A visit to St Helena begins five days before you even set foot on this remote island, lying 1,200 miles off the west coast of Africa. Presently, the only way to get to one of the world’s most remote communities is aboard the RMS St Helena, one of only two working Royal Mail ships still in active service. Plying the waters from Cape Town, every three weeks she brings supplies to the island, along with her passengers – locals, expats and tourists.
The ship is as much a part of the island as it is a working vessel. Her arrival in James Bay is a cause for celebration as families are reunited, her departure a solemn occasion as others are separated. In a few days time, the shops will be full of fresh produce. Without the RMS St Helena, the islanders really are stranded.
The voyage is wonderfully hospitable. As Captain Adam Williams, skipper of the ship remarks: ‘You board in Cape Town as strangers, but by the time you get to St Helena, you’re like long lost friends.’ Deck quoits and cricket, shuffleboard and a nightly pub quiz, beef tea in the morning and afternoon tea at 4pm, a very British introduction to the quirky charm of St Helena, and an opportunity to become acquainted with the local lingo.
The Saints – as the islanders are known – are mainly descended from mariners, settlers, itinerant workers and slaves, from as far afield as Europe, Africa, Madagascar, India and China. Consequently, their language has evolved into a patois that sounds quite alien, until you pay a little more attention and realise that it’s an abbreviated, slightly less formal version of the Queen’s English, spoken with a collection of different accents.
St Helena was first discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese, who kept the island a secret for more than 80 years, using it as a base to resupply ships returning from the east. In 1588, British explorer Thomas Cavendish came upon what he described as ‘an Earthly paradise’, one which the British Navy subsequently used as a staging post to waylay Portuguese shipping as it returned home. The Dutch claimed possession in 1633, but it wasn’t until 1659 that the British, under a charter granted to the East India Company, formed a permanent settlement. Despite a short-lived Dutch invasion, quashed by Captain James Munden in May 1673, the island had since remained essentially British, a fact of which the population is fiercely proud, despite the fact that they have not always been so well supported by the mother country.
As of a 2016 census report, the current population of the island is around 4,500 people, 4,122 of which were identified as native. The capital of Jamestown, the only real urban (for want of a better word) district on the island, accounted for 629 people, with most of the islanders living in scattered, outer communities such as Longwood, St Paul’s and Half-Tree Hollow. Many Saints, particularly from the young, leave to find work away from the island, often in other British Overseas Territories such as the Falklands and Ascension Island, hence there is a slight disparity in age range, with people over 40 outnumbering those under. Some 5,000 other Saints, meanwhile, are permanently settled in the UK.
While the isolated location is very much part of the charm of the island, and certainly something that is advertised as a draw for potential tourists, it has, over the years, also been part of the island’s problems. Chief among these at present is the airport – the vast, glowering, elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, but everybody wants to talk about. That it is essential to the island’s future is without question, but its advent has been a struggle symbolic of the island itself, and has caused much anger in the wake of promises that have not yet come to fruition.
The logistical challenges facing the airport’s construction were vast. There was no land on St Helena flat enough to build a runway, and so effectively, a mountain had to be levelled and the rubble used to fill in the valley beyond. Plus, wind was always going to be a problem – after all, even Charles Darwin had complained about it during his brief visit in 1836.
The airport may be an engineering marvel, but problems with wind shear (the rapid altering of wind speeds and direction) across the southbound runway meant that the size of aircraft it was designed to accommodate have been prohibited from landing. The Boeing 737-800 that made the commercial test flight aborted its first landing then wobbled unsteadily during its second, after which the first thing the pilot allegedly did upon leaving the cockpit was check the wing-tips.
The islanders – who had turned out en masse to witness the landing – breathed a collective sigh of disappointment. When construction began, they were encouraged to ‘Invest now, don’t get left behind’, Aaron Legg, my tour guide, says they were told. So they did. And were then promptly left behind. Legg, like many islanders, invested in a tourist enterprise that has yet to see many tourists. I ask him how he felt after the airport failed to deliver. ‘We had to adapt really quickly and do other things,’ he says, ‘it was hard, really hard.’ He makes ends meet by working on his father’s farm and taking short-term contract maintenance jobs.
