Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha
"Our faith is our strength"
Anthem: "God Save the Queen"
Territorial song: "The Cutty Wren"
Map of Tristan da Cunha
Map of Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha is located in South Atlantic
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha
Location of Tristan da Cunha archipelago (circled in red) in the southern Atlantic Ocean
Sovereign state United Kingdom
First settlement 1810
Dependency of Cape Colony 14 August 1816[1]
Dependency of Saint Helena 12 January 1938
Current constitution 1 September 2009
and largest settlement
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas
37°4′S 12°19′W / 37.067°S 12.317°W / -37.067; -12.317
Official languages English
Demonym(s) Tristanian
Government Devolved locally governing dependency under a constitutional monarchy
•  Monarch
Elizabeth II
•  Governor
Philip Rushbrook
Fiona Kilpatrick and Stephen Townsend (job share)
James Glass[2]
Legislature Island Council
Government of the United Kingdom
• Minister
Tariq Ahmad
• Total
207 km2 (80 sq mi)
• Main island
98 km2 (38 sq mi)
Highest elevation
6,765 ft (2,062 m)
• 2019 estimate
• 2016 census
• Density
1.4/km2 (3.6/sq mi)
Currency Pound sterling (£) (GBP)
Time zone UTC±00:00 (GMT)
Date format dd/mm/yyyy
Driving side left
Calling code
UK postcode
ISO 3166 code SH-TA
Internet TLD

Tristan da Cunha (/ˌtrɪstən də ˈkn(j)ə/), colloquially Tristan, is a remote group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean. It is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying approximately 1,511 miles (2,432 km) off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa, 1,343 miles (2,161 km) from Saint Helena and 2,166 miles (3,486 km) off the coast of the Falkland Islands.[5][6]

The territory consists of the inhabited island, Tristan da Cunha, which has a diameter of roughly 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) and an area of 98 square kilometres (38 sq mi); the wildlife reserves of Gough Island and Inaccessible Island; and the smaller, uninhabited Nightingale Islands. As of October 2018, the main island has 250 permanent inhabitants, who all carry British Overseas Territories citizenship.[3] The other islands are uninhabited, except for the South African personnel of a weather station on Gough Island.

Tristan da Cunha is a British Overseas Territory with its own constitution.[7] There is no airstrip on the main island; the only way of travelling in and out of Tristan is by boat, a six-day trip from South Africa.[8]



Portuguese explorer and conquistador Tristão da Cunha is both the namesake of Tristan da Cunha and the first person to sight the island, in 1506.

The islands were first recorded as sighted in 1506 by Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha, though rough seas prevented a landing. He named the main island after himself, Ilha de Tristão da Cunha. It was later anglicised from its earliest mention on British Admiralty charts to Tristan da Cunha Island. Some sources state that the Portuguese made the first landing in 1520, when the Lás Rafael captained by Ruy Vaz Pereira called at Tristan for water.[9]

The first undisputed landing was made on 7 February 1643 by the crew of the Dutch East India Company ship Heemstede, captained by Claes Gerritsz Bierenbroodspot. The Dutch stopped at the island four more times in the next 25 years, and in 1656 created the first rough charts of the archipelago.[10]

The first full survey of the archipelago was made by crew of the French corvette Heure du Berger in 1767. The first scientific exploration was conducted by French naturalist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, who stayed on the island for three days in January 1793, during a French mercantile expedition from Brest, France to Mauritius. Thouars made botanical collections and reported traces of human habitation, including fireplaces and overgrown gardens, probably left by Dutch explorers in the 17th century.[10]

On his voyage out from Europe to East Africa and India in command of the Imperial Asiatic Company of Trieste and Antwerp ship, Joseph et Therese, William Bolts sighted Tristan da Cunha, put a landing party ashore on 2 February 1777 and hoisted the Imperial flag, naming it and its neighboring islets the Isles de Brabant.[11][12] In fact, no settlement or facilities were ever set up there by the company.

After the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War halted penal transportation to Thirteen Colonies, British prisons started to overcrowd. Since several stopgap measures proved themselves ineffective, the British Government announced in December 1785 that it would proceed with the settlement of New South Wales. In September 1786 Alexander Dalrymple, presumably goaded by Bolts's actions, published a pamphlet[13] with an alternative proposal of his own for settlements on Tristan da Cunha, St. Paul and Amsterdam islands in the Southern Ocean.

