Littell's Living Age/Volume 136/Issue 1751/Heliogoland

Macmillan's Magazine.


There are few places in Europe where the traveller may feel so secure from the companionship of the ordinary British tourist as in Heliogoland. And yet it is a British possession, and has been one ever since 1814. Up to that date the steep rock in the North Sea, whose name is sometimes spent Helgoland, or Heilgeland, but which we call Heliogoland, had remained in uncoveted and undesired possession of the Danes. Early in the beginning of the present century, however, when strange acts of appropriation were committed under the influence of panic, and justified by the rough-and-ready laws of self-defence, we seized upon this little group of islands lying in the German Ocean, right opposite the mouths of the great rivers Elbe and Weser. It consists of Heliogoland, Sandy Island, and several reefs and rocks, of which only two have been given the distinctive names of the Monk and the Steen. Heliogoland itself is barely a mile long, and its average breadth is only the third of a mile. Even these moderate dimensions are said to be subjected to a steady reduction by the encroachments of the sea. There is every reason to believe that the whole group of islets, which bear distinct traces of change in their physical geography, once formed a single island — large compared to the size of an of its existing fragments.

A bit of old Frisian doggerel describes vividly enough the impression of the traveller who first sees Heliogoland in its summer dress: —

Road es det Lunn,
Grön es de Kaut,
Witt es de Sunn;
Deet es de woaper vant, Helligeland.

Red is the land,
Green is the grass,
White is the sand;
These are the colors of Heliogoland.

And very bright and pretty these colors looked to our eyes, when we dropped the "Sunbeam's" anchor in the harbor last August, after a swift and safe run across — under sail — from Margate in forty-eight hours. The ordinary route is by way of Hamburg, and from thence by steamers making an eight hours' voyage three times a week. Only a couple of these hours, however, are spent at sea, the other five being occupied by a slow progress down the Elbe. Heliogoland is a favorite resort of Austrian an German families, who flock here during the summer months to enjoy the delicious sea- bathing, and the inexpensive, pleasant, sans-façon out-of-door life.

Indeed, the coup d'œil which first presented itself reminded me of nothing so much as one of the scenes from the opera' of "The flying Dutchman." There was the same bright sea, the dark cliffs, and the sandy shore. The same sort of long wooden pier straggled out into the blue water, and was crowded with groups of sturdy, fair, North Sea fishermen. They were idling about, too, in true theatrical fashion, dressed in loose trousers, light-blue striped sailor shirts, and blue or red woollen caps. Nor did the women look less picturesque in their bright scarlet or yellow bordered petticoats, light overdresses, and black or chintz sun-bonnets. Small as is the principal island, it yet boasts of two towns — one on the high land, and one on the low land. There is as much as one hundred and seventy feet of difference between the two "lands," and the visitor must climb two hundred and three steps, if he would reach the upper town from the seashore. On this "Ober-land" stands the Government House, the church, the batteries and their magazine, and, higher than all, the splendid lighthouse, the lantern of which is two hundred and fifty-seven feet above the sea-level. This lighthouse not only serves as a warning from the rock on which it is built, but is of use to vessels entering the Elbe or the Weser. the Eyder or the Jade. There are about three hundred and fifty houses on this high ground, and eighty on the lower portion of the island, called the "Unter land," holding between them a couple of thousand inhabitants. These dwellings are so neat and clean, that their wooden walls and red roofs help to produce an indescribably comic effect of the whole place having been just taken out .of a box of children's toys, and neatly arranged in squares and rows. But the combination of English comfort with Dutch cleanliness and German propriety is very agreeable to the eye.

