The Ghosts of Tristan da Cunha
Folklore is an insidious thing. Even without studying it, it bleeds into our daily lives, shaping our beliefs, our language, our actions. We carry our folklore in our heritage, syncretizing it with legends of the land, cosmologies preceding our own by thousands of years.
But what happens when we find ourselves in a land which never yielded itself to human habitation?
Tristan da Cunha’s isolation is infamous. The archipelago sits smack dab in the middle of the South Atlantic, 1,732 miles west of Cape Town, 1,514 miles from Saint Helena. To reach it, visitors typically set sail from South Africa, braving rough seas for two-and-a-half weeks before finally making landfall at the most remote inhabited island in the world. Today, it is one of 14 UK overseas territories.
Tristan da Cunha was discovered—we can, for once, rightly say discovered, as addressed momentarily—in 1506 by Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha. The first successful landing by Europeans occurred in 1643, but it wasn’t until 1810 that American Jonathan Lambert became the island’s first permanent settler. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1815 exile to “nearby” Saint Helena, the British annexed the islands the next year to prevent sympathizers from using Tristan da Cunha as a base of operations for an escape plan.
Despite the location’s inhospitality, 270 full-time residents dwell today within the territory’s sole village, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. The population can trace its heritage back to 15 outside ancestors. They primarily depend upon a novel form of communally-owned subsistence agriculture, with exports of lobster and tourism providing distant secondary economic support. Images from Tristan da Cunha wouldn’t be out-of-place in a UK travelogue: pastoral green hills precariously fringing a rocky seashore, pastures of docile livestock, plots of potatoes, quaint roads navigated best on bicycles darting to-and-fro between small, stone cottages and the island’s two churches, school, or sole pub.
Yet only a portion of the 38-square-mile main island is suitable for farming, as a still-active volcano dominates the landscape, rising over 6,500 feet above sea level. Residents live under perpetual threat from the elements—not only did the volcano force an island-wide evacuation in 1961, but in 2001 an extratropical cyclone ravaged the shores with winds up to 120 mph.
THE GHOSTS OF TRISTAN DA CUNHA
The island’s rich history reads like something out of an adventure novel (indeed, Jules Verne set a chapter of In Search of the Castaways there). Ethnographers have chronicled much of Tristan da Cunha’s culture, its isolation birthing a unique dialect and music & dance tradition. Yet—after an admittedly cursory search—little information regarding their superstitions and paranormal encounters can be found.
Certainly there must be ghost stories from the island, but I haven’t stumbled across any yet. Maybe there are UFO sightings, too, or sea serpents, but those are equally scarce. I find it hard to believe, given the settlers’ heritage and the close relationship they are forced to sustain with the land, that there isn’t a faerie tradition. It all poses a confounding question: does anything paranormal happen on Tristan da Cunha?
When describing paranormal phenomena, wise Forteans not only draw upon contemporary accounts, but look into the historical record, folklore, and indigenous belief. Is there anything to be mined there regarding Tristan da Cunha?
Refreshingly, we can talk about Tristan da Cunha free of the usual, hideous colonial baggage. There was no indigenous population for occupiers to murder or supplant on Tristan da Cunha, nor is there any indication it featured in pre-colonial imagination at all. Certainly someone found their way to its shores at some point, but it remains one of the true places on Earth that can rightly be called virgin territory. No folklore stretches into antiquity, no god watches from the volcano’s summit, no monsters prowled its shores. The island simply is, and was.
The questions multiply. Is Tristan da Cunha the least paranormal place on Earth? Did its settlers bring any supernatural folklore with them? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound—in other words, if the paranormal occurs and no one is around to observe it, does it happen at all? Do nature spirits, difficult enough to encounter in cultures that assert their reality, remain even more reclusive in the absence of supporting belief?
Do scientists at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station—over four times more populous than the whole of Tristan da Cunha—experience the paranormal? Or does there have to be a history there? Do millennia of beliefs have to accrete to generate a belief that self-sustains over successive generations?
It’s the same problem we’ll run into if we ever colonize another planet: extinct extraterrestrial races notwithstanding, are there ghosts on Mars? If so, are they from where we settle, or are they phantoms of our own making?
