Tristan da Cunha: The World’s Most Isolated Human Settlement

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Podcast Transcript

Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, situated between South America and Africa, lies the most remote human settlement on Earth.

There, a community of a little over 250 people eke out a living over 1,500 miles from the next closest humans. 

Getting there is difficult, and living there is probably even harder. 

Learn more about Tristian da Cuhna and how such an isolated community manages to survive on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve talked about remote islands on this podcast before. In particular, Saint Helena in the Atlantic and Pitcairn and Easter Islands in the Pacific. 

All are extremely remote and hard to reach, although Saint Helena has gotten much easier to get to since they built their airport.

Tristan da Cunha, however, takes the prize for the most remote permanent human settlement.

The closest humans to Tristan da Cunha live in Cape town South Africa, 2,787 kilometers or 1,732 miles away. This is longer than the distance from New York City to Denver. 

That is the closest human settlement. 

If you go west, the closest point to South America is almost 4,000 kilometers or 2,500 miles away.

If you go north, the closest settlement is the also remote island of Saint Helena, which is 2,400 kilometers or 1,500 miles away. 

So, basically, there is nothing around Tristan da Cunha. 

Tristan da Cunha itself is a small archipelago consisting of four primary islands: Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible, Gough, and Nightengale Islands. All of the islands other than Tristan da Cunha are nature preserves and are protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

It lies at approximately the same latitude as Cape Town and Buenos Aires. 

The island of Tristan da Cunha was created by a volcanic hot spot, similar to how Hawaii and the Canary Islands were formed. 

The island is mostly circular, with tall cliffs surrounding most of the island, which makes most of the island uninhabitable and very difficult to access. The island is approximately 38 square miles or 99 square kilometers in area, even though the vast majority of it is inhabited. 

The island was first discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese explorer Tristan da Cunha after whom the island is named after.

Even though he sighted the island, he didn’t attempt a landing because the seas were too rough. A common occurrence that still is a problem today. 

The first landing on the island may have occurred in 1520 by another Portuguese ship that stopped for fresh water. 

There is no evidence that the island had ever been visited or settled by humans prior to this. 

The first documented landing occurred in 1643 when a ship of the Dutch East India Company landed. There were a few more Dutch ships that landed over the next several decades, but the island was rarely visited as it wasn’t on any major trade routes. 

It wasn’t until 1767 that a French team did a survey of the island, and another French expedition collected botanical samples in 1793. 

The first idea for the settlement for Tristan da Cunha was floated in 1785 when, after the American Revolution, the British didn’t have places to send their convicts anymore.  

Tristan da Cunha seemed like a good place to dump unwanted criminals, but a subsequent survey of the islands showed that it wasn’t suitable for habitation. 

They ended up sending them to Australia instead.

The first person to actually settle on the island was an American by the name of Jonathan Lambert of Salem, Massachusetts. He moved there in 1810 and was joined by three other men. 

He renamed the island the Islands of Refreshment, which sounds suspiciously like he sold the naming rights to a soft drink company. 

The men grew limited crops, and some pigs on the island and the island served as a base for American ships during the War of 1812 who were attacking British ships.

However, in 1812, three of the four men died, only leaving Thomas Currie, an Italian, on the island. 

In 1816, Britain formally annexed the islands. The reason for the annexation was that Napoleon Bonepart had been exiled to Saint Helena. 

The British were paranoid about the French attempting a rescue of Napoleon and took over the island just so French couldn’t use it as a base of operations. It had the added bonus of denying the island to the Americans who had previously used it against the British.

The British established a very small military garrison on the island and were slowly joined by a group of civilians. 

The island served as a place for sailing ships to stop for food and water as they went around Africa, although it really wasn’t along any obvious routes for going around Africa.

In 1867, the first royal visit took place when the second son of Queen Victoria, Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh, landed on the island. The locals named the only settlement on the island Edinburgh of the Seven Seas in his honor. It is still the name of the settlement today.

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Tristan da Cunha was even further isolated, as ships weren’t even coming close to the island anymore.

Life on the island was extremely difficult. 

In 1885 one of the greatest disasters in the history of settlement took place. A ship passed by, and 15 men rowed out to try and trade with it as hardly any ships passed by anymore. All 15 men were lost at sea and presumed dead.

In 1906, an extremely harsh winter threatened famine on the island. The British government offered to evacuate the island, but the inhabitants declined. 

From 1909 to 1919, an entire decade, not a single ship stopped at the island.  The first ship to arrive was the HMS Yarmouth which notified the islanders about World War I, which they had no idea had taken place. 