The church is a curious building, and contains, suspended from the ceiling, several models of ships under full sail, presented, ex voto, from time to time. The women sit by themselves down-stairs, in pews marked with their family names; the men sit in a gallery up-stairs, round which has been painted, by no mean artist, a series of scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Some years ago the clergy. man wished to paint these pictures out, which would have been a great pity; for, although the mode of treating the subjects has not been perhaps strictly ecclesiastical, they deserve to be retained as relics of a past age. It is to be hoped that some loving hand may even yet be found to copy or photograph these quaint old designs, ere time or progress deals still more hardly with them. The font, too, is especially curious. It is held up by figures so ancient that cognoscenti declare they must be the remaining supports of some ancient altar to a heathen deity. When a christening takes place there is a preliminary ceremony of filling this font, and it is pretty to see fifty or a hundred children advancing up the aisle in a procession, each bearing a little mug of water. The service is Lutheran. The clergyman reads from the communion-table, and above it is placed a little box from which he preaches. Besides this he possesses a pew of his own, exactly opposite that appropriated to the governor's use, with the communion-table between. Both these pews are precisely like opera-boxes. and have windows to open and shut. it is not so long ago since prayers used to be offered up in this very church for wrecks; and it was an established custom, if the rumor of one arrived whilst service was being performed, for the clergyman to shut his book, seize the long hatchet-like pike placed in readiness for such an emergency, and lead his flock to their boats. But the mission was scarcely a Christian one, for no survivers were ever permitted to return and tell the tale of what sort of welcome they had received on these inhospitable rocks.

We must remember, however, in mitigation of such hard and cruel facts, that from father to son for many and many a bygone generation the trade and profession of each male inhabitant of Heliogoland had been that of a wrecker, with a very little exercise of the pilot's or fisherman's more gentle craft during the brief summer months. Indeed it has taken the strong repressive measures insisted on and strictly carried out by the present governor, to at all subdue this inborn tendency to act on the saying of what is one man's extremity being another man's opportunity. The great improvement in wrecking morals and manners which has been accomplished with so much difficulty is, however, but skin deep, and will even now collapse on the smallest chance of escaping detection. Whilst the "Sunbeam " lay in one of the two good harbors of these islands, she was the object of much curiosity and interest. Amongst her numerous visitors were some of the coastguard. They had been duly shown round the yacht, and during this process some wag inquired of the coxswain of their gig what he would like to take first if the vessel were "sitting on the rocks." This is a euphemistic equivalent in Heliogoland for a vessel being cast away. A half-regretful gleam came into his bright blue eyes as the man answered wistfully, "I hardly know, sir; but there is a good deal of copper about." As a matter of fact, we had already observed that the ventilators and bright brasswork of our little ship attracted special notice and many expressions of half-envious admiration. But it is only fair to add that we ind other more peaceful and less professional visitors from among the islanders and the Bäde-gäste, and I often found beautiful bouquets of flowers and graceful messages of thanks awaiting me on board when we returned from a long day on shore.

The present governor of Heliogoland has indeed made enormous reforms in the system of legalized wreckage which he found in practice on the islands. He has established a volunteer corps of native coast-guards, superintended by eight picked coast-guardsmen from England. Now, therefore, when a wreck takes place on the shore, the errand of those battling with the beating surf, the howling wind, and the blinding storms of sleet an snow, to where the poor ship lies stranded on the rocks, is one of succor and not of heartless villany. Formerly the very same men would have only hastened to the spot with their pikes and hatchets, to cut down the bulkheads, force open the hatches, take out the cargo, and break up the ship as quickly as might be for the sake of appropriating her timbers, copper, and ballast. As for the unhappy crew, their fate would probably be similar to that of some passengers by coach to "Frisco" in its earliest days, of whom Artemus Ward makes mention as being the objects of the driver's special attention. This worthy used to make his rounds, kingbolt in hand, as soon as possible after an accident, and proceed to act on his avowed principle that "dead men don't sue; the ain't on it." But in these more civilized days, if rescue has come too late, gentle hands have laid the unfortunate mariners to rest in this bleak spot, and, through the kindness of the governor's wife, each grave in the pretty cemetery in Sandy Island, even though nameless, has been marked by a small black cross, hearing the name of the shipwrecked vessel and the date of its loss, whenever it was possible to ascertain them. The rocket apparatus has been used on many occasions, too, with the best results.

