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Tristan da Cunha

One of our sister islands

O, it’s a snug little island! A right little, tight little island!{h}

Tristan da Cunha lies some 2,000Km to the south of St Helena

Tristan da Cunha

One of three

Administratively St Helena is part of a three-island Territory: St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Previously the Territory of St Helena and Dependencies, when our new Constitution was adopted on 1st September 2009 the territory became known as ‘St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha’. All three islands{2} share the same Constitution, and the same Governor.

St Helena is (obviously) described in detail on this site. We do not (and have no plans to) provide equivalent sites for Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, but due to their close historic and cultural links to St Helena we provide below some basic information on Tristan da Cunha.

SEE ALSO: Ascension Island, and for some rather smaller islands, somewhat closer, see Islands.

About ‍Tristan da Cunha‍

Map of Tristan da Cunha
Map of Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha lies some 2,000Km to the south of St Helena at 37°4’S 12°19’W. Also a volcanic island, it was discovered by Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha in May 1506. He named it ‘Ilha de Tristão da Cunha’.

Some sources say the Portuguese made the first landing in 1520, when the Lás Rafael, captained by Ruy Vaz Pereira, called for water. The first undisputed landing was made on 7th February 1643 by the crew of the Dutch East India Company (VoC) ship Heemstede, captained by Claes Gerritsz Bierenbroodspot.

Jonathan Lambert

The island was first occupied by Jonathan Lambert, from Salem, Massachusetts, United States, who arrived at the island in December 1810 with two other men, and later a third. Lambert publicly declared all the islands his property and named them the Islands of Refreshment (postage stamp, right). Three of the four men died in 1812; however, the survivor among the original three permanent settlers, Thomas Currie (or Tommaso Corri) remained as a farmer on the island.

In 1816, the United Kingdom annexed the islands, ruling them from the Cape Colony in South Africa and Anglicising the name. This is reported to have primarily been a measure to ensure that the French would be unable to use the islands as a base for a rescue operation to free Napoleon from his prison on St Helena.

After an especially difficult winter in 1906, and years of hardship since the 1880s, the British government offered to evacuate the island. Those remaining on Tristan decided not to accept, thus deepening the island’s isolation. It is said that no ships visited from 1909 until 1919, when HMS Yarmouth finally stopped to inform the islanders of the outcome of World War 1.

On 10th October 1961, the eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak forced the evacuation of the entire population of 264 individuals (80 families). Islanders fled in open boats to uninhabited Nightingale Island, where they made camp until they were picked up by a Dutch passenger ship that took them via Cape Town to Britain. Damage to the settlement was, however, minimal and most families returned in 1963. Stamps commemorating the 60th anniversary were issued on 3rd November 2021.

Many scientific studies have been made of the islands, focussing on the wildlife but also on the culture, given that there is such a small group of people (264 in 2016) living in great isolation.

The main island is generally mountainous, covering 0.1Km²{3}. The only flat area is on the north-west coast, which is the location of the only settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (often referred to as ‘the settlement’). The highest point is a volcano called Queen Mary’s Peak at 2,062 metres. This is snow-covered by in winter. The other islands of the group are uninhabited, though there is a weather station on Gough Island with a staff of six.

The archipelago has a wet oceanic climate, with comfortable temperatures but frequent moderate to heavy rainfall and very limited sunshine due to the persistent westerly winds. Frost is unknown below elevations of 500 metres and summer temperatures are mild, rarely reaching 25°C.

Economically, the island is operated as a commune, as determined by William Glass in 1817. All families are farmers and own their own stock and/or fishing, but all land is communally owned and every household has a plot of land in an area known as ‘The Patches’ on which to grow vegetables, mostly potatoes. Livestock numbers are controlled to conserve pasture. Outsiders are not permitted to buy land or settle on Tristan. In addition to farming, most adults also have salaried jobs, working mostly for the Government. Many of the men also fish, going to sea in good weather. Valuable foreign earnings come from the commercial crawfish or Tristan rock lobster (‘Jasus’) industry. Tristan does not use the Saint Helena Pound (SHP), it uses the United Kingdom issue of the pound sterling (GBP).

Tristan can be reached only by sea. Fishing boats from South Africa call at the islands eight or nine times a year.

There is limited Internet connectivity and no mobile phone service. Almost no tourists visit Tristan da Cunha.

Tristan has eight elected councillors, from which one is elected ‘Chief Islander’ - a purely ceremonial position. The Governor is represented by an Administrator, appointed from London, who lives in ‘The Residency’.

For more history see the article below.

In October 2020 the island’s resident population was given as Males: 112; Females: 133, total 245, split over 9 families: Collins (1); Glass (31); Green (64); Hagan (8); Lavarello (12); Repetto (42); Rogers(27); Squibb (4) and Swain (56). In November of the same year a Marine Protection Zone encompassing 687,000Km².

