The British dependency of Tristan da Cunha is 1320 miles from its nearest inhabited neighbour. This article describes what life is like on this remote volcano in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. My thanks to the former administrator of the island, Philip Johnson, for sharing his experiences.
When Rhodesia became the last African state to achieve independence from Britain in 1980, transforming itself into Zimbabwe in the process, the final curtain came down on the British Empire. But although the empire had breathed its last gasp, a curious ragbag of isolated regions remained under British jurisdiction.
Britain’s former colonies – now referred to as ‘dependencies’ – comprise just a handful of islands across the globe. These include Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean, the British Indian Ocean Territory, various islands in the Caribbean, the Falkland Islands, and the St. Helena group in the Atlantic Ocean.
The St. Helena group comprises the islands of Ascension, St. Helena itself, and Tristan da Cunha, and span the Atlantic from north to south. Tristan da Cunha is the world’s most remote inhabited island, lying midway between South Africa and South America, and is 1320 miles from its nearest inhabited neighbour, the remote island of St. Helena.
Tristan da Cunha is a forbidding and bleak volcano, 38 square miles in area, and rising some 6760 feet from the ocean. It is the only occupied island in a group of five located in the South Atlantic, and was first sighted by a Portuguese sailor in 1502.
It wasn’t until 1816 that a permanent settlement was established on the only inhabitable region on the island, a ledge just three miles long by half a mile wide. Annexed by Britain in that year, only one man, William Glass, remained on the island after a Navy garrison left a year later. Other people arrived from various shipwrecks, and the population steadily grew over the years, now standing at just over three hundred.
For over 120 years life on Tristan barely changed, but after the World War Two a modest process of modernisation began. A small factory was built on the island to process the catches of crayfish that teemed in the surrounding seas, and money was introduced for the first time. The British Government appointed an Administrator from the Foreign Office to look after the island and its inhabitants, and a ship began to call once a year to bring supplies and medical assistance.
The upturn in fortunes was not to last, however. The tranquillity and solitude of life on Tristan was shattered in August 1961 when the volcano began to stir for the first time since its habitation. Tremors shook the settlement, Edinburgh, and an ominous bubble began to form nearby the small thatched houses, spewing lava and steam. Ships were dispatched from Britain and Cape Town to rescue the islanders, and the entire population was brought to England. Most had never left Tristan in their entire lives, and the culture shock was devastating to them.
After two years, many Tristanians had had enough of their enforced exile, and most elected to return to the now-dormant volcano, which had miraculously left the settlement plateau almost untouched. After their experience of life in Britain, however, things were never to be the same again on Tristan. A school and hospital were built, and a small harbour constructed to shelter fishing boats from the treacherous waves which pound the coast.
The island now boasts a convenience store, a radio station (broadcasting the World Service four days a week), a cafe, a video shop and a swimming pool. Tristan is now connected to the world by one telephone and a fax machine in the Administrator’s office, and is visited once a year by the only mail ship in the world, the RMS St. Helena. This ship brings not only mail, but canned food, videos, books and magazines, medical items, and the occasional visitor. Mail is not delivered, but names are read out at the Post Office, and is collected by the recipient on the spot.
A bureaucracy sprang up from this administrative chaos, and the island now has a semi-autonomous government made up of the Administrator and 12 islanders, who stand in a general election every three years. Selection can be a problem, though. The fear of being thought ‘too high and mighty’ inhibits many Tristanians from seeking office.
Other positions of responsibility have to be filled, too, such as the police officer, factory boss, and chief islander. The police station contains a single cell, but is only used to store firearms.
Unemployment on Tristan is almost unknown, with both girls and boys guaranteed jobs when they leave school, even if posts have to be specially created for them. The society remains largely patriarchal and macho, with boys starting work at 15 as fishermen.
In recent times, girls have increasing started to continue their education. They are usually sent to St. Helena, where they study for A-levels. Many return to Tristan after their studies, and young women are increasingly becoming an intellectual elite on the island.
The limitations of social life on Tristan has resulted in an increase in alcohol dependence. In 1993 and 1994, each individual drank the equivalent of nearly 50 litres of whisky on average per year. They appear to suffer few ill effects, however, and the life expectancy is about the same as in the UK. Since the average salary on Tristan is only £100 per month, a substantial amount of earnings are spent on spirits.
Perhaps surprisingly, inbreeding among the population has not caused serious problems. Of the 80 families who live on the island, there are only eight surnames: Glass, Swain, Rogers, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Repetto and Patterson. The latter was added as recently as 1986, when a Scotsman married a Tristanian woman and settled on the island.
Unlike other UK dependencies, Tristan is entirely self-supporting and receives no money from Britain, aside from the Administrator’s wage. This is a fact that Tristanians pride themselves on, and it has enabled them to retain their relative independence from the rest of the world.
Income for the island is derived from a variety of means, from the lucrative sale of crayfish, to cottage industries selling island handicrafts, and a share of profits from Tristan first-day stamp covers. Fishing brings them half a million pounds per year, and is used to pay for the expensive medical care of islanders in Cape Town, in addition to some home comforts. Most of the islanders’ food comprises fish, potatoes, and meat from the cattle which graze on the upper slopes of the volcano.
Life is still hard for the people of Tristan da Cunha, but communications technology has taken the edge off the loneliness, and access to health care and education has improved. The small community of people living on the world’s loneliest isle appear to have a certain future. Nature permitting, of course.