Friday 16 September 2016

Tristan da Cunha - the volcano that emptied an island

On holiday, I read Hervé Bazin’s Les bienheureux de la desolation (which appeared in English as Tristan) – his novel about the volcanic eruption on the island of Tristan da Cunha, a remote British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, in 1961 and its aftermath.

It tells of how a violent eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak at the centre of the island forced the entire population of 264 to flee to the UK.

There was a strong collective spirit on Tristan, with a belief that no one should raise himself up above anyone else, but life was hard, and the British authorities thought that once the islanders experienced the greater comforts of life in England, they would want to stay.

In fact, many rejected what they saw as the materialism and emptiness of modern British life, and when the government held a ballot a couple of years later, the islanders voted 148 to 5 to return. Most of them did.

They adopted some of the new things they had seen in England, but live television did not arrive until 2001, and there is still no mobile phone coverage. Tristan’s population has barely grown, now standing at 266.

Bazin’s book appeared in 1970, and is seen by some as a comment on the misgivings about ‘progress’ which had helped to foment the French riots of 1968.

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