Tristan da Cunha

Designing a More Sustainable Future for Tristan da Cunha's Community

Further Background to the History of Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha was discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese navigator, Tristầo da Cunha. It is not clear whether he ever set foot on Tristan, but the first permanent inhabitants arriving in the early 19th century found large numbers of wild goats and pigs roaming on the island, indicating that someone must have landed on the island. He nevertheless named the Island after himself. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch and French governments, as well as the British East India Company, considered taking possession of the islands but decided not to do so, mainly because of a lack of a suitable landing place. The islands of Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough were originally known as Geebroken, Nachtglas and Goncalo Alvarez respectively.

The islands were later used as temporary bases by sealers and whalers usually from the USA, and it was from here that the first settlers of Tristan came. In 1811 Jonathan Lambert, who hailed from Salem, declared himself emperor (a copy of his flag can be seen in the Island museum). He disappeared in somewhat mysterious circumstances during an argument with one of his two companions. The other, Tomasso Corri (Thomas Curry), was still on the island when its next occupants arrived. This was in 1816 when a British garrison was sent from Cape Town. Corri aroused their interest with stories of buried treasure but never revealed its whereabouts. He died of drink, plied to him by the members of the garrison seeking the treasure!

The garrison had been sent by the British Government because they were worried that the island might be used for an attempt by the French to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. It was withdrawn in 1817 but Corporal William Glass from Kelso in Scotland, with his wife and children, asked to stay, accompanied by two stonemasons, Nankivel and Burnell, from Plymouth, UK. The stonemasons did not stay long but examples of their work can still be seen on the island houses.

Others joined William Glass and his family over the next few years, notably Thomas Swain from Hastings, UK. Five bachelors on Tristan in the early 1820s asked a naval Captain if he could arrange for five wives to come from St. Helena. In 1827 the ladies arrived and the community began to increase. In 1836 a Dutchman, Peter Groen, who anglicised his name to Green, joined them. In 1837 and 1849 Thomas Rogers and Andrew Hagan, both American whalermen, also settled on Tristan.

At this time the island prospered. Although only operating a subsistence economy they were able to barter their fresh vegetables and fresh water (an official currency was not introduced on the Island until the early 1950s) to passing ships for provisions required on the Island. Sailing ships en-route to South Africa, India, the Far East and Australia all came via Tristan to utilise the trade winds. By 1856 there were 97 inhabitants.

However the decline in whaling, the transition to steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, all occurring at around the same time, stalled Tristan's growth. Many inhabitants emigrated to the USA and Cape Town and the Island was forgotten apart from occasions when the remaining islanders rescued shipwrecked sailors. It was partly in recognition of this help and the activities of missionaries that the British Government in 1875 formally declared the islands to be part of the British Empire. An annual visit by a British warship to bring supplies was instigated.

In 1892 an Italian ship the Italia was wrecked off the island. Two of the sailors, Andrea Repetto and Gaetano Laverello from Gamogli in Italy, decided to stay and then married local girls. Two sisters, Agnes and Elizabeth Smith, from Kilkenny in Ireland met and married two islanders fighting with the British army in the Boer War and afterwards returned with them to Tristan. These seven family names, Glass, Green, Hagan, Laverello, Repetto, Rogers and Swain are the only surnames now found on the island.

The islanders survived over the years through good and hard times. In 1938 Tristan was declared a dependency of St. Helena. The start of a crayfish industry in 1950 brought about the transition from subsistence to a cash economy and in the same year the British Government sent its first Administrator to Tristan. In 1961 a volcanic eruption beside the settlement of Edinburgh caused the evacuation of the all the inhabitants to the UK. For two years the islanders stayed in the UK but maintained their close-knit community and a desire to return to Tristan. In 1963 it was considered safe to do so and the majority sailed home. But life in England had changed attitudes and a more affluent and informed society emerged from then onwards, far removed from the lifestyles of their ancestors.

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