During an oral history interviewing project in September 2006, the Tristan Islanders revealed their suspicions about having their history interpreted by others. Ann Day, a British social historian, describes the project and the reactions of the Islanders to her and to her work in a recent journal article.
The project began when a visiting Scottish dental technician, who knows many of the islanders, got the idea for recording orally the stories of older people who had been involved with the evacuation to the UK between 1961 and 1963. He shared his proposal with the Oral History Society, which then suggested it to the Island Administrator. He discussed it with the Island Council, which decided it might be worthwhile.
Ms. Day began corresponding with the Island Council and others on Tristan da Cunha in order to develop a favorable rapport with the Islanders for the four-week project. She assumed, incorrectly, that when she arrived on the island, people would cooperate willingly by telling her, and her recording device, their stories. When she arrived on Tristan da Cunha with Ken Lunn, another British social historian, she quickly realized she was wrong.
The Islanders did not understand what the project was about and they were reluctant to cooperate. The Deputy Head teacher had mentioned in an e-mail before the project began that “many of the older people are a bit shy at having themselves recorded (p.47),” though that turned out to be an understatement.
The problem, Day feels, appeared to stem from the Islanders’ perceptions of themselves, which are derived from their stay in Great Britain from 1961 – 1963, a period that they steadfastly refused to characterize to the author as traumatic or out of the ordinary. She differs from them.
The Tristan Islanders were evacuated when the volcano on the island erupted in 1961. They were moved to England where their children were enrolled in local schools. The Islanders, of course, wore their traditional clothing; their dialect and their ways marked them as a unique group of people. Medical researchers examined them without explaining that they were interested only in the possibilities of unique genetic tendencies in an isolated human population. The British press viewed them as curiosities and ran many stories about their quaintness.
Some publications featured their otherness, with either a romantic or a negative slant. In contrast, Peter Munch’s careful, scholarly works had a more positive influence on the Islanders’ self image, Day feels. Their strong sense of individualism has become integrated with an equally robust feeling of collective strength as a result.
Day argues that the events of 48 years ago, combined with the Islanders’ reactions to decades of misinterpretations by many outside investigators and journalists, “left a legacy of skepticism about the motives of outsiders, which persist to the present day (p.49).”
Day invited the Islanders to allow her to interview them and record their discussions. For days, no one volunteered. She realized there was a problem and sought to break the ice with the community. She visited people along with the island doctor, a well respected South African who visits many people in their homes. With his introductions, Day was able to start developing individual relationships and snowballing those contacts with others. She attended local events and engaged in female activities that would, in the gendered island society, help her start building better relationships with the women. Developing friendships allowed her to begin gaining access to homes so her recording process could get under way.
One of her errors was that she had assumed, since they are English speaking people, they would understand the terminology she was using. It turned out they didn’t really know what “oral history” meant. Further, they had already formed negative impressions of her since she had used the term “interview.” That is the word that journalists use when they talk with Islanders and then misconstrue their story and their senses of themselves.
She promised the Islanders that she would not analyze the results of the interviews—the recordings would be available to them to construct, or reconstruct, their history, as they wished. She does, in this article, at least discuss some of the issues that surfaced during her visit. She found it interesting that some of the Islanders, who had described, in interviews in the 1960s, their recollections of idyllic childhoods in the UK, persisted with similar memories. The hostilities, the physical and cultural differences they experienced when they were in England, seem to have been forgotten.
One of the points that came out during the interviews with Day was the persistent sense of independence and freedom on the island. Children on Tristan feel free to wander wherever they wish, without fear from dangers, a condition that is very different from the experiences of English children. They play anywhere around the Settlement and in the fields beyond. Before television arrived, Tristan children were generally unaware of surrounding dangers.
One woman, born immediately after the people returned to the island in 1964, recalled, “When I look back I [realize] that all the things we did just made our childhood so exciting, and I think it also gave us more of a sense of independence than perhaps kids have today (p.52).”
Day feels that the Islanders want to have a consensus view of their two years in England as a time without problems, a period when they overcame difficulties easily. They want to believe that they had assimilated into English society without problems. During a conversation with Day, one man mentioned that he had been called a “Tristan wog” in England, but his wife immediately tried to correct him. She wanted to gloss over any expression of unfavorable experiences with the English people.
Day concludes that the Islanders’ insistence on telling a positive story about their time in England is a symptom of their pride and independence from interpretations of their identity and history by outsiders. Their supposed uniqueness in the early 1960s has perpetuated, she feels, a collective need for a positive story. Their own story.
Day, Ann. 2008. “A Reappraisal of Insider-Outsider Interviewing: The Tristan da Cunha Oral History Project.” Oral History 36(1): p.45-55