From the nearest port in South Africa, it takes six days on a fishing boat to reach the small island of Tristan da Cunha. Fifteen hundred miles out into the South Atlantic, simple white homes with bright colored roofs sit in rows on green fields. A sign reads “Welcome to the remotest island,” and behind it Queen Mary’s Peak towers nearly 7,000 feet high.
The most remote inhabited island stayed mostly under the radar for two hundred years.
The island was first spotted by a Portuguese explorer in 1506, but it was 300 years before a permanent British settlement appeared. The island was originally annexed to prevent the French from rescuing Napoleon, who was then held prisoner on another Atlantic island called Saint Helena.
There are 277 inhabitants that share the land, and they also share their names. Nearly every resident is related to a handful of ancestors. Unfortunately, a large number of these founders suffered from asthma. This caused the rate of the disease to be extremely high among the population. But the community’s isolation proved invaluable for researchers, who eventually used islanders to determine the specific gene associated with the disease.
The volcano erupted in 1961, forcing the islanders from their quiet lives and into the media spotlight. Evacuated to Britain, where they became public curiosities. Reporters questioned them about cars, crime and television, which they first encountered after coming to Britain.
But after several years most decided to return home, where they continue to live out their lives.
Listen to the segment at KMUW.org
- Photo credit: Jon Tonks.