I’ve spoken to a few of my friends about my unusual ancestry, usually during a lengthy evening chat over a glass or two of wine. I’m even writing a book about it.
Recently, I’ve started to obsess about it.
A good friend of mine hosts a literary salon every month, and two regulars, Martinique Stilwell and Paul Morris, often chat about their love of sailing. I couldn’t resist asking if either had ever visited the island of Tristan da Cunha. Neither have, but both dream to. I’ve been thinking about the island a lot since then.
In a nutshell, Tristan da Cunha is a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic with a population of 262. It’s 2,400 kilometres from South Africa. Yet, somehow my ancestors ended up there.
According to National Geographic:
“When the British military left Tristan in 1817—the attempt to rescue Napoleon never materialized—a Scottish corporal, William Glass, and two English stonemasons stayed behind. They built homes and boats from salvaged driftwood, then drafted a constitution decreeing a new community based on equality and cooperation. The collective spirit that sustained the island during years of almost complete isolation still exists.”
My ancestor, Andrew Hagan, arrived on the island around 1850 from New London, Connecticut. His father had fled Ireland sometime before that looking for a better life in America. What made Hagan, who was born in Connecticut, decide to leave for the most remote island on earth is a complete mystery.
Whatever the reason that took him there, (there is some evidence that he was a whaler that was shipwrecked close by), he decided to stay on the island. He married a Tristan local, Eliza Swain, and some time after her death, Selina Glass (related to the original William Glass). They had a son, William Henry Hagan, who drowned in 1885 during a shipwreck. His son John Henry Hagan (what is it with the name Henry?) moved to Cape Town with his mother around 1902. He was my great, great grandfather.
I know all this from Ancestry.com where my family tree is being curated by a second cousin with a knack for historical detective work.
Amazingly, members of the Hagan family still live on the island. There are eight of them living in Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas, also known as The Settlement. There are 37 members of the Glass family and 67 members of the Green family. (My great-great-great grandmother was Amy Green).
It seems fitting somehow that this is where I’m from. My family like to keep to themselves. I’ve always been a loner. And a little bit contrary. Put me or my father in a room full of people and we’ll find a quiet corner away from everyone else.
I’ve started to believe it’s in our blood. Either one of us would be perfectly content on an island 2000 kilometers from the closest mainland.
I identify as an islander. It fits, I think.
If it wasn’t for a short spell as a newspaper editor that involved endless networking functions and interviews (not to mention the public speaking involved in being an author) I probably never would have come out my shell.
You have to be a social creature to live in a big city. Being a writer makes it even more important. Don’t get me wrong, I love book launches and reading and talking at schools, but being away from it all is wonderfully liberating. I’ve been off Facebook for more than a year now and I can’t imagine ever going back.
Perhaps in a way I’m trying to create my own island.
I found Tristan crayfish at Woolworths over the weekend. It was expensive, but I couldn’t resist the chance to get a small taste of the island.
It might have been my imagination, but underneath the lemon and garlic butter, I’m sure my taste buds detected a tiny hint of wild ocean waters and a coast untouched by time.
Maybe I’ll visit one day. But for now, I’ll keep dreaming.