With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’ve launched a new series, The World Through a Lens, in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Andy Isaacson shares a collection of photographs from the remote island of Tristan da Cunha.
The six-by-six-mile volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha (the main island of an archipelago bearing the same name) sits in the remote waters of the South Atlantic, roughly equidistant from South Africa and Brazil, and about 1,500 miles from its nearest neighbor, the island of St. Helena. Lacking an airport, Tristan, part of a British Overseas Territory, can only be reached by ship — a journey that lasts about a week.
Tristan, as its colloquially known, is currently home to about 250 British nationals, whose diverse ancestry — made up of Scottish soldiers, Dutch seamen, Italian castaways and an American whaler — first arrived some 200 years ago. They live in “the world’s most isolated settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas,” reads the island’s website, “far from the madding crowd.”
It was late one night in 2009 when I Googled “What is the world’s most remote inhabited island?” and Tristan appeared. I had questions. How does it feel to live so far from the madding crowd? How do you even get there?
The logistics, it turns out, involved requesting approval from the island council and booking passage from Cape Town on a South African polar supply ship, one of only a handful of regularly scheduled voyages to and from Tristan each year. (Pack appropriately; once you get there, you’ll be there a while.)
Modern air travel, which involves boarding a plane in one part of the world and stepping out several hours later into another, distorts geography. But a slow journey across the surface of the Earth helps you grasp the true breadth of distance.
Sailing the seas for a week puts Tristan’s extreme isolation into perspective. At first sight, the island — a cone-shaped mass of rock that rises to a height of more than 6,700 feet — appears like an iceberg alone and adrift, given shape by the vast negative space that surrounds it. Improbably, beneath the beneath the towering flanks of an active volcano, a cluster of low-slung structures with red and blue tin roofs occupies a narrow grass plateau overlooking the ocean: the settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.
“People imagine us with grass skirts on,” Iris Green, Tristan’s postmistress at the time, told me after I arrived. In fact, the island’s history is entirely free of such stereotypes. Discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha, it was claimed in 1816 by the British, who placed a garrison there to ensure it would not be used as a base to rescue Napoleon, imprisoned on St. Helena. In 1817, the garrison was removed, but a corporal named William Glass and his associates remained behind. They imported wives from Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa), built homes and boats from salvaged driftwood, and drafted a constitution decreeing a new community based on equality and cooperation.
Over the years, the islanders assimilated castaways and deserters of various nationalities. Today’s inhabitants, all interrelated, share seven family names among them: Glass, Swain, Hagen, Green, Repetto, Lavarello and Rogers. The collective spirit that sustained the island during years of almost complete isolation still exists.
“Tristanians will do business with the world; we understand it’s important to be in the world if you want something from it,” explained Conrad Glass, then the Chief Islander. “But the world can keep its bombs and bird flu. Whatever we’ve got here is under our control. It’s the remoteness of the island that has jelled us and brought us all together.”
In the way of sightseeing, Tristan has little to offer visitors. A tourist brochure lists activities such as golf (a challenging nine-holer whose hazards include chicken coops and gale force winds) and an all-day hike up to Tristan’s summit, Queen Mary’s Peak, which is typically shrouded in clouds. On Saturdays, the recreation center, Prince Philip Hall, comes alive for the weekly dance, while next door, the Albatross — the world’s remotest pub, of course — is the spot to grab a South African lager and pick up some Tristanian dialect. Locals might be “heyen on” about collecting “Jadda boys” as they get “half touch up”— bragging about how many penguin eggs they’ve collected, while getting drunk.
I spent a month on Tristan, participating in its daily rhythms. There were birthdays and baptisms, and lobster prepared five ways. When a bell rang out across the settlement, announcing calm seas, I set out with fishermen to collect the lobster, the island’s primary export. Other days I strolled down Tristan’s only road to a patchwork of stonewalled potato plots overlooking the sea: The Patches.
I recall one afternoon walking into the island’s cafe, where a British Forces TV channel was broadcasting a news conference with President Barack Obama — something about Russia and missile defense. Never had the forces shaping the world, beamed into a faraway room where locals chatted breezily about marking their lambs and the strength of the potato crop, felt so distant and irrelevant.
A novel coronavirus is another thing. Tristanians are far more interconnected with the world today than in 1918, when they were spared the Spanish flu. The island’s hospital has two beds and no ventilators. There are also a disproportionate number of older people, and more than half of Tristan’s population show signs of asthma — a phenomenon that allowed a Canadian researcher in the 1990s to identify one of the genes responsible for the condition. But the island’s remoteness offers an upper hand: Tristanians are insulated from the virus by the world’s widest moat.
Recently, I reached out to James Glass, Tristan’s current Chief Islander (and Conrad’s second cousin). There are no Covid-19 cases to date, he wrote to me. All future cruise and cargo vessels have been banned from landing. At the moment, food security is not a concern: There are plenty of potatoes in the ground and lobster in the sea.
“We will have to decide what we are going to do on the next voyage in June, maybe take more measures. It will be a real problem if it gets here,” Mr. Glass wrote. “All we have for our protection is our isolation and our faith.”
Andy Isaacson, a photographer and writer based in New York, has reported for The Times from all seven continents. You can follow his work on Instagram.