Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tristan da Cunha

Celebrating 500 Years of History 1506 - 2006

"the remotest inhabited island in the world" - Guiness Book of Records, 1998

The territory of Tristan da Cunha is composed of four islands, Gough, Inaccessible, Nightingale and Tristan itself. The latter three are grouped together while Gough lies some 230 nautical miles (426km) to the south. The main island, Tristan da Cunha, is the remotest inhabited island in the world. Its nearest neighbour is St. Helena 2,334 kms to the North while Cape Town is 2,778 kms to the East. Tristan is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom. It is under the authority of the Governor of St. Helena but powers are delegated to a resident Administrator.

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There is only one inhabited area. This is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on Tristan. It is a small village of just under 300 people, the total population of Tristan da Cunha. It was named in 1867 after Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (second son of Queen Victoria) who visited in August that year as commander of the frigate "Galatea".

Brief History

Tristan da Cunha was discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese navigator, Tristao da Cunha. He did not land but nevertheless named the island after himself. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch and French governments, as well as the British East India Company, considered taking possession of the islands but decided not to do so, mainly because of a lack of a suitable landing place. The islands of Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough were originally known as Geebroken, Nachtglas and Goncalo Alvarez respectively.

The islands were later used as temporary bases by sealers and whalers usually from the USA, and it was from here that the first settlers of Tristan came. In 1811 Jonathan Lambert, who hailed from Salem, declared himself emperor (a copy of his flag can be seen in the Island museum). He disappeared in somewhat mysterious circumstances during a with one of his two companions. The other, Thomas Curry, was still on the island when its next occupants arrived. This was in 1816 when a British garrison was sent from Cape Town. Curry aroused their interest with stories of buried treasure but never revealed its whereabouts. He died of drink, plied to him by the members of the garrison seeking the treasure!

The garrison had been sent by the British Government because they were worried that the island might be used for an attempt by the French to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. It was withdrawn in 1817 but Corporal William Glass from Kelso in Scotland, with his wife and children, asked to stay, accompanied by two stonemasons, Nankivel and Burnell, from Plymouth, UK. The stonemasons did not stay long but examples of their work can still be seen on the island houses.

Others joined William Glass and his family over the next few years, notably Thomas Swain from Hastings, UK. Five bachelors on Tristan in the early 1820s asked a naval Captain if he could arrange for five wives to come from St. Helena. In 1827 the ladies arrived and the community began to increase. In 1836 a Dutchman, Peter Groen, who anglicised his name to Green, joined them. In 1837 and 1849 Thomas Rogers and Andrew Hagan, both American whalermen, also settled on Tristan.

At this time the island prospered. Although only operating a subsistence economy they were able to barter their fresh vegetables and fresh water (an official currency was not introduced on the island until the early 1950s) to passing ships for provisions required on the island. Sailing ships en route to South Africa, India, the Far East and Australia all came via Tristan to utilise the trade winds. By 1856 there were 97 inhabitants.

However the decline in whaling, the transition to steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, all occurring at around the same time, stalled Tristan's growth. Many inhabitants emigrated to the USA and Cape Town and the Island was forgotten apart from occasions when the remaining islanders rescued shipwrecked sailors. It was partly in recognition of this help and the activities of missionaries that the British Government in 1876 formally declared the islands to be part
of the British Empire. An annual visit by a British warship to bring supplies was instigated.

In 1892 an Italian ship from Camogli in Italy was wrecked off the island. Two of the sailors, Andrea Repetto and Gaetano Laverello decided to stay and then married local girls. Two sisters, Agnes and Elizabeth Smith, from Kilkenny in Ireland met and married two islanders fighting with the British army in the Boer War and afterwards returned with them to Tristan. These seven family names, Glass, Green, Hagan, Laverello, Repetto, Rogers and Swain are the only surnames now found on the island.

