THE EMPIRE PROJECT
There are fourteen remaining British overseas territories that represent what was once the formidable British Empire. For over 400 years Great Britain has laid claim to many territories across the globe, fluctuating in size since the end of the sixteenth century. At its peak the British Empire was probably the largest and most powerful force in the world, competing with Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands for territory, and ultimately owning nearly a quarter of the world’s land mass. Since the decline of the Empire and the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the small outposts left behind act as a reminder to a colonial past.
Between August 2007 and December 2011 Jon Tonks has voyaged to a selection of these remote territories that, despite being thousands of miles from the homeland, remain positively British, filled with remnants of history that span from the intriguing to the bizarre. This photographic project aims to provide the audience with a social commentary and historical insight into what has shaped and created five of these territories, which are often incredibly isolated from the rest of the world.
ASCENSION ISLAND – Home to 884 people, Ascension Island is a 34 square mile volcanic island that lies deep in the South Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Brazil & Angola. It was first discovered in 1501 by the Portuguese seafarer Joao da Nova Castelia, although this apparently went unrecorded so the island was ‘found’ again two years later on Ascension Day by Alphonse d’Albuquerque, who gave the island its name. Ascension remained uninhabited until 1815 when Napoleon was incarcerated on the island of St. Helena, 750 miles south east of Ascension. A small British naval garrison was then stationed on Ascension to deny the French strategic access to St. Helena and the island was designated “HMS Ascension”. With no indigenous population the island has become host to an eclectic mixture of users; from communications, surveillance and national security to British and American Military.
ST. HELENA - Only accessible via the last working Royal Mail Ship (RMS St. Helena), the island is five days by sea from Cape Town. St. Helena is most famously known for the incarceration of Napoleon Bonaparte who was exiled there until his death in 1821, and now the French Government own and fund the restoration of all the Napoleonic properties on the island. The island has become a huge melting pot for ethnicity, including heritage from British military personnel, Chinese and Indian labourers and African slaves liberated by the Royal Navy after the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. Currently supported by the UK government at a cost of £20Million per year, the island has recently received long-awaited approval from the coalition government to construct an airport, with the aim of providing over 4,000 islanders with the opportunity of self-sustainability. On November 3rd 2011 the Governor of St. Helena confirmed that contracts have been signed for construction to begin.
TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Only accessible by boat, Tristan is the world’s most remote archipelago, lying 1,750 miles from the nearest continent. There are only 262 islanders and seven surnames shared between them, the first of whom was Corporal William Glass of Scotland, who settled with his wife and children in 1816. Eleven years later, five women were persuaded to sail to Tristan from St. Helena and marry five lonely islanders they had never met. The men picked a number from 1 - 5, correlating with the order each woman disembarked the ship, therefore determining their new bride. In 1892 an Italian ship ran aground after catching fire, after which two sailors remained on the island. This introduced Italian heritage to Tristan, which by now also included American and Dutch islanders. The seven surviving surnames on Tristan, and date of their arrival on the island, are:
William GLASS: 1816 (Scotland, UK), Thomas SWAIN: 1826 (England, UK), Peter GREEN: 1836 (Holland), Thomas ROGERS: 1836 (USA), Andrew HAGAN: 1849 (USA), Andrea REPETTO: 1892 (Italy), Gaetano LAVARELLO: 1892 (Italy),
A volcanic eruption in September 1961 saw the entire population evacuated to the UK, although all but a few returned two years later. The economy is now sustained through catching and exporting 180 tonnes of crayfish per year. Islanders have recently (April ‘11) rescued over 2,000 rockhopper penguins from neighbouring Nightingale Island, after a cargo ship ran aground and sank, creating an oil spill. The penguins were fed, cleaned and kept in the local swimming pool until ready for release.
The island has one policeman.
GIBRALTAR - Gibraltar is the fifth most densely populated place on Earth, with nearly 30,000 people living within 2.6 square miles. Favourable tax benefits have been attracting many online gaming firms and international banks to be based there. Sitting on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, its sovereignty remains a point of contention between the UK and Spain. In both 1967 and 2002 a referendum was held in which Gibraltarians resoundingly rejected plans for a change to Spanish rule. The rock of Gibraltar itself contains a network of tunnels spanning more than 35 miles, constructed to create a fortress protecting the peninsular from invasion. These tunnels are still used today for military training purposes, and Gibraltar remains vital to the British Navy due to its strategic position at the gateway to the Mediterranean. The tunnels were also home to a nuclear bunker, constructed after WWII and used during the Cold War. Many of the chambers constructed are now used as secure data storage facilities.
FALKLAND ISLANDS - The Falkland Islands are home to approximately 3,140 people and sit 300 miles from mainland South America. The Falklands are one of the more self-sufficient British Overseas Territories with a GDP of $75,000,000. This is mainly sustained through fishing (150 mile radius enforced fishing and conservation area), a relatively profitable wool industry and an increasing tourism trade. There is also the promise of a booming oil industry from the surrounding waters, which has heavily fuelled the debate over sovereignty.
The Falkland Islands remain a politically sensitive issue between Argentina and the UK, but the islanders (many of whom are 8/9th generation) have declared that they wish to remain British, and are vehement about their right to determine their own future.
Since Argentine forces invaded and were subsequently removed following the Falklands War in 1982, a strong British military presence has remained on the archipelago. Flights from the UK currently receive a military escort when arriving into nearby airspace. Despite 2012 seeing the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, vast areas of land still remain peppered with land mines. An explosives ordinance disposal team is currently working to clear the affected areas but it remains a very slow process. Access to the islands is currently via flights from Chile, or from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, UK. There is also an abundance of cruise ships that stop at the Falklands for tourists to disembark.