A. B. (Alfred Burdon) Ellis.

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numerous erratic wanderings, which considerably
increased Dampier's torture, at last led him to these
drips, and so unwittingly preserved his life.

There is quite a small colony on Green Moun-
tain. About 300 feet from the summit stands
the Mountain Hospital. One hundred feet above the
hospital is the building known as Garden Cottage,
and the quarters of some twelve men, who look after
the cattle which are here kept, and attend to the
kitchen gardens. The hospital, by a polite fiction,
is considered a kind of sanitarium for the seamen of
the vessels employed on the West Coast of Africa.
To an ordinary mind, a locality in which nothing to
cat can be obtained, and to which rations have to be
regularly supplied, would appear a curious one in
which to establish a sanitarium, especially when such
an exceedingly suitable site as the island of St. Helena
is close at hand ; but it seems to satisfy the Admi-
ralty. Ascension produces nothing but turtles, rats,
and wide-awakes. The latter arc not very tempting
even when disguised by the most skilful chef;


Europeans seem to be generally prejudiced against
eating rats ; while turtle, though a very excellent
thing for invalids, aldermen, and other persons who
require fattening, is apt to become wearisome when
served up thrice daily. There are, it is said, a few
wild goats and wild cats in the more inaccessible
fastnesses of the island, but a sportsman who bags
one of the former per month is lucky ; and the latter
are not considered in the light of food. Consequently,
cattle, sheep, and vegetables have to be imported
from St. Helena ; two of the sheep are killed weekly,
usually just in time to save their lives ; a starved
bullock is slaughtered on Saturdays, and salt junk,
groceries, etc., are served out by the purser's steward.
Vegetables are the weak point of the island, and the
fortunate possessor of a bunch of carrots or a half-
crown cabbage is at once in a position to give a
sumptuous dinner. Under all these circumstances
it ought not to be so much a matter of wonder that
the fever-stricken patients from West Africa do not
recover so rapidly as the authorities seem to expect
.them to.

On arriving at the hospital I inquired of a
convalescent seaman where my friend, the surgeon,
was, and soon found him reclining in a hammock,
attired in a pair of blue serge trowsers — only that

and nothing more. He sprang up with an exclama-

D 2


tion of surprise at seeing me, shook hands, reached
down a coat from a peg and put it on, saying :

*' Excuse my not putting on a shirt, will you ? "

" Of course — of course. Take off all your clothes
if you'll feel more comfortable."

" N-no, it's not that, but the fact is that I haven't
a shirt clean enough to put on."

I could only murmur my surprise at this strange
circumstance, and endeavour to look sympathetic.
He went on :

"I dare say you think it odd that I don't have
them washed ? "

I thought that perhaps there was some difficulty
with the laundress or washerman, that he had not
paid his last bill, but I could not say that, so I
inquired :

" \Yhy don't you ? "

He then unfolded a horrible tale to the effect
that the water supply of the island consisted prin-
cipally of what was distilled by a condenser, a small
quantity being also obtained from Dampier's Drips
and Brandreth Wells. That water was always so
scarce that it was served out like the ration of rum,
only more carefully, the allowance in prosperous times
being two gallons a day per man ; and that when
clothes were sent to the wash, the water for washing
them had to be sent with them. That the condenser


had now been out of order for some nine or ten days,
and everybody on the island had been put on short
allowance ; so that they had not enough for drinking,
much less for washing, either themselves or their
clothes. I said what a charming place Ascension
seemed to be, there being nothing to do to pass the
time, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink ; and my
friend consigned the Board of Admiralty, the island,
and the engineer who oug-ht to have taken care of
the condenser, to a place which is more remote than
Jericho, but which, if clerical gentlemen may be
believed, will be visited by many more people than
that old Syrian town could accommodate.