Captain John Blankett, R.N., also suggested independently to his superiors in August 1786 that convicts be used to establish a British settlement on Tristan.[15] In consequence, the Admiralty received orders from the government in October 1789 to examine the island as part of a general survey of the South Atlantic and the coasts of southern Africa.[16] That did not happen, but an investigation of Tristan, Amsterdam and St. Paul was undertaken in December 1792 and January 1793 by George Macartney, Britain's first ambassador to China. During his voyage to China, he established that none of the islands were suitable for settlement.[17]

19th century

The first permanent settler was Jonathan Lambert of Salem, Massachusetts, United States, who moved to the island in December 1810 with two other men, and later a third.[18] Lambert publicly declared the islands his property and named them the Islands of Refreshment. Three of the four men died in 1812; however, the survivor among the original three permanent settlers, Thomas Currie (or Tommaso Corri) remained as a farmer on the island.[19]

On 14 August 1816, the United Kingdom annexed the islands, making them a dependency of the Cape Colony in South Africa. This was explained as a measure to prevent the islands' use as a base for any attempt to free Napoleon Bonaparte from his prison on Saint Helena.[20] The occupation also prevented the United States from using Tristan da Cunha as a base for naval cruisers, as it had during the War of 1812.[18] Possession was abandoned in November 1817, although some members of the garrison, notably William Glass, stayed and formed the nucleus of a permanent population.[citation needed]

The islands were occupied by a garrison of British Marines, and a civilian population gradually grew. Berwick stopped there on 25 March 1824 and reported that it had a population of twenty-two men and three women. The barque South Australia stayed there on 18–20 February 1836 when a certain Glass was Governor, as reported in a chapter on the island by W. H. Leigh.[21]

Whalers set up bases on the islands for operations in the Southern Atlantic. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, together with the gradual transition from sailing ships to coal-fired steam ships, increased the isolation of the islands, which were no longer needed as a stopping port for lengthy sail voyages, or for shelter for journeys from Europe to East Asia.[18] A parson arrived in February 1851, the Bishop of Cape Town visited in March 1856 and the island was included within the diocese of Cape Town.[22]:63–50

In 1867, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria, visited the islands. The main settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, was named in honour of his visit.[a] On 15 October 1873, the Royal Navy scientific survey vessel HMS Challenger docked at Tristan to conduct geographic and zoological surveys on Tristan, Inaccessible Island and the Nightingale Islands.[24] In his log, Captain George Nares recorded a total of fifteen families and eighty-six individuals living on the island.[25] Tristan became a dependency of the British Crown in October 1875.[26]

20th century

After years of hardship since the 1880s and an especially difficult winter in 1906, the British government offered to evacuate the island in 1907. The Tristanians held a meeting and decided to refuse, despite the crown's warning that it could not promise further help in the future.[9][page needed] No ships called at the islands from 1909 until 1919, when HMS Yarmouth finally stopped to inform the islanders of the outcome of World War I.[27] The Shackleton–Rowett Expedition stopped in Tristan for five days in May 1922, collecting geological and botanical samples before returning to Cape Town.[9][page needed] Among the few ships that visited in the coming years were the RMS Asturias, a Royal Mail Steam Packet Company passenger liner, in 1927, and the ocean liners RMS Empress of France in 1928,[28] RMS Duchess of Atholl in 1929,[29] and RMS Empress of Australia in 1935.[30][31] In 1936, The Daily Telegraph of London reported the population of the island was 167 people, with 185 cattle and 42 horses.[32][self-published source]

From December 1937 to March 1938, a Norwegian party made a dedicated scientific expedition to Tristan da Cunha, and sociologist Peter A. Munch extensively documented island culture — he would later revisit the island in 1964–1965.[33] The island was also visited in 1938 by W. Robert Foran, reporting for the National Geographic Society.[34] Foran's account was published that same year.[35] On 12 January 1938 by letters patent, Britain declared the islands a dependency of Saint Helena, creating the British Crown Colony of Saint Helena and Dependencies, which also included Ascension Island.[36]

During the Second World War, Tristan was commissioned by the Royal Navy as the stone frigate HMS Atlantic Isle and used as a secret signals intelligence station to monitor Nazi U-boats (which were required to maintain radio contact) and shipping movements in the South Atlantic Ocean. This weather and radio station led to extensive new infrastructure being built on the island, including a school, a hospital, and a cash-based general store. The first colonial official sent to rule the island was Sir Hugh Elliott in the rank of Administrator (because the settlement was too small to merit a Governor) 1950-53. Development continued as the island's first canning factory expanded paid employment in 1949.[37] Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen's consort, visited the islands in 1957 as part of a world tour on board the royal yacht HMY Britannia.[38]

On 2 January 1954, Tristan da Cunha was visited by the M.V. Ruys, a civilian freighter carrying science fiction writer Robert A Heinlein, his wife Ginny and other passengers. The Ruys was travelling from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, to Cape Town South Africa. The visit is described in Heinlein's book Tramp Royal. The captain told Heinlein the island was the most isolated inhabited spot on Earth and ships rarely visited. Heinlein mailed a letter there to L. Ron Hubbard, a friend who also liked to travel, "for the curiosity value of the postmark." Biographer William H Patterson, Jr. in his two volume "Robert A Heinlein In Dialogue with his Century," wrote that lack of "cultural context" made it "nearly impossible to converse" with the islanders, "a stark contrast with the way they had managed to chat with strangers" while travelling in South America. Members of the crew bought penguins during their brief visit to the island.

