This small plaque on a wall by St James’ Church in the centre of Jamestown, St Helena could easily be missed. Indeed, I almost walked by it just catching it in the corner of my eye. I wasn’t going to bother looking closer but had second thoughts. Being a bit of a history buff with a particular interest in the British Empire I am glad I had a closer look.
On 16 December 1673 – King Charles IIs loyal subjects (of St Helena) were, by means of Royal Charter, granted, in perpetuity, British Citizenship as if they had been born in London, Liverpool or elsewhere within England or the British Dominions.
‘AND OUR PLEASURE IS, and we do for us, our heirs and successors, declare by these presents, that all and every the persons being our Subjects, which do or shall inhabit within the said Port and Island, and every of their children and posterity, which shall happen to be born within the precincts and limits thereof, shall have and enjoy, all liberties, franchises, immunities, capacities and abilities of Free Denizens, and Natural Subjects, within any of our Dominions, to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within this our Kingdom of England, or in any other of our Dominions.’
After a bit of research it is easy to see why the people of St Helena erected this plaque in 2002.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s panic and consternation stuck mandarins in Whitehall. The realisation struck that Britain’s lease on part of Hong Kong would expire in 1997 and millions of ethic born HK Chinese could (though that is debatable) take up residence in old Blighty, and might indeed do so, to avoid Chinese rule!
In 1981, and well before the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1985 which confirmed that all of Hong Kong (and not just the leased component) would be ceded to Hong Kong, the British Nationality Act came into force essentially redefining British Citizenship. This confirmed, if that was needed, that British passports would not be available for all and sundry in Hong Kong. Whether deliberate or otherwise, it also denied thousands of others the right of British citizenship. For St Helena the commitment of the 1673 Charter was relegated to the dustbin of history.
The Saints had lost their right of abode in the UK.
Clearly nothing would be done about this collateral damage until 1997 had come and gone. As such the Saints remained second class Brits for the next 20 years with their right of abode restricted to St Helena, the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island. No wonder St Helena was sometimes referred to as the South Atlantic Alcatraz in this period.
Hong Kong was duly ceded to China in 1997, and London published a review of the Dependent Territories making a commitment to restore the pre-1981 status of citizenship. In 2002, no doubt spurred on by, events further south in the Atlantic (the Falklands War) and coinciding with 500 years since the island had been discovered, full British citizenship was restored to the Saints via the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.
Governor Hollamby, in full ceremonial rig replete with plumes (maybe those last seen in Hong Kong – I joke!), announced that “St Helenians suffered a great injustice when the British Nationality Act of 1981 effectively reduced all the British dependent territories to second-class citizens.” The wrong (one of 14 similar wrongs) had now been righted and the Saints were again well and truly British and back in the bosom of Mother England.
To cement the deal The Princess Royal, Princess Anne visited the island later in the year.
To mark their return to British Citizenship the people of St Helena erected this plaque in 2002 recalling King Charles IIs 1673 commitment to the islanders.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on my trip to St Helena. Do continue with me on this tour via my next entry – The Castle Gardens. To start at the beginning of this loop, go to my St Helena Introduction entry.