In spite, however, of the utmost vigilance, it sometimes happens that the old trade is still plied, and the governor told me the following story himself: —

He was one day lately caught in a thick fog when out in a boat shooting wild seabirds, and whilst waiting for the mist to lift, he heard a sound of hammering in the direction of a distant reef. His practised ears soon told him what it meant, and in spite of the difficulties raised on the spot by the crew of his boat, and the earnest efforts they made to dissuade him, he persisted in steering towards where he knew the reef lay. just before reaching it, the fog lifted slightly, disclosing to some sentinel wrecker the swiftly coming boat. In a moment the most absurd stampede took place. Out of the cabin and hold of the unfortunate ship the disturbed pillagers swarmed like bees, hoping to reach their own boats and escape unrecognized. So rapid were their movements, that only two or three of the least agile were captured, but those who succeeded in getting away left behind them their large axes and other ship-breaking implements, on most of which their names had been branded, and which thus furnished the means by which the owners were captured and punished. Since this adventure the wreckers have had to acknowledge that, like Othello, "their occupation's gone," and they have taken every opportunity of enlisting themselves on the side of law and order. There has been great difficulty too in inducing the natives to use the life-boats brought from England. On more than one occasion the coast-guard men have found the air-boxes broken and the linings cut by the natives, whilst they have themselves been absent on a life-saving expedition. But these obstacles lessen every day, under the firm yet kindly rule of the present governor, who takes the liveliest persona interest in every detail of his administration.

The Waal Channel separates the Downs or Sandy Island from Heliogoland, and both islands are but thinly covered with soil, which is hardly anywhere more than four feet deep. Still there is pasture for cattle and sheep; and fair crops of barley and oats can be raised in summer. The principal revenue of the islands is derived from fish, which are sent to London vid Hamburg, and from a large oyster-bed. For the last fifty 'ears it has also been the favorite summer bathing-place of Austrians and Germans, who come over in great numbers between June and September. The life led by these visitors is a very simple and informal one. Nobody seems to think it necessary to walk up and down at certain hours, or to do any particular thing at regular and stated periods. You may even if you like dig sand-holes with the children, whilst you listen to lovely music played twice a day by a band from Carlsbad.

To enjoy Heliogoland you must be a d walker, for there are no horses on the island, and every place has to be visited on foot. There is a nice breezy walk across the highest point of the island to the north end, where acurious rock stands boldly out, almost separate from the mainland. The cliffs are full of caves and grottoes, which are illuminated twice a year. A reckless expenditure of blue lights and rockets takes place on these occasions, producing, I am assured, a very enchanting and magical effect. We were so unfortunate in the weather during our short stay, that one of these illuminations which was impending, and formed the staple subject of conversation during many weeks, had to be postponed over and over again, and we never beheld it.

The system of bathing at Sandy Island is organized to perfection, and it was impossible to help contrasting it with the seaside manners of Ramsgate, where we had last bathed. The Bäde-gäste are taken across to Sandy Island in private boats or in omnibus boats, which run ever five minutes, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. The bather provides himself with a ticket before starting, and has no more trouble. Ladies and gentlemen bathe on different sides of the island, and in different places, according to the wind and tide. We landed in our own boat, and I was much amused at the respectful distance at which the old pilot, who was carrying my bathing-gown, stopped. in his dread of approaching too closely to the forbidden precincts, he made the Bäde-frau walk at least a quarter of a mile to meet us. It certainly was a treat to bathe in such pure and clear water beneath so lovely and bright a sky. One feels like a different being afterwards. Part of the programme consists in taking a Sonne-bad, and basking in the balmy air on the little sand-hills, sheltered by the rocks from too much wind or sun. The bather has no trouble or anxiety on his mind about machines or towels. They are all provided for him, and the price is included in his original ticket. After the bath it is de rigueur to go and breakfast at the restaurant pavilion on the beach, where you feel exactly as if you were sitting on the glazed-in deck of a ship. The food is excellent, and Heliogoland lobsters fresh out of the water are as different from the familiar lobster smothered in salad and sauce, as caviare, newly taken from the sturgeon and eaten on the banks of the Volga, is from caviare eaten on the banks of the Thames out of a china jar. Then after this excellent breakfast, if the Bäde-gast is inclined for exercise, he may stroll about very pleasantly to the point of the reef, where he will hardly be able to turn his head without seeing the ribs of some unfortunate vessel sticking up out of the sea-sand; or he may return to the mainland and listen to the sweet music of the Carlsbad band, and even do a little mild shopping. The specialities of the island consist of hats, muffs, tippets, and many pretty things made from the plumage of the grey gull and other wild sea-birds which nest among the rocks. Besides these there are various ingenious little articles manufactured by the inhabitants during the long, cold, dark winter evenings.