Fresh water is the great difficulty at Ascension.
With a crew of some two hundred hands, there is no
regular supply beyond that furnished by the condenser,
which averages about 2,500 gallons a week ; that is,
barely enough for drinking and cooking purposes,
without takino; into consideration washinoj and water
for the sheep and cattle. In Break Neck Valley,
a ravine of Green Mountain, between Garden
Cottao-e and the summit of the Peak, are two
so-called wells, known as Brandreth Wells, from
the name of a lieutenant of Koyal Engineers, who
was sent to the island in 1830, to search for
water after a long-continued drought. Boring in the
bed of the ravine, the walls of which are about eighty


feet high, he penetrated a bed of volcanic scoria, and,
at the depth of some twenty-five feet, struck a thin
bed of clay which had retained the surface water.
These wells gave out about 1,100 gallons a day for
some time, and the supply then ceased and the wells
were forgotten, till in 1877, renewed drought led to
their being reopened. For a little time some 200
gallons a day were thence obtained, and then the
supply again failed ; for there is no spring or natural
head of water, and the rainfall that has been kept
back by the clay is soon exhausted. With great
labour a tunnel, nearly 200 yards long, was cut
from Garden Cottage, 400 feet from the summit of
Green Mountain, to a tank in Break Neck Valley in
which the water from the wells was collected. Pipes
were laid in this tunnel, and, by means of a wind-
mill, the water was pumped up to the main pipe
which conducts the surface water of the mountain,
and the scanty supply from Dampier's and other
Drips, to Georgetown. This main pipe very nearly
follows the course of the road, and along the whole
line are tanks to collect the drainage of the gullies
and rocky basins.

Green Mountain is, as its name betokens, adorned
with a little verdure ; but it is the only spot in
Ascension on which any vegetation may be seen.
Throughout the whole way from Georgetown, until


about half the ascent of Green Mountain is ac-
complished, not a tree or plant, and not even a single
blade of grass, relieves the eye from the monotony
of the endless cindery and lava wastes. At about
1,000 feet of elevation a few sickly-looking prickly-
pears and aloes may be perceived, a little higher a
scanty growth of grass and bushes clothes the earth,
and finally the gardens cover that shoulder of the
mountain on which the houses are built. The
indigenous plants of Ascension are said to be the
dandelion, chickweed, forget - me - not, nasturtium,
tomato. Cape gooseberry, and some ferns and mosses ;
but willows, mulberries, bananas, and guavas have
been planted, and would do well if they had more
water. The hospital has a fairly good garden of
Madagascar roses, Indian Pride, and other tropical
and English flowers ; and in the kitchen gardens a
few vegetables are raised. The whole cultivated area,
however, is little more than an acre, and the trees, as
distinguished from shrubs, are certainly under twenty
in number ; but some three thousand acres of the
mountain is sparsely covered with Bahamas grass,
gorse, wild ginger, blackberry, castor-oil shrubs, and
the indigenous plants, among which latter the nastur-
tium is the most common, the rugged slopes of some
of the ravines being fairly ablaze with its deep orange-
red flowers. After long-continued drought this area


of vegetation becomes greatly circumscribed, and has
been known to be reduced by one-half.

My friend the surgeon was apparently a
misogynist of the deepest dye, for he told me many
amusing anecdotes concerning squabbles which had
taken place amongst the ladies, who had been
graciously permitted by the Admiralty to share their
husbands' exile. According to him, one captain of
the *' tender," who held the opinion that women were
like negative quantities in mathematics, inasmuch
that the more there were of them the less they were
worth, was so perplexed how to deal with a spirit
of insubordination manifested by the female portion
of the crew, that he was driven to resign his
command. Some tyro, indeed, advised that the
husband should be held responsible and punished
for the ofifences of the wife ; but the captain knew
that that plan, so far from acting as a restraint,
would rather encourage insubordination, and wisely
rejected the proffered advice. My friend also said
that in Georgetown society the wife took precedence
according to the rank of her husband ; the wife of
the captain lording it over the commander's helpmate,
and the latter lady snubbing the better-half of the
lieutenant. An island tradition says, that there was
once a great dispute between two ladies as to which
had the better right to the front pew at church.


