October 13th, 2014
The Islands of Refreshment
In December of 1810, the Baltic, a merchantman from Boston under command of a Captain Lovel, stopped at one of the most remote islands in the world and put ashore a man. They weren’t marooning him. His name was Jonathan Lambert and he was standing on the beach of a deserted shield volcano 1500 miles from the nearest continent because that’s the way he wanted it. He’d come here — to the islands known as Tristan da Cunha — to found a new nation and to give it a fetching name: the Islands of Refreshment.
He wasn’t, quite, alone. He had with him a paid hand, Thomaso Corri, and an apprentice boy whose name is lost to history. Shortly thereafter, the Islands of Refreshment reached peak population when Andrew Millet joined the micronation.
There are three main islands, but Lambert’s settlement was really only about the largest — a seven mile diameter circle rising to a 6765 foot tall volcanic peak, with frost unknown at the shore and snow on top in winter. There’s a lot of rain, but the climate is remarkably consistent, 60s in the day, 50s in the night, just about forever. It’s green, with running rivers, and enough flat lowlands for a town and fields.
Lambert, for all his ostensible citizenship of Massachusetts, was more truly a citizen of the sea. He descended from a line of Salem fishermen who became merchant captains over the course of a century. His father, another Jonathan Lambert, was the very first man enrolled in the lists of the East India Marine Society, an organization which drew its members from captains who’d navigated beyond the Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Our Jonathan had been the skipper of the schooner Ruth, and he was, that day he splashed ashore on Tristan da Cunha, nearly forty years old.
He was born into a world of change. Four years old when the American Revolution ignited 20 miles from his home, his childhood memories could only have been dominated by war. When he was 18, the French Revolution erupted and by the age of 31 — by which time he was certainly a captain — the Napoleonic Wars had begun. Those battlefields were far from the tangled streets of Salem, but for mariners like the Lamberts, the impact was inescapable. Britain and France were America’s primary trading partners and as long as they were at each other’s throats, a small maritime nation like the United States was collateral damage.
For Lambert, it must have been maddening. The Brits needed 140,000 men to man their ever-expanding navy, and they weren’t shy about collecting sailors from the surest place to find them — other ships. Impressment, it was called, and though the Brits were ostensibly looking for British subjects who’d gone astray, they took more or less whomever they pleased, loitering off American harbors and systematically pilfering the crews of each passing ship.
It’s part of what sent the US to war with Britain in 1812, but it’s hard not to imagine that it was, in some way, the last straw for Lambert, who left his wife behind in Salem and hitched a ride on the Baltic to Tristan da Cunha.
A few weeks after Lambert took possession of the islands, a Benjamin F. Seaver put ashore from his ship, the Charles, and found that the locals had been busy. “There was a spot of ground Lambert had cleared for a garden; full two acres were laid out in neat beds, with radish and cabbage plants growing in great luxuriance, and more than one inch above the surface, Indian corn, potatoes, and the pumpkin vine, with the water and musk-melon also above ground.” The crops coming along, Lambert then paused to take pen and paper (which he had no doubt brought with him for the purpose) and write what was effectively the constitution of his new land.
I do further declare that said islands shall, for the future, be denominated the Islands of Refreshment, the great island bearing that name in particular; and the landing-place on the north side, a little to the east of the cascade, to be called Reception, and which shall be the place of my residence.
Later in the letter, Lambert reveals that the impulse to found his own nation “originated in the desire and determination of preparing for myself and family a house where I can enjoy life, without the embarrassments which have hitherto constantly attended me, and procure for us an interest, and property, by means of which a competence may be ever secured, and remain, if possible, far removed beyond the reach of chicanery and ordinary misfortunes.”
After remarking that future merchant vessels of the Islands of Refreshment would fly the white flag as their ensign, Lambert finishes with “and lastly, be it known, that I hold myself and my people, in the course of our traffic and intercourse with any other people, to be bound by the principles of hospitality and good fellowship, and the laws of nations (if any there are)… and by no other laws whatever, until time may produce particular contracts, or other engagements.”
Lambert had in mind an economy based on agriculture, husbandry, and welcome. He’d surveyed the island, identifying places suitable for growing, for pasture, for harvesting wood. Here, in the middle of the Atlantic, he and his subjects would farm in a climate “neither hot nor cold, but exceeding temperate” and passing ships would gratefully stop to restore themselves with fresh food and water.