Shortly before going to press, SA Airlink had been chosen as the ‘preferred bidder for provision of scheduled commercial air services to St Helena,’ according to a press release from the St Helena government. Regular commercial flights are now expected to begin later this year (a small number of chartered and private flights have taken place already). It gives Legg a little optimism. ‘It’s comforting,’ he says, ‘but it can’t come soon enough. Even if the airport opens tomorrow it will be one more year before anything happens.’ Phlegmatic and clearly a fan of British comedy, he adds with a wry smile: ‘It felt ike the whole thing was managed by Trotter’s Independent Trading.’
But optimism is something the Saints have in bucketloads. Johnny Herne, captain of the Enchanted Isle, borrowed £200,000 to bring his boat over from the UK to provide touristic marine excursions. Now in his second year of operation, he’s disappointed and not expecting that ‘hundreds and hundreds of people’ will turn up. ‘Three trips per week would be good,’ he says flashing his broad grin before adding that he’s hoping to do well. ‘I wanna pass it on to my kids – and hey, at least I bloody tried!’
Economically, the airport is essential. Any prosperity St Helena may have enjoyed as an outpost for the shipping trade all but vanished overnight after the Suez Canal opened in 1856. At the turn of the 19th century, more than 1,000 ships a year regularly called at the island – by 1910, just 51 visits were recorded.
The last – and only – financially profitable industry of any scale was flax. Imported New Zealand flax was farmed and processed at mills across the island to produce rope and sisal. It supported up to 20 per cent of the population until in 1965, the last remaining customer – the Post Office – switched to elastic bands. Nowadays, the aggressive species of flax has overrun the landscape.
Since then – as it was described by several of the locals – it’s as if the ‘entire island is on the dole.’ This is not to say that the Saints themselves are unemployed and looking for handouts, far from it. At present, the unemployment figure stands at a grand total of seven individuals. About half the population is employed by the government, and the rest engaged in the day-to-day activities of the island – doing their best to support the community as self-sufficiently as possible.
There is an export market, of which fishing is the primary provider, and St Helenian coffee is regarded as one of the most luxurious (and therefore most expensive) in the world. But the deficit between the import and export market is vast, the reliance on aid from the UK government essential, and therefore the airport and the advent of tourism is seen as the only way to keep St Helena financially self-sufficient.
At the same time, nobody wants to take too much away from the character of the island. Dr Niall O’Keefe, director of Enterprise St Helena, the body responsible for managing the transition to economic self-sufficiency calls it ‘common sense and prudence.’
This is a sentiment echoed by veteran scuba diver Graham Sim. ‘We don’t want what’s happened in other places to happen here,’ he says. ‘It has to be controlled tourism, people who want to come here for what the island has to offer.’ With its naturally rich surrounding waters, scuba diving is a high priority target for the tourist business, and the two small operators may find their work cut out for them.
One concern the islanders do share is the impact tourism will have on the fragile nature of St Helena’s already damaged ecosystem. Once covered by dense forests, imported livestock all but wiped out much of the island’s indigenous flora, which evolved in isolation without ever having to deal with predation through grazing. Centuries of maritime trade drove many species to extinction, and left those that remain on the brink.
According to David Pryce, Invertebrate Conservations Project Co-ordinator of St Helena’s National Trust, St Helena contains 30 per cent of all species that are classed as ‘endemic’ across British territories – including the UK itself. Fifty per cent of those species are from endemic genera, further highlighting the evolutionary isolation of St Helena, and the importance of its preservation.
The small, volcanic island is less than ten miles across at its widest point, and yet the variation of both landscape and climate is extreme from one mile to the next. It can be hot and sunny in Jamestown and cold and misty at Diana’s Peak, the highest point on the island at 818m above sea level. A journey from the cliff-lined streets of the capital, Jamestown, to Sandy Bay on the opposite side of the island, will see you pass through wind-swept moorland, varicoloured volcanic soils, sub-tropical jungle, temperate green pastures (that Darwin remarked upon as being very similar to Wales), and a landscape so grey and barren that it looks like footage from the lunar landings.
