Seventeen hundred miles from what is customarily called civilization—in this case, the western shore of the Republic of South Africa—lies a tiny British-run volcanic island populated by fewer than three hundred people who lay claim to living in the most isolated permanent habitation in the world.
I am presently sitting five cables off this island, Tristan da Cunha, wallowing on the swells on a small boat that is hove-to just off the mole at the entrance to the harbor of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the island’s capital and only settlement. But while my fellow passengers will soon be landing—once the easterly gale blows itself out and the seas die down to an acceptable level—and so are excitedly preparing themselves to enjoy the fascinations that Edinburgh has in store (a visit to the fields where the islanders grow potatoes being the main advertised attraction), I will not be joining them.
For I have been sternly and staunchly forbidden to land. The Island Council of this half-forgotten outpost of the remaining British Empire has for the last quarter century declared me a Banned Person. I am welcome on Tristan neither today nor, indeed, as was succinctly put to me in a diplomatic telegram last year, “ever.”
It would be idle to suggest that I have been terribly incommoded. Though some may suspect sour grapes, I have to confess that there is little of great charm to Tristan. Such as it possesses derives almost entirely from its status: there is a very large hand-painted sign in the Edinburgh square saying, WELCOME TO THE REMOTEST ISLAND, and once our visitors have had themselves photographed beside it, have exchanged pleasantries with various islanders over warm English beer at the rather underdecorated Albatross Pub, have studied the piles of canned pork sausages and sugar-rich candies on sale in the cinder-block shop, and have made the obligatory two-mile pilgrimage (on the island’s only road) to the fields where the potatoes grow, most will be eager to return to their waiting cruise ship, to wonder as the island fades away astern, why on earth anyone would wish to live there.
The latest census says that 275 people do. They belong to just seven eternally intermarrying families. Two of the families are the descendants of the civilian support staff of a military garrison that Britain established on the island in 1815 to help ward off any French loyalists who might try to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena, 1,500 miles to the north. An Italian ship was later wrecked on the island, bringing with it two further surnames. Two more family names came down from passing American whalers and one from a similarly wandering Dutchman, expanding a gene pool which remains to this day severely limited—and is said to be responsible for the curious similarity of the islanders’ appearances, and the numerous cases of asthma, retinitis pigmentosa, and other genetically influenced ailments that afflict the population.
Utter isolation—just a scattering of supply ships and randomly appearing cruise liners happen by each year; there is no airfield—instills a healthy self-reliance into what is in any case a very singular culture. The men fish for lobster (a pair of which appear on the islands’ coat of arms), tinker with their boat engines, tend the herd of cattle and flock of sheep, dig the vegetable patches; the women knit (large woolen sweaters called “ganzeys,” socks to be put inside sea boots called “ammunitions”), perform most of the island paperwork, organize regular morale-lifting celebrations.
The older islanders incorporate nineteenth-century “thees” and “thous” into their speech—on hearing such chatter it seems perfectly reasonable that only sixty years ago all trade was performed by barter: to send a letter to England cost five potatoes. And though satellites have had their recent effect, it seems understandable, too, that until thirty years ago all contact with the outside world was by Morse code—fitful, unreliable, and subject to the vagaries of the ionosphere.
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