18th November 2003
Through the night of the 16 th November we watched eagerly for the lights that would bring form to the island shown on our charts. Approaching St Helena from the sparsely populated southwest, we initially mistook the scattered lights of farmhouses for fishing boats, but with dawn came the sharply rising, scree covered cliffs that protect the volcanic island. Too steep and loose for vegetation to take root, in any other circumstances it would have seemed barren and uninviting, but after 10 days it was a welcome break from the endless rolling blue of open ocean.
As we neared Jamestown , St Helena ‘s commercial and social hub (population 900), the islands own mail ship, RMS St Helena came into view. Serving three little remembered British outposts in the South Atlantic, the ship cruises from Portsmouth to it’s namesake island, then to Ascension Island (a big communications centre, although we rent half of it to the Americans so they have a mid-Atlantic airbase) before visiting Tristan de Cunha, a big volcano halfway between Argentina and South Africa that only seems to be noteworthy by virtue of the fact that it exists at all. For St Helena and Tristan de Cunha the mail ship is their only regular contact with the outside world, although the Saints (as the residents of St Helena are known) do now have TV, which as one local analyst said with a kind of abstract understanding ‘It’s a good thing, let’s us know all about these bombers, who’s killing who’. It is these improved links with the outside world that threaten the future of the mail ship, the last of its kind, the Saints hoping that the speed and convenience of air travel will soon come to the island with the building of a much promised airstrip. Although this has been in the offing for 40 years, there is now a feeling that it’s construction is imminent. With aeroplanes come tourists, and with tourists money, yet it seems that the locals will see little of this. The contract for building the strip includes construction of 5 star hotel, well away from Jamestown, which will provide employment for a few, but also ensure that the majority of the tourists money will leave with the aeroplane, straight into the developers pockets. As we stood looking at the wind turbines that stand unturning above Jamestown, relics of the islands last major project our tour guide summed it up with cheerful acceptance ‘Just like everything on this island, it never worked’.
In spite of the dysfunctional engineering projects, life on the island seems pretty good, although the architecture provides an insight into a less relaxed past. Fortifications scattered around the island provided protection from marauding Portuguese ships, keen to capture the island and gain control of it’s valuable supplies of fresh produce, the last chance to restock before heading off into the unknown beyond the Atlantic . With sea power superseded by airpower the Saints have decided that most of these are no longer needed, as evidenced by the moat that separates the crenellated walls of Jamestown from the sea in front. It now sits drained, with garden sheds and children’s playthings in place of muddy water. From anchorages in St James Bay it is still possible to see the ‘irregular castle perched on the summit of a lofty hill’ that Darwin described when he visited the island in May 1836, on the last leg of his voyage with the Beagle, but after walking up the 700 steps of Jacobs Ladder for a closer look we found only boarded up windows and litter bins daubed with Eminem logos. Inland, High Knoll fort was yet another line of defence for the islanders, it’s underground fortress capable of housing the islands entire population until danger passed, these days it offers protection only to crisp packets and beer bottles.
The Governors house is the flipside of the coin, as grand today as it must have been at the height of Britain ‘s empire. Exactly as a colonial building should be, it’s Georgian façade looks over an expansive lawn complete with tennis court. With the Governor in residence, it would have been rude to start poking around, but we did get a chance to meet the islands oldest resident, the 170 year old George, one of 5 giant tortoise that live next to the tennis court. Rowan was very disappointed that these gifts from the Seychelles weren’t an endemic species, especially as he also missed the St Helena wirebird, which would have been a welcome addition to his bird list.
Dspite of a lively history, St Helena must be one of the few places in the world where life is slowing down rather than speeding up. The young usually take advantage of their British citizenship to head overseas, leaving the streets and shops peopled with adults and young children, all chattering in the clipped tones that characterise St Helenan English. The cars that run around the island have number plates numbered from 1 to a few thousand, apart from the governor who simply gets a silver crown on a black background. Trade is monopolized by the Solomon family, who own amongst other things, the supermarket, the DIY shop, the insurance brokers and the shipping agents. For those things the Solomon’s can’t handle there’s Ann, proprietor of Ann’s place, a legendary yachtie hangout, it’s ceiling bedecked with flags, t-shirts and tattered sails left by visiting boats. Her attempts to corner the market leads to occasional operational problems, as Thom found out when he tried to make a reservation and get laundry done. First the table, 8 people at 8 o’clock , then he handed over several bags of washing. No problem Ann tells him, but as she has a party booked in that evening it may be hard to get the clothes dry. Maybe we ought to have seen this coming, but when Thom enquired as to the nature of the party, it turnad out that we were it.
Always keen to be good tourists we engaged the services of Robert and his pick up truck to take a tour of the island. The only conventional attraction is Longwood, the home of the exiled Napoleon for the final years of his life. After his escape from Elba , and the ensuing trouble, the British decided to keep him out of mischief for good by sending him to St Helena . For the first few months he lived in a summerhouse above Jamestown while work on his permanent residence, Longwood was completed. Although he lived a relatively free life, with much of his entourage and some of his generals accompanying him to the island, there can be no doubt that it must have been a frustrating step down for a man who had once held so much power. Longwood has been extensively renovated since Napoleon lived there, which meant that much of it’s power had gone, although some of the artefacts retained their poignancy. A shred of the famous wallpaper, it’s colours fixed using arsenic was on display, but it now seems more likely that he was killed by stomach cancer than poisoning, intentional or not. His death mask lay in the room where he died, although for some reason I found the billiard table that his autopsy was carried out on the most interesting piece. Another highlight, albeit probably not originally part of the furniture were some olde globes, the interior of Africa uncharted except for some lines saying ‘Here live wilde bushmen’. Pretty cool. All the houses, along with his tomb, are now maintained by the French government, who keep an honorary French Consul on the island, along with an extremely camp South African tour guide to show visitors around.
Our visit to Napoleon’s house took us into the interior of the island, where frequent rain and rich volcanic soil combine to nurture lush vegetation, as well as providing excellent grazing for a variety of animals. After weeks at sea with nothing but weevil filled biscuits and stale water the island must have been a paradise. As recently as the 1960s a substantial flax growing industry continued to bring wealth to the island, but with rising labour costs came disused mills and untended fields, all that remains today. Today small-scale agriculture suffers as a result of the islands links with the UK , with commercial milk production prohibited by hygiene rules that are impractical for the volumes required by the Saints.
A deadline in Barbados meant that after just a day and a half it was time to continue our pursuit of the sun and leave behind an island that had barely started to reveal its secrets. After a farewell dinner in Ann’s and a night’s sleep undisturbed by watches, we lifted anchor and turned our bow to the islands of the Caribbean .