ST. Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean – History Preserved Through Isolation

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Map of St. Helena Island

Travel by Eric Mackenzie-Lamb

As you grasp the ship’s handrail with one hand to steady yourself against the buffeting Atlantic swells, while at the same time struggling to focus your binoculars with the other, you could be forgiven for thinking that the grey speck you saw on the horizon a moment ago was only a mirage caught between wind-whipped curtains of spray. But no; there it is again: what appears to be a distant mountain projecting from the sea is, in fact, your first sighting of St Helena, one of the most remote places on the planet.
If the middle of nowhere had a face, this would be it. Just 47 square miles in area, with Diana’s peak as its highest point (2,684 feet), the volcanically -formed island of St Helena, part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, is situated approximately 1200 miles from Angola on the African coast, and 1800 miles from Brazil.

Photo by St. Helena Tourism ( www.sthelenatourism.com )
Photo by St. Helena Tourism ( www.sthelenatourism.com )

First discovered by the Portuguese explorer Joao da Nova in 1502, St Helena today is a British Overseas Territory (along with Ascension Island to the north and Tristan da Cunha to the south),  and has the distinction of being Britain’s oldest existing possession after Bermuda. Its population consists of approximately 4,500 inhabitants. And-for the moment, at least- St Helena can be reached only by sea, a situation unchanged since the dawn of maritime history.
My own opportunity to discover St. Helena was made possible courtesy of the Professor Molchanov, a small former Russian research ship which was making a voyage of almost ten thousand miles to return to its home port of Murmansk after the Antarctic peninsula tourist season. During the previous six days, as the Molchanov battled fierce gales and tumultuous seas on its way north from our last port of call, Tristan da Cunha, I’d spent most of the time in my cabin. Not only to try to avoid seasickness, but to read about St Helena’s fascinating history.

Photo by St. Helena Tourism (www.sthelenatourism.com)
Photo by St. Helena Tourism (www.sthelenatourism.com)

Here are just a few highlights of what I learned.
The island itself was originally named after St Helena of Constantinople. During the early to mid 1500’s, the Portuguese decided to make the island a temporary way station for sailors who had become too ill to continue performing their duties. To this end, they built two wooden houses, and, in order to sustain those brought ashore, imported goats, fruit trees, and vegetables.
There have been suggestions that Sir Francis Drake, in the course of his global circumnavigation between 1577 and 1580, may have sighted St Helena, but this has never been proven.  Officially, it’s Sir Thomas Cavendish who is credited with being the first Englishman to discover Portugal’s hitherto secret island, in 1589.

The Dutch claimed the territory in 1633, but their tenure was short-lived. By then, the British had realized that St Helena’s strategic location would make it an ideal base from which to monitor ships of other European countries competing against it for dominance of the trade routes or, in the event of war, to attack them. With this in mind, they quickly appropriated it.
In 1657, Oliver Cromwell granted the East India Company a charter to formally govern St Helena. This, in turn, resulted in a period of relative prosperity and development, especially from 1700 onward.
St Helena itself had no endemic land mammals, so cattle, goats, chickens, and other animals were imported. Other items included trees, fruits, vegetables, and, later, flax, all of which added to what had already been brought in by the Portuguese. Unfortunately, dogs, cats, and rabbits eventually became feral over time. Now, centuries later, despite concerted efforts to reduce their numbers, a few of these animals, along with rats and mice, still pose a threat to the island’s delicate ecosystem, although significant progress has been made in eradicating them.
As for St Helena’s once-teeming bird life: out of eight former endemic species, only one, the wire bird (Charadrius sanctaehelenae) is known to exist today. But this doesn’t mean that you won’t see thousands of non-native species, many of which have either adopted the island as their new home, or use it as a transit stop on their way to destinations thousands of miles away. In fact, bird watching tours have become very popular in St Helena, as have those for sea mammals and other creatures.
In the case of land invertebrates, there are at least four hundred found nowhere else but on St Helena. And that’s not counting the insects.  (During my visit, I was lucky enough to see a rare nocturnal desert spider).