More here:

Not Tristan

In a document from 1854, recording a trip from England to Melbourne, Australia, we read:

We passed, at a distance of about 8 miles, the island of Tristan da Cunha and it being a clear day, one got a beautiful view of it. Having read an account of the island, I can guess a little description of it. It is about six miles in circumference. No soil, is rocky and barren. The highest peak is 1160ft high. This is called the sugar loaf. There are two others between 8 and 9 hundred feet high. There are two streams of beautiful fresh water and in wet seasons the water washes down the sugar loaf rock thus widening a fine waterfall of about 700ft. A Captain Leslie visited this island in 1810. A captain who has since visited it placed a flag staff on the spot. I believe there have been many ships wrecked on this island and captains are warned not to approach it.

We don’t know where the chronicler actually visited but it certainly wasn’t Tristan da Cunha! The island was inhabited by 1854 and the main peaks are Queen Mary’s Peak (2,062m) and Mount Olav (1,969m) - there is no Sugar Loaf, even on the smaller islands.

One that got away…

Note that our assumed sister island, St Helena Nova, side-by-side with us in the South Atlantic, never actually existed!

Read More

Below: Article: Sixty years commemoratedArticle: Tristan da Cunha

Article: Sixty years commemorated

By Liam Yon, SAMS, published in The Sentinel, 4th November 2021{4}

Tristan release new stamps for 60th anniversary of volcanic eruption

Sixty years commemorated

Tristan Da Cunha have released, on 3rd November, four new stamps commemorating the 60th anniversary of Tristan’s 1961 volcanic eruptions and the evacuation of the population to England.

The 45p stamp depicts a photograph by Geoffrey Dominy, captain of the Frances Repetto, which shows evacuees being carefully offloaded from aboard the Frances Repetto to a waiting Tristan longboat off Nightingale Island on 11th October 1961, prior to being transferred to the Dutch liner Tjisadane.

The 60p stamp is a second photograph taken by Geoffrey Dominy on 10th October 1961, which shows the volcanic cone above the Tristan village emitting sulphurous smoke behind a grass-covered mound which arose the previous day. Superimposed on the photograph is an image of the Tristania, captained by Morris Scott.

The next stamp, costing £1.10, is of a British Pathé photograph showing Tristan Islanders Sophie Green and Edith Repetto on the deck of the RMS Stirling Castle as it arrives in Southampton on 3rd November 1961.

The fourth and final £1.80 stamp is of the Rogers family arriving at Pendell Camp, Surrey, on 3rd November 1961.

The volcanic eruption on Tristan da Cunha in October 1961 was a defining event in the Island’s history, because the entire community was forced to evacuate their Island. It was assumed when RMS Stirling Castle docked in Southampton, 3rd November 1961, that Tristan da Cunha would be abandoned as a home for the Islanders, and that their future lay in the UK. Thankfully though, many Islanders returned to Tristan and restored and developed the settlement that remains thriving and strong to this day.

Article: Tristan da Cunha

Wirebird cover, November 1961

Published in the St Helena Wirebird{6} November 1961{4}

Last month’s volcanic eruption on Tristan gave much cause for alarm and it was fortunate that the two fishing vessels ‘Tristania’ and ‘Frances Repetto’ were there at the time. Their presence and excellent work made possible the evacuation of the entire population without the slightest mishap. News of the disaster and the events which followed it were reported on in News Review. At the time of writing the people of Tristan have arrived in England a week ago and are being temporarily accommodated in Surrey. We wish them a happy resettlement.

Following the evacuation of the inhabitants from Tristan, Her Majesty the Queen sent the following message to the Island’s population: I and my husband send our deepest sympathy to the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha in the tragedy that has befallen their island home. I am, nonetheless, very glad to learn that all have been safely evacuated. I send my congratulations to all those who have taken part in this successful operation.

The then Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. lain Macleod) also sent a message to the Administrator of Tristan: I am very glad to hear that the evacuation has been successful. Please convey my sincere thanks to the ‘Tristania’ and ‘Frances Repetto’ for their really magnificent work. I have been much moved by the fortitude of your people and pray that they will all come to safety.

For the benefit of our readers we give a brief outline of the history and geography of Tristan which of course is included in the Colony of St. Helena.

Tristan da Cunha is really a group of four islands: Tristan da Cunha itself which was the only inhabited island, Inaccessible, Nightingale and Gough.

The islands were discovered by a Portuguese fleet under the command of Admiral Tristan da Cunha in March 1506, only four years after our own island was discovered, and first sighted by the British vessel the ‘Globe’ in 1610.

