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1.04.2010

Armchair Circumnavigator: Tristan da Cunha

Coordinates: 37°4′0″S, 12°19′0″W
Capital: Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (known as The Settlement)
Language: English
Population: Barely 300 people.
Religions: Anglican, Roman Catholic
Monetary Unit: British Pound Sterling



When Napoleon was sent to St. Helena by the British, they annexed the nearest islands to prevent the French from attempting an ocean crossing of more than 1500 miles to rescue him. The islands in this chain were Nightingale Island, Inaccessible Island, and Tristan da Cunha Island.

Tristan da Cunha is so small that cartographers have trouble putting it on their maps. Located in the South Atlantic between Africa and South America, this volcanic outcropping has the honor of being named the remotest inhabited island on the planet. It is home to a population of 270 or so people, with an economy based in the fishing, lobstering, and stamp-making industries. The climate is sub-tropical, with very little variation in temperature from season to season. Outside of a level area located at the northwestern edge of the island, the rest is mountainous and rocky. The Tristanians quite literally live under the volcano. In 1961 a cone near The Settlement began to erupt and the entire community was evacuated to England. After two years an investigation was conducted and it was found that damage had been minimal and the residents were allowed to return.

The current population is thought to have descended from 15 ancestors: eight males and seven females who arrived on the island at various times between 1816 and 1908. The male founders originated from Scotland, England, The Netherlands, the USA, and Italy, and the women were brought in from a neighboring island as mail-order brides. Consequently, the families on Tristan share just eight surnames: Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Repetto, Rogers, Swain, and Patterson. The addition of the eighth surname, Patterson, occurred recently when a Tristanian married an Englishman and returned to settle on Tristan. Due to the island's history of endogamy, there are instances of health problems, including asthma and glaucoma. There is an excellent 30-minute BBC documentary about this that you can watch here. Health care is free, but with just one resident doctor from South Africa and five nurses, services are limited and emergency care often necessitates making radio calls to passing vessels so that the injured can be transferred to Cape Town.

All Tristan families are farmers, owning their own stock. All land is communally owned and livestock numbers are strictly controlled to conserve pasture and to prevent better-off families from accumulating wealth. For instance, a single person will be given one cow and two sheep. A man with a wife and family is given two cows and two sheep per family member. Additionally, each family is given their own potato patch. No outsiders are allowed to buy land or settle on the island.

The islanders frequently face the full wrath of Atlantic storms, battered by gusts of wind that can reach nearly 200 miles per hour. Once the wind was so strong that it swept some grazing cows and sheep from the fields and into the ocean.

The island follows a pretty set Monday through Friday routine, the work divided between that which benefits the family and that which aides the community. Sunday is for relaxing, church, and spending time with family. The island also has a social hall, a cafe, a supermarket, and a pub.

Television did not arrive on the island until 2001 and the only channel available is the British Forces Broadcasting Service from the Falkland Islands. Education is rudimentary, the children graduating at the age of fifteen.

Every year on Old Year's Night (December 31st), the men of the island disguise themselves in costumes and masks and spend the evening visiting the houses in The Settlement, scaring the women and children. They take care never to utter a word, despite the noise, so as not to give away their identities. They even wear gloves so that their families will not recognize them by their hands. The custom has a long history, although it has evolved over the generations. It is traditional for the Government Administrator to host an evening reception for the men, which is held in the Residency Garden. Called Okalalies, the men bring bunches of flowers which they present to the hostess.

Tristan da Cunha warmly welcomes visitors, but strict guidelines must be followed, and permission from the island council can take up to two years to attain.

Visit Tristan da Cunha's official website.

Sources:
Dark Roasted Blend
Wikipedia
Photo Credits:
Rob Crossan & Simon Dunston
Sue Scott
Jean-Pierre Langer
Manuel Bauer
Peter Baldwin
Roland Swensson

9 comments :

  1. I think I mentioned Tristan da Cunha in the comments section of your first Armchair Circumnavigator post. I love how the next largest island in the archipelago is named Inaccessible Island. :)

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  2. Raoul Schrott has written an entertaining novel-history of this island and its inhabitants, "Tristan da Cunha oder die Hälfte der Erde" -well worth reading.

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  3. Too bad, I could not find any english translation of Schrott's work. When I last read about him, he's living in Ireland, I am surprised he has not been translated.

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  4. Willow: Judging from the BBC documentary I linked to, the people seem a bit rigid, but nice. No pretensions whatsoever.

    Earl: Last night I thought that it was Pitcairn Island you mentioned, but now that I read you comment I think you're right.

    Merisi: Another must-read (once I'm fluent in German). Thanks!

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  5. I'd love to hike around that island. It's beautiful.

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  6. Due to the Tristanians' distinct genetic links with asthma, as well as their isolation, they are unwittingly helping to relieve the plight of all asthma sufferers, and with the help of people like the doctor in the documentary, the disease may be curable in the near future. Some thoughtless people in YouTube derided and judged them for being "inbreds", but they may very well have children one day that will benefit from the islanders' misfortune.

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  7. wow, i love that last shot...

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  8. Due to the Tristanians' distinct genetic links with asthma, as well as their isolation, they are unwittingly helping to relieve the plight of all asthma sufferers, and with the help of people like the doctor in the documentary, the disease may be curable in the near future. Some thoughtless people in YouTube derided and judged them for being "inbreds", but they may very well have children one day that will benefit from the islanders' misfortune.

    ReplyDelete

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