The personal diary of Peter A. Munch, a young sociologist who joined a Norwegian scientific expedition to Tristan da Cunha in the autumn of 1937, has recently been published. Munch published his landmark dissertation the Sociology of Tristan da Cunha in 1945, and several decades later he wrote a number of scholarly journal articles about the Tristan Islanders plus a popular book, Crisis in Utopia.
The diary remained in the possession of the family in manuscript form. His daughter, Cathrine Munch Snyder, who now owns it, has translated it into English, added numerous helpful notes, and arranged for it to be published. It is a finely crafted, handsome volume graced with many of Munch’s original photos.
The scientific expedition that Munch joined in the fall of 1937 was an outgrowth of the Norwegian whaling industry, which annually sent fleets of ships to Antarctic waters south of Tristan da Cunha. Botanical samples from Gough Island, 395 km south of Tristan that had been brought back to Norway by whaling ships, had aroused the interest of some Norwegian scholars. By 1937, a group of 11 scientists and students formed an expedition to sail south to study the flora, fauna, geology, and human inhabitants of the Tristan Island group during the following austral summer of 1937-38.
Most of the diary consists of Munch describing his moseying about the Tristan settlement every day, visiting one home or another on various excuses. He asks people to tell him what they are doing, he discusses issues, talks about people. One day, he visits a lady and asks her to write down songs for him. Another day he films some women cleaning fish. He seems to have a knack for winning the trust of everyone he talks with. He gets invited into homes, participates in everyday activities, and disarms the potential suspicions of people who are not used to getting more than occasional visitors. They include him in many activities. He has a gift for putting the Islanders at ease and recording the best of their conversations and activities.
Munch was quite objective in his comments to his diary about the Islanders. He preferred to simply describe, in a neutral fashion, what happened each day, as if the diary might be read some day by others. His observations were cool, friendly, objective, and non-judgmental. To some extent he includes his reactions to people and events, but his primary interest is always the Islanders, not himself. In scene after scene he describes in his diary the things people do, the fun they have, and their interpersonal relationships.
Compared to many published diaries, which can be highly self-focused, this work is refreshing and candid, but always questioning and wondering. It is the personal journal of a scholar who does not obsess about what must have been his loneliness for his family back in Norway. He appears to be both likable and trustworthy, to judge by his private comments. If he complained about conditions or people, he did not confide them to the diary.
The book has many interesting descriptions of island life. For instance, Munch chronicles the constant generosity of the Islanders, who frequently gave gifts to the Norwegian visitors. Some of the descriptions are charming: on December 26, the women of the island finally come to the building where the Norwegians are staying to pay their first visit. But they don’t say anything. They just stand there, awkwardly, and then leave. But the ice was broken and visiting with the Norwegians became easier over the future weeks.
Munch frequently mentions how various Islanders have made this or that for his baby daughter back in Norway, Trine (the translator and editor of the volume). His approach gives the reader the feeling (though he never makes this suggestion to the diary) that he must be a very normal guy who has been talking about his family, showing the Islanders his family pictures, and probably bragging about his child back home.
This book is an unpretentious treasure. It doesn’t romanticize the Islanders, but it portrays them as highly honest people with a positive, infectious, appealing character. The reader grows gradually more and more fond of them—and of the author—as the book progresses.
One of the more intriguing passages of Crisis in Utopia was Munch’s description of the subservient way the Islanders handled the overbearing minister that the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had sent out to the island. While it was obvious that the minister was mostly resented, Munch indicated that the Islanders responded to him by giving way to his demands, and meekly saying “Yes, Father,” to him. The newly published diary provides a lot more information about the man, Rev. Harold Wilde, and the strategies the Islanders had for coping with his petty tyrannies.
Munch did observe one argument during his four-month stay on the island, when a woman tried, unsuccessfully, to bully her way onto a boat that was headed out on an expedition. A potentially more serious confrontation occurred on February 2, 1938. The Islanders, including Rev. Wilde, had rowed out to sea to meet a passing ship, in hopes of trading some of their goods with the crew or passengers. While on the ship, Wilde had rudely prevented one of the island men, Arthur Repetto, from speaking to the ship’s captain.
Repetto was quite insulted, but others in the community prevented him, on successive days, from confronting the minister about the incident. Munch wrote in his diary on February 4th, “If there is something these people hate, it is trouble. They love peace above all (p.129).”
Ms. Snyder has performed a service to Tristan da Cunha scholarship by translating and publishing her father’s diary. It is an entertaining book which provides fascinating vignettes of a traditional, peaceful society 70 years ago.
Munch, P.A. 2008. Glimpsing Utopia: Tristan da Cunha 1937-38; A Norwegian’s Diary. Translated and edited by Cathrine Munch Snyder. Easton, Winchester, UK: George Mann Publications. Available in the U.S. directly from Cathrine Snyder, 108 East Geneva Lane, Oak Ridge, TN 37830 for $30.00 plus $5.00 postage and handling. Or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Overseas, the book may be obtained from Ian Mathieson’s bookstore, which specializes in the South Atlantic Islands, for UK£20 or more, depending on location. Contact them at email@example.com.