Have the Tristan Islanders assimilated into Western culture and absorbed the violent, materialistic values of much of the world, or have they retained some of their own peaceful, atomistic social traits? Cathrine E. Snyder joined a 17-day cruise to the island in February on the RMS St. Helena both to enjoy the adventure and to investigate this question. Snyder’s account of her trip has just been added to a new scholarship folder in this website.
The unique aspect of her fascination with the culture of Tristan da Cunha is that she is a daughter of Peter A. Munch, the renowned sociologist who spent months on the island in 1937 – 1938 and again in 1964 – 1965 studying the culture of the Islanders. Based on his research into their society and his visits, he wrote two books and several journal articles, two of which are available in the Archive of published scholarship in this website.
His daughter apparently inherits her interest in the island from her dad. She admits in her text that she and her partner went along on the trip, which celebrated the 500th anniversary of the island’s discovery, to enjoy the adventure, “a pilgrimage of sorts, meeting people I grew up hearing about” (p.2). But her interests went beyond simple tourism. She also wanted to find out what Tristan was really like in 2006, and perhaps most significantly, she wanted to learn as much as she could about the ways the culture has changed in the 40 years since her dad had last visited.
She blends these themes together quite effectively in her narrative. The reader quickly jumps off the ladder with her into the waiting Zodiac “bouncing on the waves below and manned by the Tristan crew members.” Instead of rushing through the pounding surf onto the open beach, as Munch describes in his works, the boat now enters a small protected harbor where the passengers climb on to the dock and the supplies and mail are unloaded.
Snyder continues the adventure narrative with her description of the ceremonies, parties, and activities of the week on the island. But she also moves seamlessly into the most engaging part of the narrative, her observations and discussions of the island culture. Much of what she observes is based on her interactions with a woman named Trina (who was named after Ms. Snyder), in whose home she stayed, and Trina’s 90-year old mother, Alice.
It turns out that Alice had been a friend, informant and assistant for her father during his visit in 1937-38, and she had dusted the picture of his daughter Trine (Cathrine) at that time. She named her own baby Trina after the girl in the photo. Munch refers to her in his Sociology of Tristan da Cunha (1945) as “our excellent Tristan cook Alice” (p.67).
The author observes that Alice is still quite able to take care of herself and live independently in her own home, which Snyder describes as a modern house with many contemporary appliances. A major exception to the modernity of the Island homes is the lack of telephone service or computer connections to the Internet. The Islanders do have access to one TV channel, beamed by the British to their overseas military personnel.
Despite the modern conveniences introduced to the island since World War II, Alice still clings to some aspects of the subsistence economy from an earlier era. She continues to raise a few cattle, one of which she had butchered last year. She gave away a substantial portion of the meat as gifts and had the rest put in the family freezers. Snyder observes that the tradition of women constantly knitting may not be practiced by all Tristan women today, as it was during her father’s visits, but she did notice that Alice constantly knitted.
The author learned that the tradition of “culture” and “superculture” that Munch had analyzed earlier (1964) still appears to be alive on the island. The wives of a couple of the British officials on the island, both professional teachers, work along with the Tristan teachers in the village school as volunteer helpers. But evidently that role makes some of the Islanders uncomfortable. They could more easily accept the role of the outsiders if they occupied a superior role, perhaps as headmistresses of the school. But having the British women integrated into their own culture as fellow teachers threatens the distinctiveness of the Islanders. The situation tends to undercut their separation from the British superculture.
Snyder makes a number of observations about the interpersonal relationships on the island. She remarks on the importance of mutual assistance and cooperation, much as her dad did many decades ago. She feels that gift-giving and pride in the Tristan identity all survive. Kindness is still an important value. Alice and Trina gave her numerous gifts in appreciation for her visit, and Snyder refers to Alice as “a testament to the basic ‘goodness’ of Tristan culture” (p.3)
One of the fascinating details the author provides is that the tradition of cross-dressing during festivities persists. In Sociology of Tristan da Cunha (1945), Munch described (p.289-290) a New Year’s Eve party in 1937-38 in which the male Islanders dressed in women’s clothing and paraded merrily around the settlement, from house to house, making loud noises with a home made drum, whistles, and a gun.
Snyder adds that her dad and the other male visitors had also dressed in women’s clothing and joined in the activities until dawn. During the parties of the February 2006 visit, some of the male Islanders performed for their visitors and the other Tristan Islanders dressed in women’s clothing.
Snyder concludes her text with a discussion of the major conservation issues on the Island, including the need to cut back on the number of cast away rats that harm the island’s bird populations. She also mentions another issue, the destruction of the native vegetation through over-use of resources and too many cattle. The Islanders, however, resist making changes that may require enforcing the decisions made by a superior authority over the will of the individual Tristan Islanders.
This fascinating document, 31.1 KB in PDF format, inaugurates for this website what is hoped will become a folder of high-quality, scholarly, unpublished works about peaceful societies.