I don’t know. I fully believe the paranormal has walked alongside us since time immemorial, a traveling companion inseparable from humanity itself. There have to be spirits on Tristan da Cunha, but no one can say their true nature. To that end, it’s a minor bucket list item to visit the island with the sole purpose of documenting the inhabitants’ paranormal experiences and folklore. It’s a big gamble—I can imagine, given my luck, 18 days at sea to arrive and find the place dead-as-a-doornail—but would be absolutely fascinating. I’ll likely never make it (I have plenty of other places I need to visit first), but who knows? Maybe someday. As a parting shot, anyone looking for a research project is welcome to dig a little deeper than I have. If you find anything, send me a message. I’d love to collaborate on something like this someday, either as a book or a series of blog posts: chronicling paranormal belief in its nascent stages as it arises in the absence of indigenous lore and imported folk belief.
A kind commenter on Facebook's Tristan da Cunha page pointed me in the direction of policeman and former chief islander Conrad Glass's Rockhopper Copper (UK: Polperro Heritage Press, 2005). Glass is the descendant of William Glass, "founder and first governor of the colony"—who, judging from his tombstone, was a Mason (this isn't my bailiwick, but I'm sure some of my colleagues will get a kick out of that). Glass relates the following, indicating the island indeed has a ghost story tradition:
To finish off the evening, I tell the children some of the legends of Tristan—of the pirates and ghosts that were said to haunt the island. Looking at their faces, I can see that they are enraptured by the story. Some glance furtively behind into the darkness, half expecting to see the bogeyman appear.
He later relates the late 1800s story of one Samuel Johnson, "a Dane from one of the whaling ships that called at Tristan," husband to "William Glass’s eldest daughter." Johnson was gathering kelp to compost for the potato plots in winter (June/July) in defiance of Glass's order that no work should be carried out on Sunday. Johnson overnighted in a hut at an area called "Below the Hill," seeking to begin his harvest later that evening. As he passed the time relaxing in the hut's hammock, he noticed:
... what sounded like something or someone dragging a chain over the stones of the gable. Suddenly there was a mighty puff of wind that came down the chimney and blew out the fire, spreading ashes over the floor. Putting it down to a gust of wind, Johnson got up and poked the fire, put on a few more logs and again had the fire blazing away, setting back in to his hammock.
After a few moments the same thing occurred, but this time Johnson was wide awake. There was no mistaking the clanking of chains on stone; again the fire went out, blown by a gust of wind. This time Johnson got up. The hairs were starting to stand up at the back of his head. He again lit the fire and his candle. Putting it into its holder, he went outside to look around. He did not see anything, although the moon was just rising over the top of Goat Ridge. Going back into the hut he secured the door firmly and again, settled back into the hammock.
The chains began rattling again, this time accompanied by the sensation of something brushing against the hammock, the candle extinguishing, and the door to the hut slamming. Convinced this was punishment for working on a Sunday, Johnson frightfully set out to return home. On the way:
... he saw a white ghostly apparition coming towards him, about 10 metres away. As fright turned to fear, he ran for his life, back to the village. All the way home Johnson could hear the clanking behind him, getting forever closer. As he neared Jenny’s Watron, he felt that that was how far the ghost would come, for he had been told that a spirit never crosses a stream. Well, he was wrong, so very wrong. When he leapt the stream, the ghost leapt right beside him, out of the corner of his eye he saw again the white apparition, and heard the clank of chains. This spurned him to run even faster.
As Johnson reached the gully called ‘Joe’s Hollow’ a few yards from Hottentot Gulch, the ghost appeared to turn up the gully towards the mountain. Moments later, he was at Glass’s house hammering at the door. Glass opened the door to find Johnson foaming from the mouth; he was so out of breath. He collapsed in the doorway.
It wasn't until a month later that Johnson was able to relate the entire ordeal. We may perceive in this story a number of hallmarks of UK ghost stories, particularly the infraction of working on a Sunday, a white figure, the sound of chains, and the storied association with ghosts and mountains (presumably the island's volcano, in this instance). There is also the allusion to Old World ghost/faerie/vampire belief that streams cannot be crossed, although it certainly didn't deter Johnson's phantom.
This is an excellent start. Hopefully more stories emerge.