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Tristan da Cunha: The utopia that worked

When I was a teenage frequenter of espresso bars the arguments about ‘anarchy – would it work’ enlivened the wait for the bus home from school. I held my ground – ‘yes it would’ – till that bloody film Lord of the Flies came out. Then I was subject to derision and the gleeful scorn of ‘I told you so – human nature’s not like that’ and without authority life would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. “If it wasn’t for that PC Plod down the road,’ opined my best mate, ‘you’d kill us all for the next Coke’. I didn’t really see it like that but alas so it seemed as I read about massacres and mayhem on remote islands like Pitcairn and Clipperton. Maybe human nature wasn’t as benign and co-operative as I supposed and anarchy might not work after all.

I was living in Hampshire in 1962 and somewhere on the periphery of my attention was the evacuation of the islanders of Tristan Da Cunha to Fawley near Southampton. The teenagers looked like sad losers dressed by their mums and the oldies just seemed to be dying from flu. Then one day I heard incredible news. The hated Tory colonial office was forcing them to go back to their blasted island. Only I hadn’t got it quite right. They had fought the colonial office to be allowed to go back. I watched open – mouthed as the following interview with a Tristanian who talked like a Dickensian washerwoman was aired on South Today:

Did you like television? No – we didn’t like television at all.

Are there any ideas from England you’ll be taking back with you? No we aren’t taking back any ideas from the outside world.

Any hints on farming in England? No, nothing that would suit us.

Finally as she embarked hastily … ‘England’s very nice but there’s nothing here we want.

Ungrateful bleeders, said my dad… but not to me … I was upstairs looking for that tiny red dot in the South Atlantic. ‘Most remote inhabited island in the world – a volcanic archipelago consisting of Tristan, Nightingale and Inaccessible islands.’ I asked my Geography teacher about it – he knew nothing.


In 1937, as part of a Norwegian scientific expedition, Peter Munch visited Tristan Da Cunha. He was surprised to discover that the form of social organisation on the island was ANARCHY… and had been for over 100 years.

There was no government, police, money or headman/woman. Munch wrote, “The principles of freedom and anarchy were firmly established in the Tristan community as a social order based on the voluntary consensus of free men and women. In such a community not only is authority, control or any kind of formal or informal government considered unnecessary and undesirable but is felt to be a menace and a threat to individual rights.” (P. Munch, Crisis in Utopia, 1971)

The inhabitants of Tristan were not a self-selected commune who had gone there to establish utopia. They were of all races and survivors of shipwrecks or ex-whalers who had washed up there over 100 years. That anarchy became their natural form of social organisation and persisted against all efforts of the British government to undermine it is all the more remarkable.

Andrea Repetto, an Italian who had been shipwrecked on Tristan in 1892, was one of the few Tristans who could read or write. Seizing their chance the British government addressed all communications to Andrea Repetto, ‘Head Man’ or occasionally ‘Governor’. For 20 years they never received any reply, until the mail was discovered unopened.

Repetto explained that as there was no head man or governor on the island, no one felt able to open the mail!

In astonishment a government spokesman wrote in 1903, ‘There is an extraordinary state of affairs in this civilised century that there is no form of authority and the Tristans are curiously averse to any individual being considered to have more influence than the rest.’

Munch reported there had NEVER been any crime and no fist fight in living memory.

The Tristanians were not anarchists who’d read their Bakunin – they found anarchy to be the natural form of social organisation though they would never have used the word themselves. So how then had this remarkable utopia come about?


The British government had briefly garrisoned the uninhabited Tristan to guard against any French attempt to free Napoleon exiled on St. Helena. Corporal William Glass liked it so much he got permission to settle there in 1816 but not before picking up a wife in Cape Town 16-year-old Maria Leender – and one other male companion. (The story of Maria is one in itself – she gave totally unassisted birth to 16 children on Tristan before at the age of 89 following the death of William – departing to New England to begin a new life!) Once settled on Tristan, Glass drew up a common land contract known as the original agreement which said that all land was to be held in common, as were livestock, fish catches and barter from passing ships. All were to be considered equal and ‘none above any other’. Later individual ownership of cattle was allowed but strictly limited to prevent anyone acquiring too many. This is the document that allowed the development of a society based on the equality of a sturdy and robust individualism wary of any… and I mean any … attempt by one person to put themselves above any other. In the 1920S one individual Bob Glass started giving himself airs and graces and strutting about wearing his Boer War medals and telling passing ships he was the headman. The way of the islanders was not to confront him but to ignore him … ‘if he thinks he’s head man he can’ … his strutting was rendered ridiculous and to this day he is known as ‘Height’ … one who considered himself above others.

