Synopsis of

Het Waterhoentje van Tristan da Cunha

A.J. Beintema, 1997. Atlas, Amsterdam. 496 p, 16 p colour photographs, numerous b/w ill. ISBN 90 254 22411 NUGI 470.

Suggested English title: 'The Island Cock of Tristan da Cunha'

Tristan da Cunha, about halfway Cape Town and Buenos Aires, on the edge of the Roaring Forties, is the most isloted inhabited island in the entire world, and can only be reached by schip, a few times a year. It is not easily visited. Originally only inhabited by seals, penguins, petrels, albatrosses, and some peculiar land birds, the island now has 300 human inhabitants, mostly descending from whalers and shipwrecked sailors, who came to the island in the 19th Century.

About 25 years ago the author devoted part of his biological education at Amsterdam University to the zoogeography of the rich and varied seabird fauna of Tristan da Cunha, in preparation of an expedition to the island, which never took place. In old literature he came accross the extinct, flightless moorhen of Tristan da Cunha, the 'Island Cock'. This moorhen was described in 1861, and declared extinct within two decades. Only two specimens remain, both in the British Museum.

Twentieth Century scientist cast doubt upon the Island Cock, as an indistinguishable flighless moorhen survives on Gough Island, 250 miles SE of Tristan. The two so-called Tristan specimens were thought to have been taken on Gough, and the Island Cock was said to never have existed. The author listed the available eyewitness accounts from Tristan, from as early as 1791, and the record of specimens, which have regularly been taken before 1861, but were lost. Thus, in a scientific paper in 1972, he rehabilitated the Island Cock.

In 1973 live moorhens were found on Tristan. These are generally believed to be descendants from seven moorhens from Gough Island, which were released on Tristan in 1956. But, since moorhens from Tristan and Gough were indistinguishable, the author argues that there is a possibility that the birds on Tristan are genuine surviving Island Cocks.

In 1993 the author visited Tristan at last, where he observed the present day Island Cocks, which have increased in number, and expanded their range on the island since 1973. The islanders claim that the birds are harmful to the beautiful and elegant yellow-nosed albatross, by preying upon their eggs. They say that Island Cocks operate in pairs: one bird distracts the incubating albatross, while the partner stealthily comes from behind, puncturing the egg while the albatross is sitting on it. Outside Tristan nobody believes this story.

The book Het Waterhoentje van Tristan da Cunha is divided into two parts: the first part deals with past history and the events leading to the author's visit to Tristan da Cunha, the second part concentrates on his actual visit to the island.

Part 1

The first part of the book not only deals with the past history of the Island Cock and the author's involvement, but also with the history of the island itself and its people. The author presents a lot of new, important, hitherto unpublished information on early visitors to Tristan, especially in the 17th and 18th Century.

The first part also gives the best stories from the colourful history of Tristan's inhabitants, its visitors, and shipwrecks in later centuries. It also deals extensively with the ecology and natural history of Tristan, more recent expeditions to the islands, and the involvement of various people from the 'Outside World', like Jan Brander.

Jan Brander was a Dutch geography teacher who was interested in whaling. When he found that the Dutchman Pieter Groen from Katwijk aan Zee was one of the first settlers on Tristan, and for more than 60 years was the most prominent islander, he started to do research on Tristan history, and wrote the first comprehensive history book on the island, which was published in 1940.

When in 1935 the Dutch submarine K-VIII touched Tristan, and reported on the healthy state of the islanders, except for a nasty, chronical cough, Brander collected 750 pairs of Dutch wooden shoes. Huge crates filled with clogs were shipped to Tristan, to enable the islanders to keep their feet dry. The stories around the submarine, Brander, the clogs, Pieter Groen's background and other things, are generally not know, and have not previous- ly been treated in Tristan Literature outside the Netherlands.

Part 2

The second part of the book deals with the island in its present state. As an ecologist and ornithologist, the author describes visits to various parts of the island, including the 2060 m high summit of the volcano, but also his experiences with island people, and their island customs. Their economy today is based upon potato's, rock lobsters and stamps.

The elderly people on Tristan remembered the wooden shoes from Brander, but most of them did not think they were very useful. The clogs certainly did not cure their cough, which we now know to be a hereditary form of astma. A Canadian geneticist, who visited Tristan at the same time as the author, is now hunting for the responsible gene.

The author also brings the spectacular shipwreck record of the island up to date, and, last but not least tells about his experiences with Island Cocks and albatrosses, and their mysteries that have to remain unsolved.

Copyright A.J. Beintema, February 1997