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History of Tristan da Cunha

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Title: History of Tristan da Cunha  
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Subject: History of Africa, History of Tristan da Cunha, 1961 in Nigeria, 1962 in Nigeria, 2013 in Cape Verde
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History of Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha is part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha[1] and has a history going back to the beginning of the 16th century.


  • Discovery 1
  • 17th century 2
  • 18th century 3
  • 19th century 4
  • 20th century 5
    • 21st century 5.1
  • References 6


Tristan da Cunha on February 6, 2013, as seen from the International Space Station

The uninhabited islands of Tristan da Cunha were first sighted in May 1506 during a voyage to India by the Portuguese admiral Tristão da Cunha, although rough seas prevented a landing. He named the main island after himself, Ilha de Tristão da Cunha, which was later anglicised to Tristan da Cunha Island.[2] His discovery appeared on nautical maps from 1509 and on Mercator's world map of 1541.

17th century

Though far west of the Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of Cape Town, who sent a ship from Table Bay. The idea to use the islands as a supply base was eventually abandoned, probably due to the absence of a safe harbour.[5]

In the 17th century ships were sent from Saint Helena by the English East India Company to Tristan to report on a proposed settlement there, but that project also came to nothing.

18th century

The first survey of the archipelago was made by the French corvette Heure du Berger in 1767. Soundings were taken and a rough survey of the coastline was made. The presence of water at the large waterfall of Big Watron and in a lake on the north coast were noted, and the results of the survey were published by a Royal Navy hydrographer in 1781.

A British naval officer who visited the group in 1760 gave his name to Nightingale Island. John Patten, the master of an English merchant ship, and part of his crew lived on Tristan from August 1790 to April 1791, during which time they captured 3600 seals.

The first known attempt to climb Queen Mary's Peak was in 1793 by the French naturalist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, but this was without success. However, from this expedition hundreds of plants were collected and catalogued.

19th century

Jonathan Lambert

During this time American whalers frequented the neighboring waters, and in December 1810 an American named Jonathan Lambert "late of Salem, mariner and citizen thereof," along with an Italian named Thomas Currie and another man named Williams made Tristan their home, establishing the first permanent settlement on the island.[6] Lambert declared himself sovereign and sole possessor of the group (which he renamed Islands of Refreshment) "grounding my right and claim on the rational and sure ground of absolute occupancy". Lambert's sovereignty was short lived, as he and Williams were drowned while out fishing in May 1812. Currie was joined, however, by two other men and they busied themselves in growing vegetables, wheat and oats, and in breeding pigs.

War having broken out in 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom, the islands were largely used as a base by American cruisers sent to prey on British merchant ships. This and other considerations urged by Lord Charles Somerset, then governor of Cape Colony, led the British government to authorize the islands being taken possession of as dependencies of the Cape. The formal proclamation of annexation was made on 14 August 1816. This is reported to have primarily been a measure to ensure that the French would not be able to use the islands as a base for a rescue operation to free Napoleon Bonaparte from his prison on Saint Helena. Attempts to colonize Inaccessible Island failed.

The islands were occupied by a garrison of British Marines, and a civilian population was gradually built up. Whalers also set up on the islands as a base for operations in the Southern Atlantic.

In January 1817 the first successful climb was made to the peak of Queen Mary's Peak.

A small garrison was maintained on Tristan until November 1817. At their own request William Glass (d. 1853), a corporal in the Royal Artillery, with his wife and two children and two masons were left behind, and thus was begun the present settlement. From time to time additional settlers arrived or shipwrecked mariners decided to remain; in 1827 five coloured women from Saint Helena were induced to migrate to Tristan to become the wives of the five desperate bachelors then on the island. Later, African women from Cape Colony married residents in the island. Other settlers are of Dutch, Italian and Asian origin. Thus the inhabitants are of mixed heritage, but of predominantly British ancestry.

Glass ruled over the little community from 1817 to 1853 in patriarchal fashion. Besides raising crops, the settlers possessed numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs, but their most lucrative occupation was seal-fishing. The island was still frequented by American whalers, and in 1856 out of a total population of about 100, twenty-five emigrated to the United States. The next year forty-five of the inhabitants removed to Cape Colony, where the younger or more restless members of the community have since gone — or else taken to a seafaring life.

The inhabitants had of necessity made their settlement on the plain on the north-west of Tristan; here a number of substantial stone cottages and a church were built.

