All hands' things*: the endangered archives of Tristan da Cunha (*Tristanian English: things belonging to the whole community) (EAP951)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to help preserve records relating to life on the island of Tristan da Cunha. The island is part of the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, situated in the middle of the south Atlantic and located 2,000 km from the nearest inhabited island, Saint Helena, and 2,400 km from South Africa, the nearest continental land mass.

At present there is no designated site or person to look after the historical artefacts and documentation that relate to life on the island (there are no records managers, archivists, librarians or museum staff). The project will aim to focus on preserving the collections of government departments and families on the island. These are the largest collections of documentation and cover most aspects of life on these remote islands. The project will survey and identify material which is available to be transferred to the archive and will focus on records that will be of greatest potential interest to researchers. The project will not only focus on the current inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha. It also aims to work with the Tristan da Cunha Association in the UK to find relevant documentation from individuals now living away from the islands. For the most significant documents, repatriation to Tristan will be considered, and also relocation within an appropriate UK archive.

It is hoped that the material preserved will give a valuable insight into island life and how a tiny community (only 265 permanent inhabitants) on an island with no airport, and many days sail from the nearest remote island (Saint Helena), has survived in today’s world. The way the islanders live and survive as a community, how they handle disputes, share equally and manage against the elements is a lifestyle that should be documented in today’s world. In the past, history on Tristan was told ‘word of mouth’, but this is being lost as those generations pass. It is important that the documentation that does exist should be preserved for future generations and those with an interest in the island. The island suffers from a damp climate in which paper documentation degrades over time if not properly looked after. The island features an active volcano and also encounters severe weather which further illustrates the need for preservation of the history of this island.

The material will be from the first settlement – 1810 - to present day with emphasis on identifying material before 1963. This end date is chosen as the date of return of the Islanders following evacuation (after a volcanic eruption) to the UK. The way of life, a subsistence economy based on growing potatoes and other vegetables and using the local natural resources, was supplemented by bartering for essential items such as wood from ships which passed irregularly. Changes began with the arrival of military personnel in WWII and in 1949 a lobster processing plant was built, but the material and documentary resources of the islanders remained largely unchanged until they experienced life in the UK during their evacuation.


The project team carried out a survey of the archival holdings and digitised a sample of these records, which can be viewed here. Records listed in the survey report below can be accessed at the museum on Tristan da Cunha.

The following survey was submitted as part of the project outputs.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: