Today, Tristan da Cunha is certainly off the beaten path and is considered the most remote inhabited island on the planet. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, the archipelago was on the preferred maritime route to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. The islands of Tristan da Cunha were discovered by Portuguese explorer Tristao da Cunha during an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in 1506. In 1643, the first recorded crew, the Dutch Heemstede, landed on Tristan to replenish supplies. In 1650 and 1669, the Dutch initiated efforts to explore the island as a base but soon abandoned the idea, perhaps because Tristan lacked a safe harbor.
Several Americans attempted to make use of Tristan in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1790, Captain John Patten of Philadelphia used the island as a sealing and whaling base. In 1810, Jonathan Lambert of Salem, Mass., attempted to establish a trading station there. During the War of 1812, American forces used Tristan as a base to defend against British attacks.
While today's Tristan is off the international political radar, it was at the center of the strategic military scene during the early 1800s. On Aug. 14, 1816, the British military took possession of the island to prevent the French from using Tristan to rescue the deposed emperor Napoleon who was imprisoned on St. Helena, about 1,242 miles (2,000 kilometers) away. The British also aimed to keep Americans from using Tristan as a base again.
Despite this initial political interest in Tristan, the British military soon lost interest in its strategic importance and began to gradually abandon the island in 1817. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, routes through the South Atlantic were no longer necessary for trans-Atlantic trade, and ships ceased to pass through Tristan. However, some of Tristan's original residents stayed on the island, and, in addition to a few shipwreck survivors, they continued to populate the island. Many of their descendants still live on this remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic.
Today, Tristan is classified as a United Kingdom Overseas Territory, and all of its residents are British citizens. The residents of Tristan da Cunha, who live in the settlement of Edinburgh, share just eight surnames [source: Weaver]. Tristan houses a school, hospital, post office, museum, cafe, pub, craft shop, village hall and swimming pool. The island is financially self-supporting, and residents earn most of their income from fishing and, oddly, the sale of postage stamps. An optician and dentist are sent from the United Kingdom once a year. While there's no airport on Tristan, cruise ships occasionally visit the island, and crawfish trawlers from Cape Town come to the island about six times per year [source: The Commonwealth].
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