Relics of Empire: Tristan da Cunha

Smack in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean sits “the remotest island in the world.” This tiny colony of Great Britain is comprised of six small islands: Tristan da Cunha (the main body), flanked by Inaccessible, Nightingale, Middle, Stoltenhoff, and Gough. All but Tristan and Gough are unoccupied; however, Gough boasts little more than a manned weather station.

The islands were discovered in 1506 by Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha. The explorer was on his way to the Cape of Good Hope when he happened upon the islands; however, rough weather and tempestuous seas prevented him from making a landing. Before moving on, he named the island after himself, calling it Illha de Tristão da Cunha. This was later Anglicized to the modern name Tristan da Cunha.

Settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on T...
Settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on Tristan da Cunha Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few others happened by the islands throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, though none stayed long. In 1810, the first settler arrived: an American named Jonathan Lambert, who claimed the islands as his own property and renamed them the Islands of Refreshment. Neither the name nor rule stuck for long, as Lambert died just two years later.

British rule of Tristan da Cunha began soon thereafter, when the United Kingdom formally annexed the islands. The move was a strategic military one, made primarily to keep the island out of the hands of enemy forces. The British government feared that the islands could be used as a rescue base from which the French could free Napoleon Bonaparte from imprisonment on Saint Helena. There were also concerns that the Americans might try use the base again as they had done in 1812.

Initially, Tristan was populated by military personnel; however, the British garrison was soon bolstered by a growing population of civilians and whalers. This minor population growth was short lived though, and as the Suez Canal improved shipping lines, the islands once again sank into isolation.

By 1938, the islands had been declared a dependency of Saint Helena. The population grew marginally throughout the 20th century; however, when Queen Mary’s Peak erupted in 1961, the entire population was forced to evacuate. A year later, the island was assessed, and since damage was minimal, most families returned.

English: Portrait of Tristan da Cunha settler ...
Portrait of Tristan da Cunha settler Jonathan Lambert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the islanders carry on in relative obscurity. On occasion, such as during the extratopical cyclone in 2001, they receive relief from the British government. Mostly though, the islanders of Tristan da Cunha are largely self-sufficient – especially since the islands were given a unique UK postal code, allowing them to order needed supplies online.

The island is ruled by the Queen, represented by the Governor of Saint Helena. The governor appoints an administrator on the island who takes advice from a local island council.

The population of Tristan da Cunha is 264. Most of these are descended from 15 original ancestors who arrived on the island between the 1800s and 1900s. There are only eight surnames on the island, and these speak to the heritage of the inhabitants: Glass and Patterson (Scottish), Hagan (Irish), Rogers and Swain (English), Green (Dutch), Lavarello and Repetto (Italian).

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