[Today’s article comes to us from world traveler and quintessential “international man” Dr. Jack Wheeler.]
Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas, Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean. Welcome to the most isolated community on the planet, on the world’s remotest inhabited island.
Named after the Portuguese captain who discovered it in 1506, Tristão da Cunha, it is 1,736 miles from Africa, and 2,466 miles from South America. The nearest inhabited land is the island of St. Helena 1,343 miles to the north, itself so remote that the Brits exiled Napoleon there.
It’s not simply that Tristan is far away from anywhere else, it’s amazingly difficult to get here. You have to arrive by ship as there’s no airport – and there are no regular passenger ships, just the occasional fishing boat and an annual relief/supply ship from Cape Town. And when one does get here, it is rarely able to land as the weather doesn’t allow it. We are the first passenger ship to land here since March of 2012.
Why bother? Why brave often incredibly rough and dangerous seas for days or even weeks to come here on the off-chance that you can go ashore? Just to be able to tell your friends back home you set foot on the world’s remotest inhabited island?
Maybe for some. For me, it was the opportunity to meet perhaps the most extraordinarily unique people on earth. I came hoping to find a freedom paradise (more accurately, a conservative-libertarian paradise) – and I found it. But before you start packing your bags, be advised: there is, of course, a catch.
There is only one settlement on the island, named after the original Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Prince Alfred, Consort to Queen Victoria, who visited here on a world tour of the British Empire in 1867. Every Tristanian (tris-tay-nee-un), 262 at current count, lives in Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas – although they usually just call it The Settlement.
Among those 262, there are only seven family names: Glass, Green, Hagen, Swain, Rogers, Lavarello, and Repetto. There are never any first or second cousin marriages, and for 200 years the Tristan gene pool has been continually refreshed from shipwrecked sailors to marriage to outsiders. The population hasn’t gone more than 10% above or below 260 for a over a century.
No one had ever lived on the island when da Cunha (coon-yah) found it in 1506, and for 300 years, no one paid much attention to the tiny, 38 square mile volcanic speck with no natural harbor and little habitable land, until 1816 when a Scottish corporal named William Glass and his wife from Cape Town, decided to live there, and attracted others, such as a sailor named Thomas Swain, and women from St. Helena for sailors like him.
The community grew, waxed and waned, prospered and suffered, learning to become intensely self-reliant. They raised cattle and sheep, fished in the sea, grew vegetables and potatoes, and fended for themselves, dependent upon no one by necessity.
They lived simply. Every family had its own small home, made of large blocks of an easily-carved volcanic rock called tufa, with a heavily thatched roof. There was only one main room, with a fireplace that provided heat and where food was cooked, and a small bedroom. The bed’s mattress was stuffed with penguin feathers, and lamps at night were lit with seal oil.
Yet they saw that their children were well educated. They learned of world events and read books by Plutarch, Plato, and Shakespeare acquired from passing sailing ships. They saw their children learned Christian values at one of the two churches in the Settlement: St. Mary’s Anglican Church, or St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. There’s no history of religious feuds or fanaticism on Tristan.
After World War II, “red gold” was discovered. With the help of South African businessmen, the Tristan Development Corporation was formed in 1949 to exploit the uncountable numbers of easily-caught rock lobsters in Tristan’s waters. In addition, beautifully designed Tristan postage stamps became prized by stamp collectors and were sold world-wide.
The economy boomed, living and housing conditions improved – yet Tristanians managed to adapt to modernization without losing their traditional values and culture.
Then disaster struck. Tristan is an active volcano above a hotspot in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with the main cone (Queen Mary’s Peak) almost 7,000 feet high. In August of 1961, a vent suddenly opened up right next to The Settlement, out of which molten lava began flowing towards the sea. When it looked like the lava might envelop and destroy the community, the British government ordered the entire population evacuated to England.
For most Tristanians, it was the first time they’d been off their island (save for fishing trips to the small nearby uninhabited satellite islands of Nightingale and Inaccessible), their first exposure to modern Western life and all its temptations. They hated it.
When scientists reported, after an expedition to the now-deserted island in 1962, that the lava flow had missed The Settlement by not much more than the length of a football field, that the eruption had terminated, and that repatriation of the islanders was an option, the Tristanians celebrated. They were given the choice to stay in England and be subsidized wards of the British Welfare State, or return to Tristan and fend for themselves again. All but five voted to return – which they did in 1963.
The kids brought back rock n’ roll and the Twist with them, but for the most part, the plethora of lunacies comprising the Sixties passed Tristan by. Everyone went back to work, although with the rock lobster and postage stamp businesses going better than ever, that work was more profitable. The Settlement soon had a movie theatre, a pub, a community swimming pool; everyone had a modern kitchen, video recorders, and family car – even though there are less than four miles of road on the island.
Today there’s an Internet cafe, and many kids have a Facebook page or even their own websites. The island maintains its own well-done website, www.tristandc.com.
Now we come to the interesting part. If exposure to and immersion in the culture of Western degradation has spoiled and ruined the culture of Tristan, it is indiscernible.
To this day, in almost 200 years of history since Tristan’s founding in 1816, not one Tristanian has ever murdered another. Murder is unknown, it has never happened on Tristan. Rape is unknown. There has never been a single case of rape in anyone’s memory or on record. Divorce is unknown.
Marriage is for life. No one can recall any couple ever getting divorced (save for marriage to an outsider who couldn’t handle life on Tristan and left the island). Pre-marital sex is abundant, but once a girl gets pregnant, she marries the father and that’s that. Abortion is unknown. Aborting a baby is indescribably horrific to a Tristanian.
Crime is unknown. There is no theft. Everyone keeps his home unlocked. There are no fights in the pub, no drunken brawls. There is a peacefulness and serenity to life on Tristan that has to be experienced to be believed.
