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Extremities of the Earth: The Most Remote Inhabited Island

Where is the lowest point on dry land? Or the northernmost inhabited point on earth? How about the highest city? All of these questions and many more will be unraveled in this new occasional series, Extremities of the Earth, created to explore the farthest reaches of our planet.

For this inaugural post for the series, I found myself fascinated by the most remote inhabited island in the world: Tristan da Cunha. Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, this small island with a 25-mile circumference is farther away from the next outpost of humanity than any other inhabited place in the world. About 1,200 miles away from the island of St. Helena and 1,750 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, Tristan da Cunha (colloquially known simply as Tristan) is home to 256 people. The island is part of an archipelago of six small islands, with Tristan being the only permanently inhabited one.

It is believed that the island was first sighted by Admiral Tristao da Cunha, pictured below, in 1506, as he and his crew were sailing from Portugal to the east coast of Africa. However, it was not until 1643 that the first recorded landing took place by the crew of the Dutch vessel Heemstede.

Woodcut of Triastao da Cunha by Tobias Stimmer. Illustrated in Elogia Virorum Bellica Virtute Illustrium...by Paolo Giovio, 1575. Rare Book Division, Library of Congress.

“Triastao da Cunha, 1460?-1540.” Woodcut of Triastao da Cunha by Tobias Stimmer. Illustrated in Elogia Virorum Bellica Virtute Illustrium…by Paolo Giovio, 1575. Rare Book Division, Library of Congress.

Due to its location, Tristan was a convenient place for ships to resupply on long sea voyages from Europe to Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the first large-scale charts of the archipelago were created by the Dutch in 1656, the islands can be seen marked on earlier maps, such as on this portolan chart from 1633 by Pascoal Roiz. Can you spot the island of Tristan da Cunha on this map?

"A portolan chart of the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent continents," Pascoal Roiz, 1633. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

“A portolan chart of the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent continents,” Pascoal Roiz, 1633. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Detail of "A portolan chart of the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent continents," Pascoal Roiz, 1633. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Detail of “A portolan chart of the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent continents,” Pascoal Roiz, 1633. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The first attempt at settlement of the island was made in 1810 by Jonathan Lambert of Salem, Massachusetts, who arrived on the island with three other men. Lambert became the self-proclaimed “ruler” of the island. His reign was short, however, as Lambert and two of the other men drowned while on a fishing expedition in 1812. The expedition’s one survivor, Thomas Curry, was left to continue farming on Tristan, but he was soon joined by several more settlers. In 1816, the United Kingdom annexed the archipelago and a garrison of British troops was sent to secure Tristan, although the troops were soon recalled in 1817. Several men led by Corporal William Glass decided to remain and settle on the island, becoming the ancestors of many of today’s islanders.

"Tristan da Cunha," published by Directorate of Colonial Surveys, 1948. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

“Tristan da Cunha,” published by Directorate of Colonial Surveys, 1948. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

As seen in the map above, there is only one town on the island, officially named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas but locally known simply as the Settlement. This is the only relatively flat plain on the island, with the remainder dominated by Queen Mary’s Peak, an active volcano and the highest island mountain in the South Atlantic Ocean. In 1961, a volcanic eruption forced residents to evacuate the island, moving temporarily to England. The majority of Tristan residents chose to return in 1963.

Today, the social and economic organization of the island is much the same as it was set up by William Glass in 1817. All land is communally owned and all Tristan families are farmers at least part-time, working on family plots of land in an area known as the Patches. Anyone interested in visiting the island today must receive prior approval by the island Administrator. Although it is the most isolated settlement in the world, Tristan da Cunha remains a vibrant and successful community.

I look forward to sharing further explorations of the farthest edges of the earth with you in future posts!

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