On 10 October 1961, the eruption of Queen Mary's Peak forced the evacuation of the entire population of 264 individuals.[39][40] The evacuees took to the water in open boats and were taken by the local lobster-fishing boats Tristania and Frances Repetto to uninhabited Nightingale Island.[41] The following day they were picked up by the diverted Dutch passenger ship Tjisadane that took them to Cape Town.[42] The islanders later arrived in the UK aboard the liner Stirling Castle to a big press reception and, after a short period at Pendell Army Camp in Merstham, Surrey, were settled in an old Royal Air Force camp near Calshot, Hampshire.[40][43] The following year a Royal Society expedition reported that Edinburgh of the Seven Seas had survived the eruption. Most families returned in 1963.[44]

Gough Island was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, then named "Gough Island Wildlife Reserve".[45] The site was extended in 2004 to include the neighbouring Inaccessible Island and renamed Gough and Inaccessible Islands, with its marine zone extended from 3 to 12 nautical miles. The Gough and Inaccessible Islands were declared as separate Ramsar sites — wetland sites designated to be of international importance — on 20 November 2008.[46][47]

21st century

Tristan da Cunha in 2012

On 23 May 2001, the islands were hit by an extratropical cyclone that generated winds up to 190 kilometres per hour (120 mph). A number of structures were severely damaged, and numerous cattle were killed, prompting emergency aid provided by the British government.[48] In 2005, the islands were given a United Kingdom post code (TDCU 1ZZ), to make it easier for the residents to order goods online.[49]

On 13 February 2008, a fire destroyed the island's four power generators and fish canning factory, severely disrupting the economy. On 14 March 2008, new generators were installed and power restored, and a new factory opened in July 2009. While the replacement factory was built, M/V Kelso came to the island as a factory ship.[50][51] The St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009 reorganized Tristan da Cunha as a constituent of the new British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, giving Tristan and Ascension equal status with Saint Helena.[7]

On 16 March 2011, the freighter MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, spilling tons of heavy fuel oil into the ocean. The resulting oil slick threatened the island's population of rockhopper penguins.[52] Nightingale Island has no fresh water, so the penguins were transported to Tristan da Cunha for cleaning.[53]

A total solar eclipse will pass over the island on 5 December 2048. The island is calculated to be on the centre line of the umbra's path for nearly three and a half minutes of totality.[54]

On 13 November 2020 it was announced that the 687,247 square kilometres (265,348 sq mi) of the waters surrounding the islands will become a Marine Protection Zone. The move will make the zone the largest no-take zone in the Atlantic and the fourth largest on the planet. The move follows 20 years of conservation work by the RSPB and the island government and five years of the UK government's Blue Belt program support.[55][56]


Gough Island, Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha is thought to have been formed by a long-lived centre of upwelling mantle called the Tristan hotspot. Tristan da Cunha is the main island of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, which consists of the following islands:

Inaccessible Island and the Nightingale Islands are 35 kilometres (22 mi) SW by W and SSW away from the main island, respectively, whereas Gough Island is 350 kilometres (217 mi) SSE.[59]

Tristan da Cunha on 6 February 2013, as seen from the International Space Station

The main island is generally mountainous. The only flat area is on the north-west coast, which is the location of the only settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. The highest point is the summit of a volcano called Queen Mary's Peak at an elevation of 2,062 metres (6,765 ft), high enough to develop snow cover in winter. The other islands of the group are uninhabited, except for a weather station with a staff of six on Gough Island, which has been operated by South Africa since 1956 and has been at its present location at Transvaal Bay on the southeast coast since 1963.[60][61]


The archipelago has a Cfb, wet oceanic climate, under the Köppen system, with mild temperatures and very limited sunshine but consistent moderate-to-heavy rainfall due to the persistent westerly winds.[62] Under the Trewartha classification, Tristan da Cunha has a humid subtropical climate due to the lack of cold weather. The number of rainy days is comparable to the Aleutian Islands at a much higher latitude in the northern hemisphere, while sunshine hours are comparable to Juneau, Alaska, 20° farther from the equator. Frost is unknown below elevations of 500 metres (1,600 ft), and summer temperatures are similarly mild, never reaching 25 °C (77 °F). Sandy Point on the east coast is reputed to be the warmest and driest place on the island, being in the lee of the prevailing winds.[63]

Flora and fauna

French nobleman and eminent botanist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, commemorated in the nomenclature of a variety of plants (e.g. Carex thouarsii) native to Tristan da Cunha.

