A vacancy on Tristan da Cunha


Universe Column for June 11th 2006

by David Alton

A few weeks ago a story appeared in this newspaper about a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The tiny Catholic community on the island of Tristan da Cunha – total population 300 – were looking for a priest to come and live with them.

I took particular notice of this story as I had agreed to host a House of Lords reception for the Tristan da Cunha Association, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first settlement of the territory. My wife, Lizzie, is one of the patrons of the Association so I didn’t exactly have much choice in the matter!

With her three brothers and sisters, Lizzie spent the early part of her childhood on Tristan, and her younger brother was born there. Exactly fifty years ago her father, the Reverend Philip Bell, an Anglican clergyman, took his family to Tristan in order to serve the island’s pastoral needs.  A few years later, when they returned to England, the island’s volcano erupted and Philip once again looked after the islanders – this time as evacuees.

When it was safe to return, all of the islanders opted to go back to what is the world’s most isolated inhabited island.

Children of my generation, who were much more enthusiastic philatelists than this one, knew Tristan through its postage stamps – which remain much sought-after by keen stamp collectors and they provide significant revenue for the island.

Tristan is administered from another British territory, the Protectorate of St. Helena – famously, Napoleon’s Alcatraz –    from which it is separated by over 1200 miles of sea.  The nearest port is Cape Town, some 1700 miles away. Tristan’s main source of income is fishing and it has developed a niche market in crayfish.

My father-in-law has wonderful memories of his time on Tristan and, even now, as some of the islanders who attended the Westminster celebrations told me, people have to get by on very little. Frequently the island is completely inaccessible. The two fishing vessels and supply ship which visit nine times a year are not always able to make landings. The huge swell of the Atlantic often makes it impossible for passing ships to land supplies, or people, because of the absence of a suitable harbour – an issue which the British government have been asked to address.

For the future, the islanders are trying to supplement the fishing industry by developing eco- tourism (for which they will need some infrastructure and training) and they are keen to provide better education and facilities.

Along with a six-bed hospital and ex-patriate doctor, two shops and a post office, Tristan does have a school – with more than 30 children – but the academic ceiling is a limited number of GCSEs. A Tristan da Cunha Education fund has been launched to widen the educational opportunities.

You would need a lot of inner strength to live on a remote fastness like Tristan. And if the islanders I met – and have heard about – are anything to go by, you would clearly need a lot of faith too.  They have two churches – one Anglican, one Catholic – but no resident priest. For someone with a desire to “get away from it all” this posting would certainly be an answer to that prayer.