Tristan da Cunha: History, People, Language


Prior to my trip to the DPRK I did a lot of reading about the country, and likewise with Tristan da Cunha. I have several books that I recently acquired which I will read before I leave for the world’s most isolated inhabited island in September. Tristan da Cunha: History, People, Language by Daniel Schreier and Karen Lavarello-Schreier is not, however, new to my collection. I had ordered it shortly after it was published in 2003. After I got it, though, it joined the many books that were bought, thumbed through yet never read cover-to-cover.

Much has been written about Tristan da Cunha, yet this is the first book written by a native Tristanian. Karen Lavarello-Schreier shares her birth surname with one of the island’s original settlers. Her husband Daniel Schreier is a Swiss linguist who has written some fascinating books about regional English as well as entire books on the idioms spoken on Tristan da Cunha and Saint Helena. The two collaborated to tell the true story of Tristan da Cunha and those who live there, versus the sensational shipwreck stories that paint the islanders all too often as illiterate idlers.

Tristan da Cunha was colonized by the British in 1816, both to establish a presence after the Americans used the island as a military base during the War of 1812, as well as to keep an eye on Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been exiled to Saint Helena. That Saint Helena, the nearest land to Tristan, was located 2430 km away, was apparently of no consequence to the British, whose only concern was that Napoleon didn’t escape his exile and return to Europe.

The population still supports itself by fishing, growing its own crops and raising cows and sheep. A lucrative trade is also found in philatelic souvenirs. Islanders would go out to meet the rare passing ship and trade with the crew. The custom goes on to this day. The island receives more regularly scheduled visits than ever before yet there are still fewer than ten a year. Unscheduled yachts or cruise ships are not always a welcome surprise.

The island became the focus of worldwide attention in 1961 when its volcano erupted, forcing the evacuation of the entire population to England. The sudden appearance of the Tristanians on British soil created a two-year-long tabloid pressrun of curiosities which, half a century later, seem cruel, xenophobic and condescending. Islanders were considered backward and even developmentally delayed for not expressing excitement at such technological advancements as television. Tristanian children were interviewed where the hosts practically compelled them to forsake their island for the marvels of British junk food and mass-market toys. These news clips about the arrival of the Tristanians on British soil are on YouTube. No wonder the islanders wanted to return to Tristan as soon as it was deemed safe. The outside world was no paradise to them:

“In the words of one Tristanian: ‘they treated us like we was pigs’. The scientific attention they received was unwelcome and some researchers upset the Tristanians tremendously.”

Upon their return in 1963, the islanders found that some homes had been looted and the safe in the post office had been broken open. Some of the sheep and most of the cattle had been slaughtered. While the entire population was in England, sailors had used Tristan as a free-for-all treasure chest.

The final chapter deals with the evolution of Tristan da Cunha English and its development in such an isolated environment. Its main influence was the British English spoken in London, Sussex and lower Scotland. However other settlers, those who sailed to Tristan intentionally as well as those who were shipwrecked and decided to stay permanently, each brought his own language which in turn influenced the way everyone spoke. American English from southeast New England, Saint Helenian English Creole, Dutch, Danish, Italian and Afrikaans all have their traces in the island idiom. The final pages of Tristan da Cunha: History, People, Language are devoted to a Tristan glossary, where one can decipher what islanders mean by braaidicelingfivefinger and station fella. If I am asked to partake of a fivefinger at a braai, I should most certainly say yes.

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