When I met the Tristan da Cunha refugees at their camp in the Surrey hills, after the island volcano had erupted late in 1961, I was shown a pile of the school children's essays. The themes were their new life in England and their day's trip to London to be taught traffic safety — for at home they had never seen a car, train, horse, or even a real tree.
I wondered what most impressed them. The glittering shops? Buckingham Palace? The strutting red‑coated guardsmen?
Again and again appeared the words, 'The river Thames.'
'Why?' I asked, puzzled.
'Because it was water, and there were boats,' they told me.
And their teacher added, 'They miss the sea.'
No wonder. For the sea was their home. The high, stormy island of Tristan da Cunha had been for more than a century and a half the most remote inhabited land on earth — until for a year it became a desert isle again.
The captain of one of the big liners in the South Atlantic, who had seen the distant cone many times, told me that he understood. The isolated rock was like the deck of a ship under their feet. So they have clung to it almost fanatically for generations, and were determined to go back.
There are other strong reasons. And it has been fascinating to find that the patterns of the past have built up, like Tristan itself, a mountain of incidents to show why it is natural and inevitable that most of the islanders should have felt impelled to face any risks, any hardships, to go home.
p14 'They are the most marvellous boatmen,' said the South Atlantic captain.
They have had to be, to survive in those fierce and frantic seas, in their small home-made boats of canvas and driftwood. Every Tristan boy has learned to handle a dinghy and to fish as soon as he was big enough. The pride of his adolescence has been a place in a longboat, each built and owned by several men. And while he learned to row, he learned to swim — to save his life. But there is little swimming for pleasure at Tristan, since sharks hover near that small treacherous coast with its ghosts of floundering castaways.
The ocean around the island is more than •1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet) deep; a graveyard for the many vessels wrecked over the centuries — some described, others unseen and unknown. An explosion in the Tertiary era blew the great symmetrical cone up to its height of •18,000 feet from the bed of the South Atlantic — •6,760 feet above sea level.
The round island comprises •some thirty square miles, is •seven and a half miles in diameter, and has a coastline of •about twenty‑one miles. It is wheel-shaped, spoked with giant precipitous gulches of eroded lava. The slope rises steeply, with only a bare toehold on the north-west corner for a settlement. The ascent is so abrupt that the old crater at the summit, with its •mile-round lake of icy water, is only •four miles from the sea in any direction.
Down by the shore there are dark basalt rocks and black lava sand. Midway up the mountain, around the so‑called 'Base,' it is moist and lush with tree-ferns, waist-high or more, and an almost constant belt of cloud. Then from the 'Second Base,' above the timber line of •5,000 feet, the rise is so steep and cindery that even the sure-footed islanders rarely make the climb, except as guides to exploring foreigners.
The Tristan archipelago contains two much smaller islands, 1 Inaccessible and 2 Nightingale, each •less than twenty miles south-west and south-south-west of the main island, and •about nine miles apart; and two islets, 4 Middle and 5 Stoltenhoff, but all are uninhabited. 3 Gough Island, •250 miles distant, is also desert.
Other lonely islands of adventure — such as Pitcairn, Easter, Midway, Christmas, or Juan Fernandez — Robinson Crusoe's isle — are much nearer other populated archipelagoes or a mainland.
But Tristan da Cunha squats almost in the middle of the South Atlantic, roughly half‑way between South Africa and South America. It lies at approximately 37° South latitude — near the 'Roaring Forties'. p15 Its nearest inhabited neighbour is the island of St Helena, •1200 miles north.
No wonder it has been known as 'the loneliest isle on earth'.
Ships have been rare, especially since the end of the days of sail. Until recently their visits were often many months and sometimes years apart. Ever since the founding of the colony in 1816‑17, settlers have longingly scanned the horizon.
Never for a moment in their lives, before their evacuation in 1961, had most of the 264 islanders been out of earshot of the huge waves crashing against the •hundred-foot cliff above the beach. Never had they been far from the salt string of spray and the reek of kelp. Their sixty‑odd stone cottages cling like seabirds' nests to the windy lava shelf at the foot of the volcano: a rolling plateau •about five miles long and two miles wide, squeezed between the mountain and the ocean. Sometimes the winter gales last a fortnight. Even some of the thick low cabins have been blown down from around the great fireplaces where the families keep warm, cooking their fish and potatoes, knitting the white wool stockings and shaping the oxhide moccasins, telling gossipy stories and singing the old songs of the sea.
There have been explorers, sealers, whalers, pirates, adventurers, deserters, traders, sailors from men‑o'‑war and privateers, marooned men, perhaps a murderer whose buried treasure may now lie for ever under the new lava. But most of the islanders are descended from castaways, who in turn have cared for the later castaways buffeted ashore after them.
It was fated that their descendants were to become castaways from the land rather than the sea.
Not even the foreign geologists had supposed that the Tristan volcano would ever come to life. The archipelago lies on a submarine ridge which divides the Atlantic longitudinally with many volcanoes.a Some are active as in Iceland; some dormant as in the Azores; others extinct, like Ascension and St. Helena, and — it was assumed for centuries — Tristan da Cunha. Scientists estimated that the last eruption took place some 2,500 years ago. Then the Royal Society's geological expedition ventured on to Tristan in 1962 to investigate the fresh activity, and determined that the last flow must have occurred only between two hundred and three hundred years before.
p16 A number of old minor craters pit the landscape here and there — some, like the Ponds, blue-eyed with water. The island children and donkeys have long made a playground of a cluster of grass-grown cinder cones on the Settlement plain near the Potato Patches.
'These illustrate the fact,' wrote a missionary's wife in the 1920's, 'that at once Tristan must have been a centre of immense volcanic activity, and one of the hottest spots on earth. We were thankful that this was so only in prehistoric times.'
It seems characteristic that after hundreds of dormant years a new crater should have 'chosen' to erupt directly above the one tiny stretch where human beings could live and scratch a subsistence.
There were no aborigines on Tristan, and even the first few squatters did not appear until after 1800. Had there been any early tribes, they would doubtless have had a frightening mythology of the island gods.
The Christian colonists developed a stoic acceptance of merciless nature around them — not without minor superstitions of their own; many of the men were even afraid of going out in the dark. Tracing its history, it has seemed as if, from first to last, some malevolent force was trying to impede man's puny claims to plant a foot on the shore. Events have appeared to pile on the agonies like cheap fiction or the exaggerated plot of an opera. Through the centuries nearly every human challenge to share the unfriendly rock went wrong; until at last, the giant woke and tossed off the persistent little creatures.
For a year Tristan da Cunha was alone once more.
And yet —
'We will go back,' said the people, even in the hour of rescue, and over and over again, until it came true.
a Actually, Tristan da Cunha lies about 600 km east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Like the volcanos of Hawaii, the island is an instance of a slowly-moving magma hot spot: for details see this page at The Tristan da Cunha Website.
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Page updated: 26 Oct 18