By Jean Smith, RSGS Collections Team

Tristan da Cunha, 1983

I first came across this map, the most unusual I had ever seen, as a young Map Research Officer, working for the Ministry of Defence, when interest in the South Atlantic was growing around the Falklands conflict in 1982. There are very few maps showing the detail of Tristan da Cunha, which is a constituent part of the British overseas territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.  It is an active volcanic island, the most remote in the world and only accessible by ship from South Africa. The uninhabited island of Tristan da Cunha and associated smaller islands were first sighted in May 1506 during a voyage to India by the Portuguese admiral Tristão da Cunha, after whom they are named. It has been inhabited since the 16th century but not permanently settled until 1817 and currently has 237 inhabitants. The whole population was evacuated to the UK following a volcanic eruption in 1961  but the majority of the islanders opted to return in 1963. Tristan is now a largely self-sufficient community, based on farming and fishing. Its main export is Crawfish, sold as 'Tristan Rock Lobster'. Tourism, mainly from cruise liners, is an important source of revenue and  Tristan da Cunha stamps are very popular with collectors worldwide and generate income for the islands.  

The only detailed survey of the island was made as part of a Norwegian Scientific Expedition 1937 - 38 to Tristan da Cunha by English engineer Allan Crawford who drew the first, and most detailed,  island map. His survey also formed the basis for Admiralty Chart No. 1769. Allan became a regular visitor and developed a lifelong relationship with the islanders, becoming a founding father and first President of the Tristan da Cunha Association.

The only settlement on the island is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas which has the only flat site for building and access to fresh water.  The only roads on the island are restricted to the settlement, any other communication is via steep footpaths, known locally as “roads”.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Tristan is the place names. When Allan Crawford was collecting names in 1937 he felt that it was very important that he “should record the actual names used by the inhabitants for all topographical features in order to produce a meaningful chart.”

Many of them are descriptive, for example Big Point, which sits in between Little Beach and Big Beach, but the two most often quoted are Ridge-where-the-goat-jump-off, and Down-where-the-minister-land-his-things, which records the time in 1906, when Reverend  and Mrs Barrow arrived for a three-year chaplaincy. The weather was too rough to land at the Settlement, so they chose a beach landing in the lee and the name has remained ever since.  The Tristan da Cunha website provides a fascinating insight into the lives and activities of the islanders.

Reproduced with permission from the Defence Geographic Centre, Ministry of Defence.