Tristan da Cunha Eruption & Evacuation to UK

Viewed from the sea, Tristan da Cunha has the classic pyramid shape of a volcano but, throughout the entire documented history of the island, there had never been any volcanic activity.

However, this changed during August and September 1961 when an eruption began causing earthquakes and landslides. A more violent earthquake was experienced on October 8th. In the light of the next morning an open fissure was seen between the settlement and canning factory. UK Administrator Peter Wheeler called a meeting where it was agreed to evacuate all 264 islanders and the 26 expatriates on the island to huts on the Potato Patches.

By October 10th the ground had risen to form a new volcano cone close enough to the settlement to cause concern. The decision was taken to evacuate the island. The islanders used the available fishing boats to move to Nightingale Island for safe shelter overnight. The following day, October 11th, a Dutch ship Tjisadane, already scheduled to pick up two Tristan girls, now picked up the the entire community and took them to Cape Town where they arrived on October 16th. Within days the population of Tristan da Cunha was aboard RMS Sterling Castle and departing Cape Town to arrive in Southampton, UK on November 3rd.

Following previous examples like the evacuation of St Kilda in the Scottish Hebrides, the UK Government assumed the evacuation was likely to prove permanent. However, as history has shown, the Islanders of Tristan da Cunha don't give up. At first the islanders were accommodated at Pendell Camp in Surrey before moving to the former RAF Calshot Camp on Southampton Water.

While many islanders took to UK life well, with children attending school and their parents taking jobs with local businesses and on ships, there were difficulties with petty crime - virtually unknown on Tristan - and the flu viruses from which the islanders had little natural protection.

The Royal Society undertook an expedition in early 1962 to view the impact of the eruption on Tristan da Cunha. They reported that the eruption had ended and, given the positive reports, the islanders began asking to return. A fully equipped Resettlement Survey which included 12 islanders departed in August and made it to Tristan on September 8th.

Still believing the islanders would prefer to stay in the UK, the British Colonial Office quickly organised a ballot of islanders for December and the community voted 148 to 5 in favour of returning.

An advance party of 51 left Tilbury docks on March 17th 1963 on RMS Amazon, after a transfer to the MV Boissevain in Rio de Janeiro, they made it to Tristan da Cunha on April 9th.

The rest of the islanders left Southampton on the Danish ferry Bornholm on October 24th and arrived back home on November 10th 1963, just weeks after the second anniversary of the evacuation to Nightingale Island. The world's most isolated community had chosen their ravaged island rather than stay in England.

What Are The Chances Of Another Volcanic Eruption On Tristan da Cunha?

While all of the islands in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago are volcanic islands, it is believed only the main island volcano remains active.

Evidence of it remaining active came as recently as the night of 29th/30th July 2004 when residents on the main island of Tristan da Cunha felt several sharp earthquake tremors. Obviously this event reminded older islanders of the 1961 emergency.

These latest tremors led to the discovery of newly formed pumice floating in the sea close to the coast. This served to heighten concerns further and all eyes were now focused on the cone formed east of Edinburgh during the 1961 event. The island's Administrator at that time, Michael Hently, requested scientific guidance from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a visit by staff of the British Geological Survey took place in September 2004.

The islanders' accounts, scientific observations and analysis of seismic data suggested the event was most likely a small parasitic eruption on the seabed slightly away from Tristan da Cunha and the main volcano remained peaceful. The islanders could be reassured... this time.

The whole history of Tristan da Cunha since William Glass founded the first settlement about 200 years ago has demonstrated time and time again the increased vulnerability small island communities have to natural hazards. So, while unlikely in the near future, nobody can yet say if Tristan da Cunha's ultimate destiny is going to be decided by another volcanic event.