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Tristan Da Cunha 1961

October 1961, the island of Tristan da Cunha, in mid Atlantic, was threatening to blow up.

The island was largely extinct volcano, but for some time it started to rumble and then a mild eruption occurred.

The island had been inhabited since the early nineteenth century.  It was decided to evacuate the inhabitants.  Ships were sent to pick up the small population.

On October 9th, 1961 a “bubble” of earth 15 metres across and 3 metres high, rose about 300 metres east of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas settlement on the island of Tristan da Cunha.  The authorities decided that the islanders should be evacuated and the population were told to take their families to the potato patches about five kilometres from the settlement, where they were to spend the night in the open.

The following morning it was found that the bubble, which had become much bigger, was an active volcanic cone.

An attempt was made to leave the island from the small beach below the potato patches, but the sea was too dangerous, and the islanders went back across the plateau, through the threatened settlement and past the rapidly growing cone to Little Beach, where the evacuation took place.

Tristan da Cunha Island

Image by Chris&Steve via Flickr

Four island longboats were used to take the islanders to the fishing vessels “Tristania” and “Frances Repetto”.

By midday everybody had been taken off and, with the longboats in tow, the rescue boats made for Nightingale island, about 30 kilometres away.  During the night the refugees were informed that the Netherlands liner “Tjisadane” would take all the evacuees to Cape Town.

The evacuees were feted in Cape Town and on October 20th they left Cape Town en route for Southampton in the ocean liner RMMV “Stirling Castle”.

The people of Tristan da Cunha were people with unusual origins. Most of the early occupants of the island seemed to have arrived as a result of shipwrecks.   Later, the island was visited by a Royal Navy ship and some of the settlers asked the captain if he could arrange for some women to be brought to the island.  After quite a while some women were brought from the Caribbean.

These women formed the original families with the men and the small population lived in some isolation for almost a hundred and fifty years.  They had received regular supplies and were stocked with sheep and cattle, but there were few new people who came to join them.  As a result, there was intense intermarriage which does not seem to have caused any problems.

On November 3rd, we went to Southampton Docks to meet them on the “Stirling Castle” and we were quite surprised by what we saw.  It was if they had walked out of a time capsule.  They were reluctant to speak to anyone, except among themselves, although some of the younger members of the group were keen to talk to anyone.  It was if they had come straight out of Pickwick Papers in general and Sam Weller in particular.  Sam called himself Veller and in general conversation would mix up his Vs and Ws.  Apparently this was quite common in the days of Dickens.  The islanders spoke in exactly the same way.

The entire population of the island was 292.  They only had about seven or eight surnames between them.  The older people wanted to get back to the island as soon as possible while many of the younger ones, having seen the bright lights of civilisation, wanted to remain in England.  In the meanwhile they were all housed in a hurriedly prepared former military establishment at Pendell Camp, Merstham, Surrey.

We would hear more of them.  Eventually, when the volcano had calmed, the majority of them went back.  However a number of the younger people decided to stay.

The island of Tristan da Cunha was left abandoned for quite some time.  Dick Clark, Head of UPI part of United Press Movietone Television, was approached by a Danish explorer and author.  His name was Arne Falk Ronne.  He told Dick that he had been to Tristan da Cunha and had done some filming.  He wished to sell the film and he offered it “sight unseen” to Dick who snapped it up for $500.

The film was developed and sent to the cutting room for editing by the UPMT film editors.  There were four or five editors and they all looked at it in turn and decided that it was impossible to edit.  The problem was that this highly intelligent cameraman had shot the whole thing with extremely short shots.  This was the second time that I had experienced such a phenomenon, that is, viewing material that consisted of extremely short shots, some as little as a third of a second.  In both cases, the film had been shot by a highly educated man.

One had to ask: Why would someone press the start button on a camera for a third of a second and expect a scene much longer to be recorded ?  Weird !
Dick was in despair and asked me to look at it.  I looked at it and found that the film did, indeed, consist of lots of short shots.  However, I thought that I could get something out of it.

The difference between me and the UPMT editors was that I had been used to handling several thousand feet of film to produce a thirty-minute documentary, whereas they we were used to receiving 400 feet, or less, to produce an item of less than 100 feet.

In order not to upset any union steward, I did the editing at the home/office of John Abbot, who was one of our freelance cameramen and who had a cutting room in his house where he used to produce his own films.

Edinburgh of the 7 seas 01

Image by michael clarke stuff via Flickr

You can imagine that there was not a whole lot of different things to shoot on Tristan and what I found was that Arne had re-visited places several times.  There was the volcano, the terrain, the houses and school, there was the loading dock and the church, not much more.  This enabled me to gather together several short shorts of the same location and cut them into a sequence using short scenes, but making the cuts look deliberate instead of being forced on me.

In the end, I edited the material to 500 feet and it looked pretty good.  Dick was as pleased as punch, he thought he was about to lose $500.  Instead, he offered it to ITN who paid him $1,500 for it.  They showed it in its entirety. He was then able to get his editors to re-edit my work to produce a short story for the news service.  Dick never revealed to the UPMT editors who had done the job.

About a year later, Arne Falk Ronne came to my office to say that he was now going off to Pitcairn Island and, if we wished, he would do some filming there.  He had written a book called “In the Wake of The Bounty” which had been published in his native Denmark and also printed in German.  Unfortunately, I could not read it as there was no version in English.  However, he told me about his investigations into the Mutiny and what was strange about it.  He said that people had become informed about the mutiny only through Hollywood movies and that they were fanciful in the extreme.

Back to Arne Falk Ronne.  He was given 1,200 feet of Ektachrome 16mm film. Now, he also had a lecture about the length of his shots and a whole lot more.

I never saw of heard of him again.  We even tried to contact the people in Pitcairn to see what had happened to him.  The local vicar told us that he thought that he might have become ill and had been taken off to New Zealand, but he could not be sure.

There was a rumour that he had died on the island, but communications at that time were so poor, it was difficult to pursue any enquiries.

Over forty years later, I tried to check up on him on the internet to discover that he was still living twenty years later. Weird !

Arne’s stories of the Mutiny On The Bounty got me interested in the subject and I pursued it for years, but that‘s another story.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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