Many of the flora and fauna of the archipelago have a broad circumpolar distribution in the South Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans. For example, the plant species Nertera depressa was first collected in Tristan da Cunha,[67] but has since been recorded as far away as New Zealand.[68]

Invasive species

The islands of Tristan da Cunha has a high significance of global biodiversity as the island is considered a natural World Heritage Site. This designation is largely due to the seabird population found on the archipelago. The biodiversity of the island is on the decline because of the introduction of invasive species. Due to Tristan da Cunha's isolated archipelago ecology, and increase of tourism with cruise ships and research vessels, more invasive species are expected to be introduced to Tristan da Cunha.[69] The islands' vegetation and mammal species are not equipped to defend against or control introduced species, increasing island vulnerability, due to lack of defensive behavioral mechanisms and slow generational output rates. Efforts to decrease and eradicate invasive flora, fauna, and marine species are in the works and have yet to show any successful outcomes. The following described invasive species have been known to have harmful effects on the islands' vegetation and native species.


Phylica arborea, the only tree species native (though not endemic) to Tristan da Cunha.
A stand of Tristan’s endemic tree fern: Blechnum palmiforme, the fernbush.
Sophora macnabiana ( Fabaceae): coloured plate depicting the shrub in flower from Curtis's Botanical Magazine.
Pelargonium cucullatum an attractive species native to both Tristan da Cunha and South Africa.

A combination of the list on Kew's Plants of the World Online site with information from a paper by Wace and Holdgate[70] yields the following list (by no means exhaustive) of plant species recorded as native to Tristan da Cunha.



Ferns, Mosses and Clubmosses

Sonchus asper a common introduced weed on Tristan.

The remote island of Tristan da Cunha acquired an estimated 137 non-native vascular plants that can be categorized into four species types; weeds (trees, shrubs, agricultural weeds), grassland species (grasses), garden escapes (vegetables), and other ruderal species.[72] Vascular plants were accidentally introduced in a variety of ways including; impurities in flower or vegetable seeds, seeds or plant fragments from other imported plants and in soil, attached to containers, cars or people.[72] The majority of invasive weed species that has been introduced to the island are spread by seed and cover 50% of arable land in widely distributed patches.[72] These species include prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper), smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), smooth hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris), scrambling fumitory (Fumaria muralis), green field speedwell (Veronica agrestis), groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), and nutgrass (Cyperus esculentus).[72] Other invasive weed species that have a more localized distribution in plots include prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper), smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), smooth hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris), and groundsel (Senecio vulgaris).[72] Whether a species is distributed locally or widely depends on the seed's dispersal mechanisms; larger seeds that have not adapted to wind dispersal will be distributed locally, while smaller seeds have adapted to wind dispersal will be widely distributed.[72]

The invasive plants have had several negative impacts on native island plant species, including the competitive exclusion of many such species.[72] The out-competition will and can alter the structure of plant communities and the quality of the islands' soil. Introduced vegetation has altered long-term carbon storage as well as the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.[72] Native plants such as fern bushes, Phylica bushes, fern brakes, mires, and bogs, contain high organic content matter which functions as storage for carbon.[72] With the introduction of harmful species, the islands will see a decrease in carbon storage of both the soil and vegetation. With multiple changes occurring within the soil due to invasive plant species, the nutrient cycle is bound to be negatively influenced. Invasive plants are also affecting the human population of Tristan da Cunha by being disease carriers and becoming agricultural pests in gardens and pastures.[72]

The alien plants are able to survive and continue to grow and spread successfully on the islands because they have the ability to naturalize in temperate regions and have limited necessities needed to survive.[72] The islands' isolation increases archipelago ecology uniqueness which increases susceptibility for foreign invaders.[69] A small human population with minimal development encourages flora and fauna development within a limited food web which increases the invasive species abilities for self-defense.[69]

Plants are being controlled by taking surveys of the invasive species, evaluating their impact on biodiversity, and evaluating the feasibility of their eradication.[73] It would be nearly impossible to try and eradicate all invasive plant species so scientists are narrowing down to control particular species based on their impact and feasibility to eradicate. Mitigation plans that are taking place on Tristan are time-consuming and labor-intensive that will take several years using mechanical and chemical procedures.[69]


Nesocichla eremita, the Tristan thrush.

Tristan is primarily known for its wildlife. The island has been identified as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International because there are 13 known species of breeding seabirds on the island and two species of resident land birds. The seabirds include northern rockhopper penguins, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, sooty albatrosses, Atlantic petrels, great-winged petrels, soft-plumaged petrels, broad-billed prions, grey petrels, great shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, Tristan skuas, Antarctic terns and brown noddies.[74] Tristan and Gough Islands are the only known breeding sites in the world for the Atlantic petrel. Inaccessible Island is also the only known breeding ground of the spectacled petrel.[75] The Tristan albatross is known to breed only on Gough and Inaccessible Islands: all nest on Gough, except for one or two pairs which nest on Inaccessible Island.[76]