In 1655 an expedition was sent by Jan Van Riebeck, Governor of the Cape, to find out if any good could be made of the islands. The result was an unfavourable report and later in 1696 the Dutch East India Company (VoC) reported likewise.

At the end of December, 1810 the first settlers arrived at Tristan. They were three Americans who were reduced to one by two years later. A year after Napoleon was sent to St. Helena, HMS Falmouth landed a small British garrison on Tristan and laid formal claim to the islands; they have remained British ever since. The garrison was withdrawn a year later and the flag hauled down but three of the men headed by Corporal William Glass, his wife and two children, decided to remain and so became the founders of the Colony.

Tristan and its surrounding islands came under the British Crown in 1876. By this time the population had risen to 85; new settlers included Englishmen, Dutchmen, Americans and St Helenians.

Visits from whalers and East Indiamen and men-of-war between 1817 and 1876 made the island prosperous. In 1851 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent the Reverend W. F. Taylor to Tristan as the island’s first missionary and teacher. He stayed until 1857 but unfortunately was not replaced until 1881 when the Reverend E. H. Dogson, brother of Lewis Carroll, was appointed. In 1867 the Duke of Edinburgh, from whom the Settlement took its name, visited the island.

The replacement of sail by steam was largely responsible for the decline in Tristan (much as it was for St Helena). This was noticeable from 1888. Fewer ships called and consequently there was much loss of contact with the outside world. By 1904 the population was down to 71. So poor were communications that no mail was received from England between 1906 and 1910 and from 1909 to 1922 there was no missionary or teacher on the island.

In 1932 the Reverend Partridge who was on his second tour of service, was officially recognised as Honorary Commissioner and Magistrate. It was he who appointed a Headman and a Headwoman and set up an Island Council. These appointments were continued up to the time of the evacuation.

In 1938 the whole Tristan group of islands were made dependencies of St Helena and from 1859 to 1951 Tristan belonged to the Diocese of St Helena, but from then onwards it came under the See of Cape Town.

During the last war, in 1942, the South African Defence Force built a meteorological and wireless station there which was manned for the duration of the war by the Royal Navy. After the war it was taken over and maintained by the South African Government.

The opening of the station not only brought to an end the period of the Island’s isolation but made it less dependent on charity. Next came a very important step forward. The Reverend C. P. Lawrence, who many readers will remember as he visited St Helena with Archdeacon Wood and was the guest of Bishop Turner, being a Naval Chaplain, naturally had an interest in the sea and consequently recognised the possibilities of a crawfish industry at Tristan as the waters around the islands teemed with this rather precious shellfish. Due to his efforts an agreement was reached with a South African Company in 1948 to develop such an industry on Tristan. This brought the place really on the map and an Administrator was appointed.

In January 1949, the Tristan Exploration Company, later to become known as the Tristan da Cunha Development Company, started its fishing operations there.

The existing Island Council set up by the Reverend Partridge in 1932, was given legal recognition in 1952. The Council consisted of ten men and five women, the Headman, the Headwoman, the Chaplain, Company representatives and the Administrator.

And so the island progressed, the crawfish canning industry grew to be successful. Money came into circulation and the social life of the community had taken a good turn. There was an Island Store, which stocked practically everything required.

Much was done to improve agriculture. Livestock were making a steady improvement. Pasture lands were fenced and grazing controlled. Forests were developed and so successful was the forestry scheme that a number of trees were ready for cutting. Wild life was protected by legislation.

Tristan is the main island and is approximately 2,000 miles west of Cape Town and 1,500 miles south-south west of St Helena. There are a number of plateaus below the peak which erupted. The Settlement of Edinburgh is situated on the north west of the island on the largest of the plateaus. The island is circular in shape and has an area of 40 square miles. Permanent springs provided adequate water supplies.

The other islands of the group: Inaccessible, Nightingale and Gough, are smaller, the largest of these being Gough which has an area of 35 square miles. All the islands are surrounded by beds of kelp which help to moderate the swell.

The climate is temperate and the weather and temperature change rapidly.

Whether or not the eruption of the volcano has made any physical change to Tristan’s features, we do not know but today it stands an uninhabited island.


{a} Hadoram Shirihai, via Social Media{b} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (‘SHATPS’){c} www.tristandc.com{d} Earth Observatory, taken from the ISS{e} Frenchie Leo{f} John Ekwall, originator of the site ‘The Homepage of St Helena{g} www.tristandc.com{h} Thomas Dibdin, in ‘The Snug Little Island’


{1} Where the Administrator lives.{2} There are three inhabited islands, but all three have a number of associated islands, of varying sizes.{3} The island group covers 0.2Km².{4} @@RepDis@@{5} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{6} The Government newspaper{5}.{7} From which much of the information presented here is obtained{4}.