By 1900 the fluctuating population had risen to over 200. The inhabitants were not self-selecting members of an idealistic commune drawn by stories of a Utopia-on-Sea. The outside world knew virtually nothing of the island. The people who settled on the island were rough and tough individuals – mainly from shipwrecks and whaleboat crews – and six women from St. Helena who answered a desperate plea from the Tristan men for wives. This could have been a subject for dispute but one Tristan man set the example by saying he would marry the first woman off the boat … and was somewhat surprised to see her five children disembark after her. The marriage was a long and happy one enduring till their deaths. By now the population was multi-racial, and akin to pirate crews in this respect – no immigrant was ever turned away. By this time seven surnames had come to be the most common on the island and that persists to this day: Swain, Rogers, Green, Glass, Hagen, Repetto and Lavarello. There is a fantastic photo taken by Kasper Keytel in 1908 of all the island men in their mixed race harmony looking like super-cool dudes in their random clothes. But the outside world knew nothing of the anarchy on Tristan. Few boats called – often the island was without visitors for five or six years and during the First World War no boat called at all. So how did life on egalitarian and ignored Tristan sustain itself during this time?


Throughout the period from initial settlement in 1816 until the end of the Second World War in 1945 there was no form of authority on Tristan. No governor, no administrator, no external authority, no police, no crime, no fights, no money, no commodity relationships on the island. Yet Tristan Da Cuhna was no communist society. It was based on respect for sturdy individualism not community effort. When missionaries arrived they found disinterest in building community facilities like churches and schools . When an individual required help from neighbours – as in thatching a roof – such help would be forth coming on the basis of a mutual obligation. Such obligation persisted within families often for generations until the obligation was repaid. Such obligation mitigated not only against money but any commodity relationships within the population of Tristan itself.

However when a communal effort was required for each individual’s good – fishing, rowing out to barter with boats – then the necessary communal effort was forthcoming and fish and barter were shared out equally. For 140 years the Tristan economy was based on subsistence farming – cattle, sheep, chicken, potatoes … and more potatoes – fishing and barter. A reef prevented boats from landing on the island so the Tristanians had built their own longboats which enabled them to ride the surf and row miles out to sea to barter with passing boats. The Tristanians would trade livestock, potatoes, eggs, fish and later model boats for whatever a curious ship’s company had to offer. News of such barter was bought back to England where somehow the view developed that Tristan was a drain on the economy and ought to be moved off to save further expense – a view eagerly adopted by missionaries who succeeded in the sad case of St. Kilda but not with Tristan. They were counteracted by the Rev. Harry Wild who after a three-year duty on the island reported eagerly back to the colonial office great progress – the islanders had built a lighthouse and were busy constructing an airport. Tristan is a volcano with a very small inhabitable area at one end – an airport was an impossibility and no lighthouse was constructed but Harry’s fanciful notions took the heat off any evacuation ideas and Tristan vanished from view again. The decline of the great whaling fleets made passing boats ever rarer.


Until 1940 there was never any doctor or nurse on the island and the inbreeding from the six original families led to concern amongst successive missionaries. The occasional passing ship’s doctor found concerns to be misplaced. Contrarily most Tristanians lived to a ripe old age – there were two centenarians out of a population of 200 when Munch visited in 1937 – and the average life expectancy was 69 years in the 1880s – much higher than in Victorian Britain. A South African dental team visited in 1927 on a research project. How many times did they brush their teeth, they were asked. When no replies were forth coming they imitated a brushing motion with their hands. Laughter followed – they never brushed their teeth. On inspection only one case of dental decay could be found. The only case of cancer was that of founder William Glass and the islanders remained remarkably fit, active, long – lived and free from many contagious diseases.


The Second World War saw a small garrison party stationed on Tristan as had happened after the Napoleonic Wars and the arrival of William Glass. Twelve island volunteers were formed into the Tristan Defence Force and trained in the use of guns and hand grenades to defend a German invasion – despite the fact they’d never even witnessed a fight! After the Second World War the British government installed an administrator, a policeman, and wage labour in the form of a South African fish canning factory for the prized Tristan crayfish. Her Majesty’s government also started to coin it in from Tristan postage stamps … a move which showed up the contradictions in the change from self – sufficiency to a currency – based economy. The famed Tristan potato stamp! The problem with the four-pence stamp the government issued was that since no one on Tristan used money they were the only people who could not buy the stamps. So the four potatoes stamp was introduced with dual currency of potatoes and pence allowing the Tristanians to buy the stamp for four potatoes! Throughout the 1940s and 1950s life on Tristan continued with the administrator thinking he was the administrator and the islanders treating him like Bob ‘Height’ Glass … let him get on with it if he thinks he’s the administrator.


