Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Tristan da Cunha – A remote agriculture utopia



Tristan da Cunha, a small remote volcanic island in the south Atlantic ocean, is 2,816 kilometres from the nearest land that is South Africa. South Africans are unaware of the islands existence. With a population of 263 citizens, the island of Tristan da Cunha lives up to its modern Guinness Book of Records title as the world's most isolated community. The island is part of the British territory of Saint Helena and consists of the main island of Tristan da Cunha that measures about eleven kilometers across and has an area of 98 square kilometers and the uninhabited Nightingale Islands, the wildlife reserves of Inaccessible Island and Gough Island.


The Tristan da Cunha Islands were discovered and named by Portuguese admiral Tristao da Cunha en route to the Cape of Good Hope in 1506. Tristan da Cunha was comfortably sitsuated on the ‘maritime motorway’ of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, making it a safe harbour and supply base for ships from all nations. However, explorers ruled out Tristan da Cunha as a possible home due to its rugged mountain landscape, absence of natural harbour, lack of land for agriculture and a harsh climate with heavy rain and high winds at all seasons. It took an extraordinary community of people to settle and thrive in the world's most isolated community.

The British military aboard HMS Falmouth took possesion of the island on 14 August 1816, on behalf of King George III. A base called Fort Malcolm was established to secure the island against French and American ships. A small group, led by Corporal William Glass that consisted of his South African wife Maria, their two children and Devonian stonemasons Samuel Burnell and John Nankivel, chose to settle permanently on Tristan da Cunha. They all signed a voluntary agreement of communal living that included equal shares of stock and stores; equally divided profit; equal shares in paying for buys and that their will be no superiors.

The community grew slowly as some shipwrecked survivors settled permanently. However, only William Glass had a spouse and family. Simon Amm, captain of the Duke of Gloucester, a regular visitor to the island, convinced women from the island of St Helena to accompany him to Tristan da Cunha so that they could meet the bachelors. Amm returned in 1827 with only five volunteers, however by 1832 Tristan had a population of 34 with 6 couples and 22 children.


Crucial world events led to the isolation of the island. The Civil War curtailed the already declining whaling industry, whose ships had often called on Tristan for supplies. The Suez Canal's opening in 1869 gave a safer and much quicker passage to Far East, avoiding the perils of the South Atlantic and Cape of Good Hope. The community of Tristan da Cunha had no other option but to rely on traditional farming and fishing for food.

All of Tristan da Cunha's citizens are farmers. Each family owns their own stock and potato patch and live in houses built by themselves or by their ancestors. All land is communally owned, and stock numbers are strictly controlled to conserve pasture and to prevent some families of accumulating wealth. Each household can only own two cows that are all crosses served by a Hereford and a Welsh Black Cross bull.

Tristan's steep mountain slopes are an ideal habitat for sheep who thrive particularly on lush mountain pastures. There are over 600 mountain sheep on the island that is managed by teams of Islanders known as 'gangs'. The gangs laboriously lead their stock up one of three mountain paths. Mountain sheep are the main ingredient for Tristan’s famous stuffed roast mutton. Around 1000 low land sheep graze the plains of Tristan. Sheep stock is limited to seven per household or three for a single householder. Sheep are more efficient grazers on the plains than cattle as they are able to consume short grass and are more mobile on the sheer slopes. Families also keep large quantities of poultry around the settlements and there are also some ducks and geese, reared for meat. Any other livestock is limited since they consume valuable grass.

The Crawfish or Tristan Rock Lobster (Jasus tristani) is found in abundance around the islands and has been exploited commercially since the first canning factory was built in 1949, however the factory was destroyed by the 1961 volcanic eruption. A new factory, incorporating freezing technology, was built after the islanders returned in 1963 and has been the mainstay of the island's economy. The crawfish, marketed as Tristan Lobster, are processed and frozen into three main products: lobster tails, whole raw and whole cooked lobster. Other foreign earnings come from the sale of postage stamps and coins, especially to philatelists and collectors worldwide. Factory oil-driven generators produce electricity to meet the demands of all the facilities on the island.



No new residents are allowed to settle on the island, however the island has a small tourist industry. Amongst the residents, there are 80 families, and just 7 surnames: Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Repetto, Rogers and Swain. Currently the only method of traveling to Tristan Da Cunha is via a boat from Cape Town. Tristan Da Cunha might only be a speck on the world map, however the Agriculture Utopia proofs to the world that living in harmony with each other and nature is possible.

See also



1 comment:

  1. Easter Island is more remote. Pacific Islands are more remote just because the Pacific is larger. When it comes to islands, "remote" just means distance from a continental land mass. Tristan is the most remote archipelago and contains the settlement of humans that is most remote from another settlement but the main island itself is not the most remote.