And there is no socialism. Tristan’s economy and society is based on private property. People have their own sheep, their own cows for milk, their own cattle for beef, their own cultivated patches for potatoes and vegetables. Fishermen are paid according to the amount of lobsters they personally haul in.
For the most part, Tristanians govern themselves. There is a resident British Administrator, as Tristan is a British Overseas Territory, appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Yet, with the exception of rare emergency circumstances such as the decision to evacuate the island in 1961, he can only act with the approval of the Island Council, composed of islanders elected by the community.
In fact, Tristanians pay little attention to the “Hadmin,” as they call the Administrator, who manages to spend much of his time in London. They look instead to their own elected leader and head of the Council, called the Chief Islander, for guidance. Currently, he is Ian Lavarello, and I was fortunate to have dinner with him.
His home is like everyone else’s. He goes fishing, manages his potato patch, and works like everyone else. “Tristanians learned long ago,” he told me, “to be a cooperative people, to resolve our disputes peacefully and with goodwill. We are all family on this island, and we use problems to bring us together, not divide us. I don’t think you’ll find a more agreeable people anywhere than Tristanians. They make it easy for me to find solutions to situations that we all can agree on.”
Tristan has one policeman – Conrad Glass, a direct descendant of founder William Glass. Over a Castle Lager at the world’s remotest pub, the Albatross Bar, I asked him what a policeman does in a place where there’s no crime. “My job is to help people,” he explained. “Ian (Lavarello) helps with community-wide issues. I talk to people about their individual disagreements. And I help them be careful.
“There’s a place on the road to the Patches (an area of tiny walled fields two miles from the Settlement in which everyone grows their potatoes and vegetables) where some people drive fast and there’s been a couple of accidents. I’ll park my police car behind this curve – you Yanks would call this a ‘speed trap,’ I believe – so when someone is speeding and they see me, they quickly slow down. We smile and wave at each other, although sometimes I have to shake my finger at them.”
Conrad asked me why I had come here. “People who live in the remotest community on earth, and have been determined to do so for two centuries,” I answered, “have to be uniquely interesting. I came here to meet them, and try to understand something about them.”
He smiled. “The most important thing to understand about Tristanians is what they value most in life is freedom. We have a freedom here in Tristan like nowhere else. That’s why we found England suffocating, rules everywhere, someone always telling you what you can and cannot do. We couldn’t wait to get back here where we are free and we live by our own rules.
“On Tristan, no one tells you what to do. No one tells you when to get up, when to milk your cows or go fishing or help your neighbor fix his house damaged in a storm. But… if you don’t do these things, your cow will die, you won’t have fish to eat, your neighbor won’t help you when you need to fix your house. We’ve learned that when you’re free, when no one forces you to help others, everyone ends up helping everyone else – and cheerfully. There’s no obligation – we just are happier together that way.”
A young fellow, George Swain, joined us. He had gone to high school in Cape Town and then received training in wildlife conservation. Now, at age 20, he had returned to the island to work for Tristan’s Conservation and Fisheries Office. I asked him if most young people left the island to study or work elsewhere today, and how many ever came back.
“Most all of us leave at some time,” he said. “We want to learn something of the world. After a few years or even several, just about everybody returns to live. We miss Tristan’s freedom.”
So – ready to kiss all the fascist craziness in the world goodbye and live in peace and freedom on Tristan da Cunha? That’s the catch: you can’t. The world’s remotest, most isolated community on the planet wants to keep it that way. You can visit here between ships, arriving on one and departing on another – although there are no hotels or restaurants, so you’d have to arrange a homestay – but you can’t live here. Tristan is for Tristanians.
There is only one way to become a Tristanian – and that’s to marry one. You could visit here in hopes of meeting and marrying a local gal if you’re a guy or vice versa (and just to be clear: any mention of “same-sex” marriage is considered a stupidly tasteless joke here). Or you could by chance or tracking them down, bump into a young Tristanian studying or working abroad, marry him or her, and move to Tristan.
Once you establish a home in the Settlement, have children and start to raise a family, you can become a Tristanian – that’s the only way.
The bottom line is that Tristanians are self-contained. They are cheerful, friendly, approachable, nice and easy to talk to. But they don’t need us. Outsiders from other countries and cultures have their values and lifestyles, and that’s fine – live and let live. But they don’t need them.
Tristanians have a freedom and shared humanity that is unique in this world. There is a calmness in their souls, what I would call a gravitas of serenity, that I have never witnessed elsewhere in all the places on earth I have been.
You and I cannot be a part of it – but it is enough to know that it exists. At least there is one place on our planet this free, this peaceful, this happy together. It is not ironic that this place is a tiny village on a tiny island in a vast stormy sea farther away from other people than anywhere else. The latter has to be part of the cause of the former.
No matter. We know now that such peace and freedom isn’t a fantasy ideal but something human beings are actually capable of. It has been such a privilege to be here and meet these wonderful people. The short weather window that allowed us to be here has closed. A major storm is approaching and we must board the Zodiac motorized inflatable rafts in the tiny harbor – so tiny a couple of Zodiacs or motorized rowboats is all it has room for – to get back to the ship anchored offshore.
I must finish one last Castle Lager here in the Albatross Bar where I’m writing this and say goodbye to my Tristanian friends. For the rest of my life, I’ll treasure having been here and having met them. There is such a place as Tristan da Cunha. It’s real, and that should mean a lot to all of us.
[Editor’s Note: Once called “Indiana Jones of the Right” by The Washington Post, Dr. Jack Wheeler is the founder of To The Point, a website that serves as “The Oasis for Rational Conservatives”. Learn more at www.tothepointnews.com.]
Freedom Paradise Found by Dr. Jack Wheeler