On 6th October 1961 the volcano erupted and the entire population was evacuated to England – or to the WRVS camp at Merstham in Surrey to be exact. The culture shock can only be imagined. As they disembarked at Southampton crowds of television and newspaper reporters jostled to ask questions of these curious people who had never seen cars or shops or roads or television or used electricity. They were way off the mark – these people had never seen a bicycle. They didn’t get many answers. The Tristanians seemed sullen to reporters – their only expressed desire to stay together. During the winter four of the 90-year-olds people died of pneumonia and all suffered from debilitating viral infections. At Christmas the well meaning WRVS laid on a visit from Father Christmas – but the children fled in terror – Father Christmas was unknown to them. All were quickly provided with jobs, however inappropriate – the Tory government fearing there might be local resentment at these immigrant benefit scroungers. So some who had no concept of private property were given jobs as security guards, others as tarmacking gangs on the roads – never before having seen such a road. Three women got jobs at Woolworths in Redhill but they had no concept of time-keeping – indeed no concept of time at all. If one woman couldn’t come to work then another would fulfil her obligation by coming instead. When things were quiet they would drift away from their allotted places. Surprisingly they were not good at handling money – failing to offer change when money was handed over. The WRVS arranged communal activities like football or dances but no islanders turned up. They were ungrateful. After three months they were moved to Fawley near Southampton in the shadow of an oil refinery.

And that, the colonial office thought, was that – job done. In February 1962 Reginald Maudling, the Colonial Secretary, told Parliament ‘he doubted whether Tristan would ever be suitable for permanent settlement again’. A Tory backbencher suggested Tristan become a nuclear testing site. The Administrator and chaplain were paid off as their contracts expired. But down in Fawley the last chapter was far from written.

The press was still interested in the Tristanians… they were snapped riding motorbikes, on buses, going into shops, the cinema, queuing, looking awkward in oversize clothing. The standard answer – like the modern-day, ‘no comment’ – was ‘we all like it very much’. In fact the opposite was true. They didn’t like it very much at all. They had only one thing on their minds – going back. A survey by a team sponsored by the Royal Society had landed on the island and reported most of the houses inhabitable and only – oh the blisstul irony – the fish canning factory totally destroyed under lava. Only wage slavery was destroyed! From that point the Tristanians decided they would go back despite all obstacles placed in their way.

They were not impressed with ‘civilisation’, its consumer goods, its shallow values, its hierarchy and authority, its differentiation through wealth, its money, its time, its purposeless work, its crime and violence, its illness, its fish factories, its society of Heights a society of Bob Glasses instead of their age-old sullenness the islanders organised a meeting. Peter Munch reported now they were assembled in an attempt to preserve their simple communal way of life in defiance of the glamour and affluence of modern civilisation. The meeting decided unanimously on return. In a subsequent secret ballot demanded by the Colonial office 97% voted to return. The press and the population in general were incredulous. How could they reject everything our affluent society had to offer in favour of a return to a bleak and dangerous volcano. Incredulity turned to resentment … the Tristanians were ungrateful for their priority housing, their jobs, all the healthcare they had needed. Ungrateful or not an advance party of 12 booked tickets with their own money – on the Union Castle bound for Cape Town. By now sections of the press had started to reel from incredulity to admiration for their stubborn resilience and further attempts by the Colonial Office even to prevent their passage as private individuals on the Union Castle were lampooned.

On 10 November 1962, 200 Tristanians set foot back on their island.

A few years later the British government withdrew the right of Tristanians to automatic abode in the UK.


The Tristan they returned to was not the anarchy of 1816-1945 nor even the muddled mix up to 1962. But it seems the spirit of anarchy was still alive in I968 as it was from London to Paris to Rome to Berlin. Many of the islanders went back to wage slavery in the re-opened fish canning factory but they were not solely reliant on wages they could revert back to their subsistence economy when needed… as in a strike!

Tristan was not to be left out of the worldwide radical events of 1968 – the island fishermen went on strike in July 1968. Money was not used in transactions between islanders but some islanders were paid to catch and can crayfish by a South African company. The fishing company supported by the island ‘administrator’ – had reduced the fishermen’s pay to one shilling an hour and refused arbitration on the dispute thinking without any other source of income the strike would collapse. The Tristanians however simply reverted to their moneyless subsistence economy and the strike went on for three months when the
company persuaded the administrator to use eight of his permanent staff to strikebreak. The Tristanians put a picket line around the crane in the harbour used to lower the fishing boats and said they would throw any man in the water who tried to mount the crane. The
Administrator asked ‘If I being the Queen’s representative on the island am the first on the crane what would happen?’ ‘Then you’ll be the first man in the water!’ came the reply.

The Administrator panicked and sent a coded message to London fearing for his safety and asking for a warship to be sent! It should be noted Tristan’s entire population at the time was 146 people. HMS Naiad was duly dispatched! The Fishing Company capitulated by
telegram from South Africa. The strike was won before gunboat diplomacy asserted itself.

Ian Bone

This article originally appeared in The Idler: The Utopia Issue No.45

Image: Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0

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