Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Saturday, 21 March 2009

Wallowing off the coast of Tristan

Journalist Simon Winchester reflects on the price he is still paying for betraying the trust of a group of islanders in the South Atlantic Ocean nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Setsuko Winchester on Tristan
Tristan da Cunha has a population of 300 British nationals

I am currently sitting on a boat, wallowing in a south Atlantic ocean swell, five cables off the rocky coastline of the most isolated, permanently-populated island in the world.

My fellow passengers have just landed and I swear a few moments ago, through powerful binoculars, I saw my wife waving to me from a sheep-filled meadow.

But I am pinioned here on deck six of the motor yacht Corinthian II, prevented from landing by a very large policeman.

Many of our passengers are lawyers and suggest suing. It is all about freedom of speech, they insist.

Twenty-four years ago I wrote a few rather innocent-sounding lines in a book and in consequence I have been banned - apparently for life - from the island that lies forbidden before me; the tiny British colonial possession of Tristan da Cunha.

Morse code

Three hundred British citizens live on Tristan, all of them huddled on the lower slopes of a volcano in a tiny settlement called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.

Most of the islanders make their living fishing for crayfish in the rough waters here or around the neighbour-islets of Nightingale and Inaccessible.

Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas Post Office on Tristan
The island has a UK postcode so residents can order goods online

They are 1,800 sea-miles from the nearest land, South Africa, and they see outsiders only intermittently.

Thirty years ago they communicated only by Morse code. Sixty years ago all their business was conducted by barter (to send a letter to England cost five potatoes).

They are perhaps remembered best for a rather ironic coda to their one near-catastrophe. In October 1961 their volcano erupted and the entire population was picked up by a Royal Navy destroyer and brought back to England, where they were put up in a disused military base in Hampshire.

But despite the supposed delights of our civilisation (cars, television, lifts) - none of which they had ever seen - the entire population opted to go back, once the leviathan had quietened down.

Their spare and simple lives, they decided, were much preferable to the complicated bustle of ours.

Brief romance

I went first in 1983, again a little later. The volcano was still hissing out sulphurous fogs, causing many boatmen to wheeze.

Otherwise there was an air of settled contentment about the place.


The islanders were kindly, polite, shy. The older ones spoke in a curiously old-fashioned way. Lots of "thees" and "thous", unfamiliar words like "ganzeys" for sweaters and "ammunitions" for socks. I liked it and was happy there.

So, evidently, was a young naval officer who was based in Tristan during the war when Whitehall reclassified the island as a ship, HMS Atlantic Isle.

He was very happy, not least because he had a brief and tenderly unconsummated romance with a local girl named Emily... and wrote about it.

I quoted two paragraphs from his book in an account I wrote in 1985 and that, I later learned to my great dismay, was my undoing.

I had betrayed what was apparently an island secret and for that I would not be forgiven.

Ethics of tourism

So when 15 years later I arrived (quite unsuspecting) on a cruise ship and lectured about Tristan to the passengers, I was told I would not be allowed to land. The Island Council had forbidden it.

I was perplexed and somewhat embarrassed. This time I was more prepared and last December I wrote to the British diplomat who serves on Tristan. He put it to the Council and replied that they had decided I would not be permitted to land "on this occasion or, indeed, ever."

Fishing boats on Tristan
The island was first sighted in 1506 by a Portuguese sailor, Tristao da Cunha

And such it has turned out to be.

A policemen boarded us, apologised and said that if it was up to him, of course I could come ashore, "but the older islanders, you know, they feel it was a secret betrayed."

Many of our passengers are lawyers and suggest suing. It is all about freedom of speech, they insist. I am British, the islands are British. How dare they? Could a village in Yorkshire ban you because you wrote something they did not like?

And yet I am not sure I do not sympathise with the Tristanians.

Travel brings with it many responsibilities: not to damage the environment, to "take only pictures, leave only footprints" as the mantra has it.

But we, in our clumsy outsider way can unwittingly do other and less obvious damage too, like imposing, breaching codes, violating secrets.

I have to conclude that a quarter of a century ago I did so too. So melancholy though it may be for me, I am inclined to believe that I have been given a late-term lesson in the ethics of tourism and that the people of Tristan, in obliging me to stay away and remain here, were quite probably... absolutely right.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 March, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service


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