Alexander Cotton; from Hull to Head man of Tristan Da Cunha

In the mid South Atlantic lie the three small volcanic islands which make up Tristan Da Cunha. The community which live there must be amongst the remotest in the world. St Helena lies some 1500 miles to the NNE, the Cape of Good Hope can only be reached by voyaging westwards for some 2000 miles whilst Cape Horn at the tip of South America lies more than 4000 miles to the South West.

The main island of Tristan covers an area of about 16 square miles with a snow capped volcanic peak of more than 7600 feet its centre. The other two members of the group, Inaccessible Island and the smaller Nightingale Island, lie some distance away. Around 300 people live on Tristan today but the two other islands have never really been permanently inhabited.

Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic
Source: PSU

The group is named after the Portuguese Admiral Tristan da Cunha who discovered them in 1506. Over the following centuries they were occasionally visited by passing ships and although a few people did attempt to live on the islands at various times, they were not permanently inhabited until after 1809. Soon afterwards, an American named Lambert tried to claim sovereignty over the group but was drowned in an accident a few years later. Britain’s long involvement with the islands came about after American raiders used the islands as a base to prey on British ships during the Anglo-American War of 1812-1814. The defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and his subsequent exile to the south Atlantic island of St Helena also encouraged British interest. Although Tristan da Cunha was very distant from St Helena there was a worry in some quarters that the island might be used as a base in any attempt to free Napoleon. In order to be safe rather than sorry, British authorities decided to annexe the islands and a formal declaration of annexation was made in August 1816; afterwards a small garrison was maintained on Tristan until after the death of Napoleon in 1821.

During this time a Scotsman from Kelso by the name of William Glass, who had been a corporal of the artillery, obtained leave to stay on the island with Maria, his Cape Coloured wife, and their two children. A few other men also made their home on the island during the following years and, when the last of the garrison was taken by warship to St Helena in 1821 two of the vessel’s seamens, a John Mooney and Alexander Cotton, were impressed by the islands and sought permission from Sir George Cockburn, Chief of the Naval Squadron at St Helena, to return to Tristan and settle. Cockburn agreed and Cotton and Mooney were dropped off a little later that year by the frigate, Satellite, en route for the East Indies. Another early settler was Thomas Hill Swain from Hastings who is sometimes said to be the sailor who caught Lord Nelson in his arms as he fell, mortally wounded, on to the deck of HMS Victory at Trafalgar. Whatever the truth of this, Swain was to live on the island until his death at the age of 102.

Alexander Cotton, also known as John Taylor, was evidently a native of Hull. Although we don’t know a great deal about his background, he was born about 1788 and was regarded as an experienced seaman on man o’ wars. He had probably been pressed into naval service like many others from the town in the early 1800s and had most likely seen much action in the later stages of the war. Cotton’s new life was much more peaceable and he and the other early settlers were joined by a few others over the next few yeas, mainly through shipwreck. By 1827 Tristan’s population had reached 14 adults but Cotton and four other men were bachelors. When the ship Duke of Gloucester visited the island in 1827 the captain was asked if he could find brides for these men on St Helena. This he did and he returned to the island with five volunteers, of mixed Negro blood. All still appeared to be happily married when visited by the American frigate Antarctica in 1829. The islanders provided for their own needs by growing wheat, oats and potatoes and by 1829 they were reported as having about 170 head of livestock. They often provisioned passing ships with water and potatoes. Communal living was of the essence and an agreement had been worked out in the very early days of settlement which ensured equal shares of stock and stores, equally divided profit and equal shares in paying for purchases. No one was to be considered superior to anyone else.

Cotton’s wife was called Maria and would have been about eighteen years old when she came over to Tristan from St Helena. Over the next few years they were to have seven daughters and five sons. Indeed, many children were born on the island and the population continued to be augmented by the occasional shipwrecked sailor.

There was at the time no clergyman on the islands so marriages were performed by the community leader, William Glass, known as the headman. The first ‘legal’ marriage performed by a clergyman did not take place until 1853. In the November of that year William Glass, the founder and beloved headman of the island, died at the age of 67. He was replaced as headman by the Hull-born Alexander Cotton, who held the post until shortly before his own death in 1865 aged about 77. The population of the island had gradually increased over the years and in October 1854 there were said to be fifty five females and forty five males living there.

Over the following years the population of Tristan was to wax and wane, as some people left the island to try life elsewhere and a few others settled at various times. In the 1880s the tiny community proved its resilience by surviving not only crop failure bit also the loss of fifteen able bodied men when their rowing boat capsized whilst trying to obtain supplies from a passing steamer in November 1885.

Today the island of Tristan and its main settlement of Edinburgh, has a population of just over 300 people and Cotton is one of only seven surnames still found on the island. The islanders are descendants of the original Napoleonic war sailors and soldiers, including Alexander Cotton, intermixed with American, Italian, Dutch and Mulatto blood. The English that they speak has been described ‘as a slightly strange, preserved Georgian dialect, laced with a few early Americanisms’. Loyalty to the family is a very strong island trait and the island’s economy is described as thriving whilst serious crime is unknown and unemployment virtually non-existent. In 1961, the entire population had to be evacuated because of a large volcanic eruption. Many islanders spent almost two years living in Britain but virtually every one chose to return when the eruption was over.

The Tristan community is often nowadays described as the remotest island in the world but the legacy of those early settlers, including Alexander Cotton, endures in the quality of life enjoyed by their descendants.

Select Bibliography

Katherine.M. Barrow, Three Years in Tristan da Cunha (UK: Echo Library, 2005)

Arne Zettersten, The English of Tristan da Cunha (Sweden: Lund 1969)

On-line References

The South Atlantic and Sub-Antarctic Islands. Tristan Da Cunha:

The Tristan da Cunha Website. Organised by the Tristan da Cunha Government and the UK based Tristan Da Cunha Association.