Friday, September 15, 2006

Tristan da Cunha

Marooned on Tristan

Possibly one of the most remote islands in the World, Tristan da Cunha, named after the Portuguese navigator Tristão d'Acunha, who accidentally spotted this speck of rock, lies in the South Atlantic thousands of kilometres from anywhere. Originally named Ilha de Tristão da Cunha (Island of Tristan da Cunha), this was later shortened by its inhabitants to Tristan. The Tristan archipelago consists of five islands, most of them; Nightingale, Middle and Stoltenhoff are completely inaccessible. With the appearance of sharp rocks, the islands are the pinnacle of mountains buried beneath the sea, rising out of the ocean and pointing into the heavens. The main island Tristan is an active volcano.
The island is so small that cartographers fail to put it on their maps as they simply don’t have the printing machinery does not have the appropriate lettering that can print a pinpoint.
Yet despite its miniscule size, Tristan da Cunha is an important example of human endurance in the face of natural disasters to other islanders.
With a population of barely three hundred people today, Tristan was not settled until 1810, when an American Captain William Lambert landed there. The descendants of today’s Tristanians were shipwrecked sailors from varied nationalities. During the outbreak of war between England and the United States in 1812, Tristan was being used as a base for American cruisers to spy on British merchant ships. Later in response to this, Britain took possession of the islands as a dependency. Although the new settlers established a garrison on Tristan until November 1817, William Glass, the first settler to the island encouraged the settlers to grow their own crops, and brought sheep, pigs and cattle to provide sustenance. Later two additional mariners were shipwrecked on the island by chance and decided to remain; to satisfy their biological needs, two black women were sent from St.Helena to become the wives of the five desperate bachelors. More black women were transported from the Cape at a later date. Despite being British citizens, the island community is the dish served from a melting pot of cultures, with its residents boasting English, Scottish, Dutch, Italian and West African ancestry.
The island has known disasters that has almost led its population to extinction, but potato has been the island’s lucky fruit, for Tristan the potato is a lifeline; they use it for food, cooking such dishes as potato cakes and potato pudding, but also for feeding their cattle which provides them with dairy and poultry feed which provide them with eggs for cooking and feathers for pillows. Tristanians rely heavily on the potato. Potato famines in the 19th century were therefore very damaging to the population, and challenged their survival.
Equally other dangers exist too, the ocean for one, let us not forget that Tristan is surrounded by the expansive Atlantic ocean, and that its islanders need occasionally ride its choppy waves to get fish, mail from passing ships and supplies. The most serious challenge to the island was when a lifeboat carrying fifteen male islanders sunk, leaving only four males on the island. It was a heavy blow to the community. Secondly, a plague of rats destroyed many crops forcing the islanders almost to the point of starvation. Time and time again, the islanders faced obstacles and tests for their survival. Grave levels of mortality among the cattle and total failure in 1906 prompted proposals by the British government to evacuate the inhabitants elsewhere, but the islanders refused and stayed put.
The only thing Tristan is spared of is the kind of alcohol induced social problems we face in Britain. Perhaps the lack of ale, which is both difficult and costly to import due the geographical isolation of the island, had a part to play in the low crime rate, or maybe the islanders were naturally well-mannered. So orderly are the Tristanians that plain common sense, moral and religious judgment alone are enough to keep the community in peace with itself; the islanders rejected a formal constitution and deal with matters without written laws. But even with the absence of hollering drunks, the islanders have the highest proportion of Asthma sufferers in the World, with 30% of its inhabitants suffering from the condition. Several of the daring sailors who settled there had this condition.
Through time matters got worse, when in1961, the islanders faced the greatest uncertainty, when an unexpected volcano erupted belching sulphuric smoke and red hot lava, followed by earth tremors and falling rocks, which forced the evacuation of the majority of its residents to Southern England. Later they returned rather than stay in Britain. Even as recent as 2001, a severe storm devastated the island and bad weather made it difficult to deliver supplies. The gusts of wind which were 190km per hour were so strong that it swept cows and sheep from fields and into a watery grave-not unaccustomed to watching flying bovine outside of their windows, the islanders frequently face the full wrath of Atlantic storms.
So why do they put up with it?
It would have been an easy decision of the Tristanians to stay in Southampton back in 1961; life was more predictable and full of conveniences. You could find almost every commodity you needed and there was no such thing as “out of season”, even in 1961 but the Tristanians all decided to go back to Tristan and grow potatoes again. Why? Quite simply because it is their home and a large part of their identity, they would no longer be Tristanians without the rock. Looking beyond the advantages of electricity, central heating and hot water on demand, the islanders chose to return to two hours of sun shine a day and 60 ml of rain a week because that is. For the same reasons, many Turkish Cypriots too despite benefiting more from London life return to Northern Cyprus to put up with power cuts and terrible roads. After all home is where the heart is.


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