Tristan da Cunha is a group of remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, 2,816 km (1,750 miles) from South Africa and 3,360 km (2,088 miles) from South America. It is a dependency of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, 2,430 km (1,510 miles) to the north. The territory consists of the main island, Tristan da Cunha (area: 98 km², 38 sq mi ), as well as several uninhabited islands: Inaccessible Island and the Nightingale Islands. Gough Island (area: 91 km², 35 sq mi ), situated 395 km (245 mi) south east of the main island, is also considered part of the territory. Tristan da Cunha is the most remote archipelago in the world.
The islands were first sighted in 1506 by a Portuguese sailor, 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. The first survey of the archipelago was made by the French frigate L'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. The first permanent settler was Jonathan Lambert, from Salem, Massachusetts, United States, who arrived at the islands in December 1810. He declared the islands his property and named them the Islands of Refreshment. His rule was short lived, as he died in a boating accident in 1812.
In 1816 the United Kingdom formally annexed the islands, ruling them from the Cape Colony in South Africa. 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. The occupation also prevented the United States from using Tristan as a base, as they had during the War of 1812. Attempts to colonize Inaccessible Island failed.
The islands were occupied by a British military garrison, and a civilian population was gradually built up. Whalers also set up on the islands as a base for operations in the Southern Atlantic. However the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, together with the move from sailing ships to coal-fired steam ships, increased the isolation of the islands, 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 island. The main settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas was named in honour of his visit. Lewis Carroll's youngest brother, the Rev. Edwin H. Dodgson, served as an Anglican missionary and school teacher in Tristan da Cunha in the 1880s. A second Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, visited the islands in 1957 as part of a world tour onboard the royal yacht Britannia.
During World War II, the islands were used as a Royal Navy station. Atlantic Isle was established to monitor German shipping movements in the South Atlantic Ocean. The first Administrator was appointed by the British Government during this time.
In 1961, a volcanic eruption forced the evacuation of the entire population 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 island to assess the damage, and reported that the settlement Edinburgh of the Seven Seas had been affected only marginally. Most families returned in 1963 led by Willie Repetto (head of the ten-person island council) and Allan Crawford (the former island welfare officer).
On February 13, 2008, fire destroyed the fishing factory and the two generators that supply 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. As of February 28, the backup generator was still being used. Power was on during the day and early evening and candlelight was used the rest of the time. This fire was devastating to the island because fishing is a mainstay of the economy. Royal Engineers from the British Army are working on the harbour to help maintain it as everything comes and goes by boat.
Executive authority is vested in the Queen, who is represented in the territory by the Governor of Saint Helena. As the Governor resides permanently in Saint Helena, an Administrator is appointed to represent the Governor in the islands. The Administrator acts as the local head of government, and takes advice from the Island Council, made up of eight elected and three appointed members. Policing in Tristan da Cunha is undertaken by one full-time police officer and three special constables. Tristan da Cunha has its own legislation, but the law of Saint Helena applies to the extent that it is not inconsistent with local law, insofar as it is suitable for local circumstances and subject to such modifications as local circumstances make necessary.
Inaccessible Island and the Nightingale Islands are located 35 km (22 mi) southwest of the main island, while Gough Island is located 395 km (245 mi) SSE. The main island is quite mountainous; the only flat area is the location of the capital, Edinburgh on the Northwestern coast (sometimes known as "Edinburgh of the Seven Seas"). The highest point is a volcano called Queen Mary's Peak (2,062 m, 6,765 ft); it is covered by snow in winter. The climate is marine subtropical with small temperature differences between summer and winter and between day and night. The other islands of the group are uninhabited, except for Gough Island Weather Station on the namesake island, which has been operated by South Africa since 1956 (since 1963 at its present location at Transvaal Bay on the Southeast coast), with a staff of six. Tristan da Cunha is the nesting place of Tristan Albatrosses.
All Tristan families are farmers, owning their own stock. All land is communally owned. Livestock numbers are strictly controlled to conserve pasture and to prevent better off families accumulating wealth. No outsiders are allowed to buy land or settle on Tristan.
The islands' main source of foreign income is the lobster factory and the sale of stamps and coins to overseas collectors. Most people have dual occupations, often working for the local government. Many inhabitants have plots of land (at the patches) on which they grow potatoes.
The 1961 volcanic eruption destroyed the Tristan da Cunha canned crayfish factory, which was rebuilt a short time later. The crayfish farmers work for the South African company Ovenstone which has an exclusive contract to sell crayfish to the United States and Japan. Even though Tristan da Cunha is a UK overseas territory, it is not permitted direct access to European Union markets. Recently the decline in interest in Tristan crayfish in the United States has meant that the islanders have had to borrow from their reserves. The islands' financial problems may cause delays in updating communication equipment and improving education on the island.
On February 13, 2008, the fishing factory was destroyed by fire and along with it the island's only source of power. Emergency power was restored for a limited period, and the island was awaiting the visit of insurance loss adjusters to investigate the source and cause of the fire. The cost to the island's economy was not immediately known.
The islands have a population of 271 people. The main settlement is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (known locally as "The Settlement"). The main religion is Christianity, with denominations of Anglican and Roman Catholic. There are instances of health problems because of endogamy, including asthma and glaucoma, largely because of the inevitable marriages among closely related couples, for example marriages between second degree cousins, that comes with having such a small gene pool.
The remote location of the islands makes transport to the outside world difficult. There is no airport, so the islands can only be reached by boat. Fishing boats from South Africa regularly service the islands. The RMS Saint Helena formerly connected the islands to South Africa, and the United Kingdom via Saint Helena and Ascension Island, but she no longer calls at Tristan da Cunha.
Health care is free, but, with just one resident doctor from South Africa and five nurses, the delivery and surgery are limited and serious injury can mean necessitating sending signals to passing fishing vessels, so that the injured person can be transferred to Cape Town. As of late 2007 IBM and Beacon Equity Partners, co-operating with Medweb, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the government of Tristan da Cunha on ”Project Tristan”, has availed the island doctor with access to long distance tele-medical help, making it possible to send EKG and x-ray pictures to doctors in other countries for instant consultation.
Television did not arrive on the island until 2001, and the sole channel available is the British Forces Broadcasting Service from the Falkland Islands. Education is rudimentary; children leave school at fifteen, and although it is possible to take GCSEs a year later, results are poor.