The islanders survived over the years through good and hard times. In 1938 Tristan was declared a dependency of St. Helena - although the islanders today declare they are not dependent on that island! The start of a crayfish industry in 1950 brought about the transition from subsistence to a cash economy and in the same year the British Government sent its first Administrator to Tristan. In 1961 a volcanic eruption beside the settlement of Edinburgh caused the evacuation of the all the inhabitants to the UK. For two years the islanders stayed in England but maintained their close knit community and a desire to return to Tristan. In 1963 it was considered safe to do so and the majority sailed home. But life in England had changed attitudes and a more affluent and informed society emerged from then onwards, far removed from the lifestyles of their ancestors.


Tristan da Cunha is almost self-supporting economically - only large capital projects require overseas funding. Revenue, provided by the royalties from the lobster fishery, and interest from a reserve fund, finances government activities such as the provision of free health care and education. The Government is the chief employer on the island with a work force of 143. The lobster factory provides permanent employment for 23 and casual employment for a further 110 people on fishing days, when 20 small island boats catch lobster for processing. The lobster fishery is operated under the terms of an exclusive concession granted by the Island. The current holder is Eurex Ltd, a subsidiary of Premier Fishing from Cape Town, South Africa. Two company ships fish around the islands of Inaccessible, Nightingale and Gough, while the islanders fish around Tristan. In addition to the royalty and employment, the fishing company also provides a passenger and cargo service to Cape Town.

The islanders rely to some extent for their food on their own stock, poultry and crops. Each family is limited to 2 cows and 7 sheep - to conserve grazing - and potatoes, the main crop, are grown at Patches, about two miles from Edinburgh. Other vegetables are grown privately and by the Agricultural Department. The Island Store imports and sells a variety of foodstuffs, household equipment and clothing.


The Administrator, appointed by the Governor of St. Helena, is the head of Government, which comprises 11 separate Departments. The Administrator must act in accordance with advice from the Island Council, which is composed of 8 elected members and three appointed members. A general election is held every three years. At least one member of the Council must be a woman. At the moment there are three women members. The Councillor who receives the most votes in the election is appointed Chief Islander.


The Administrator's office and the Factory have satellite communications by telephone and fax. The Administrator also has E mail. There is a radio telephone link via Cape Town Radio which connects to the international telephone service and in August 1998 a public satellite phone will be installed.

The fishing vessels bring most of the cargo and mail to the island, visiting the island six times a year. The "RMS St Helena", a passenger/cargo ship visits the island once a year, usually January, and the South African Antarctic survey ship, the "Agulhas" also calls once a year. A number of cruise ships also call.

Climate and Topography

The climate is temperate and oceanic with rapid weather changes, a wide temperature range (4 to 26 degrees C) and an average rainfall of 66 inches (1,676mm) per year.

The island is 38 square miles in area, and just over 25 nautical miles round. It is volcanic in origin (about one million years ago) and the central peak of the island rises to 2060m (6,760 ft.) from a plateau, known as the Base, which rises steeply from the shoreline to 600m (2,000ft.). A number of gullies, known locally as "gulches", lead down to sea level from the Base.

The area around Edinburgh and along the coast to Patches is grassland where the animals graze. At other points around the island are similar, but smaller plains which are used in a variety of ways by the islanders. Most are only accessible by sea.


The seas around the islands of Tristan are rich in finfish as well as lobster and octopus. Fivefinger, snoek, bluefish, stumpnose, steambras, soldier and mackerel can be found. The Yellow-nosed and Sooty Albatross nest on the Base at Tristan and on the other islands. Rockhopper penguins have established rookeries in various parts of the islands.

Fur seals, elephant seals, the rare Shepherd's Beaked whale and the Southern Right whale all visit the island. There is a rich and varied birdlife, including the Wandering Albatross, Petrels, Buntings and the unique Flightless Rail.

The people of Tristan are keenly aware of the need to live in harmony with their environment. The declaration of Gough Island as a World Heritage site and of Inaccessible as a nature reserve means that 40% of Tristan da Cunha's land is under protection. Gough Island has a Wildlife Management Plan to protect its unique environmental status.