This knotty point could not be settled by referring
to the status of the husbands, for both were of the
same standing, one being in the marines and the
other in the Navy. The captain was consequently
called upon to settle the question, and that born
diplomatist craftily decided that it should be settled
by the age of the disputants, the elder to occupy the
front pew and the younger the second one. This
decision was conveyed to them ; next Sunday both
ladies appeared in the second pew, and the vexed
question of precedence was henceforth buried between

From the hospital to the summit of Green Moun-
tain, one ascends by a narrow ridge, having on the
right the precipitous cliff of Break Neck Valley, and
on the left an abrupt descent to the lava-covered
plain below. This ridge, fringed with blackberries,
gorse, guavas, and other shrubs, leads to the Peak
itself, where another attempt to increase the water
supply of the island has been made by covering a
saucer-like depression with cement, for the collection
of the dew. Here there is also a small plantation
of trees, all of which are dwarfed, for though the
black soil is unusuallv rich, the strong winds which
whistle over this exposed spot, effectually stunt their
growth and prevent them thriving.

Green Mountain is surrounded by rugged peaks


of less elevation, having between them deep ravines,
filled with pumice and volcanic scoria. Gazing down-
wards on the island one sees nothing but the traces
of volcanic action, harsh, rugged, and forbidding,
and unsoftened, even in the deepest ravines, by any
screen of vegetation. On all sides the direction
taken by the old lava floods in their course to the
sea can be distinctly traced, and the tumuli of some
forty extinguished craters are plainly discernible.
In every direction, except at one point to the east,
where the spur of Green Mountain known as the
Weather Post intercepts the view, the surf-beaten
shores of the island can be seen. To the south the
red sugar-loaves of Red Hill and Gannet Hill are
prominent objects, to the north extends a cindery
waste, broken here and there by the little red cones
of the craters ; while to the west are Riding School,
Dark Stone, and Horse Shoe Craters, beyond which
the ashy desert, covered with lava-blocks, and known
as Waterloo Plains, extends to the sea.

On the eastern plateau of Green Mountain,
between the Peak and the Weather Post, lies Cricket
Valley, so named from the number of chirping insects
which are there found. It is a tank-like hollow,
about 1,100 yards in length, walled in on all sides
by almost vertical clifls averaging some 300 feet in
height. In its neighbourhood are traces of the action


of considerable bodies of water, and the surface of
this plateau is broken by the depressions of the beds
of parched-up lakes, a curious contrast to the
remainder of Ascension, in the formation of which
fire appears to have been the only agent employed.

I saw some animals on Green Mountain which I
was told were cows ; they were apparently in a
moribund condition, and w^ould have made splendid
anatomical studies, for they were nearly half-starved,
and never had sufficient to drink. When first brought
on board the " tender " these animals supply a small
quantity of milk, a beverage considered by the crew
to be unwholesome in itself, and prone to produce
internal spasms unless generously diluted with rum.
It is usually kept for the patients in the hospital ;
but, on the rare occasions upon which there is a
surplus, it is sent down to Georgetown on a mule, to
be sold. A bell is rung at seven in the morning to
announce that the unusual luxury is for sale, and the
female portion of the crew send out hastily to
purchase ; but, to prevent any wealthy aristocrat
monopolising the whole stock, usually about two
pints, no person is allowed to buy more than one
gill. After a lengthened sojourn on the "tender"
the cows cease to supply milk ; they are then trans-
formed into beef in turn, and served out as rations.

During another visit to Ascension I made an


excursion to EidiDg School Crater, which lies about
three miles to the south-east of Georo:etown. It is a
round hill, about 900 yards in diameter, having at
its summit a saucer-like depression which occupies
its whole area, merely leaving an encircling wall,
varying in height from three feet at its lowest point
to about thirty feet at its highest. This hill owes
its renown to the broad rings of various colours,
which crop up at different depths in the bed of the
basin. Kound the edge of the enclosed hollow is a
broad white band, like the hoof- trodden course of a
circus, and from which the name of " Riding School " is
derived ; next to this is a circle of a darker hue, then
a ring of a light sandy colour, and finally a central
circular area of the colour of broken bricks. Darwin,
in his journal of the countries visited in the voyage
of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, says that the Riding
School Crater is not a crater at all ; and accounts
for the rings of different strata by saying that
the hollow has, at various times, been nearly filled up
by successive layers of ashes and scoriae of difierent
colours. These showers of ashes of course fell equally
over the surrounding portions of the island ; but not
there having the shelter of the encircling wall, were
soon blown away, while the layers inside were
hardened and consolidated by rain.

