Tristan da Cunha: the island of only 8 surnames.

The Sea


Less than a century ago, the sun never set on the British Empire. Steamrolling the world with such aplomb, entire continents are still trapped in a full-fledged hangover from the eroding commonwealth.  Within such an expansive legacy it’s easy to miss small details, such as the fate of a small mid-Atlantic archipelago once primarily known as a stopping point for sea birds. 

Tristan da Cunha is the world’s most isolated island chain populated by humans, sitting in the open ocean almost halfway between South Africa and South America.  Though named for the Portuguese explorer who first stumbled upon it, Mother Britain seized Tristan da Cunha to her bosom in 1816 and hastily threw up a garrison.  Their motivation: deep paranoia surrounding French plots to rescue Napoleon from exile on the similarly isolated St. Helena.  

Tristan da Cunha is 11 miles wide.  The current population nears 270 people, all descended from 15 original colonists, a mix of Scottish, English, Dutch, Italian, and African background.  Every citizen has had one of only 8 surnames: Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Patterson, Repetto, Rogers, or Swain. 

Tristanians speak an English dialect exclusive to the islands.  Subsistence depends on fishing and communal farming.  Private land ownership is illegal.  The accumulation of wealth is frowned upon almost as much as outsiders attempting to join the settlement.  Despite an enduring tendency towards the Union Jack, Anglicanism, and all things properly British, there seems to be little Tristanian interest in branching out to the wider world.  Not even within younger generations. 

A volcanic eruption in 1961 is remembered far less traumatically than the ensuing evacuation, after which the islands’ entire population spent two miserable years in England, terrified they might never see home again.  Two hundred Tristanians returned the moment they were allowed.  The volcano had destroyed, amongst many other things, the Tristan lobster cannery.  Though most of the pre-catastrophe population returned, it would still be a lot of work to get everything back the way they remembered it.