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Article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha, the general name for a group of three small volcanic islands belonging to Great Britain, situated in the South Atlantic, the summit of the largest being in 37° 5′ 50″ S., 12° 16′ 40″ W. They are about 2000 m. W of the Cape of Good Hope and about 4000 m. NE of Cape Horn and lie somewhat north of a line drawn between the two capes. St Helena lies about 1500 m. NNE of the group. The islands rise from the submarine elevation which runs down the centre of the Atlantic and on which are likewise situated Ascension, St Paul's Rocks and the Azores; the average depth on this ridge is from 1600 to 1700 fathoms, while depths of 3000 fathoms are found on each side of it. The depth between the islands is in some places over 1000 fathoms.

Tristan, the largest and northernmost island, has an area of 16 sq. m., is nearly circular in form, about 7 m. in diameter, and has a volcanic cone (7640 ft.), usually capped with snow, in the centre. Precipitous cliffs, 1000 to 2000 ft. in height, rise directly from the ocean on all sides, except on the north-west, where there is an irregular plain, 100 ft. above the sea, and 2½ m. in length and ½ m. in breadth. A stream crosses the northern end of the plateau, falling over the cliff edge in a fine cascade. The crater of the central cone contains a fresh-water lake about 150 yds. in diameter. This and other crater lakes are said never to be frozen over.

Inaccessible Island, the westernmost of the group, is about 20 m. from Tristan. It is quadrilateral in form, the sides being about 2 m. long, and its area is about 4 sq. m. The highest point (1840 ft.) is on the west side; all round there are perpendicular cliffs about 1000 ft. in height. At the base of the cliffs in some places are narrow fringes of beach a few feet above the sea-level.

Nightingale Island, the smallest and most southern of the group, is 10 m. from Inaccessible Island. Its area is not more than 1 sq. m. Its coasts, unlike those of the other two islands, are surrounded by low cliffs, from which there is a gentle slope up to two peaks, the one 1100 ft., the other 960 ft. high. There are two small islets — Stoltenhoff (325 ft.) and Middle (150 ft.) — and several rocks adjacent to the coast.

The rocks of Tristan da Cunha are felspathic basalt, dolerite, augite-andesite, sideromelane and palagonite; some specimens of the basalt have porphyritic augite.​1 The caves in Nightingale Island indicate that it has been elevated several feet. On almost  p295 all sides the islands are surrounded by a broad belt of kelp, the gigantic southern seaweed (Macrocystis pyrifera), through which a boat may approach the rocky shores even in stormy weather. There is no good anchorage in rough weather.

The beaches and lower lands are covered with a dense growth of tussock grass (Spartina arundinacea), 8 to 10 ft. in height. It shelters vast numbers of penguins (Eudyptes chrysocoma), which there form their rookeries. There is one small tree (Phylica nitida), which grows in detached patches on the lower grounds. Independently of introduced plants, fifty-five species have been collected in the group, twenty-nine being flowering plants and twenty-six ferns and lycopods. A majority of the species are characteristic of the present general flora of the south temperate zone rather than any particular part of it: botanically the group is generally classed with the islands of the Southern Ocean. A finch (Nesospiza acunhae), a thrush (Nesocichla eremita), and a water-hen (Gallinula nesiotis) are the only land birds — the first two being peculiar to the islands. In addition to the penguins numerous other sea birds nest on the islands, as petrels, albatrosses, terns, skuas and prions. One or two land shells, a few spiders, several Coleoptera, a small lepidopter and a few other insects are recorded, but no Orthoptera or Hymenoptera. There appear to have been no indigenous mammals or reptiles. Seals frequent Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands, and the whale (Balaena australis) is found in the adjacent waters.

The prevailing winds are westerly. December to March is the fine season. The climate is mild and on the whole healthy, the temperature averaging 68° Fahr. In summer, 55° in winter — sometimes falling to 40°. Rain is frequent; hail and snow fall occasionally on the lower grounds. The sky is usually cloudy. The islands have a cold and barren appearance. The tide rises and falls about 4 ft.

History. — The islands were discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese admiral Tristan, or more correctly Tristão da Cunha,​2 after whom they are named, during a voyage to India. Thereafter the islands (which were uninhabited) were occasionally visited by outward bound ships to the Indies. Dutch vessels brought back reports on the islands in 1643, and in 1656 Van Riebeek, the founder of Cape Town, sent a ship from Table Bay to Tristan to see if it was suitable for a military station, but the absence of a harbour led to the project being abandoned. Later in the 17th century ships were sent from St Helena by the English East India Company to Tristan to report on a proposed settlement there, but that project also came to naught. 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 1701, during which time they captured 5600 seals; but the first permanent inhabitant was one Thomas Currie, who landed on the island in 1810. At this time American whalers frequented the neighbouring waters and, in the same year, an American named Lambert "late of Salem, mariner and citizen thereof" and a man named Williams made Tristan their home. 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 this year between the United States and Great Britain 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 the 14th of August 1816. A small garrison was maintained on Tristan until November of the following year. 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 St Helena were induced to migrate to Tristan to become the wives of the five bachelors then on the island. Later coloured women from Cape Colony married residents in the island. Other settlers are of Dutch, Italian and Asiatic origin. Thus the inhabitants are of mixed blood, but the British strain greatly predominates. Over the little community Glass (1817‑1853) ruled 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 one hundred twenty-five emigrated to the United States. The next year forty-five of the inhabitants removed to Cape Colony; whither 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. It is named Edinburgh in memory of a visit in 1867 by the duke of Edinburgh. 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.

