The Importance of Being Insular: Tristan da Cunha and the British Imperial World

Maternowski, Christopher, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Linstrum, Erik, History, University of Virginia

This dissertation considers the tiny South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha and its role within the British Empire. It asks why Britain has retained this peripheral possession for more than two centuries, as well as why this island has loomed large in the minds of colonial bureaucrats, metropolitan dreamers, missionaries, medical researchers, and naturalists. Hailed as the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha presents a degree of insularity that few locations can match. Precisely because of this, various individuals have sought to exploit and sometimes even cultivate Tristan da Cunha’s extreme seclusion, circumscribed connections, and limited governmental supervision for personal, spiritual, and scientific gain since the 1810s, when the first settlers arrived. By focusing on the manifold opportunities of an insular and loosely governed colony, this work challenges dominant narratives about space, which portray conquering distance and extending state authority as the optimal outcomes of Britain’s empire-building process. The case of Tristan da Cunha reveals an underappreciated countercurrent within imperial thought that craved and celebrated isolated places under nominal control. It also suggests that well into the twentieth century Britain’s authority over insular Atlantic territories remained much weaker and less complete than commonly recognized.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tristan da Cunha, British Empire, British World, Atlantic World, Atlantic history, imperialism, islands
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