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What Should I Know About Tristan da Cunha?

The island of St. Helena is considered to be Tristan da Cunha parent island.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 September 2014
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Tristan da Cunha is a small dependency in the South Atlantic. The islands cover 120 square miles (200 sq. km). Tristan da Cunha consists of a number of islands in addition to the populated island of Tristan da Cunha. Inaccessible Island, Gough Island, and Nightingale Island are all officially part of the dependency, although all are uninhabited.

Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated inhabited place in the world, some 1350 miles (2160 km) from its parent island of Saint Helena, itself a tiny island with a population of less than 4,000. The nearest major landmass is South Africa, which is 1750 miles (2810 km) away.

Unsurprisingly, Tristan da Cunha was never inhabited prior to European discovery. The island was first spotted by a Portuguese captain, Tristão da Cunha, at the beginning of the 16th century. He never landed, however, and the islands remained unexplored for the next two centuries.

A French survey was made of the island in the mid-18th century, and it was at this point that fresh water was discovered on the island, giving the island some value as a waypoint in Atlantic crossings. In the early-19th century an American settled the island, claiming it as his own and naming it the Island of Refreshment, before dying only a few years after he arrived. Shortly after his death the War of 1812 broke out between America and Britain, and America used Tristan da Cunha as a naval base to attack British ships on their way to the United States.

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Following the British defeat of Napoleon in Europe, and their subsequent exile of him to Saint Helena, some 1350 miles (2160 km) away, the British laid claim to Tristan da Cunha. Although the island was far away, the British were nonetheless concerned that French sympathizers would use it as a base from which to rescue Napoleon. The British initially built a military base on the island, and over time civilians were sent there. With an established population Tristan da Cunha began to be used as a resupply port for ships going around the Cape of Africa from Europe to the East.

When the Suez Canal was opened, however, there was no need for ships to sail around the Cape, and Tristan da Cunha once more became incredibly isolated. Whalers still occasionally used the island as a base, but this traffic also became less frequent over time.

In World War II, Tristan da Cunha was used as a base by the British to monitor the South Atlantic. It was at this time that the island was placed as a dependency under the territory of Saint Helena. In the early 1960's a volcano erupted on the island, and drove the population to England temporarily, although they returned a few years later.

Tristan da Cunha is one of the least inhabited places in the world, with a population of around 270 people. This small population is further complicated by the incredible isolation of the island. With only 80 families making up the entire social group of the island, many young people leave the islands to find spouses, and eventually hope to return.

There are no planes in to Tristan da Cunha, and the most common way to get there is by getting a ride on a ship from Saint Helena, or by hitching a ride on a fishing boat from South Africa.

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