St Helena, a speck in the ocean

Join Richard Madden as he tours the tiny island of St Helena and guides you through this unique but isolated destination

8 mins

An hour before we anchor, St Helena looms out of the mist. Through my binoculars, in a narrow gully in the barren volcanic cliffs, I could just make out the roofs of houses, a church spire, and beyond some trees, a vivid splash of colour. The heady whiff of history was blowing in the wind around this remote speck of Empire cut loose in the middle of the South Atlantic. Apart from the seeping smudge of a housing development on the cliffs above the town, this was the same sight that greeted so many of my more illustrious predecessors: Edmund Halley of comet fame, Captains Bligh and Cook, Charles Darwin and, in the wake of his defeat by the British at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

It was also the same view last seen 58 long years earlier by the elderly lady standing next to me on the bridge of the RMS St Helena. Dorothy George left the island of her birth in 1939 at the age of 16, bound for domestic service in what was then northern Rhodesia, and later settled in the UK. Waiting to meet her on the harbour wall was her 62-year-old sister Barbara, who was only four the last time they had seen each other. “I feel very proud to have been born here,” she told me, “But the island is very remote and difficult to reach from the UK. It was now or never.”

In great excitement she pointed out Jacob’s Ladder, a staircase cut in the cliffs to drag water up to the British soldiers who once manned the fort high above the bay. “There was a tea party on a visiting ship and I remember running down it in my Girl Guide’s uniform so that I wouldn’t be late. I don’t think I’ll be doing that this time,” she added with a wistful sigh. Her memories of the old days were as vivid as ever. Donkeys fetching and carrying from the flax plantations, a crop which was once the islanders’ main form of income, and singing in the church choir three times each Sunday.

Although Dorothy’s case is extreme, long separations are a fact of life for this isolated community of some 6,000 souls. More than one in five work 700 miles away on Ascension Island or even further afield on the Falklands. And despite the communications revolution, the island is as physically remote as at any time in its history. First settled by the British in 1659, and now a British dependent territory, it later became a regular port of call for ships of the East India Company. In the middle of the 19th century over a thousand ships called here every year.

The only lifeline to an outside world

Today, apart from the odd yacht and a smattering of cruise ships, the RMS is the island’s only regular lifeline with the outside world. Shuttling between the UK, Ascension Island, and Cape Town, it anchors here on average only 20 times a year. Along with its human cargo of ‘Saints’ – the term by which the islanders are universally known – it delivers mail and much-needed supplies of everything from car components to turkeys and goats. As there is no airport, there is no other way on and off the island.

Romantic though it may be in one sense, the island’s remoteness is sometimes a matter of life and death. In November 1999 the RMS St Helena sent out an emergency distress call when a six-year-old Saint, sailing to the UK for urgent leukaemia treatment, became seriously ill. A container ship picked up the call about 350 miles away and, battling through high seas, eventually delivered her safely to Cape Town where she was rushed to hospital.

Underlining the fragility of the island’s umbilical cord to the outside world, shortly before Christmas 1999, the RMS St Helena broke down in the Bay of Biscay. Many Saints returning to the island were left stranded, including Belinda Stopforth who was to have been married over the New Year. Shortages, made worse by a bout of panic-buying, meant that rationing became inevitable, and the island’s millennium celebrations had to be severely curtailed.

Although the islanders are a rich genetic mix of everything from the original British settlers to slaves from Africa and India, and Chinese and Malay labourers, the Saints are fiercely proud of their British culture. The ‘capital’, Jamestown, retains a reassuring sense of heritage Britain as if Bath or Cheltenham had been shrunk in a bottle and washed up in the South Atlantic. Pyramids of Heinz beans and packets of Omo washing powder are piled high in Jamestown’s three supermarkets. Credit cards are only so much useless plastic and only those with an account on the island can draw money from a bank. Regency townhouses line the streets and on formal occasions the Governor still struts his stuff in feathered hat and ceremonial sword. There are yellow water hydrants, blue and white traffic bollards, and a red ‘Postman Pat’ mail van with ‘Don’t Forget The Postcode’ proudly, but redundantly, emblazoned on its side. There is a feel of Trumpton or Camberwick Green about the place.

On my first morning in town, in search of an exotic postmark to send friends back home, I found a crowd gathered at the Post Office in Main Street, waiting for their names to be called as the mail was sorted. “Door-to-door deliveries only began three years ago,” said Bert Constantine, who started work here as a postman in 1969. “Most people in Jamestown still come here personally to pick up their mail. Email there may be but I can’t see postcodes ever arriving on the island.”

Bert described one recent ad hoc maildrop which almost ended in disaster: when rough seas meant no boat could get near, crew on the submarine HMS Triumph were forced to throw sacks of mail from the conning tower.

