Tristan Da Cunha: Italians At The End Of The World

Only eight families live in the most inaccessible island of the world: two of them come from Italy.

Tristan da Cunha
Tristan – The Remotest inhabited island in the world” by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Only eight families live in the most inaccessible island of the world: two of them come from Italy

Tristan da Cunha, 9926 km away from Greenwich and 2810 km from the coast of Cape Town, is the most remote archipelago in the world, consisting of four volcanic islands located in the Southern Atlantic ocean: the only inhabited one is Tristan da Cunha, which gives the archipelago its name. Although this island is part of the British Overseas Territories and is remotely administrated by the Governor of Saint Helena — the other tropical British island in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, where Napoleon died in exile — and its story is one of a kind: adventurous, tragic and romantic.

Tristan da Cunha owes its name to the Portuguese seafarer Tristão da Cunha, who sighted the island in 1506 during his route towards the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. It then took 137 years before the first landing on the coast of that inhospitable island at the end of the world. It was done by the crew of the Dutch East India Company ship Heemstede, who also left an inscribed tablet on the island. The first person who actually ever lived on the island was the American Jonathan Lambert from Massachusetts, with the sailors Andrew Millet and Tommaso Corri, the latter of Italian origin. They arrived in Tristan da Cunha in December 1810, hunting seals. Lambert decided to name the remote archipelago the Islands of Refreshment, also declaring it his property. Unfortunately two years later Lambert and Millet died in some mysterious accident and the only survivor, the Italian-American Tommaso Corri, never said what happened. A garrison of British Marines, which landed on the island in 1816, suspected that Corri killed the other settlers to get his hands on the islands.

Regardless of what happened, since then the United Kingdom annexed Tristan da Cunha, building a village and increasing its popolution by putting some women on the island, mostly from South Africa. The future of the island was sealed by the brave choice of the Scottish Marine William Glass, who decided, in 1817, to stay on the island his wife and their two children, forsaking his homeland, where the rest of the garrison returned. He became the first official governor of Tristan da Cunha, signing the original laws of the island. This deal is still in force, and we can say it’s the only case in the world of real socialism: there is no private ownership, no people who rule other people and there is an equitable distribution of the costs, work and gains.

View on Tristan da Cunha – Photo by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Italians castaways in Tristan da Cunha

After the Glass family, other men added to the population, from unexpected shipwrecks or by choice: this was the case for Thomas Hill Swain, an English soldier who moved from Saint Helena to Tristan da Cunha in 1826, deciding to marry the first woman who would landed there. The following year, five women were brought from Saint Helena, and families grew rapidly. In 1836 an American ship sank near the island. Its castaways were rescued by the islanders and three of them decided to stay in Tristan da Cunha: the Dutch Pietre William Groen (later renamed Green), the American William Daley and the Danish Peter Miller. That year was a lucky one for the island: another American citizen, Thomas Rogers from Philadelphia, landed on the island, marrying Governor William Glass’s youngest daughter. In 1849, the American whaling captain of Irish origin Andrew Hagan also chose Tristan da Cunha as his dwelling place, joining the island’s community and marrying another daughter of Glass’s. And what about the Italians?

It all began on October 3, 1892, when there was a fire on board the ship Italia, carrying coal from Scotland to Cape Town. The brave captain Francesco Rolando Perasso, from Genoa, was able to contain the fire while in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, then heading towards Tristan da Cunha. With an adroit manoeuver, the captain made the ship crash into the rocks, ensuring that his 16 crew members reached safety with the lifeboats. After that tragic adventure, the castaways were welcomed and housed by the islanders for three months, until a passing ship brought them back home. Then, something incredible happened: two of them, the Italians Gaetano Lavarello and Andrea Repetto, decided not to go back to Genoa, even disobeying the captian’s orders. It was purely a matter of the heart: the Italian sailors fell in love with two Tristanian women. Their love was the most important thing of all. And so Lavarello and Repetto — born in Camogli, a quaint village in the Ligurian Riviera — had happy lives and many children in Tristan da Cunha, becoming the last surnames to ever have joined the other families present on the island and which still exist today.

The settlement known as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas in Tristan da Cunha – The Official CTBTO Photostream Surroundings of Infrasound Station IS49 Tristan de Cunha, UKThe Official CTBTO Photostream, licensed under CC BY 2.0

But the story is not over. On October 10, 1961 the island’s volcano erupted, causing several earthquakes and forcing the entire population to evacuate. The British government decided to ship them out to the United Kingdom. For many of them, it was shocking, considering that only two out of 290 people had ever left Tristan da Cunha. They were offered a job and the opportunity to settle on the Shetland Island in Scotland. However, their thoughts and their dreams were left in the South Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, defying the laws of nature and following those of the heart, in April of 1963, 51 Tristanians returned to their native island, repairing their damaged houses and restoring their lives. Six months later they were followed by the rest of population, continuing their legendary family tradition to the end of the world.

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