Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Place of the Year spotlight: Tristan da Cunha, the most interesting place you’ve (n)ever heard of

I confess that when I saw Tristan da Cunha among the nominations for Place of the Year, I had no idea where it was, but once I got out my atlas, I was intrigued. Colloquially known as Tristan, the eight-mile-wide island is the most remote inhabited place in the world: it lies 1,200 miles east of the nearest inhabited island, Saint Helena, and a full 1,500 miles east of the nearest continental land, South Africa. Traveling west from the island, South America is another 2,090 miles away. (Fittingly, one of Tristan’s neighboring islands is named “Inaccessible Island.”) The island has no airport, so even now, the only way to reach the island is a seven-day journey by boat.

Tristan has a fascinating history–first sighted in 1506 by Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha, who named the island after himself, it was visited periodically by explorers and scientists until 1810, when the first permanent settler arrived from Salem, Massachusetts. Six years later, the UK annexed the island–primarily, it’s said, to keep the French from using it as a base to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte, who was imprisoned on the island of Saint Helena. Over the course of the past two centuries, the island’s population has continued to grow (except between 1961 and 1963, when everyone on the island was temporarily evacuated because of a volcanic eruption), and today more than 260 people live on Tristan.

Rockhopper penguin, image by Nicolas Bschor, Public Domain via Pixabay.
Rockhopper penguin; Image by Nicolas Bschor, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Because of its extreme isolation, the island is of interest to scholars of linguistics and genetics: Tristan’s present-day inhabitants speak a unique dialect of English and are believed to be descended from just fifteen ancestors, seven women and eight men. The island is also important for wildlife: Tristan is home to thirteen species of breeding seabirds and two species of resident land birds, including northern rockhopper penguins, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, sooty albatrosses, Atlantic petrels, great-winged petrels, soft-plumaged petrels, broad-billed prions, grey petrels, great shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, Tristan skuas, Antarctic terns, and brown noddies.

Tristan appears in the news periodically because of its distinction as the most remote inhabited place on earth–an op-ed recently suggested that Americans had better go all the way to Tristan, not just to Canada, if they’re trying to escape the effects of a Trump presidency–but in 2016 in particular it’s been in the news as the island sets out to become fully self-sufficient. A British architecture firm, Brock Carmichael Architects, won the contest to design a sustainable future for the Tristan da Cunha community–you can see their winning proposal for yourself.

Tristan’s experiment in sustainability could prove a model for communities around the world as the threat of climate change becomes ever more significant. If you think Tristan deserves a spot on the Place of the Year shortlist, vote for it in the poll below!

Featured image: “The island of Tristan da Cunha as seen from space.” by NASA, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *