With a plot worthy of Hollywood, Peter Munch prepared an engaging journal article about the way the Tristan Islanders persuaded the British government to let them return home from exile. His 1964 article, now available as a PDF in the Archive of this website, opens with a brief history of the small island in the South Atlantic. The history is a prelude to the story about their enforced exile to England in 1961.
Begun in 1817 by British members of a short-lived garrison, the settlement was supplemented over the years by sailors, whalers, and some women from St. Helena. The first settlers on Tristan da Cunha wrote, “in order to ensure the harmony of the Firm, No member shall assume any superiority whatever, but all to be considered as equal in every respect…” The existence of the document was soon forgotten, but the principles of anarchy and equality became dominant values for the community.
The Tristan Islanders disliked the idea of any institutional authority in their midst, though they cooperated deferentially with the occasional British naval vessels that came to call, the missionaries from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel that directed their religious affairs, and any other authority figures from the outside.
They lived in virtual isolation until the Second World War when a British garrison was established, and with it a meteorological station, physician, chaplain, school teacher, and island administrator. Although the British military left after the war, the outside civilian personnel remained, augmented by a nurse, an agricultural advisor, and others. An island council was established, with appropriate elections of Islanders to represent their interests, though it was obvious to some of them that the administrator made the real decisions.
A South African fishing factory was established in 1950, plus other improvements such as sanitation and a water supply. The Islanders acceded to these developments because they were imposed by the higher authority of the British, and they brought material improvements to their lives. Besides, it didn’t occur to them that they could do anything about it other than accept what was happening.
In 1961, when a volcanic eruption near their settlement destroyed the factory and threatened their homes, the British government decided to bring the Tristan Islanders to England. The government evidently decided to make the evacuation permanent, particularly since the Islanders apparently had adapted well to their new life in Britain by finding jobs, establishing credit, learning to use modern appliances, and adopting contemporary modes of dress.
But by the following spring they were disenchanted with life in England, and it became apparent to the Islanders that the Colonial Office was considering keeping them in Britain permanently. For the first time ever they united to express their feelings. An elite leadership group formed to take action, and after petitions sent to the proper administrators went unanswered, they initiated a group meeting of their own, probably the first such collective action in their history. The group elected to raise their own funds and send an advance party back to the island, to prepare the way for the return of the entire group.
Faced with this determination, the Colonial Office backed down and permitted them to return to their island, a process that was completed in 1963. The important point is that the Islanders were able to ignore the elected island council during most of its existence, yet they were able to take group action when it became obvious that their own best interests would be well served by it.
The successful return of the Tristan Islanders to their own island in 1962 and 1963 demonstrated their cohesion as a community and their strong belief in their own traditions. Their action re-emphasized their fundamental values: an absence of control over other people, a lack of aggression or self assertion, and a firm belief in nonviolence.
Munch’s 1964 journal article sets the stage for his 1971 book Crisis in Utopia, which tells the story in much greater detail, in case a Hollywood studio, independent film maker, or screenplay writer wants to explore the possibility for a good saga about the triumph of peacefulness.