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 St Helena; Cotton was succeeded by Peter William Green, a native of Amsterdam who 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 depredations of the Confederate cruisers "Alabama" and "Shenandoah" during the American Civil War, many whaling boats being captured and burnt by them. As a result the number of ships calling at Tristan considerably diminished and trade languished. In 1880 the population appears to have attained its maximum — 109.​a In 1885 a serious disaster befell the islanders, a lifeboat which went to take provisions to a ship in the offing 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 have rendered impossible the growing of wheat; the wealth of the islanders now consists in their cattle, sheep, potatoes and apple and peach trees. The population in 1897 was only 64; in 1901 it was 74, and in 1909, 95. They manage their own affairs without any written laws, the project once entertained of providing them with a formal constitution being deemed unnecessary. The inhabitants are described as moral, religious, hospitable to strangers, well mannered and industrious, healthy and long lived. They are without intoxicating liquors and are said to commit no crimes. They are 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 to their efforts is mainly due the education of the children. 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 had been made and declined several times since the question was first mooted in 1886. In 1905 a lease of  p296 Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough islands, for the purpose of working the guano deposits, was granted by the British government.

Gough Island. — Gough Island or Diego Alvarez lies in the South Atlantic in 40° 20′ S., 9° 44′ W., and is 250 m. SSE of Tristan da Cunha and some 1500 m. west by south of Cape Town. It is of volcanic origin, is rugged and mountainous, the highest peak rising to 4380 ft. The island is about 8 m. long by 4 m. broad and has an area of 40 sq. m. Precipitous cliffs, from 200 to 1000 ft. high, characterize the coast. They are divided by picturesque valleys, which, in some instances, have been cut down to sea-level and afford landing-places. Streams fall over the cliffs into the sea in fine cascades. The island is visited by vast numbers of penguins and contains valuable guano deposits. It is also the home of numerous seals. The rainfall is heavy and vegetation abundant. The island is believed to have been discovered by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Originally called Diego Alvarez, it derives its other name from a Captain Gough, the commander of a British ship which visited it in 1731. It has been claimed as a British possession since the annexation of Tristan da Cunha. In 1904 Gough Island was visited by the Antarctic exploring ship "Scotia" of the Bruce expedition, which discovered a rich marine fauna, two new buntings and three new species of plants. It has no permanent population.

A comprehensive account of Tristan da Cunha appeared in The Cape Times (January-March 1906), in a series of articles by W. Hammond Tooke, the commissioner sent to the islands by the Cape government in 1904. See also Transactions of the Linnean Society for 1819 (contains a report of an ascent of the summit by Captain Dugald Carmichael in 1817); A. Earle, Narrative of a . . . Residence in New Zealand . . . together with a Journal of a Residence in Tristan d'Acunha (London, 1832); Mrs K. M. Barrow, Three Years in Tristan da Cunha (London, 1910); H. N. Moseley, Notes by a Naturalist on the "Challenger" (new ed., London, 1892); F. and G. Stoltenhoff, "Two Years on Inaccessible," in Cape Monthly Mag. (December 1873). Among papers relating to Tristan da Cunha published by the British government, see especially reports issued in 1897, 1903, 1906 — which gives a detailed account of the island and islanders — and 1907. For the discovery of Tristan see The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque (Hakluyt Society's Series, 1875, vol. 53).º For Gough Island, see R. N. R. Brown of the "Scotia" expedition, "Diego Alvarez or Gough Island," in Scottish Geog. Mag. (August 1905); Brown and others, "The Botany of Gough Island," in Journ. Linnean Soc. (Botany) (1905), and The Voyage of the "Scotia" ch. xii (London, 1906). The Africa Pilot, pt. II (5th ed., 1901), contains descriptions both of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island.​b

The Author's Notes:

1 On the occurrence in Tristan da Cunha of rock of continental type (gneiss) see E. H. L. Schwarz of the Geological Survey, Cape Colony, in the Transactions South African Philosoph. Soc., No. 16 of 1905.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Tristan da Cunha (fl. 1460‑1540) was nominated first viceroy of Portuguese India in 1504, but was unable to serve owing to temporary blindness; in 1506 he was placed in command of a fleet which operated on the east coast of Africa and in the Indies, Alphonso d'Albuquerque (q.v.) having charge of a squadron under da Cunha. After discovering the islands which now bear his name, da Cunha landed in Madagascar, subsequently visiting Mozambique, Brava (where he reduced the Arab power) and Sokotra, which he conquered. He also distinguished himself in the Indies in various actions. In 1514 he was ambassador to Pope Leo X to pay homage for the new conquests of Portugal, and was, later on, made a member of the Portuguese privy council.

Thayer's Notes:

a The population steadily rose during the twentieth century, peaking just short of 300 before declining slightly to its present level of about 250.

b As might be expected, this 1911 reading list is out of date. My site includes the transcription of two entire books on Tristan written after 1911, and each includes an extensive bibliography, that curiously don't overlap as much as one might think:

Gane 1932: orientation page bibliography

Mackay 1964: orientation page bibliography

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20