The "Ober-land," or upper part of the town, can boast of several good hotels and restaurants, and in summer some two or three hundred guests sit down daily at the principal table d'hôte. For evening amusement, there is a bright, cheery little theatre, where a really good company plays nightly the most sparkling and pretty pieces with a verve and finish which reminds one of a French play-house. An occasional ball at Government House is a great treat, and warmly appreciated by the ortuuate guests.

There is a generally received fable to the effect that Heliogoland is overrun with rabbits, which are rapidly and surely undermining the whole of Sandy Island, and will eventually cause it to disappear beneath the sea. But, as a matter of fact, there is not a single rabbit on the island, nor has there been one in the memory of the present generation. The wild-fowl afford excellent sport. The guillemots breed in immense quantities among the picturesque rocks of the west coast, and in the autumn large numbers of woodcock land here on their way south in search of summer climes. In the town itself two large poles are erected at the corner of every street, and between them a net is suspended, by means of which many birds are caught during their flight. Mr. Gätke, the permanent secretary to the government, has a most interesting ornithological collection, consisting entirely of birds that have been shot on the islands, but embracing specimens of numerous foreign varieties. Many of those we saw must have found their way hither from Africa, from the Himalayas, and even from Australia, besides a peculiar kind of gull (Ross's gull) from the arctic regions, of which even the British Museum does not possess a specimen. Mr. Gätke talks of publishing a book on this collection of feathered wanderers whose flight has ended here. During the winter the rocks swarm with wild-fowl of all kinds — swans, geese, and ducks, but only two of the species breed there, the razor-hawk and the guillemot. In the spring, when the rocks are literally covered with these birds, the effect must be inexpressibly droll, and the noise tremendous. Insignificant as the place seems to most of us, Heliogoland has given a great deal of trouble in her day. Barely ten years ago she was the bugbear of insurance offices and shipowners, and a well-known refuge for masters desirous of getting rid of their vessels in a comfortable manner. No vessel once on the neighboring reefs, or on the main island, was ever allowed to depart, while those wrecked in the Elbe or the neighboring rivers were simply plundered by the Heliogoland fishermen and pilots under the plea of salvage. The renumeration for discharging or pilfering a cargo used to be settled in full assembly of the Vorsteherschaft, whose members, being principally pilot officers and wreckers themselves, were naturally interested in the amount of the reward received for salvage.

No debts could be recovered in the island, no legal decrees enforced, and a creditor had to wait for the death of an obstinate debtor, on the chance of his property coming before the court. The credit of the island, until lately, was at a very low ebb indeed, and, in order to increase its funds, contracts for public gambling were entered into between the Vorsteherschaft and some German lessees, which had the desired effect for the moment. It is difficult to imagine that so small a place could, in the few years between 1815 and 1868, have involved itself in a public debt to the extent of 7,000l. At present, in spite of the abolition of the gaming-tables and a great outlay on public works, this sum has been reduced to somewhere about 3,000l. To the wise and prudent administration of the present governor, this, as well as every other improvement, is due. Under his beneficent rule, Heliogoland has changed so much that the visitor of even fifteen years ago would not recognize, in the orderly, neat, thriving little settlement, the ruinous, lawless, bankrupt island of those comparatively recent days. Annie Brassey.