An announcement two weeks ago about British plans to rebuild the harbor of the settlement on Tristan da Cunha seemed, at first, to be welcome news. The Administrator of the colony, David Morley, briefed the Tristan Islanders on developments.

A contingent of Royal Engineers would be arriving at Tristan on Thursday January 24 to appraise the situation. Once the engineers decided on preliminary plans for reinforcing and improving the harbor, a much larger vessel would leave Britain and sail south with a sizeable contingent of personnel, supplies, and construction equipment. Their mission would be to repair and restore the harbor by the end of March. Mr. Morley concluded his radio broadcast to the Tristan community by playing “Rule Britannia.”

The Tristan da Cunha website, maintained by the government of the Colony and the Tristan da Cunha Association, provides a much more detailed discussion of the problem and the work that various agencies have been doing to address it. The website has photos of the major repair ship, the RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Lyme Bay, which was specially built for projects related to Royal Navy projects and humanitarian work.

The 16,190 ton, 176 m (577 ft) vessel was recently built and turned over to the RFA. It is designed to carry vast amounts of supplies, hundreds of personnel, and a lot of massive equipment. The project on Tristan, “Operation Zest,” will be its first assignment. Photos on the website show the equipment being readied for loading.

The website also provides a recent history of the harbor. Apparently it showed signs of deterioration several years ago, and it was battered very hard by severe winter storms in July 2007. Photos show the collapsing sea wall, with huge waves crashing into it. Various studies have been done, starting in 2006, to address the growing problem.

The website makes it clear, as do most news stories, that the Islanders are heavily dependent on their harbor for loading and unloading supplies that small boats ferry to and from larger ships anchored off shore. Other than the sea walls and breakwaters, there is no natural harbor and no air strip on the island. During severe winter weather, transportation in and out is very difficult, if not impossible.

A news announcement last week, however, cast the whole issue into a very different light. Defense News, from the British Ministry of Defense, published last Thursday an article about the impending humanitarian mission by the RFA Lyme Bay. After listing some of the supplies and equipment—for instance, 150 pallets of cement will be on board—the piece describes the importance of the mission to the Islanders.

The harbor provides “access for people, supplies and trade—its loss would have serious consequences and would create difficulties for the islanders, who are wholly self-supporting and have an economy based on fishing and tourism.” The following paragraph, however, contains the real surprise. If the project fails, it suggests, “either a total or partial evacuation of its 270 inhabitants may need to be considered.”

Suggesting the possibility of an evacuation is astonishing. It is not clear if that statement was authorized by higher level officials in the British government, or if it has been discussed on Tristan. It is also not clear if the British officials are aware of the history of the island.

The British government removed the Tristan Islanders, for their own safety, during an eruption of the volcano in 1961, but then it tried to keep them permanently in England. As a number of works by the sociologist Peter A. Munch detail, the Islanders had many problems during their two-year period of exile and they were quite eager to return in 1963.

While the support of the government in rebuilding the harbor is doubtless appreciated by everyone on Tristan, it is hard to believe that they would consent to another enforced exile, which could upset their finely balanced patterns of non-violence, equality, and anarchy. They may be assuming that the Royal Engineers will solve the harbor problems, so they have little need to think much further about it. Rule Britannia!