Tristan da Cunha Thirty Years After the Volcano

Submitted by edg on Mon, 4 Nov '91 12.00am

Thirty years ago daily life was rudely disturbed for the people of Edinburgh, by mysterious and frequent earthquakes that sent their crockery smashing to the ground and cracked the walls of their houses.

This was only the prelude to a massive volcanic eruption that would change the course of their lives. But this was not Edinburgh, Scotland, it was the city's namesake, Edinburgh, Tristan da Cunha, a remote South Atlantic island.

Map of Edinburgh, Tristan da Cunha

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As burning hot lava shot into the air, descending on the grassy slopes of their island home, the community of 290 islanders began a long journey that would take them 5,000 miles to Britain.

It is now 30 years since the Tristans arrived in Sixties Britain to discover a land in the throes of rock and roll, where everything from skyscrapers to bubblegum was alien. Even bicycles and horses were objects of amazement and simple everyday acts like queueing for a bus, or using a telephone had to be learned from scratch.

At first everything was new and exciting, but soon the novelty wore off, and their spirits began to flag. Christmas, normally spent in December sunshine, had fallen during one of the most bitter British winters in history.

They had been shocked by the level of crime, especially when a one-armed islander had been mugged by teddy boys; and they felt humiliated by press reports that made light of their simple dress, shy manners and quirky English dialect.

Allan Crawford, an old friend of the islanders who designed the first, much coveted Tristan postage stamps, remembers the time well.

“I've still got a shoe box which is full or aero-grammes from England to me in Cape Town, saying 'please get us to our home'. And so I did.”

Despite all efforts to make the homesick islanders comfortable at Calshot camp, near Southampton, virtually all of them chose to return to the sanctuary of their island home, clutching the fruits of the outside world, nylon stockings, radios, sprung mattresses and the like.

The island, a mere eight kilometres in diameter with a towering 6,760ft cone-shaped peak at its centre, rises out of the sea from the mid-Atlantic ridge. Small, windy, frequently cloudy, and incredibly remote, it is a far from hospitable place. Yet, today the tiny community that was founded back in 1821 by Kelso man Corporal William Glass, and his family, has grown to a population of 300.

Life is peaceful and relatively stable. Crime, unemployment, disease and income tax are virtually non-existent, and there is only one road with a speed limit of 15mph in the single settlement of Edinburgh.

Change is slow. Thirty years on they are still the God-fearing, patriotic, and individualist community of before, the subsistence lifestyle continues, and the community is as close-knit as ever – there are only eight family names between them. Modern engine-powered fishing boats are used as well as the traditional islanders' hand-built long boats. The old “canteen” is now a supermarket; and two computers have been introduced at school.

Yet, even in this high-tech age there is no television service, or telecommunications on the island. Contact with the outside world is through radio messages to Cape Town. The process of isolation is working at another level. There is a generation below the age of 30 with no experience of life beyond Tristan da Cunha. For the majority, the window on the world is a television screen replaying video tapes rented from the island video library.

“Living on Tristan and having never left, and seeing everything on television is a bit like watching these space-age movies,” explains 25-year-old island girl Lorna Thorne. “You just can't imagine a life like it.” She and her sister were two children chosen to come to Britain on the island's annual education scheme to study for their 'O' levels. Since then her sister has settled in Cape Town. Lorna recently married a boy from her college and now works in a Sussex printing firm, happy to be shifting paperwork as opposed to potatoes.

For Lorna, the process of moving permanently from the island had an inevitability about it. “When you sample what you're missing then everything changes and Tristan suddenly becomes too small for you.”

However, few islanders can afford to make the big leap into the outside world. The one industry on the island, the craw-fish processing plant, offers a small wage which islanders must save long and hard before travel is possible. Understandably, many are in two minds about taking such a momentous decision. “I think most people on Tristan are happy to be where they are. They talk about leaving, but I think if it came to the crunch they would stay, after all it is their way of life,” says Lorna.

Their dilemma is further compounded by the Nationality Act of 1981 which prevents them from settling or working in Britain for more than six months. But no doubt about it, Tristans in the future will want to leave their already over-populated island “to make a go of it” in Britain. To this day, they still consider themselves British.

However, the Union Jack may be flying on Tristan, and the Queen may still grace their living room walls, but for all their patriotism, Britain seems intent on shutting the Tristans out.

Originally published in The Scotsman newspaper 4 November 1991