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History of Tristan da Cunha

The islands of Tristan da Cunha were sighted in 1506 by the Portuguese admiral Tristan, or more correctly Tristão da Cunha, after whom they are named, during a voyage to India. Thereafter the islands (which were uninhabited) were occasionally visited by outward bound ships to the Indies. Dutch vessels brought back reports on the islands in 1643, and in 1656 Jan van Riebeek, the founder of Cape Town, sent a ship from Table Bay to Tristan to see if it was suitable for a military station. but the absence of a harbour led to the project being abandoned.

Later in the 17th century ships were sent from Saint Helena by the English East India Company to Tristan to report on a proposed settlement there, but that project also came to naught. A British naval officer who visited the group in 1760 gave his name to Nightingale Island. John Patten, the master of an English merchant ship, and part of his crew lived on Tristan from August 1790 to April 1791, during which time they captured 3600 sealss; but the first permanent inhabitant was one Thomas Currie, who landed on the island in 1810. At this time American whalers frequented the neighbouring waters and, in the same year, an American named Jonathan Lambert "late of Salem, mariner and citizen thereof" and a man named Williams made Tristan their home. Lambert declared himself sovereign and sole possessor of the group (which he renamed Islands of Refreshment) "grounding my right and claim on the rational and sure ground of absolute occupancy". Lambert's sovereignty was short lived, as he and Williams were drowned while out fishing in May 1812. Currie was joined, however, by two other men and they busied themselves in growing vegetables, wheat and oats, and in breeding pigs.

War having broken out in 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, the islands were largely used as a base by American cruisers sent to prey on British merchant ships. This and other considerations urged by Lord Charles Somerset, then governor of Cape Colony, led the British government to authorise the islands being taken possession of as dependencies of the Cape. The formal proclamation of annexation was made on 14 August 1816.

A small garrison was maintained on Tristan until November 1817. At their own request William Glass (d. 1853), a corporal in the Royal Artillery, with his wife and two children and two masons were left behind, and thus was begun the present settlement. From time to time additional settlers arrived or shipwrecked mariners decided to remain; in 1827 five coloured women from Saint Helena were induced to migrate to Tristan to become the wives of the five desperate bachelors then on the island. Later, coloured women from Cape Colony married residents in the island. Other settlers are of Dutch, Italian and Asiatic origin. Thus the inhabitants are of mixed blood, but the British strain greatly predominates.

Over the little community Glass ruled from 1817 to 1853 in patriarchal fashion. Besides raising crops, the settlers possessed numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs, but their most lucrative occupation was seal-fishing. The island was still frequented by American whalers, and in 1856 out of a total population of about 100, twenty-five emigrated to the United States. The next year forty-five of the inhabitants removed to Cape Colony; whither the younger or more restless members of the community have since gone - or else taken to a seafaring life.

The inhabitants had of necessity made their settlement on the plain on the north-west of Tristan; here a number of substantial stone cottages and a church were built. It is named Edinburgh in memory of a visit in 1867 by the duke of Edinburgh. In October 1873 the islands were carefully surveyed by the Challenger, which removed to Cape Town two Germans, brothers named Stoltenhoff, who had been living on Inaccessible Island since November 1871. This was the only attempt at colonization made on any save the main island of the group.

After the death of Glass the head of the community for some time was an old man-of-war's man named Cotton, who had been for three years guard over Napoleon at Saint Helena; Cotton was succeeded by Peter William Green, a native of Amsterdam who had settled in the island in 1836. During Green's "reign" the economic condition of Tristan was considerably affected by the desertion of the neighbouring seas by the whalers; this was largely due to the depredations of the Confederate cruisers CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah during the American Civil War, many whaling boats being captured and burnt by them. As a result the number of ships calling at Tristan considerably diminished and trade languished.

In 1880 the population appears to have attained its maximum. In 1885 a serious disaster befell the islanders, a lifeboat which went to take provisions to a ship in the offing was lost with all hands fifteen men and only four adult males were left on the island. At the same time a plague of rats - survivors of a shipwrecked vessel - wrought much havoc among the crops. Plans were made for the total removal of the inhabitants to the Cape, but the majority preferred to remain. Stores and provisions were sent out to them by the British government.

The ravages of the rats rendered impossible the growing of wheat; the wealth of the islanders now consisted in their cattle, sheep, potatoes and apple and peach trees. The population in 1897 was only 64; in 1901 it was 74, and in 1909, 95.

Tristan da Cunha's residents managed their own affairs without any written laws, the project once entertained of providing them with a formal constitution being deemed unnecessary. The inhabitants were described as moral, religious, hospitable to strangers, well-mannered and industrious, healthy and long-lived. They lack intoxicating liquors and were said to commit no crimes. As of 2003, there have been no divorces. They were daring sailors, and in small canvas boats of their own building voyage to Nightingale and Inaccessible islands. They knit garments from the wool of their sheep; are good carpenters and make serviceable carts.

From time to time ministers of the Church of England have lived on the island and to their efforts is mainly due the education of the children.

In 1906 the islanders passed through a period of distress owing to great mortality among the cattle and the almost total failure of the potato crop. The majority again refused, however, to desert the island, though offered allotments of land in Cape Colony. Similar proposals were made and declined several times since the question was first mooted in 1886.

In 1961 a volcanic eruption on the island resulted in the bulk of the population (a few hundred people) being evacuated to Britain, though most subsequently returned.

'\'Original detail from http://1911encyclopedia.org