Referring to St Helena, Charles Darwin described it thus:
“A little world, within itself, which excites our curiosity”
and indeed it is.
I had never been to St Helena before and, outside what I knew from a little pre-trip research, I knew nothing of the Island or its people. Despite this, as we approached this tiny mid-Atlantic volcanic outcrop after nearly six days sailing aboard the RMS St Helena I admit to almost shedding a tear. It was as if I known this place all my life. I felt that I was coming home and would be soon meeting up with long lost friends.
The majority of passengers and the crew on the RMS St Helena, the only way to get to the island, were Saints (as the ‘St Helenians’ are called) and Saints are never more happy than when returning home. This happiness spread to everyone on board and within a couple of days we had all become Saints, going home. From the first sighting of the Island to our actual arrival, many hours later, the ship was abuzz with excitement and the decks were lined. A welcome home party in the form of a school of dolphins came out to accompany us into port. They swan along side the ship for over half an hour. When we finally got ashore it seemed as if half the island had come out to meet us.
By the time we got ashore I almost felt as if I knew every one of the 4,000 odd inhabitants already. Having spent countless hours chatting to Saint passengers we knew were to go, how to get there, who owned what, who did what, etc, etc. While such interaction on a boat, train, etc. anywhere else would very often be a case of touting for business or pure nosiness this was not the case here. No-one was trying to sell or promote anything, except the warmth and charm of St Helena and its people. Three days later it was hard to leave – it was only at this stage we said good-bye to friends we had made on the RMS St Helena and to others we had consequentially befriended on the Island.
Have you ever noticed how your air-crew dissipates when you get off a flight? On St Helena it was as if we remained guests of the ship’s crew – we ran into them time and time again and they came with us when we left the island for Ascension Island. Perhaps they were keeping an eye on us least we somehow managed to abscond without paying our bar bill on the ship – this was not settled until our final destination.
Just by way of contrast, a week later we (again the majority of passengers were Saints) arrived at Ascension Island – there was no sense of home-coming – people where going there, very reluctantly, to work and we travellers were travellers again.
A Potted History of St Helena
St Helena, named after St Helena of Constantinople, was discovered in 1502 by Portuguese navigator, João da Nova. The island subsequently changed hands a number of times before it finally came under the control of the British, through the British East India Company under a Charter granted by Oliver Cromwell in 1659. English navigator, Capt. Thomas Cavendish probably located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1588) though some suggest Sir Frances Drake may have come across it some ten years earlier.
St Helena became a vital staging post for British East India Company ships on their voyages between England and the Far East and remained so until the opening of the Suez Canal. This dramatically reduced the island’s importance to world trade and, while Union Castle liners on the South African run to Cape Town continued to call at the island until 1977, it soon became a quiet backwater left to reminisce on its more glorious, and certainly busier, past.
The only ship to regularly call at St Helena now is the RMS St Helena – which is actually based on St Helena with regular sailings to Cape Town and Ascension Island and the occasional trip to Tristan Da Cunha.
St Helena’s most famous resident was Napoleon Bonaparte who, following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, was exiled here in 1815. While Saint Helena remained in the East India Company’s possession the Crown fortified the Island to guard Napoleon or more specifically prevent his escape or capture. Napoleon died and was buried on the island in 1821. Some years later his body was exhumed and returned to Paris. Three sites associated with Napoleon, including that of his former tomb, are French territory on this otherwise very British Island. The population of the island in the early 1820s was around 6,000 or 50% higher than it is today.
Under the provisions of the 1833 India Act, control of Saint Helena was passed from the East India Company to the British Crown and it became a crown colony. To-day St Helena is part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha and home to the Governor of the Territory.
The Island and its people
Geographically, the island is a tiny 122 square kilometres in area, located over 2,000 kms north-west of Cape Town well within the Tropic of Capricorn (16 degrees south of the Equator) with its nearest neighbour, Ascension Island, some 1125 kms to the north-east.
The island has no natural harbour and no airport, though at the time of my visit in 2013 an airport was being constructed and was expected to open in 2015-16. As you might imagine, there was a significant divergence of opinion amongst the Saints as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing but all agree on one thing – its opening will change St Helena for ever.
(Jan 2017 update – The opening of the completed airport, paid for by British taxpayers, has been delayed indefinitely due to wind shear issues. As the problem of wind shear on St Helena was noted by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle in 1836 I can only assume that mandarins in British Foreign Office were not familiar with his writings).
The climate of Saint Helena is tropical, marine and mild, tempered by the Benguela Current and trade winds that blow almost continuously. Temperatures vary between 32°C (89°F) in April and May and 21°C (70°F) in October and November on the coast with somewhat lower but not cold temperatures in the higher central area. The Island has two rainy seasons – late March to early May and July to September. I was there mid April and it didn’t rain once.
Geologically the island is volcanic (extinct) but with abundant green pastures and vegetation filled valleys. There are a number of unique, endemic plants and wildlife and considerable efforts are being made to preserve this in the face of imported species such as New Zealand flax which the islanders once grew as a cash crop but which is now a problematic weed.
The history of the Island is reflected in the ethnicity of the Saints who are descendants of the British East India Company workers, Boer prisoners of war, African and Chinese servants, amongst others. They are friendly, cheerful and helpful, I could not help but love them.
The RMS St Helena, partly cargo partly passenger ship, is the lifeline of the island. Everything and everyone (except materials related to the new airport and those who arrive by private yacht or cruise ship) on the island comes in on this ship. Alas, little apart from people leaves on it but happily even most of those return at some point.
This blog entry is the first of group (loop) of entries which will take you on a virtual tour of St Helena as experienced by The Rambling Wombat. Do continue with me on this tour via my next entry on Getting to St Helena.