The arid scenery on the coast was in stark contrast to the rolling landscape a few miles inland, as I discovered at a reception at Plantation House, the Governor’s official residence. Built in 1792 and surrounded by tropical flora and fauna, its strange combination of English country house and tropical hideaway would make it the perfect location for a secret royal honeymoon.

The island's older generations

Jonathan, a 150-year-old giant tortoise, patrols its manicured lawns, and even the most enterprising of paparazzi would quickly discover why the Emperor of France never made it off the island alive – sheer 1,000ft volcanic cliffs and a 1,200-mile swim to the African mainland make even Alcatraz look puny in comparison.

But the sense of an island at ease with its status as a British dependent territory is only skin-deep. One evening, determined to track down the voice of youth, I made my way up to the rash of modern housing high on the cliffs overlooking James Bay at Half Tree Hollow. At the Rock Club, one of the island’s most popular music bars, American football helmets decorated the walls, and the DJ pumped out an idiosyncratic mix of country & western and techno. Anonymity is not an option available to outsiders, and my fellow drinkers became surprisingly furtive when they realised I was a journalist from the UK.

Eventually, with alcohol-oiled tongues, polite platitudes gave way to a more frank discussion but even then the young Saints I spoke to were adamant their identities should not be revealed. “Unemployment on the island is running at about 20%,” one told me. “School leavers have to put their name down for offshore jobs and those who want to stay on the island have very few options. All the key public service jobs are controlled by the Governor’s office so we have to be careful what we say.”

A small society

Although drug problems and crime are virtually non-existent on the island – houses are routinely left unlocked – social problems, notably alcoholism and family breakdown, are on the increase. The main grievance is that while most islanders feel a loyalty to the crown and many, especially the older generation, keep pictures of the Queen in their front room, there is also the belief that the islanders have been betrayed by the British government. This stems from the deeply unpopular Nationality Act of 1981 which means Saints no longer have the right to live and work in Britain. The Act was originally conceived to block a predicted tidal wave of immigration when Hong Kong reverted to China, but St Helena was arbitrarily included in the legislation.

Basil George, who is leading a commission on citizenship and a new constitution, was not surprised when I relayed to him what I had heard. “Many Saints, particularly the younger ones, feel they are prisoners on their own island and second class citizens. As a British dependent territory, we have no rights to work in Britain other than on short six-month visas. Some argue that full British citizenship won’t make that much difference but it’s a psychological and cultural thing. The islanders feel cheated.” Their problems are compounded by the fact that there is very little private enterprise on the island, and most of the jobs are in the public service and very badly paid compared even to menial jobs on Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands.

The issue of citizenship was played down by the present governor, David Smallman. “I and my predecessors have been pressing hard for full citizenship rights. It is debatable whether or not it will help solve the social problems facing the island, and if a lot of young people leave for the UK it remains to be seen whether they will want to return which will cause an even greater strain on family life. But the really big question is whether or not it will heal the emotional wound.”

Encouraging tourism is one strategy to boost the island’s fragile economy that everyone is agreed on. But while the island has much to recommend it, including a tropical climate, Napoleonic sites including Lockwood House where Bonaparte died in 1821, and embryonic opportunities for outdoor pursuits like sport fishing, diving and rock climbing, it will always be too remote to attract mass tourism. While a proposed airport is a far-off pipe dream with no obvious source of funding, the Governor’s Cup, a yacht race from Cape Town to St Helena held each December, is proving a great success and helped increase annual tourist numbers to about 1,500 in 1998.

St Helena as a destination

Few visitors come to St Helena as an end in itself and it is easy to understand why. The voyage from the UK takes between three and four weeks, although many see it as a holiday cruise. Taking a scheduled RAF plane to Ascension Island followed by a two-day journey on the ship is an expensive, but quicker option. Many who do make the voyage from the UK are retired and see a visit to the island as a diverting stopover en route to South Africa with the possibility of seeing Ascension Island and even the more remote dependency of Tristan da Cunha.

One memorable highlight of my own brief visit was a sneakily taken opportunity to try on Napoleon’s ‘Emperor’ hat during my visit to the museum at Lockwood House when my chaperone was looking the other way. I would have relished a game of snooker with the great man as well – even the balls and the original green baize were still in place. A shiver went down my spine as I peered out through the eyeholes which the Emperor had made in the louvred windows overlooking the formal gardens. Quite why he was so keen to see and not be seen remains a mystery.

But my abiding memory of St Helena was the Saints’ strong sense of injustice. Looking back, it was all summed up in a story which Dorothy George told me as we prepared to disembark on her first day on the island in almost 60 years. Before she left Britain she had attended an exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute of photographs taken by Prince Andrew when he visited the island during the 80s. “I suddenly recognised a lacemaker in one of the pictures. It was my mother when she was 94 years old just a few years before she died.” Dorothy asked an official if she could have a print of the picture but was told that it would cost £50. Politely, but sadly, she declined the offer.

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