Early shipping in Tristan da Cunha waters

Albert J. Beintema

Tristan's modern history starts in 1790, when the first more or less permanent settlers (Patten c.s.) came ashore, and (apart from the evacuation in 1961) Tristan never was uninhabited again. Before that time, not many ships visited Tristan, and many of those who did, were Dutch.

We do not know how many Portuguese ships sighted or visited Tristan da Cunha in the 16th century, after its discovery in 1506 by admiral Tristão da Cunha. The discovery of Gough (formerly named Diego Alvarez) is not documented, but Nigel Wace, in his article The discovery, exploitation and settlement of the Tristan da Cunha Islands (Proc. Royal Geogr. Soc. of Australia, S. Austr. Branch, vol 70, 1969) argues that it may have been seen already in 1505 by the Portuguese Gonçalo Alvarez, and that the island in fact was named after him (the name Gonçalo Alvarez later being corrupted into Diego Alvarez). In Rozell C. Smith's The Ships of Tristan da Cunha, a listing 1506-1991 (Page, Dartford, 1991) a Portuguese fleet is mentioned, visiting Tristan in 1583.

The first non-Portuguese ship arrived at Tristan in 1601, and it was Dutch (Bruinvis, skipper Westzanen). We may well call the 17th century the 'Dutch Period' in Tristan history. I know of at least 18 Dutch ships around Tristan or Gough during that period, against only six others (5 British, 1 French). By contrast, in the 18th century there were no Dutch visits at all. Tristan visitors were British, French (there even was an Austrian), and American. Being Dutch myself, I have a special interest in the 'Dutch Period'.

With respect to the early Dutch visits, most Tristan books or ships' listings heavily rely on Jan Brander's book Tristan da Cunha, 1506-1901 (Allen & Unwin, London, 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 excercise, 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. (Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag, 1979), which sums op over 4700 outgoing voyages of the Dutch East India Company. It mentions the following 'unknown' visits to Tristan:

These visits are also mentioned in Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events, by Headland (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992), with reference to Bruijn et al. However, I found out 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 got 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 touched Tristan.

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 very literally 'touched' Tristan: 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 could get away, and proceed to the Cape, where it arrived on 27 September. The Ternate continued its voyage to Batavia, but never sailed since.

I also checked some incomplete records of 'known' visitors, like Jacob Speckx in 1628, where Brander does not name a ship. Actually, 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.

I have no news to add to what is already known about the Bruinvis, Heemstede, 't Nachtglas, Graveland, Grundel, Geelvinck, Nijptangh, and Weseltje, but I read some of their reports, and give detailed accounts in my book (these ships can also be found in most existing books on Tristan).

When digging into Speckx, I found a 'true new' visitor: Artus Gijsels, who was sent as governor to Ambon, with the Deventer, Middelburg, and Hof van Holland. On 3 August 1930 he saw the islands of Tristan. Like Speckx the year before, he was impressed by their beauty and ruggedness, but he attempted no landing.

A 'new' visitor to Gough comes from the report of the Grundel. After visiting Tristan (1969) the Grundel searched for Diego Alvarez (the old name for Gough) in vain, at the 38th parallel. Therefore, the captain concluded that twelve years earlier Van Goens, who saw an island at 40 degrees, of which nobody believed that it could have been Diego Alvarez, must have seen that island after all! So I dug up 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.

Wace mentions 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).

There are few 17th Century non-Dutch visitors. There is one French visit (Vautour in 1676, mentioned by Headland), and three possible British visits: the Globe in 1610 (allegedly the first British sighting of Tristan), a 'maybe' landing on Gough by Antoine de la Roche in 1675 (mentioned by Wace, quoted from Wace by Headland), and the Welfare, Kent and Rainbow in 1685. Speaking of 'maybe' visits, I would like to cast some doubt on the visit of the Globe in 1610. The report only says that they must have been close to land: 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. It does not mention actual sighting of the island.