The endemic Tristan thrush, also known as the "starchy", occurs on all of the northern islands and each has its own subspecies, with Tristan birds being slightly smaller and duller than those on Nightingale and Inaccessible. The endemic Inaccessible Island rail, the smallest extant flightless bird in the world, is found only on Inaccessible Island. In 1956, eight Gough moorhens were released at Sandy Point on Tristan, and have subsequently colonised the island.[77] No birds of prey breed on Tristan da Cunha, but the Amur falcon occasionally passes through the area on its migrations, thus putting it on the island's bird list.[citation needed]

A non-native species of house mice that have evolved to be 50% larger than average house mice have adapted to Tristan da Cunha. They are thought to have been accidentally introduced by 19th century seal hunters who would dock on the islands.[73] These mice have adapted by consuming sea bird eggs and chicks (as they nest on the ground), killing an estimated 2 million chicks annually pushing the species[which?] to extinction. Gathering at night in groups of 9 or 10, the mice gather at the bird's nest to feast. With no natural predators, the invasive mice population is able to expand by producing new generations twice a year. With no natural predators and a high generational output rate, there is no way to control the growth of the invasive mice population. The native bird species have slower generational output and exposure to the islands.[73]

Mitigation plans in order to eradicate or decrease the invasive rodent population on the islands was seriously discussed in March 2008 taking into consideration the islands' community. Discussion of aerial bait drop on Tristan brought up concerns of health and safety of the children, livestock and the security of the water supply.[78] Because the proposed plans for mitigation were not fully agreed upon by the Tristan community, eradication methods were shelved until 2019.[citation needed]

In order to prevent the growth of the invasive mice population and extinction of the Albatross bird species, a 2019 Gough Island mouse eradication project was announced (Grundy, 2018). The RSPB and Tristan da Cunha Government have partnered to spread cereal pellets with rodenticide bait across the Gough Island's, in hopes to eradicate the invasive mice population.[79] This solution plan may seem simple but can become complex when discussing dispersal methods, which is predicted to be by helicopter, because of the island's remote location and harsh weather conditions.[79] In areas that are hard to reach by helicopter, pellets will be scattered by hand.[79] The goal of this operation is to restore Tristan da Cunha back to its natural state, ensuring it will still be one of the world's most important seabird nesting sites.[79] Other methods that may be more simple, such as introducing cats, would pose a greater threat to the fragile bird populations as they would likely to prey on the birds as well and cats have already been eradicated from the islands.[80]

The biodiversity of marine life is limited given the islands' isolation, making identifying the impacts of invasion difficult.[81] While much of the marine life is unknown there has been an invasive species identified in the waters around the islands. This species includes the South American silver porgy (Diplodus argenteus argenteus) which is thought to have sought refuge in the area due to the wreck of an oil platform off the coast of Tristan in 2006.[81] The silver porgy is omnivorous but is not linked to the consumption of the valued lobster populations that the islanders fish.[81] The silver porgy is however suspected to be consuming components of the islands’ fragile kelp forest.[81] The giant kelp forests of Macrocystis pyrifera were extremely limited in biodiversity and has a simple, short-chain food web.[81]  While this species is considered non-native and invasive, removal efforts are currently not prioritized.[81] Continued monitoring is suggested and expedition research for all invasive marine species are ongoing.[81]

Various species of whales and dolphins can be seen around Tristan from time to time with increasing sighting rates, although recovery of baleen whales, especially the southern right whale, were severely hindered by illegal whaling by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the 1960 volcanic eruption.[82] The subantarctic fur seal Arctocephalus tropicalis can also be found in the Tristan archipelago, mostly on Gough Island.[83]


Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha

The island has a unique social and economic structure in which all resident families farm and all land is communally owned. Outsiders are prohibited from buying land or settling on Tristan. Besides subsistence agriculture, major industries are commercial fishing and government. Major export industries are the Tristan rock lobster (Jasus) fishery, the sale of the island's postage stamps and coins, and limited tourism.[84] Like most British Overseas Territories, it was never a part of the European Union, but was a member of the EU's Overseas Countries and Territories Association.[85]

The Bank of Saint Helena was established on Saint Helena and Ascension Island in 2004. This bank does not have a physical presence on Tristan da Cunha, but residents of Tristan are entitled to its services.[86] Although Tristan da Cunha is part of the same overseas territory as Saint Helena, it does not use the local Saint Helena pound, instead using the United Kingdom issue of the pound sterling.[87]

The island is located in the South Atlantic Anomaly, an area of the Earth with an abnormally weak magnetic field. On 14 November 2008 a geomagnetic observatory was inaugurated on the island as part of a joint venture between the Danish Meteorological Institute and DTU Space.[88]


Map of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

The remote location of the islands makes transport to the outside world difficult. Tristan da Cunha has no airstrip and is not generally accessible to air travel, though the wider territory is served by Saint Helena Airport[89][90] and RAF Ascension Island.[91] Fishing boats from South Africa service the islands eight or nine times per year.