As for the landscape itself, it can be just as unique, and, in places, completely different from what you might have expected. Although St Helena appears bleak and forbidding when you first approach it from the sea, it is, in fact, a stunningly beautiful subtropical island. Its interior is green and lush, with some places resembling the rolling hills of Devon.
(Of particular note is the fact that, from as early as 1791, St Helena became one of the first places in the world to apply official conservation efforts towards reforestation, including artificial rain).

Of course, there’s so much more to St Helena than what I’ve just mentioned. But, at this point of our journey, let’s return to the present and join the other passengers going ashore.
Jamestown, the island’s capital and only major settlement, is situated in a long, narrow valley (a gorge, actually) bordered on either side by tall, almost sheer cliffs. The port itself doesn’t consist of a harbor per se, but is an open roadstead where freighters, local fishing boats, visiting yachts, and the Island’s principal link to the outside world, the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, all anchor about a quarter mile or more offshore. (The RMS St Helena sails about once a month between Cape Town, St Helena, and Ascension Island and is, understandably, regarded as the island’s lifeline).

From the port, the entrance to the town passes beneath a stone arch joined to thick defensive walls dating back to the early Eighteenth century, made even more impregnable by parapets and former cannon emplacements. Aside from the Georgian-era government buildings, along with the monuments, statues, and an enthralling museum, there’s a small but fascinating mix of hotels, shops, pubs, and hardware outlets. Jamestown can also boast of having the oldest public library in the Southern Hemisphere.
One of the town’s most unusual attractions is Jacob’s Ladder, an almost vertical stone staircase consisting of 699 narrow steps reaching to a height of 924 feet. Built in 1829, the Ladder was originally used to haul cattle manure from town for distribution as fertilizer to farms in the surrounding hills, as well as military supplies. Today, it’s not only a challenging tourist attraction, but also the venue for a world renowned race, held annually, in which dozens of eager contestants attempt to set a new speed record for getting to the top and back to the bottom. (Many don’t make it even halfway). One thing is certain: it’s definitely not recommended for anyone suffering from vertigo.
Aside from its unique history and dramatic landscape, what impressed me most turned out to be the people themselves. Although soft-spoken (sometimes almost to the point of childlike shyness) St Helenians -or Saints, as they’re called-are undoubtedly the warmest and most friendly people I’ve ever met in all my travels. And their ethnic diversity is nothing short of fascinating. While some may be mixed descendants of African slaves, others, I was told, can trace family histories to Madagascar or even Malaysia or China. Still others, I learned, are descendants of traders, government officials, shipwrecked sailors, even former prisoners of war who’d chosen to remain on St Helena after their liberation. (During the second Boer war, St. Helena served as a prison camp for about five thousand captured soldiers from South Africa. The same fate befell DiniZulu, a king of the Zulu nation, whose transgression had been to resist British colonial rule in East Africa).
As strange as it may seem, the lilting, understated version of the English language spoken by St Helena’s inhabitants’ remains in my memory as one of the most unusual I’ve ever heard. Almost musical at times, its effects are so soothing to the listener that, in a way, you almost don’t want the conversation to end. From what I’ve learned since then, this is often a distinct feature of many small isolated communities. (Saba of years past comes immediately to mind).

Napoleon's sarcophagus at the Hotel des Invalides, Paris. Photo by Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
Napoleon’s sarcophagus at the Hotel des Invalides, Paris. Photo by Eric Mackenzie-Lamb

But my most compelling reason for visiting St Helena was to complete my own research on the life of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. I’d already visited the house in Corsica where he was born, as well as his place of temporary exile on the Italian island of Elba. I had also seen his sarcophagus at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. Now, to close the circle, I would discover for myself where he had spent the final years of his life.
Napoleon was exiled to St Helena by the British in 1815 after his defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. This time, knowing full well that he’d previously managed to escape from Elba, the British were taking no chances-which was why St Helena had been carefully chosen for both its isolation and fortified defenses.

