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Tristan da Cunha

Posted in Adventure, History, Nature on Wednesday, 15 August 2007

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Tristan da Cunha (illustration, picture, art)

Tristan da Cunha

From the depths of lonely Tristan da Cunha island in the south Atlantic a volcano thrust a sea of molten lava over the harsh land and began a story of upheaval and hardship that the world will never forget.

The islanders knew that a giant lay sleeping under Tristan da Cunha. The immense black cone of the extinct volcano which towered over the island was as familiar to them as it had been to the mariners who for centuries had sailed that deserted region of the South Atlantic.

Then, on an October morning in 1961, the giant began to stir. Far to the north, people were expecting winter, but here it was spring. The sun shone in a clear blue sky and a warm wind blew in from the sea. The islanders were just leaving their small village to plant potatoes and tend their sheep.

Suddenly they heard a sound like the howling of a thousand hurricanes. The ground trembled and shook under their feet and huge chasms opened in the rocky ground. The islanders turned and ran back to the village as stones and showers of earth rained down on them.

Reaching the shelter of their homes they looked behind and to their horror saw a column of lava more than two hundred feet high rise up out of the earth. Terrified men, women, and children stood outside their houses and helplessly watched the inferno which was growing in front of their eyes. In the distance the ancient volcano was as silent and implacable as ever, yet less than two hundred yards from where they stood a new volcano was being born, sending a seething river of glowing lava down to their village.

But they did not stand there watching for long. They hastily gathered up a few belongings. As an immense black cloud blotted out the sun they ran for the beaches, piled into their canvas long-boats, and rowed out to a small fishing trawler which was moored near the shore. The entire population of Tristan da Cunha, 264 men, women, and children, crowded the decks of the small ship as it set sail for the neighbouring island of Nightingale, while the ship’s wireless operator sent an SOS to all ships on the high seas.

Less than a month later they had found a new “island,” in an abandoned R.A.F. barracks in England, after being rescued from Nightingale by a Dutch ship and being taken to Cape Town in South Africa. In Tristan they worked and read at night by the light of oil lamps. In England their rooms were flooded with light by simply pressing a switch on the wall. In England, the islanders suffered from coughs and colds and caught the flu. In their other island they were rarely ill, and their communal medicine cabinet was only used when somebody was hurt climbing the cliffs or fishing in the boats.

In England they listened to the radio, watched TV and went to the cinema, and yet they were bored. But on the island they were quite happy playing an old gramophone which had been given to them by King George V, and were satisfied playing a few records over and over again.

The islanders did not seem to get on with the English “locals.” The English they talked was hardly understood, for the islanders’ speech dated back to the kind of English which was talked in London’s dockland when Queen Victoria came to the throne. Instead of saying “right and left” they used “starboard and port” as sailors do. England was pronounced “Henglan” and things were never “it,” they were always “he” or “she.”

There was no crime on Tristan da Cunha. People never stole from one another and never fought. If people lost their tempers or became angry they simply went off alone into the fields to “cool off.” In England, however, the islanders were distressed by the news of crime and robbery with violence they heard on the radio and saw on TV.

Then, exactly a year after the volcano erupted, six men left England and went back to the island. They wanted to see what remained, if anything, of their former home.

In many ways nothing had changed — the same foaming breakers washed the shores, the ancient volcano still reared its snowcapped peak above the clouds, the fields were still green, and “crowberries” were still growing in the long “tussock” grass. But the scene near their village had changed completely. The beach where they used to tie up their fishing boats looked like a landscape on the Moon, piled high with hardened lava and huge, fantastically-shaped boulders.

The new volcano, which they named “Peter’s Peak,” was silent now, yet the giant under it must surely be half-awake, for the immense crater was giving off puffs of smoke, and when the wind changed and blew in their direction they could smell the choking fumes of sulphur. Yet a miracle was there for the men to feast their eyes on — their village was still there, completely unharmed. The river of lava which had boiled its way out of the crater had suddenly changed its direction less than fifty yards from the houses. They excitedly went inside them, to find saucepans still on the stoves and the tables set for a meal that was never eaten! Today the islanders are back in their homes on Tristan da Cunha. Only five of them wanted to stay in England. The decision was made by voting, the first, and perhaps the last time the islanders would have anything to do with “politics.”

They decided to return to their island in spite of the fact that they had begun to enjoy “civilization” as we know it. They began to watch TV more often, and began to accept working in factories and wearing the latest “fashions.” Yet in spite of all this they felt they were “Tristinians” first and English second.

Perhaps it is strange that such a tiny community of people should have such a strong attachment to an even tinier nation which has had so short a history compared with other nations. Tristan da Cunha was a deserted and almost unknown island until it was seen for the first time in 1506 by the Portuguese navigator Tristao d’Acunha, who gave the island its name. And the loneliest island in the world soon became known as an island of shipwrecks. In fact the islanders of today are the descendants of castaway mariners.

In 1810 Tristan only had a population of three. Jonathan Lambert, who was a whaling captain and a pirate, settled with two of his men on the island and called it the “Isle of Refreshment” because he planned to use it as a trading post to supply visiting seamen with water and food. Lambert even made himself a King, and designed his own national flag. Tristan became British five years later, when a military post was established, mainly to be ready in case Napoleon should escape from nearby St Helena — at least if one could call 1,500 miles of desolate ocean nearby!

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