The RMS Saint Helena used to connect the main island to St Helena and South Africa once each year during its January voyage, but has done so only a few times in the last years, in 2006, in 2011,[5] and most recently in 2018.[92] In the same year the RMS St. Helena was withdrawn from service. Three ships regularly service Tristan da Cunha, with typically fewer than a dozen visits a year. Other vessels may occasionally visit the island. The harbour at Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is called Calshot Harbour, named after the place in Hampshire, England where the islanders temporarily stayed during the volcanic eruption.[93]



Although Tristan da Cunha shares the +290 code with St. Helena, residents have access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Telecommunications Network, provided by Global Crossing.[94] This uses a London 020 numbering range, meaning that numbers are accessed via the UK telephone numbering plan.[95] Internet access was available in Tristan da Cunha from 1998 to 2006, but its high cost made it almost unaffordable for the local population, who primarily used it only to send email.[96] The connection was also extremely unreliable, connecting through a 64 kbit/s satellite phone connection provided by Inmarsat.

Since 2006, a very-small-aperture terminal has provided 3072 kbit/s of publicly accessible bandwidth via an internet cafe.[97] As of 2016, there is not yet any mobile telephone coverage on the islands.[98]

Amateur radio

Amateur radio operator groups sometimes conduct DX-peditions on the island. One group operated as station ZD9ZS in September–October 2014.[99][100][101]


There are no political parties or trade unions on Tristan. Executive authority is vested in the Queen, who is represented in the territory by the Governor of Saint Helena.[102] As the Governor resides permanently in Saint Helena, an Administrator is appointed to represent the Governor in the islands. The Administrator is a career civil servant in the Foreign Office, selected by London, who acts as the local head of government and takes advice from the Tristan da Cunha Island Council. Since 1998, each Administrator has served a three-year term (which begins in September, upon arrival of the supply ship from Cape Town). Sean Burns began a second term as Administrator in November 2016.[103]

The Administrator and Island Council work from the Government Building, which is the only two-storey building on the island. The building is sometimes referred to as "Whitehall" or the "H'admin Building" and contains the Administrator's Office, Treasury Department, Administration Offices, and the Council Chamber where Island Council meetings are held. Policing is undertaken by one full-time police inspector and three special constables. Tristan da Cunha has some legislation of its own, but the law of Saint Helena applies generally 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.[104]

Chief Islander

The Island Council is made up of eight elected and three appointed members, who serve a three-year term which begins in February or March. A separate but simultaneous vote is held to select the Chief Islander, who is the community's political leader. James Glass was elected to the position in March 2019, returning after sixteen years to commence a record-breaking fourth term in the role.[105]


Historical population
Year Pop. ±% p.a.
1856 71[106] —    
1880 109[107] +1.80%
1892 50[108] −6.29%
1897 64[107] +5.06%
1901 74[107] +3.70%
1909 95[107] +3.17%
1934 167[109] +2.28%
1961 268[106] +1.77%
1969 271[110] +0.14%
1987 296[106][111] +0.49%
1999 286[112][113] −0.29%
2000 280[112] −2.10%
2008 269[111] −0.50%
2016 293[111][4] +1.07%
2018 250[3] −7.63%

Tristan da Cunha recorded a population of 251 in the September 2018 census.[114] The only settlement is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (known locally as "The Settlement"). The current residents are thought to have descended from fifteen outside ancestors, eight male and seven female, who arrived on the island at various dates between 1816 and 1908. The men were European, and the women were mixed race and African. Now all of the population has mixed ancestry. In addition, a male contributor of eastern European / Russian descent arrived in the early 1900s.[115] In 1963, when families returned after the evacuation due to the 1961 volcanic eruption, the 200 settlers included four Tristan da Cunha women who brought with them new English husbands.[116]

Housing in Tristan da Cunha

The female descendants have been traced by genetic study to five female founders, believed to be mixed-race (African, Asian and European descent) and from Saint Helena. The historical data recounted that there were two pairs of sisters, but the mtDNA evidence showed only one pair of sisters.[117]

The early male founders originated from Scotland, England, the Netherlands, the United States, and Italy, who belonged to three Y-haplogroups: I (M170), R-SRY10831.2, and R (M207) (xSRY10831.2).[118] The male founders shared nine surnames: Collins, Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Repetto, Rogers, Squibb, and Swain.[3][b] In addition, a new haplotype was found that is associated with men of eastern Europe and Russia. It entered the population in the early 1900s, at a time when the island was visited by Russian sailing ships. There is "evidence for the contribution of a hidden ancestor who left his genes, but not his name, on the island."[118] Another four instances of non-paternity were found among male descendants, but researchers believed their fathers were probably among the early island population.[118]

There are eighty families on the island.[120]


