Tristan Da Cunha - The Remotest Island

Tristan da Cunha circa 1905

Tristan da Cunha, an islander leads a "bullock cart" (photo published 1905)

The Discovery & Early Visits to Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha was located on the general zig-zag route adopted by shipping to avoid the equatorial Doldrums when sailing from Europe to the Indian Ocean.

The archipelago was, as far as we know, first discovered and named in 1506 by Admiral Tristao da Cunha while sailing from his native Portugal to the Cape of Good Hope. Tristan da Cunha then began appearing on nautical charts by 1509 and is also seen on Mercator's World Map published in 1541.

It is believed the first landing on Tristan da Cunha was made in 1643 when the Dutch vessel Heemstede put crew members ashore to gather supplies of fresh water and catch fish, seals and penguins.

Some seven years later the Dutch began the first of two 17th Century expeditions to Tristan da Cunha. They investigated the potential of the island as a safe anchorage for ships but it's believed they dismissed any plans due to the lack of any natural safe harbour.

By the late 18th Century American whaling ships were regularly in the area around Tristan da Cunha and the island became a base for the summer sealing season in 1790 to 91 when Captain John Patten and his men lived in tents while processing seal oil and skins from their catch.

On August 14th 1816 HMS Falmouth, under the command of Captain RWG Festing, arrived at Tristan da Cunha having been ordered there by Rear Admiral Sir Pultney Malcolm. Festing led a party that landed at what was then called Reception Bay (later renamed Falmouth Bay commemorating this event.) Festing found two men living on Tristan at that time, Thomas Currie and a Spaniard, Bastain Ponce Camilla, who apparently waved a Union flag as the landing party approached.

Festing's orders were to take possession of the entire group of Tristan da Cunha islands in the name of HM King George III and they were to become dependencies of the British Cape of Good Hope Colony.

Three days after landing, Festing departed Tristan aboard HMS Falmouth, leaving Lieutenant RN Rich in command of a small garrison composed of a few marines, four midshipmen and thirteen others. The plan was for him to return with a bigger garrison.

On October 24th 1816, Lord Charles Somerset formalised the annexation of Tristan da Cunha to the British Empire in correspondence to Earl Bathurst, saying; "in consequence of a subsequent consideration of the case, and of the new light which has been thrown upon this position by the important trust confided to the authorities at St Helena, orders here arrived there for taking immediate possession of these Islands". Clearly, the capture of Napoleon and his banishment to St Helena meant the region was increasingly sensitive for the British.

On November 28th HMS Falmouth arrived at Tristan da Cunha again from South Africa and landed the British garrison ordered to occupy the islands and relieve Lieutenant Rich and his men. The new garrison was commanded by Captain AJ Cloete, 21st Light Dragoons Royal, and comprised of Lieutenant of Artillery Atchinson, Lieutenant of Infantry Atkinson, Adjutant Lingeons, Dr Evans, eight cavalrymen, nineteen artillerymen and eight infantrymen.

The new garrison therefore had a compliment of 38 military personnel, a Corporal named William Glass among them, and a civilian party of 29 including 10 women and 12 children. The garrison spent a few days camped at Falmouth Bay before moving to a new, permanent camp site on the north side which they named Camp Somerset in honor of Lord Charles Somerset. It was located on the exact same site as the modern Edinburgh Settlement.

Tristan William Glass stamps