Longwood House, where Napoleon spent the last years of his life
Longwood House, where Napoleon spent the last years of his life

Longwood House, where Napoleon was confined for the last six years of his life, and where he died , is situated in the picturesque green hills above Jamestown, about a half hour’s drive by taxi. The buildings now actually stand on sovereign French territory, as in the case of a foreign embassy or consulate, and are under the charge of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs through a resident consul. Here, you can view the Emperor’s bedroom, as well as the rooms where he and his retinue met and dined, and the library. There’s also Napoleon’s bathroom, equipped with an outsized tub in which he reportedly spent hours at a time, often dictating letters and memos to his staff as he lay up to his neck in soap bubbles and steaming water, a glass of wine conveniently within arm’s reach.
As the months and years passed, Napoleon became a keen gardener. He spent considerable energy in tending to an array of vegetables, fruits, and especially flowers, many of which he himself had planted within the confines of the property. (He had particular praise for St Helena’s coffee). When he’d first arrived, Napoleon had enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom considering his status as Britain’s most prominent prisoner of war, even to the point of being able to explore some of the surrounding countryside by horseback (although he was always escorted by a detachment of soldiers). But all this ended when Hudson Lowe, an inflexible stickler for rules and regulations, and no friend of France, became the new governor. From that day on, Napoleon’s destiny was to remain a confined prisoner, with few of the privileges which he and his small personal staff had hoped for. Life soon became miserable. It seemed that whatever Napoleon asked for was invariably refused. Not surprisingly, the former Emperor soon fell into deep depression. This, in turn, contributed to deteriorating relations between certain members of his household staff, which made life even more unpleasant.
Napoleon Bonaparte died at Longwood House on May 5th, 1821. Following an autopsy, it was concluded that the cause of death had been cancer of the gastric system. However, as time passed, suspicions of foul play also entered the picture, especially as significant traces of arsenic had been found, even in a lock of Napoleon’s hair. Other theories included the idea that arsenic poisoning had originated from colors in the wallpaper at Longwood House, or that one of his closest confidantes had deliberately poisoned him.  It wasn’t until 2007 that the matter was finally put to rest, when scientists applied modern medical knowledge to a detailed examination of the original and amazingly detailed autopsy reports. The conclusion: Napoleon Bonaparte had indeed died of stomach cancer-something which, in fact, had afflicted his own father. (Nevertheless, conspiracy theories continue to germinate, and probably always will).

Napoleon's Tomb, St Helena. Photo by Bruce Rosenkrantz
Napoleon’s Tomb, St Helena. Photo by Bruce Rosenkrantz

Napoleon’s body was entombed in a forested valley about a mile from Longwood House, a site which he himself had chosen for his burial after visiting the area during occasional walks, and which, according to his own words, had always given him a sense of peace and tranquility.  Unfortunately, even this somber occasion was not free of acrimony: Hudson Lowe, combative to the end, would not allow just Napoleon’s first name to be inscribed on the tomb. To Lowe, doing so would have suggested royal status. The last name, Bonaparte, would have to be included. Members of Napoleon’s staff angrily refused to comply with the governor’s order, with the result that, in the end, no name at all was inscribed.
After years of protracted negotiations between the British and French governments, London finally gave permission for the French to retrieve Napoleon’s remains and carry them back to France. This took place in 1840, nineteen years after his death.

The frigate Belle Poule, under the command of the Prince of Joinville, third son of King Louis Philippe, escorted by the corvette

La Favorite, took 93 days to reach St Helena from France. The hull of the Belle Poule had been painted a funereal black for the occasion. A special candle-lit chapel had been installed in the ship’s steering compartment, where Napoleon’s body would be kept during the long return voyage to France.

Not surprisingly, a hero’s welcome filled with pomp and the trappings of France’s former grandeur awaited. His remains now lie in a sarcophagus in the military museum of the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, within sight of the river Seine and the Eiffel tower.
But, for now, let’s get back to St Helena and an exciting new development.

The island’s first airport, after decades of seemingly endless setbacks and delays, is now scheduled to be completed in early 2016. (As to which carriers will be serving it, however, hasn’t yet been announced).

Not surprisingly, there are mixed feelings about what this will mean to St Helena itself. Will it be a welcome link to the outside world, along with the potential benefits of business and increased tourism? Or will it mean the end of an era of uniqueness, preserved largely by its own isolation, which made St Helena so special in the first place?

Only time will tell.

For further information about St Helena, please go to:

www.sthelenatourism.com