Tristan da Cunha's isolation has led to development of its own dialect of English. In popular writing, it has been described by the writer Simon Winchester as "a sonorous amalgam of Home Counties lockjaw and 19th century idiom, Afrikaans slang and Italian."[121][122][c]


Education is fairly rudimentary; children leave school at age 16, and although they can take GCSEs a year later, few do.[124][125] The school on the island is St. Mary's School, which serves children from ages 4 to 16. The Naval Station had established a school building during World War II. The current facility opened in 1975 and has five classrooms, a kitchen, a stage, a computer room, and a craft and science room.[126] Tristan students doing post-16 education receive assistance from the Tristan da Cunha Association Education Trust Fund and typically do so in the United Kingdom and South Africa.[127]

The Tristan Song Project was a collaboration between St. Mary's School and amateur composers in Britain, led by music teacher Tony Triggs. It began in 2010 and involved St. Mary's pupils writing poems and Tony Triggs providing musical settings by himself and his pupils.[128] A desktop publication entitled Rockhopper Penguins and Other Songs (2010) embraced most of the songs completed that year and funded a consignment of guitars to the school.[129] In February 2013, the Tristan Post Office issued a set of four Song Project stamps featuring island musical instruments and lyrics from Song Project songs about Tristan's volcano and wildlife. In 2014, the project broadened its scope and continues as the International Song Project.[130][131]


The only religion is Christianity, with the only denominations being Anglican and Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic population is served by the Mission Sui Iuris of Saint Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, which is administratively a part of the Apostolic Prefecture of the Falkland Islands.


Healthcare is funded by the government, undertaken at most times by one resident doctor. Surgery or facilities for complex childbirth are therefore limited, and emergencies can necessitate communicating with passing fishing vessels so the injured person can be ferried to Cape Town.[132] As of late 2007, IBM and Beacon Equity Partners, co-operating with Medweb, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the island's government on "Project Tristan", has supplied the island's 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.[133]

There are instances of health problems attributed to endogamy, including glaucoma. In addition, there is a very high (42%) incidence of asthma among the population and research by Noe Zamel of the University of Toronto has led to discoveries about the genetic nature of the disease.[134] Three of the original settlers of the island were asthma sufferers.[135]


Music and traditional dance

Tristan residents Mary Swain and Percy Laverallo were recorded in 1962 whilst evacuated in Calshot, Hampshire by Maud Karpeles and Peter Kennedy singing traditional songs and discussing the culture of the island, mainly music and dance; the full recording (split between seven tapes and also including other Tristan residents) can be heard on the British Library Sound Archive website.[136][137][138][139][140][141][142] On these tapes, Mary Swain sings traditional English folk songs learnt from her mother, including seventeenth century Child Ballads such as "Barbara Allen"[143] and "The Golden Vanity".[144] She also describes how dance was an important element of life on Tristan; well-known dances such as step dances, waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and schottisches were common, as well as many unique traditional dances such as "The Donkey Dance", "The Pillow Dance", "The Chair Dance" and something called "Tabby Oaker's Big Toe" which involved displaying one's feet.[145] It seems that the music and dance of Tristan was ultimately derived from English traditions, but various peculiarities had developed.

Radio and television

Local television began in 1984 using taped programming on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings.[146] Live television did not arrive on the island until 2001, with the introduction of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which now provides BBC One, BBC Two, Channel 4, ITV and BFBS Extra, relayed to islanders via local transmitters. Recently the service was upgraded to digital, most TV screens are modern while some older CRT equipments still are in use and there is at least one TV set per house. BFBS Radio 2 is the locally available radio station.


The Tristan Times was an online newspaper for the island published from 2003 to 2019.[147] The island government also posts news announcements on its website, which is maintained by the UK-based Tristan da Cunha Association.[148]

Holidays and holiday traditions

The island holds an annual break from government and factory work which begins before Christmas and lasts for three weeks. The beginning of the holiday, called Break-Up Day, is usually marked with parties and celebrations.[149] The islanders would traditionally have parties on Boxing Day but not on Christmas Day.[142]

Traditionally, on "Old Year's Day/Night" (meaning "New Year's Eve"), the islanders would conceal their identities with masks or blackface and the men would wear women's clothing; everyone would celebrate anonymously moving between households, singing songs, dancing, shouting, playing instruments and firing guns. At the stroke of midnight, a bell would announce the new year. On New Year's Day, the islanders would play cricket and football, and once again party later in the day. [137][142] These ritualistic disguises (including blacking faces) seem to derive from English Border Morris dancing traditions.


