Zangora Island

Life on a ledge is a good way to describe Zangora Island according to one writer describing what in reality would be one of the smallest republics on Earth.  Granted the Vatican holds this status followed by Monaco, but in reality, this republic beats them all if you look at the inhabited area.

The lone rock in the Atlantic is in no way large, just inaccessible.  In this way it is like Tristan da Cunha where the only level land is inhabited  while the remainder of the island is so rugged it cannot be penetrated.  The shape of the island is identical to the analemma of the sun as seen from a stationary point on earth showing an annual pattern that is much like a figure eight with the upper half much narrower than the larger bottom half.

Our little republic is roughly two square miles in size and inaccessible except for a ledge some 80 feet above the ocean below.  This ledge covers about 200 acres or almost 1/3rd of a square mile.  This is the only area that is flat enough for human settlement.  The ledge is roughly ½ a mile long and ranges from about 80 to 1,000 feet in width.  

The tiny republic is rather amazing.  Some 50 to 60 people live here, clinging to life on a ledge and have been very successful in making what is an inhospitable land a nice place to live.

When first discovered, the ledge was scaled where numerous caves were found.  In various spots springs of good water, filtered by the volcanic outcropping, spewed forth from the rock wall crating numerous waterfalls tumbling off the edge of the ledge to the ocean below.  

Early settlers began gathering the rich volcanic soil and securing it as well as creating pools for the fresh water.  Stones were collected and fashioned into shelters that eventually became homes.  

Today, stone homes of substantial size dot the edge with flat roofs used for gardens protected by fishing nets from birds. Springs and waterfalls are captured by various pipes to create man made pools throughout the ledge and going to each home.  Here and there caves are blocked by a metal mesh and are used for storage.  Steps at various points make it possible to reach the ocean below.  In fact, a smaller ledge, about 6,000 square feet  acts as a storage area for the small skiffs used to fish the deep waters as it is high enough to keep all but the highest waves out.  Boats are pulled up with a system of pulleys.  Some simply line fish from this small outcropping.

The climate is arid but very pleasant through the year.  Sandstorms from the distant Sahara do affect the island a few times each winter, sometimes lasting a few days but normally blue skies and temperatures ranging from the middle 50s to middle 80s Fahrenheit  prevail through the year and there is typically a fresh breeze.  Rainfall varies from 4 to 6 inches a year normally coming between August and October in short downpours, sometimes with substantial thunder and lightning.

The island was first settled by surviving members of a shipwreck that survived for 8 years on the ledge before being found and rescued.  

The island was uninhabited several years when some of the previously shipwrecked survivors brought their families to the island for a new life.  By this time, the Portuguese claimed the tiny island.  Once settled, a Portuguese ship arrived to take the people off the island but instead they managed to purchase the island for an agreed price of 112 ounces of gold that legend says may have been recovered from the doomed ship.  For identity sake the island was called Analemma because of the island’s shape.  The name Zangora is the name that stuck, not by choice but by clerical error on the papers.  Ironically, Zangora in the Basque language means ‘leg’ in English.

Once the bill of sale was executed, the island proclaimed independence, a claim that to this day still remains undisputed largely because the island has no significant resources and is not important from a military point of view.  Even so, internationally, the island has only been able to claim a three mile limit from the island as its territory.  They claimed a 200 mile economic zone but that was dismissed.  With no coast guard to enforce the waters, it would have been mostly a ‘paper’ claim without the ability for the Republic to enforce the claim.

The island’s residents trace their roots back to 6 families.  Everyone on the island is related.  The population is primarily ethnically European.  A local dialect is spoken but English is understood by all. Such is the case on many remote islands where the use of numerous local terms is plentiful enough to establish the daily language as a dialect.  

A ship calls on the island ever so often, to bring goods and sometimes a few residents, usually the young who have managed to further their education abroad.

Government is a 6 person council.  Originally the head of each family held the post but as the number of households has increased, members of the council are elected at large from all adults.  The government is minimal and simple.  Elections for one member of the board is held every 6 months with a member serving a 3 year term.  Although not prohibited, it is tradition to not run for consecutive terms with everyone waiting until the next election to opt to be elected to a new term.  The idea was to prevent the board from becoming the elite of the island and by replacing a member every six months, the feeling was that this would provide enough ‘new blood’ to prevent the board from becoming ‘elitist’ and thus, this is why previously elected members wait out an election before running again.  So, in the eyes of the locals, a person trying to be reelected without waiting would be suspected of self-serving interests as their reason to serve a second term.  

The people live simple but good lives on the island.  By western standards, housing and lifestyle are very much on a western level.  There seem to be neither rich nor poor among the citizens.  It would seem everyone is capable of earning an adequate income and none earning what might appear to be an excessive income in comparison to their fellow citizens.  The sea provides the economic stability for the residents.  Fish are stored in freezers until shipped thanks to contracts with overseas dealers.

There is some minor commerce in the form of tiny stores.  Most might be considered shopping carts or kiosks in lieu of stores.  Mostly only a handful of items might be available and usually on a self-serve honor system.  Mostly, a home might offer a few items for sale on a wooden cart with payment jar.  It is rolled out to the front entrance of the home, sometimes decked out with a canopy.  In bad weather and at night it is rolled back inside.  Shoppers browse and leave payment in the jar.  Such a small store might offer fabric or clothing, kitchen utensils, a variety of sundry items, fresh produce, a few other food items and so forth.  For most, going shopping is as much about visiting with neighbors as it is buying merchandise.  A conversation over coffee or tea is not unusual when visiting such a small store.  These ‘stores’ function more for convenience than profit.  

As a tiny society, Zangora Island has had its growing pains.  The quest of power was an early problem with a self proclaimed king that had varied degrees of success in that assertion.  At one point the island was divided as two nations until the common needs of the community melted any bitterness.  Alcohol was an early problem that was eventually cured.  And, rape and assault was an issue in the earliest days with it said that one man managed to impregnate every unwed eligible female on the island by force or willingly.  All of these issues of human character flaws eventually worked themselves out rather quickly, aptly termed ‘the season of struggles before the season of reigning peace’ by the local population that tends to seem rather embarrassed about going into greater detail of the early history.  They sum up that all small groups suffer from the weakness of man.  It would seem the details  and historical timeline, while known, remain a ‘family secret’ so to speak where the details are not for those from the outside.  They are proud to say they do not have a jail and have never had one but we wonder how infractions were dealt with in the early years.  

As one might suspect, a visitor is the center of attention and let us just say that rest and relaxation is not in the cards for the visitor.  Everyone wants face time and the ability to welcome the visitor to their home.  You would expect as much from a tiny community so isolated.


Detail are forthcoming on the country’s local form of money.  Research is continuing.

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