Tristan da Cunha Volcanic Eruption – October 8, 1961

The eruption forced all the islanders of Tristan da Cunha to evacuate from their homes in mid-Atlantic and remain away for several years.

Tristan da Cunha is the main island of a group of small volcanic islands on the eastern flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an undersea mountain range running from North to South Pole in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Tristan’s origin is known as a hot spot, a place where magma periodically erupts from the depths of the earth. Over time the main island grew up from a depth of almost 10,000 feet to 6,800 feet above sea level, its present condition. As the peak of a volcano, Tristan had an almost circular outline with a diameter of eight miles and a surface area of less than forty square miles.

On October 8, 1961, this volcano erupted for the first time in living memory, not from the top of the crater but through a vent, a thousand feet away from the settlement. It was not a violent eruption, about two on the VEI index, but magma quickly began to spread toward the settlement. Emergency messages were sent out and within a few days a ship arrived to take everyone off the island. It remained deserted for two years.

Letters that arrived in England with the residents from Tristan, and had been written and placed in envelopes for mailing days before the eruption, tell the story of the warning signals they had received. From different parts of the island big and small tremors had been experienced daily for two months and people had gone to various locations to try and find out if the tremors were the same everywhere. Since there was no memory or historical evidence of a previous eruption, no one thought very much about the possibility of an eruption.

In fact, as was discovered later, there had been an eruption about 250 years before the 1961 eruption but no record was kept of that event. It probably happened in a period when there were no residents on the island. Everyone knew that their island was the result of a volcanic eruption but they assumed that the volcano was now dormant. We can imagine their surprise on the eighth of October 1961. Hot spots like Tristan are found all over the world and their history is told in the trail they leave as tectonic plates move across them.

In the case of Tristan there is evidence of the hot spot having been stationary for at least 120 million years. As the major tectonic plates move east and west from their origin in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge the volcanic materials that had erupted were carried along with the plates. On the eastern side we can see today a trail of volcanic rocks, or islands if above the surface, that date from three million years old at Tristan, suggesting that the hot spot is beneath or near it at the present time, to a 120 million year old spot on the west coast of Africa.

In the other direction there is a similar trail from Tristan to Brazil. This age-old and complicated geological history was unknown to the people who lived at Tristan in 1961. It was also unknown to geologists everywhere at that time. The great revolutionary discovery of the world’s oceans being covered by huge moving volcanic plates, plates that brought continents together and then separated them over periods of time measured in hundreds of millions of years, was still in the future when the people of Tristan encountered their volcanic eruption.

The sudden appearance of a seven hundred foot long rift in the ground on the eighth of October, quite close to the settlement of Edinburgh, was enough to trigger emergency alarms. It was followed by a flow of magma from below that quickly began to cover the settlement area. In areas closer to the ocean land had been elevated and in one spot, before the end of the day, there was a twenty-foot-high mound, the beginning of a new volcano.

By the following morning the mound had reached a height of fifty feet and some smoke was coming from it. Edinburgh was the only place on the island where any kind of community life could be sustained and, by the evening of the ninth, it was obvious to all that they had to evacuate Tristan. The equivalent of a town hall meeting was held. They decided to go to one of the smaller islands of the Tristan Da Cunha group, Nightingale, and wait there until a ship arrived to take them to England, of which they were a colony, the only place in the world where they had a right of residence.

Everyone collected his or her personal possessions for the trip. These amounted to little more than the clothing they wore and a small bundle of miscellaneous things, the contents of their homes. They made their way down the cliffs to the fishing boats but wind and waves were too high for boarding so they had to huddle down for the night wherever they could find shelter. Behind them, the new volcano lit up the night sky as smoke and flames came from it. Next day they were able to board their small fishing vessels and so they got to Nightingale. Fortunately there was a Dutch ship nearby and they were able to communicate with it and make arrangements for their immediate rescue.

This ship was on its way to Cape Town, about 1,750 miles way and the nearest place to Tristan, so the entire community of Tristan was taken there. About ten days later they were taken from Cape Town in a British ship to England where they would stay for two years, not happy ones as it turned out. On arrival in England they asked that they be allowed to live together and so the local authorities sent them to a place in the south of the country that was formerly an army camp. It was an isolated location and as it was built as an army camp there were no provisions for individual privacy. The search began almost at once for a better place.