Pieter Willemszoon Groen (1808-1902), known as Peter William Green, was the "uncrowned king of Tristan da Cunha"

After the death of Glass the head of the community for some time was an old man-of-war's man named Cotton, who had been for three years guard over Napoleon at Saint Helena; Cotton was succeeded by Peter William Green, a native of Katwijk aan Zee who had settled in the island in 1836. During Green's "reign" the economic condition of Tristan was considerably affected by the desertion of the neighbouring seas by the whalers; this was largely due to the outbreak of the American Civil War and the depredations of the Confederate cruisers CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah, which captured and burned many whaling boats. As a result, the number of ships calling at Tristan considerably diminished and trade languished.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, together with the gradual move from sailing ships to coal-fired steam ships, the isolation of the islands increased as they were no longer needed as a stopping port for journeys from Europe to the Far East.

In 1867, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria, visited the islands. The main settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, was named in honour of his visit.

In October 1873 the islands were carefully surveyed by the Challenger, which removed to Cape Town two Germans, brothers named Stoltenhoff, who had been living on Inaccessible Island since November 1871. This was the only attempt at colonization made on any save the main island of the group.

In 1880 the population appears to have attained its maximum. In 1885 a serious disaster befell the islanders: a poor winter had left the islanders short of food, and a boat that went to barter with a ship offshore was lost with all hands — fifteen men — and only four adult males were left on the island. At the same time a plague of rats — survivors of a shipwrecked vessel — wrought much havoc among the crops. Plans were made for the total removal of the inhabitants to the Cape, but the majority preferred to remain. Stores and provisions were sent out to them by the British government.

The ravages of the rats rendered the growing of wheat impossible; the wealth of the islanders now consisted of their cattle, sheep, potatoes, and apple and peach trees, and the only form of currency was the potato. The population in 1897 was only 64; in 1901 it was 74, and in 1909, 95.

Tristan da Cunha's residents managed their own affairs without any written laws, the project once entertained of providing them with a formal constitution having been deemed unnecessary. The inhabitants have been described as moral, religious, hospitable to strangers, well-mannered and industrious, healthy and long-lived. They lack intoxicating liquors and were said to commit no crimes. As of 2003, there have been no divorces. They were daring sailors, and in small canvas boats of their own building voyage to Nightingale and Inaccessible islands. They knit garments from the wool of their sheep, are good carpenters, and make serviceable carts.

From time to time, ministers of the Church of England have lived on the island, and the education of the children on the island is mainly due to their efforts. The Reverend Edwin Dodgson, the youngest brother of mathematician and writer Charles L. Dodgson (author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) served as pastor to the population of Tristan da Cunha from 1881 to 1884, and again from 1886 to 1889.

20th century

In 1906 the islanders passed through a period of distress owing to great mortality among the cattle and the almost total failure of the potato crop. The majority again refused, however, to desert the island, though offered allotments of land in Cape Colony. Similar proposals were made and declined several times since the question was first mooted in 1886.

A 1938 stamp of Saint Helena overprinted for use in Tristan da Cunha from 1952.

On 12 January 1938, by Letters Patent, the islands were declared a dependency of Saint Helena. Prior to this, passing ships stopped irregularly at the island for a period of mere hours.[7]

During World War II, the islands were used as a top secret Royal Navy weather and radio station codenamed HMS Atlantic Isle, to monitor U Boats (which needed to surface to maintain radio contact) and German shipping movements in the South Atlantic Ocean. The only currency in use on the island at this time was the potato, and islanders labouring to construct the station were paid in kind with naval supplies for their own use, such as wood, paint and tea. Money was introduced the following year, as was the island's first newspaper, The Tristan Times. The first Administrator, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander E.J.S. Woolley, was appointed by the British government during this time.

The second Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, visited the islands in 1957 as part of a world tour on board the royal yacht Britannia.

In 1958, as part of Operation Argus, the United States Navy exploded an atomic bomb 200 kilometres (124 mi) high in the upper atmosphere, 115 kilometres (71 mi) southeast of the main island.