The range of habitats is therefore vast, and funding is limited, mostly through UK Government schemes such as the Darwin Plus Awards, granted for conservation programs in the British Overseas Territories. Around 45 endemic species of plants remain, and the islanders are at great pains to preserve them. But it’s a slow process, involving cultivating endemics and replacing the invasive species, sometimes one plant at a time – something Pryce describes as ‘conservation through gardening’.
The Millennium Forest is one very visible example of St Helena’s conservation efforts. Since 2000, every school child has planted their own tree in a formerly barren area that was once covered by the Great Wood. Overlooking the airport, the forest is an excellent juxtaposition of the changing face of St Helena’s landscape, bringing back the old in sight of the new.
The trees grow slowly, and most are not more than two metres high, but it’s a fine example of how involved the Saints are in the recovery and preservation of their island – and the scheme is open to all visitors. My tour guide, although it’s been a few years since he planted his own tree, is still proud of the fact that he can find his name in the long list of children who have made their botanical mark over the last 17 years.
Conservation programs extend to the native fauna, both on land and in St Helena’s rich surrounding waters. The population of the endemic wirebird (or St Helena plover), one of the island’s national emblems, is monitored by the National Trust, who operate tours through the sanctuary to supplement their income. The Enterprise Marine Division was successful in establishing a 200-mile Marine Protected Area around the island, and strict regulations governing tourist interactions with wildlife – such as the annual whale shark congregation – are already in place.
With their commitment to environmental protection already well established, the Saints are working carefully to ensure they attract the right type of tourist. ‘High value, low volume,’ is the mantra – this is not the place for inexpensive all-inclusive package holidays. St Helena is for people who like adventure, and won’t mind – or will, in fact, enjoy – that the island is a little ‘rough around the edges’. It’s a destination for exploration – environmental, historical and cultural.
It could be argued that the delay in arrival of commercial flights – and they will arrive, eventually – may not have been an entirely bad thing in the long-term, giving the island a chance to take stock of exactly what it needs to do to better manage the transition from remote outpost to tourist destination. This is an opinion found shared across the generations. Basil George, a tour operator and an outspoken member of the community who, at the age of 81, describes himself as a ‘geriatric’ despite being anything but (I’ve seen less spritely teenagers), quite plainly states that he thought the whole project was ‘flawed, totally unrealistic,’ and ‘wasn’t properly planned.’
His opinion is shared by a young Saint, a student who did not wished to be named, but who thinks that the islanders ‘did not feel ready for the airport,’ and that St Helena was ‘still a little behind’ in terms of catering to new arrivals.
The airport will bring many advantages to the island outside of tourism. It will make it easier for Saints to reconnect with their families, and facilitate training for them to be employed in roles that are currently filled by expats – something that has been necessary, and which my student friend is keen to address – and it does cause a certain amount of tension between the communities. Salaries for expats are often disproportionately higher than the locals.
While some islanders may feel the tourist authority have mishandled the drive for them to invest on the back of the new airport (in fact not everybody welcomed my presence as a guest of the tourist authority for that reason) almost everybody accepts that tourism is ‘inevitable’. They are determined to make the best of it and ensure that the island remains true to itself. ‘It’s important we don’t become the type of destination where tourists come in and overrun the place,’ says Captain Williams, himself a native Saint. ‘Part of the attraction of St Helena is the local culture, the lifestyle.’
The pace of life on the island is sedate, but there is an underlying vibrancy about the place and the people that is undeniably attractive. Some guidebooks compare stepping out in Jamestown, the capital, to stepping back into a picturesque Britain of the 1950s. It’s a fanciful narrative, a nostalgic representation of an island community that needs to modernise in order to survive, but doesn’t want to lose its unique character in the process. As Williams puts it: ‘It’s not so much that St Helena needs to join the outside world; more that the outside world needs to join St Helena.’
This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.