Football, cricket and baseball were all historically played on the island.[137][142]

Notable people

In popular culture

The Inaccessible Island rail ( Atlantisia rogersi) (1927), the world's smallest flightless bird, which is found only on Inaccessible Island


  • In Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, a dying man recollecting the things that have apparently meant most to him mentions "Tristan da Cunha".[152]
  • 37°4 S is a short film about two teenagers who live on the island.[153]


  • Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), Chapter 15, has a detailed history and description of the island.[154]
  • In Jules Verne's novel In Search of the Castaways, one of the chapters is set on Tristan da Cunha, and a brief history of the island is mentioned.[155] The island is also referred to in Verne's novel The Sphinx of the Ice Fields (1897), which he wrote as an unauthorised sequel to Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The 1899 English translation by Mrs. Cashel Hoey of Ice Fields was published under the title An Antarctic Mystery.[citation needed]
  • South African poet Roy Campbell wrote "Tristan de Cunha" (1927), an elegiac poem about the island.[citation needed]
  • Tristan da Cunha is the site of a top-secret nuclear disarmament conference in Fletcher Knebel's 1968 political thriller Vanished. The book was adapted as a 1971 two-part NBC made-for-TV movie starring Richard Widmark.[citation needed]
  • Hervé Bazin's novel Les Bienheureux de la Désolation (1970) describes the 1961 forced exile of the population to England after the volcano erupted, and their subsequent return.[citation needed]
  • In Primo Levi's memoir The Periodic Table (1975), one of the fictional short stories, "Mercurio", is set on Tristan da Cunha, named "Desolation Island".[citation needed]
  • In Patrick O'Brian's novel The Mauritius Command (1977), Tristan da Cunha is mentioned by a man fond of birds, Captain Fortescue of the schooner Wasp, who spent an extended period on the island studying the albatross whilst cast ashore. Also in O'Brian's The Thirteen-Gun Salute (1991), the ship Dianne is nearly wrecked on Inaccessible Island, with the cover of the book depicting the scene.[citation needed]
  • Zinnie Harris's play, Further Than the Furthest Thing (2000), is inspired by events on the island, notably the 1961 volcanic eruption and evacuation of the islanders.[citation needed]
  • Raoul Schrott's novel, Tristan da Cunha oder die Hälfte der Erde (2003), is almost entirely set on Tristan da Cunha and Gough islands, and chronicles the history of the archipelago.[citation needed]
  • Alice Munro's short story Deep-Holes in her 2009 short story collection Too Much Happiness. The female protagonist, a mother, confides to her young son about her fascination with remote islands like Tristan da Cunha and the Faroe Islands. Later, when her son goes missing, she fantasises that he has found his way to one of these islands and is living there.[156]
  • In the book Pulse by Jeremy Robinson, Tristan de Cunha is the top secret headquarters of "Beta Incorporated", a shell company of the antagonistic "Manifold Genetics", which is later destroyed by artificially causing an eruption to self-destruct said base, killing most of the Edinburgh of the Seven Seas population.[citation needed]
  • Alf Tupper is a British comic strip. It stars a working class, "hard as nails" runner, Tupper learned that he was born on Tristan da Cunha. Tupper's adventures appeared in The Rover from 1949 and then The Victor, British boys' comics from D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. The strip was created by Bill Blaine (probably a pseudonym for William Blaine, head of D.C. Thomson comics), written by Gilbert Lawford Dalton.


  • Frank T. Bullen provides details of visiting the island in the 1870s in his book The Cruise of the Cachalot, first published in 1898.[citation needed]
  • Raymond Rallier du Baty describes the people and the island c. 1908 in his book 15,000 Miles in a Ketch (1915).[citation needed]
  • In Shackleton's Last Voyage by Captain Frank Wild (1923), several chapters (with photographs) recount events on the island during the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition in May 1922.[citation needed]
  • Rose Annie Rogers, part of an American missionary couple, wrote a memoir of her time on Tristan da Cunha, called The Lonely Island (1927).[citation needed]
  • Katherine Mary Barrow's book Three Years in Tristan Da Cunha (1910) is a "simple and true description of daily life among a very small community cut off from the rest of the world" based on entries to her diaries and letters written during the period to her sister.[citation needed]
  • Martin Holdgate describes a visit to the island by a scientific expedition heading for Gough Island in 1955 in Mountains in the Sea.[citation needed]
  • Simon Winchester's book Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (1985, reprinted in 2003), devotes a chapter to the island, which he visited in the mid-1980s. In the foreword to the reprint, the author states that he was banned from Tristan da Cunha because of his writing about the war-time romance of a local woman. He published a longer account of his banishment in Lapham's Quarterly.[157]
  • In 2005, Rockhopper Copper, the first book about the island written by an Islander, was published. It was written by Conrad Glass, Tristan da Cunha's longtime Police and Conservation officer.[158]
  • Robert A. Heinlein's book Tramp Royale (1992), about a world trip in 1953–1954, devoted a chapter to his near visit to Tristan da Cunha. He talked to islanders but could not go ashore owing to the weather.[citation needed]
  • Arne Falk-Rønne, a Danish travel writer, recorded his impressions of the islands in Back to Tristan (UK: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967), an English translation of Falk-Rønne's original volume in Danish, Tilbage til Tristan (1963).[citation needed]

See also