The 1961 eruption of Queen Mary's Peak forced the evacuation of the entire population[8] via Cape Town to wooden huts in the disused Pendell Army Camp in Merstham, Surrey, England, before moving to a more permanent site at a former Royal Air Force station in Calshot near Southampton, England, living mainly in a road called Tristan Close. In 1962, a Royal Society expedition went to the islands to assess the damage, and reported that the settlement Edinburgh of the Seven Seas had been only marginally affected. Most families returned in 1963 led by Willie Repetto (head of the ten-person island council) and Allan Crawford (the former island welfare officer).

21st century

On 23 May 2001, the islands experienced an extratropical cyclone that generated winds up to 193 kilometres per hour (120 mph). A number of structures were severely damaged and a large number of cattle were killed, prompting emergency aid from the British government.[9]

In 2005, the islands were given a United Kingdom post code (TDCU 1ZZ) to make it easier for the residents to order goods online.

The St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009 was made by Her Majesty the Queen and the Privy Council on 8 July and came into operation on 1 September 2009. The new Constitution replaced the 1988 version and among other changes limited the Governor's powers, included a Bill of Rights, established independence of the judiciary and the public service and formally designated the Governor of St Helena as, concurrently, the Governor for Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. It also ended the "dependency" status of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha on St Helena.

On 4 December 2007 an outbreak of an acute virus-induced flu was reported. This outbreak was compounded by Tristan's lack of suitable and sufficient medical supplies.[10] The British coastguard in Falmouth co-ordinated international efforts to get appropriate medicines to Tristan to treat the virus. Tristan’s elderly population and the very young were most at risk; however, only four elderly people were hospitalised. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Vessel RFA Gold Rover upon reaching the island with the required medical supplies found no emergency and the islanders in good general health.

On 13 February 2008, fire destroyed the fishing factory and the four generators that supplied power to the island. Backup generators were used to power the hospital and give power for part of the day to the rest of the island. Power was on during the day and early evening and candlelight was used the rest of the time. On 14 March 2008, new generators were installed and uninterrupted power was restored. This fire was devastating to the island because fishing is a mainstay of the economy. Royal Engineers from the British Army worked on the harbour to help maintain it, as everything comes and goes by sea. This was supported by a LSDA vessel Lyme Bay from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The concrete topping put in place has subsequently been badly damaged and on-going repairs will be required to keep the harbour from breaking apart in winter storms.

On 16 March 2011, the Maltese-registered freighter MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, spilling tons of heavy fuel oil into the ocean. The crew were rescued, but the ship broke up, leaving an oil slick that surrounded the island, threatening its population of rockhopper penguins.[11] Nightingale Island has no fresh water, so the penguins were transported to Tristan da Cunha for cleaning.[12] The Greek captain and his 21 Filipino crew stayed in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and assisted the islanders in their work.[13]

In November 2011 the Volvo Ocean Race boat Puma's Mar Mostro headed to the island after the mast came down to meet a supporting vessel in the first leg between Alicante (Spain) and Cape Town (South Africa). This event put the archipelago in the world press that were reporting the race, making it known to a larger public.

A total solar eclipse will pass over the island on December 5, 2048. The island is on the centre line for nearly two and a half minutes of totality. [2]


  1. ^ """The St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009, see "EXPLANATORY NOTE. Retrieved 2010-04-18. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ H.C.V. Leibbrandt (1900). Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope: Letters dispatched from the Cape, 1652-1662 3. Cape Town: W.A. Richards & Sons. pp. 344–352. 
  4. ^ Headland, Robert K. (1989). Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events (Studies in Polar research). University of Cambridge. p. 64.  
  5. ^ "Tristan History 1506 - 1817". Tristan da Cunha Government and the Tristan da Cunha Association. May 2005. 
  6. ^ Mackay, Margaret (1963) Angry Island: The Story of Tristan da Cunha, 1506–1963. London: Arthur Barker, p. 30
  7. ^ By Wireless from R.M.S. Empress of Australia. "Royal Gifts Gladden 172 On Lonely Atlantic Island" (Tristan da Cunya)," New York Times. 24 March 1935.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Barwick, Sandra (2001-06-07). "120 mph storm devastates Tristan da Cunha". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  10. ^ "Remote virus-hit island seeks aid". BBC News. 2007-12-04. 
  11. ^ "MS Oliva runs aground on Nightingale Island". The Tristan da Cunha Website. Retrieved 23 March 2011. 
  12. ^ BBC News Oil-soaked rockhopper penguins in rehabilitation
  13. ^ Saint Helena Independent 25 March 2011 p. 3

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