He does not inform us how this hill with a bowl


at its summit, ready for the retention of ashes, came
to be formed ; but, if I might venture to put forward
a theory, I should say that it was the work of a
gigantic geyser. Geysers invariably rise out of
spacious basins at the summits of circular mounds,
which mounds are themselves composed of the
silicious incrustations deposited from the spray of
the water. Now Riding School Crater hill, as well
as the wall encircling the basin, unlike all the hills
and similar walls in its vicinity, which are composed
of the brick-red lava of the island, consists of gray
silicious stones, containing, a geologist informs me,
silica, potash, and alumina. These stones are closely
and firmly united, and the hill is not, like its neigh-
bours, a mere heap of loose detritus. In the course
of ages, the silicious incrustations of a geyser would,
under certain conditions, solidify into such stone ;
and the theory gains additional support from the
numerous little mud-cones, from one to two feet in
height, which rise from the floor of the hollow, and
which are like similar mud-cones which appear in the
geysers of Iceland. The hill is besides of less eleva-
tion and of greater area than the truncated-cone-like
mounds in its vicinity.

The volcanic hills surroundins;; Ridinsj; School
Crater are of much more recent formation, and the
latter was sensibly ajffected by the great subterranean


convulsions which caused the formation of the former ;
for veins of lava, containing a large quantity of iron,
have been forced up from below through the fissures
of the gray stone, inclined at every possible angle,
and about one inch in thickness. Some of these veins
present the most curious appearance, and in one
place is a circular piece, resting upon a central
pedestal of gray stone, like a gigantic mushroom,
and sufficiently large to admit of two people shelter-
ing under it. The lava, being harder than the
silicious stone, has better withstood the action of
denudation, and it projects like shelves in places
where the vein is horizontal; while where it is
vertical, or inclined at an angle, it stands up two or
three feet above the surface of the ground.

The craters surrounding that of Riding School are
true craters. They are seven or eight in number,
and the largest ones near at hand are The Ring,
Dark Stone, and Horse Shoe Craters ; while more to
the south are Red Hill, Round Hill, Booby Hill,
Saddle Crater, and South Gannet Hill. Nearly all
of these are worn away on the south-eastern side,
they are composed entirely of scoria, and the en-
circling walls, from twenty to fifty feet in height,
enclose basins with level beds.

Among the curious things generally shown to the
visitor to Georgetown, are the fossil turtle eggs,


wMcli are found imbedded in the limestone that is

being rapidly formed at the sandy bays of the island.

Concerning these, Sir Charles Lyell says in his

"Principles of Geology," Vol. II. p. 580: "Some

singular fossils have been discovered in the island

of Ascension in a stone said to be continually forming

on the beach, where the waves throw up small rounded

fragnaents of shells and corals, which, in the course

of time, become firmly agglutinated together, and

constitute a stone largely used for building and

making lime. In a quarry on the north-western side

of the island, about 100 yards from the sea, some

fossil eggs of turtles Jiave been discovered in the hard

rock thus formed. The eggs must have been nearly

hatched at the time when they perished ; for the

bones of the young turtle are seen in the interior

with their shape fully developed, the interstices

between the bones being entirely filled with grains

of sand, which are cemented together." The popular

belief in Ascension is that this rock forms so rapidly,

that the turtles' eggs buried in the sand are cemented

into it before the sun has time to hatch them. At

this rate, something less than two months would be

all the time required to transform loose particles of

shells and sand into solid rock ; but it is much more

probable that the eggs, from some cause or another,

probably the action of the waves, become buried so


deeply in the sand while the process of incubation is
going on, that the rays of the sun cannot penetrate
with sufficient power to perfect them, and the embryo
or foetus in each, as the case may be, dies from lack
of heat. The limestone is found at the depth of
from three to five feet in the sand, and the turtle
does not bury its eggs more than eighteen inches
deep ; there is, however, no doubt but that the rock
does form with marvellous rapidity, and careful
observers state the period required for the cementing
of fragments to be only one year.

