The Tristan Islanders are a very kind, peace-loving, considerate people who have a strong sense of respect for the personal integrity of others. According to a 1981 journal article about the culture of the island, which has just been added to the Archive of this website, anyone who might break the code of values on the island would suffer a considerable loss of prestige in the community. One Tristan Islander commented, “the worst thing you can do on Tristan is to be unkind to someone” (p. 165).
The article by Peter A. Munch and Charles E. Marske (1981) focuses on differences in interpretations of the concept of human social atomism, especially as the concept has been applied by scholars to peasant communities. The authors argue that social atomism is not necessarily characterized by personal antagonisms. Instead, an atomistic society is one “in which the nuclear family represents the major structural unit and, indeed, almost the only formalized social entity” (p. 158).
After discussing the social science literature related to atomism, Munch and Marske carry forward their argument by describing the social integration of the Tristan Islanders. They maintain that the peacefulness of the people is based on their highly cooperative attitude toward one another. While highly atomistic, the Islanders enjoy doing things together, but the authors make it clear that each activity is voluntary and has different groupings of people. In fact, most jobs of any significance are turned into cooperative ventures.
Actually they display different types of cooperation. One type is cooperative ownership, where several people will own cattle, or a long-boat, or a remote shelter used on hunting, fishing, or agricultural trips. The second type is mutual aid, which is always initiated for particular tasks, has reciprocal implications, and involves unique sets of people depending on the task.
The third type of cooperation consists of gifts, both tokens for special occasions or the gifts of extra food from, for example, a successful fishing trip or the slaughter of a large animal. All of these gifts are symbolic of individual relationships.
Individuals select others with whom they wish to have cooperative relationships; some of their relationships may be with kin and others with friends. Thus, since each person has many overlapping relationships, everyone is likely to have at least one friend who is a friend—i.e., has a cooperative relationship—with every other person in the community. This network of community-wide cooperative relationships, along with their strongly felt respect for each other’s personal integrity, militates against the expression of antagonism.
“Even today,” the authors state, “the community is an atomistic aggregate of independent households, where every man is his own master and nobody’s servant. The reward of high esteem goes to the one who minds his own business, minds it well, and leaves everybody else to do as he pleases. In particular no one feels, or is expected to feel, that he has any obligation to the community as a whole” (p. 165). Atomism, voluntary cooperation, and peacefulness—hallmarks of Tristan da Cunha.