To conclude the 17th Century, I would like to mention two non-visitors. According to Brander, 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. In Rozell C. Smith's The Ships of Tristan da Cunha, a listing 1506-1991 (Page,Dartford, 1991) there is mention of 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, I conclude that this is a duplication, 1628 being misread or misprinted as 1626.

For the 18th Century, I only wish to treat a non-visitor, and three French ships new to Tristan literature. Margareth McKay, in her book The Angry Island (Barker, London, 1963), mentions a visit around 1775 of the French captain Daprès de Mannevilette, who was the only one ever reporting large numbers of sea turtles on Tristan beaches. Being a biologist, I know that this is impossible. Daprès de Mannevilette wrote a description of the sea route to the East (Le Neptune Oriental, 1769), based on various ships' journals. There is no indication that he visited Tristan himself, and apparently he mixed up reports from other islands. Part of his description is very much correct, however, and quoted from the journals of l'Adelaide, l'Eclatant, and le Fendant, who visited Tristan in 1711, and escaped notice of previous Tristan historians.

Below I give an update of the ships visiting Tristan or Gough before 1800 (? means visit uncertain. Po = Portugal, Nl = Netherlands, Br = Britain, Fr = France, Au = Austria, US = United States of America). Visitors to Tristan may also have visited Gough. Towards the end of the 19th Century, there also have been a great many unrecorded visits of whalers, often from the US.

  Year  ships and captains                            from  to
  1505  Gonçalo Alvarez                               Po    Gough?
  1506  Capitão Mor, Santiago, Tristão da Cunha       Po    Tristan
  1583  fleet                                         Po    Tristan
  1601  Bruinvis, Willem van Westzanen                Nl    Tristan
  1610  Globe, Pieter Florisz., Anthony Hippon        Br    Tristan?
  1629  Hollandia, Der Goes, Westzaenen,
        Oostzaenen, Jacob Speckx                      Nl    Tristan
  1630  Deventer, Middelburg, Hof van Holland,
        Artus Gijsels                                 Nl    Tristan
  1643  Heemstede, Bierenbroodspot van Hoorn          Nl    Tristan
  1656  't Nachtglas, Jan Jacobsz.                    Nl    Tristan
  1657  Orangie, Van Goens                            Nl    Gough
  1669  Grundel, Gerritz. Riddermuis                  Nl    Tristan
  1675  Antoine de la Roche                           Br    Gough?
  1676  Vautour                                       Fr    Tristan
  1681  Ternate, Gerritz.                             Nl    Tristan
  1685  Welfare, Kent, Rainbow                        Br    Tristan
  1690  Hirondelle, Valleau, François Leguat          Nl    Tristan
  1696  Geelvinck, Nijptang, Wezeltje,
        Willem de Vlaming                             Nl    Tristan
  1700  Paramore, Edmund Halley                       Br    Tristan
  1708  St. Louis                                     Fr    Tristan?
  1711  l'Adelaide, l'Eclatant, le Fendant,
        Housfaije, le Chevalier                       Fr    Tristan
  1732  Richmond, Gough                               Br    Gough
  1758  Osterly, Vincent                              Br    Gough
  1760  Gamiel Nightingale                            Br    Tristan
  1767  Etoile du Matin, l'Heure du Berger,
        d'Etchevery, Sieur Donat                      Fr    Tristan
  1775  Joseph et Thérèse, Bolts                      Au    Tristan
  1777  Cormorant, Rippon, Vernon                     Br    Tristan
  1790  Betsy, Colquhoun                              US    Tristan
  1790  Industry, Patten                              US    Tristan
  1791  Philadelphia, Cahoone                         US    Tristan
  1791  Warren, Smith                                 US    Tristan
  1792  Grand Turk, Hodges                            US    Tristan
  1792  Lion, Hindostan, Jackal, Gower                Br    Tristan
  1792  General Elliott                               Br    Tristan
  1793  Le Courier, Le Gars                           Fr    Tristan
  1794  Essex                                         Br    Tristan
  1799  Sally, Péron                                  Fr    Tristan

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