To the south of Eiding School Crater is a
broken and rocky tract called Wide-awake Fair,
because the Wide-awakes, or Terns, which visit
Ascension in thousands every seven or eight months
to breed, there deposit their eggs. I was not
fortunate enough to see one of these gatherings, but
I was told that two or three hundred eggs were
usually collected daily, and were much appreciated
by the crew of the tender. The Wide-awake lays
only one egg, and it is said that if it be taken away
she lays another, and so continues until she has
succeeded in getting one hatched out. Thus each
pair of birds remains in the island until they have
a young one old enough to fly away with them,
and as those which have several eggs taken away
from them in succession naturally stay longer than


those who are more fortunate, the idea has arisen
that the birds visit the island at irregular intervals.

To the south of Georgetown, a little beyond
the cemetery, is the " Blow-hole ; " where, at each
successive shock of the in-rolling waves, the water
spouts up fifteen or twenty feet high from a circular
shaft in the flat rock, about a foot in diameter, which
communicates with some subterranean passage ; and,
when the rollers are in, the display is very fine.
The cause of these rollers at Ascension is a vexed
question amongst scientific men. Those on the
Guinea coast are said to be due to the piling up of
the sea waters by the configuration of the African
coast-line, as it sweeps in to form the Gulf of Guinea,
and the heavy surf is only found between the limits
of Cape Mesurado and the Cameroons Mountains ;
but no such theory will explain the phenomenon
at Ascension. As in West Africa, the surf has
nothing to do with local bad weather, for the sea
may be perfectly calm when the succession of high
waves will commence rolling towards the island
from the south, to break on the beach in a tre-
mendous surf, in which no boat could live. The
same heavy swell sets in on the southern coast of
St. Helena, and it may be due to the sudden shallow-
ing of the ocean on the shores of the two islands,
which are as mere specks in the vast waste of waters



of immense depth. By different hydrographers the
rollers have been attributable to earthquakes, distant
storms, and lunar attraction, while a more recent
theory ascribes them to the displacement of water
caused by the falling of masses of ice, several miles
in length, into the Antarctic Ocean. To the un-
scientific mind this theory seems to be as unsatis-
factory as all the previous ones ; for, unless the
locality in which these ice-slips take place be limited
to the longitudes of St. Helena and Ascension, one
would expect to find rollers on the southern coasts
of Australia, South America, and the Cape of Good
Hope ; and as the summer heats would presumably
produce the same effect all over the Antarctic Region,
there does not seem to be any reason for so limiting

To return to lighter subjects ; an American,
whose acquaintance I had made at the Diamond
Fields, and who was returning to England in the
same steamer with me, gave me an amusing account
of his reception at Ascension. I cannot vouch
for the strict accuracy of his story, but I tell it as
it was told to me. He had gone on board the
island, and was walking past the barracks in George-
town, when he nearly stumbled against a fair young
naval officer of forty, with flaxen whiskers, who came
suddenly out of a building. The officer raised his


eye-glass, looked at the American with astonishment,
and, before the latter had time to commence an
apology, called out :

" Simmons."

A voice replied, " Ay ay, sir ! " from the interior
of the building, and a bearded seaman appeared on
the scene. The officer continued :

" Simmons, do you know what this person wants,
or who he is ? "

" No, sir ; I can't say, I'm sure, sir."

This absence of ceremoniousness aroused the latent
spread-eagleism of my friend, and he began : '' Sir, I

am a citizen of the United ," when the naval

man, who appeared to be unaware that he was
speaking, interrupted him, and asked :

" Simmons, do you think he is a stowaway ? "

" Can't say, sir, I'm sure, sir," replied the im-
perturbable Simmons.

" Is there a merchant steamer at anchor there ? "

"Yes, sir. Cape mail, sir."

" Well, Simmons, just go to the officer of the
watch, and ask if he has given permission to any

person to board us. And, er , see what this

person wants."

The American, now very angry, again began :

*' Sir, I am ," when he was again interrupted by

the officer, who said :

B 2


"Simmons, I am ensfaofed now. I cannot see
this person. Perhaps you had better take him to
the officer of the watch." And he went off before
my friend could launch all the terrors of the United
States at his head.

The seaman grinned respectfully when his com-
mander's back was turned, said, " This way, sir, if

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Online LibraryA. B. (Alfred Burdon) EllisWest African islands → online text (page 3 of 22)