Through the 20s and 30s, more ships visited the islands. Not necessarily annually, but at least once every other year. There were more scientific expeditions that took place, including an article written for National Geographic about the island. 

By the end of the 1930s, the island had a population of about 175 people.

The Second World War saw renewed interest in the island. The Royal Navy set up a radio listening station to monitor U-boats and merchant shipping.

The naval presence on the island resulted in a school, hospital, and other buildings being constructed.

After the war, the island went back to being forgotten. 

In 1954, the science fiction author Robert Heinlein visited while sailing from Brazil to South Africa. He wrote about visiting Tristan da Cunha in his book “Tramp Royale” and found it very difficult to talk to the locals. They spoke the same language, but the locals on the island were so isolated culturally it was difficult have a conversation.

Prince Phillip visited in 1957 when he was on a world tour with the royal yacht HMS Britania. 

Perhaps the biggest event since the island was inhabited took place in 1961 when the volcano in the center of the island erupted. The entire population of the island, which was 264 people at the time, had to flee in fishing boats to nearby uninhabited Nightengale Island.

A nearby passenger ship came to evacuate the islanders the next day and took them to Cape Town. Most of the population returned in 1963. 

The population of Tristan da Cunha is about the same today as it was in 1961. 

Life on the island is still extremely difficult. For the most part, the entire economy is a subsistence economy. Sheep and potatoes are the primary foodstuffs that are grown on the island, along with catching lobster and fish. 

There is a small fishing industry and a canning factory which is the only source of jobs on the island. There is no tourism industry to speak of, given how remote it is to get to. There are no hotels or restaurants on the island. 

Legally, the island is administered as part of the territory of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. 

The island doesn’t have an airstrip, and it is unlikely to ever have one. Saint Helena only recently got one, and they have a population of 4,000 people. The cost to build one for less than 300 people would be prohibitive. 

There is a single policeman on the island, and no one has ever been arrested for a crime in the history of the island. 

Given how isolated the people on the island have been for over 200 years, they have developed their own English accent. 

The island isn’t as remote as it has been in the past, although it is still extremely remote. The island does have satellite TV and can get shortwave radio. 

Likewise, there are ten regularly scheduled ships that arrived on the island each year. These ships carry mail, and supplies, and are the only way that anyone can get on or off the island. 

There are also a small number of expedition ships that carry passengers which might stop at the island. These ships are usually repositioning cruises for ships that go from Antarctica to the Arctic.

The island doesn’t have a harbor or a dock, so all ships have to use small boats to move people and supplies from ship to shore.

Believe it or not, people on Tristan can order from Amazon. However, whatever they order has to be shipped from the UK, to Cape Town before being put on a ship, and the entire process takes about four months.

There is a single road on the island that connected the main settlement with the potato patches. The only vehicles on the island basically travel back and forth between these sites, which are about 2 miles or 3 kilometers apart.

If you are an extremely intrepid traveler, it is possible to visit Tristan da Cunha. However, you have to arrange your trip well in advance, as well as book lodging in a guesthouse on the island. 

You have to get to Cape Town to board the ship, and sailing there takes six days. The entire round trip to and from Cape Town takes about three weeks. 

The other alternative is to be on a repositioning cruise which might only stop at the island for a day.

I’m very familiar with this because, even though I’ve not been to Tristan, I’ve been planning a possible trip for years. It is very high on the list of places I’d like to one day visit.

The future of Tristan da Cunha looks very similar to its past. It is always going to be a challenge place to visit. With no economic prospect of an airport ever being built, it will always be a remote isolated outpost. 

The one thing which might change Tristan would be high-speed broadband satellite internet. It would give the island easy communication with the rest of thew world and possibly open to door to telecommuting jobs which are currently impossible.  

This will also allow for telemedicine, remote education, and a host of other things which all of us take for granted. 

Tristan da Cuna and the 250 people who live there are unlike anything on Earth. The only humans who are more difficult to reach are certain bases in Antarctica and the astronauts on the International Space Station. 

It is the remoteness that makes Tristan da Cunha one of the most special places in the world. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Ben Ball Daddy O from Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

The Perfect Pod

This review comes from a new member of the Completionist Club. I’m an Arkansas native residing in Louisville, KY.

Like the bicycle, Gary’s podcast begs the question, “Why wasn’t this created before it was?”

As many have said before, Gary’s ability to generate intrigue in topics I would have thought boring is outstanding. I love the length and factual nature of the show.

I’d love to see more episodes on agriculture. The entry on Rice is one of the episodes that got me hooked in the summer of last year.

Thanks, Ben Ball Daddy O!  There are lots of agriculture-related episodes on the list, including some on the rise of agriculture itself, in addition to the histories of various crops. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.