The boy on the ship: a surprise re-encounter

Three weeks is a long time to spend travelling to school. A cargo vessel had already brought young Nick to Cape Town from his home on the world’s most remote inhabited island. Then he had waited a week or so, as I recall, to board the ship on which we rode the swell towards the world’s second most remote inhabited island.

There, the 15-year-old Nick was to be given some sort of education.

An albatross drifted along behind us for the first couple of days out, but I don’t suppose he troubled to look at it. Albatrosses aren’t exciting if you’ve spent all your life on Tristan da Cunha, way out in the South Atlantic. In fact, Nick rarely seemed to venture at all from the tiny cabin by the afterdeck that served as a children’s room, though there was little in it that could interest him. There was no one of his own age to tempt him out.

My wife and I occasionally tried to engage him in conversation, but he didn’t want to talk much. On his island of only 300-or-so people, the word “strangers” really means something, and that’s what we were. We felt sad for this slight, lonely lad, sailing further and further from nearly all he knew, with no prospect of returning home for another year. I’d experienced homesickness at a boarding school, but I could not imagine what this boy might be going through.

At the voyage’s end in James Bay, after a week crossing 1,700 miles of ocean, Nick disappeared into the embrace of his new home on St Helena. It was a while before we saw him again.

When we did, weeks later, he was loping jauntily down the main street of Jamestown, the island’s capital, with a friend on either side. My flawed memory recalls them both as pretty girls. He gave me a cheeky grin, and passed on, a different person.

Very occasionally I remember the boy on the ship, but I’d assumed I would never meet him again. Now I have, in a most unexpected way.

In my mind, he’d stayed a teenager, but he’s now a bearded, married man with a son born four years ago… shortly before telephones came to homes in Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas, the sole settlement on Tristan. He makes his living the traditional way: a bit of lobster fishing and a bit of farming, topped up with work as an electrician.

I met him again, not in the flesh, but in a dispatch from Tristan for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme. Chris Carnegy had me in his thrall from his opening words:

“Nicky Swain doesn’t talk much,” he wrote, “but he smiles a lot. He’s got the trademark Tristan da Cunha blend of old-fashioned reserve and happy generosity of spirit. He’s thirty now, the great great great grandson of Thomas Swain, one of the pioneer settlers who turned this volcanic speck of an island into the world’s most isolated human settlement.

“And Nicky’s life is being played out as the people of Tristan da Cunha try to navigate between the splendour of isolation, and the realities of a connected world.”

Through “Nicky”, Carnegy tells of the challenges that have faced the islanders in recent years: a cyclone, a devastating fire, and this year, a shipwreck that caught islanders in an overwhelming battle with leaking oil. Thousands of penguins died, but like the cyclone and fire before it, it got little attention in the world’s media.

Now the battle is with the temptations of the modern world that have only recently washed over Tristan’s rocky shore, and their very modern consequences.

Carnegy sweeps up the whole story in five engaging minutes. It’s well worth a listen.

Kate Adie introduces the piece 11 minutes and 15 seconds in, here. The BBC website also has a feature on the island’s link with a Hampshire village.

Simon Winchester also reported from Tristan da Cunha a few years ago, here. And you can listen to my own piece for From Our Own Correspondent, about St Helena, here (Well, you didn’t think I’d miss that opportunity, did you?).

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