captain Francis Cheyne. The footnote about Vlaming continues at the bottom of this page, below Cheyne's text. Schaffer mistook this as Vlaming being Cheyne's ship. The footnote actually refers to the visit of Willem de Vlamingh. In Cheyne's report, there is no name of a ship mentioned, or a year of his visit.

            The text Dalrymple quoted from the English Pilot mentions 'a strange bird that goes upright'. Perhaps this is the first description of an Island Cock?


The 18th century begins with Edmund Halley (yes, the famous one who had a comet named after him), who sailed close by with the Paramore in 1700. He attempted no landing. He saw Nightingale and Inaccessible at close range, but Tristan was hidden in clouds. Only when he was 26 miles east of Tristan did the peak suddenly appear above the clouds.

            Headland (1992) mentions the French ship St. Louis, passing Tristan in 1708, on the way from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. I am not sure whether they really saw the island, so I leave this one with a question mark.

            In 1732 the Richmond visited Diego Alvarez. Captain Gough did not know the island already had a name, so he named it after himself. Unfortunately the name stuck. The same happened with Gebroocken Eylant (Broken Island), which was visited by ignorant Captain Gamiel Nightingale, who named it after himself in 1760. And in 1767 the French Captain d'Etchevery renamed Nachtglas Island and called it Inaccessible, which is pronounced differently in French but spelled the same as in English. Not many people know that Inaccessible today actually still has a French name!

            Margareth McKay, in her book The Angry Island (1963), mentions a visit around 1775 of the French Captain D'Après de Mannevillette, who was the only one ever reporting large numbers of sea turtles on Tristan beaches. Being a biologist, I know that this is impossible. D'Après de Mannevillette wrote a description of the sea route to the East (Le Neptune Oriental, 1745, second imprint 1775), based on various ships' journals, and never visited Tristan himself. Initially I thought he had just mixed up reports from other islands, but later I found another explanation for the turtles. D'Après de Mannevillette and Alexander Dalrymple were friends and exchanged sources.  When I saw Dalrymple's description of Tristan with his strange upright bird, it reminded me of a similar bird in D'Après de Mannevillette's text. Comparing the two texts, they appeared to be virtually identical, word by word, except that in Dalrymples version the beaches were crowded with seals instead of turtles. So D'Après de Mannevillette did not mix up reports. The turtles were just a stupid translation error. It is a bit mysterious, though, that while some of Dalrymple's seals were as big as elephants, the French turtles were as big as 'veaux marins', sea cows (Lamantins), while the French word for elephant is just éléphant, as in English.

            In the French translation the English Pilot is quoted as le Pilote Anglois, which in the Dutch translation of the French became 'Engelsche Stuurman', English Mate, changing the book into a person. The upright bird became 'oiseau qui marche perpendiculairement', bird that walks perpendicular. In the Dutch translation, it had evolved into a strange bird going straight up and down. The Dutch version was the first I saw, so that bird puzzled me, but now I understand where it came from. I really think it was an Island Cock.

            D'Après de Mannevillette also quotes from the journals of l'Adelaide, l'Eclatant, and le Fendant, which visited Tristan in 1712, and escaped the notice of previous Tristan historians. I thought I was the first to discover them, but it appears that Faustini mentions them too (when I wrote my book in 1997, Faustini had not yet surfaced). D'Après de Mannevillette adds a final report from a fourth ship, Le Rouillé, which sailed around Tristan in 1755.

            Austria has never been known as a seagoing nation, establishing overseas colonies. Yet, Tristan da Cunha has been Austrian territory. In 1775 the Société Impériale Asiatique de Trieste was founded in Antwerp. In those days, Belgium was Austrian territory, ruled by Empress Maria Theresa. The firm was financed by Count Proli from Antwerp, and Willem Bolts from Amsterdam was appointed director. In 1775 Bolts sailed with the Joseph et Thérèse from London to Asia. They saw Tristan, and decided to appropriate it for the Austrian Empress. Business did not go well, so in 1781 the partners in the firm had to avoid bankruptcy by selling all their personal assets, which included non-existing real estate on Tristan. In 1785 the firm went down, but the island remained Austrian property. In all likelihood, Emperor Joseph II, who succeeded Maria Theresa in 1780, never knew this.

            Towards the end of the 18th century shipping around Tristan intensified, everybody wanting his share in oil and fur from whales and seals. Tristan got its first inhabitant, the American John Patten, captain of the Industry. Between August 1790 and April 1791 he killed 5600 Fur Seals. At the same time, Captain Colquhoun of the Betsy planted potatoes. One of the many American whalers around Tristan was the Grand Turk, which visited Tristan in 1792. On board was the eccentric Jonathan Lambert, who would return almost twenty years later to establish his private kingdom.

            1792 is also the year the first British landing took place. The Lion, Jackal and Hindostan were on their way to China, to deliver the first British Ambassador. They landed near the waterfall to get fresh drinking water. This is also the time the first serious biological research on the island took place. The French botanist Aubert du Petit Thouars, with the ship Le Courier, captain Gars, spent a couple of days ashore in 1793 collecting plants. He found many new species, several of which were named after him. He tried to climb the mountain, but halfway he found his way blocked by steep cliffs, and had to return. He did not make it in daylight and had to spend the night in the wild, soaked by rain.

            Finally I managed to find a ship that had not been listed before by Tristan writers, not even by Faustini, in The Oriental Navigator (Purdy 1816), which is largely based on the Neptune Oriental by D'Après de Mannevillette. In 1795 the Providence, Captain Broughton visited Tristan.


The French naturalist du Petit Thouars saw albatrosses, but he does not mention Moorhens. Gisela Eber used this as an argument for her conclusion that there never was a Moorhen on Tristan. John Patten (1790) on the other hand, knew them very well. He wrote (quoted by Purdy 1816 and Morrell 1832):


"Of birds, the principal were a kind of gannets, like wild geese, which the sailors considered excellent food; penguins, albatrosses, Cape cocks and hens, and a bird like a partridge, but of a black colour, which cannot fly, is easily run down, and is very well flavoured; and a variety of small birds that frequent the bushes and underwood. Abundance of birds' eggs are to be obtained in the proper season."


There is no doubt that Patten consumed the extinct flightless Moorhen of Tristan da Cunha.

see also the table of early shipping in appendix 2

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