All that, of course, was the future. What the present held was four people living in a thatched hut, subsisting mainly on elephant seal and turnips and venturing to sea in a raft in order to catch fish. In an irony that is entirely unfunny, it was the lack of a proper boat that ended Captain Lambert’s experiment in nation building. One day in May of 1812, Lambert, Millet and the boy went fishing and never came back. Corri held on until 1816 when, with the wars over and Napoleon en route to his final exile on St Helena, British Marines arrived to garrison the island as part of the Emperor’s imprisonment. The Islands of Refreshment became Crown property, reverted to their original name and Corri gratefully departed.
* * *
“Utopia” literally translates as “no place” and the Islands of Refreshment, set down in the middle of nowhere, may have been the most literal attempt at a utopia that we’ll ever see. There’s something more than a little poignant about Lambert, who knew so much more of the world than almost all his contemporaries, ending up here.
He’d sailed to the far side of the world, set foot in five continents, spent time in India. He was a citizen of the world, and after watching that world engage in the madness that nations did then and do now, Lambert found himself thinking about a place as far removed from the nations of the world as possible, moated off to all but his people, the seafarers of the world. They would come because they always had, needing food and wood and water on the long voyage.
In christening the Islands of Refreshment, Lambert had given them a name sprung from the imagination of a weary sailor. A town called Reception, hospitality written into the Islands’ charter, vessels to fly the flag of truce — we can interpret all this as marketing, preparations for the “Grand Opening” of an establishment concerned about its location off the main drag. But it seems to me that there was more than fearless opportunism at work here.
It says a lot about the stunning level of competence and self-reliance of people in his time that Lambert — a sailor mind you, not a farmer — casually laid in a supply of livestock and seed and kept himself alive (and writing cogent, articulate letters) for two years while in a landscape as remote as a distant planet. But the question remains: why?
What was in his mind the last time he walked out the door of the house on Court Street, the one he shared with wife Mary? Was the plan fully formed as he walked to the wharf to find passage south? When he looked back as Salem faded to a hazy silhouette did he feel liberated? Did he imagine — or hope — that he would never see it again?
Lambert’s “constitution” is laced with hints, references to repeated misfortunes, the desire for a secure livelihood, a freedom from “chicanery,” all of it adding up to a “house where I can enjoy life” with family. A man who founded his own nation was looking for an ordinary life with ordinary contentments — but apparently not the life he walked away from in Salem.
It’s baldest speculation, but the thread that seems most prominent in his constitution is the one that stretches between “the laws of nations (if any there are)” and “chicanery.” That last word’s got a specific meaning, the use of trickery and deceit to manipulate the machinery of law, politics and money. The system, Lambert seems to have thought, was rigged, and not in his favor.
It’s a feeling that fits with our own era, too. The wars shade one into another, the aristocrats keep the doors to their party well barred and the governments do their best to ensure that nothing changes. Lambert’s vision exerts a pull with its thought of turning away, putting one’s labor and trust into the land, knowing that — while chance is still at play — at least it’s a fair chance. The impulse reminds of the naive back-to-the-landers of the 1970s and also of today’s sophisticated “greenhorns,” the college-educated youth that are re-colonizing the emptiness of rural America. In their idealism, their desire to be hospitable and also in their sense of whimsy, they are very much the descendants of Lambert.
But our world’s very different than his. The globe’s mapped, Tristan da Cunha’s spoken for, the White Rider has a frequent flyer card and no matter what address, we all live under the same shared sky. “Reception,” Lambert’s settlement, finally did grow long after he was gone, and exactly where he planned it, “a little to the east of the cascade.” It has a different name, “Edinburgh of the Seven Seas,” which the Tristaners sensibly call the Settlement. The 297 of them, sharing but seven surnames, continue to inhabit the world’s most remote location, but they learned something that Lambert never got the chance to.
In October of 1961, earthquakes began on Tristan da Cunha. Houses shifted, the earth cracked and after two days, a volcanic cone began to grow on the mountainside above the Settlement. The Tristaners sensibly abandoned their island, finding refuge on Nightingale Island, eighteen miles away. But Lambert had been right — only the main island was truly habitable.
That’s when the remotest inhabitation on earth, a place that even today doesn’t have a runway, discovered that real safety lay not in their isolation but in neighbors. The neighbors in this case, turned out to be just across the sea, first in Africa, then in Europe. They were nations that were bits and pieces of a crumbled empire. It was the same empire that had once driven Jonathan Lambert into the wilderness but now, all these decades later, looked on these 263 refugees from extraordinary misfortune and welcomed them in the spirit of hospitality and good fellowship.