The small group of islands called Tristan Da Cunha of which the name is given to the biggest island, the only occupied one, was discovered in the sixteenth century by Tristao Da Conha, a Portuguese admiral. The present name of the island is based on his name. There were no people living there at that time, nor did anyone settle on the island for the following three hundred years. The first settlers were four Americans from Salem, Massachusetts. They landed there in the year 1810 hoping to make profit by selling food and water to passing ship traffic. Three of their number lost their lives in a fishing trip but the surviving member of the party remained on Tristan for a few years.

In the year 1816, Britain established a military garrison on the island because they were concerned that the French might try to use this island as a base for rescuing Napoleon, who had been sent into exile on the island of St. Helena, almost 1,000 miles farther away to the north. The British removed the garrison after a few years because they realized that it would be quite impossible to do a rescue over such a distance. It was at that point that one of the officers from that garrison and members of his family and some others decided to settle permanently on Tristan Da Cunha and that became the foundation of the population that remained right up to the present time.

In 1961, there were approximately 240 people living on the island. It was a colony of Great Britain and there were a total of seven family names among the residents. The settlement where they congregated was called Edinburgh, a cluster of sixty stone houses with thatched roofs on a relatively flat plateau bordering the ocean at the northwest corner of the island. The community was still no more than eleven flax-thatched cottages built from blocks of volcanic rock when, in 1867, HRH Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Victoria, visited the island while voyaging around the world and gave the settlement of Edinburgh its present name.

Edinburgh is a site that is almost free from wind. The houses have no electricity, no telephones, and no central heating. Potatoes were grown on small plots and grain used to be grown until a rat-infested ship was wrecked on the island. The rats destroyed the grain and also the bird population. As a result, insects frequently overrun the settlement. Once a year a campaign is launched to destroy the rats but the inaccessibility of many parts of the island makes the task very difficult.

Over the years the islanders lived a kind of idealistic lifestyle. There was no government on the island, nobody in charge of affairs as a whole. Everyone was the equal of everyone else and each person went about his or her affairs independently. Cooperative efforts helped with common tasks such as gathering food and building homes. There were no roads, no motor vehicles, and no other modern conveniences.

The only trees were stunted, wind-twisted evergreens. Narrow ravines radiated outward from the central peak, which more often than not was obscured with clouds. Ocean waves crashed on to the four hundred-foot high basalt cliffs. There was no natural harbor. Ships had to anchor off shore until favorable weather allowed access by small boats. It is easy to imagine the culture clash that must have accompanied their move to England. After their first crisis of being placed in what was a massive single room building with no provision for privacy they were taken to another former military location, this time one that had a number of individual buildings so each family had a separate house.

By this time their story and their plight had been publicized in the media and different charitable agencies began to contribute to their needs. Jobs were found for some members of the group and all were inoculated against what was called the diseases of civilization. They did not help very much because, within a few months, everyone caught cold or flu bugs and four people died from pneumonia.

Their biggest worry was how and when they could return to Tristan. They had been told from the beginning that they could go back once the island was safe but there was delay after delay, even after reports reached England that all volcanic activity had ceased. Crime, something that was completely new to them, became a terrifying experience and they were increasingly reclusive because of it. In fact, they seemed to appreciate very few of the benefits of civilization. When they finally were able to leave Britain and return to Tristan, one writer described them as a people who had tasted and tested the civilized lifestyle and decided that it was a failure.

Since their return to the Island in 1963 there has been no evidence of volcanic activity. Potatoes are grown as before and some sheep and cattle are also still reared. Mail is taken to the island every three or four months from Cape Town in South Africa. The population is now about three hundred and a number of modern conveniences that were missing in 1961 and 1963 have been added. There is a school, a hospital, a post office, a village hall, a museum, a swimming pool, and a number of new activities. These provide a certain amount of income to make the community as self-sufficient as possible. A tourist ship visits the island once a year. The ship stays for a few days and the passengers are free to visit the island during that time if the weather allows them to land.

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