Beliefs that Foster Peacefulness. The core values on the island are anarchy, absolute equality, and personal integrity. People who mind their own business gain prestige. Other values of the Islanders—kindness, consideration, peacefulness, and respect for the personal integrity of others—tend to shape their behavior;
anyone who might break their code would suffer a considerable loss of prestige in the community. They take pride in their lack of crime, strife, or status distinctions. There is little sense of special privilege, and people lack authority, superiority, or influence over others. Throughout Tristan Island history, survival has meant, and still means to this day, freedom and personal integrity; these are higher values to them than affluence, material comfort, or physical sustenance.

Gender Relations. The family is strongly patriarchal; wives act in a very deferential fashion in the presence of male visitors. Except for a couple of reports of spouse abuse in the 1930s, men generally treat their wives kindly.

Raising Children. Children are expected to obey their parents' directives, and they are subject to stern corporal punishment if they don't. From 1961 to 1963, while the entire population of the island was in England due to an eruption of the volcano, the Tristan children interacted with other children in the British schools in a very shy and silent manner, a result of the general tendency of the Islanders to be taciturn. They tended to be passive and to lack aggressiveness, in contrast to the British children.

Social Practices. The Tristan Islanders are normally anarchistic and highly individualistic, but their habits were tested in 1962 when the British government decided to keep them in England permanently. They wanted to return to Tristan, but they did not know how to effectively unite, form a leadership group, and take decisive actions. Faced with this crisis, they delegated some leaders to send petitions to the proper administrators, and, when they went unanswered, they held a group meeting. When the administrators realized the Islanders were determined to find their own way home, the Colonial Office backed down and permitted them to return to the island. In effect, the anarchistic values and practices of the Islanders had given way, for the first time in their history, to group action—but they soon returned to their normal ways when they got home.

Sense of Self. The islanders are very conservative and resistant to change. They relate to others with a mixture of helpfulness and deference. They attach great importance to maintaining their personal dignity, and refuse to drink alcohol, even if offered to them by visitors, because they do not want to lose control. The islanders value their independence, economic self-sufficiency, and personal freedom. They tend to repress self-assertion and evince a strong respect for others.

Cooperation and Competition. When the Tristan Islanders were forced to move to Britain in 1961, they had virtually no knowledge of competition—their peacefulness is based, at least in part, on their highly cooperative attitude toward one-another. While they are theoretically independent of one another, in practice they cooperate in a number of economic endeavors. For instance, launching a long boat into the ocean swells takes a crew of people, and bringing home a heavily loaded boatful of meat or produce from another part of the island can only be accomplished cooperatively.

Social Control. Teasing and ridicule are important parts of the socializing process on Tristan—a subtle means for asserting community moral values, informally communicating, and asserting social control. While they constantly gossip about one another, they avoid any open conflict.

Strategies for Avoiding Warfare and Violence. One of their primary strategies for avoiding violence and conflict is nonviolent resistance. A good example of this strategy occurred in the 1930s when they had to cope with an imperious, dictatorial minister who tried to run their lives. They could never confront him; they would always buckle under to his will with a meek “yes, Father,” out of respect for his power and high office. But they did perfect the practice of nonviolent resistance by accepting his orders as much as necessary to placate him—and ignoring everything else that they could get away with. They felt that his actions were simply part of the fun he enjoyed in being among them. Besides, in a few years another minister with different ideas would probably replace him.

But How Much Violence Do They Really Experience. The highest level that hostility reaches on the island is that occasionally two people will stop talking to each other, but they normally can’t maintain even that level of tension very long. Quarrels are rare and fights have not occurred in living memory. The person who lost his temper in a quarrel would have that scar on his reputation for life, while someone who diffused a tense situation with a joke would gain general respect.


Lonely Planet's Tristan da Cunha Photo Feature

Images of Tristan da Cunha

Google Images



Tristan Homepage

Last Minute Getaway!

Edinburgh, Tristan da Cunha (Inaccessible Island)

Tristan da Cunha (Wikipedia)

Chat with the locals! (Yahoogroup)

Tristan Times (News)

Tristan da Cunha (Early History)


Text retrieved on 04/26 2006 from Tristan Homepage

Text retrieved on 04/26 2006 from Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies (http://www.peacefulsocieties.org/Society/Tristan.html)

Atlas retrieved on 04/20 2006 from WorldAtlas (http://worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/islands/atlantic/tristan.htm)