Friday, March 25th, 2011
After a fine eleven day sail from Luderitz, Namibia, mostly under studding sails, the Picton Castle made landfall off St. Helena. In the hazy morning light we were all struck by the imposing cliffs and tall mountain ridges on this solitary island. St. Helena is part of a Southern Atlantic Ocean undersea mountain chain which also includes Ascension Island which lies 700 miles to the northwest and Tristan da Cunha,1500 miles to the southwest. This island stands very much alone in the South Atlantic.
The island was first discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. Despite their ambition to keep the island’s whereabouts a secret, Dutch and Spanish explorers also found this island way out in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. In the end, however it was the English who laid enduring claim to the island and the English East India Company, a commercial enterprise, founded the Jamestown settlement in the late 1600s, taking over from something of a Portuguese presence. This island secured its place in the history books when Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here in 1815 after he lost the battle at Waterloo, putting an end to his European ambitions. He and his entourage spent the last 6 years of his life on this island and during that time St. Helena experienced an economic boom, due in large part to the constant influx of naval ships. But it was as a secure outpost for English global commerce with the Far East and as a fortress of empire that is the deeper story of St Helena. It seems that Napoleon died of stomach cancer, was buried in a lovely glen on the island. Then some years later, with the agreement of the English, his body was disinterred and taken for reburial in Paris in a grand mausoleum where his body, or most of it, rests to this day.
St. Helena has a rich and fascinating history. The English used St. Helena as a base during their fight against the slave trade during the 1800s and many slaves en route to the New World were freed here. As recently as two years ago archaeologists visited the island and discovered grave upon grave of first generation slaves. In the early twentieth century 6,000 prisoners from the Boer War in South Africa were brought here by the English and the island once again experienced an economic boom. At that point the island’s population reached something like 14,000, now at about 4,000 today. The majority of the inhabitants of St. Helena have varied ancestry and consequently there is no specific ‘race’ so to speak. Their ancestors came from Portuguese, Dutch, English, Malay, Goanese, Madagascan, East Indian, African, Chinese, Boer, American and some French decent. Perhaps this is all the more fascinating since we have just come from South Africa where there is still an emphasis, though dimninshing, on ‘race’ – albeit differently than the way it is commonly viewed in North America or Europe.
After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the number of passenger and cargo ships under sail or steam passing by St. Helena dropped significantly. Today with no airport and no large scale industry, St. Helena relies mostly on imports and financial aid from Britain as well as remittances sent by families. Many people have left the island to go to Ascension or the Falklands or Britain for work. This emigration is only a recent phenomenon on St. Helena, though we did meet quite a few people who have returned to the island after years abroad. As an aside we were told that there are about 740 quite habitable houses standing empty on the island today. At the moment there is much debate about the future of the island. Some are fighting for an airport, which they say will bring much needed revenue to the island and give the younger generation a reason to return. Others argue that the friendly, unique and laid back nature of the island would be irrevocably altered if they were to accept tourists en masse. At the moment the only tourists the island receives come on the HMS St. Helena (en route from South Africa or England) or from the yachts which moor off Anchorage Harbour for a few days or weeks.
As we approached Anchorage Harbour, the open roadstead at the base of James Valley, we took in all sail and sailed up to anchor just like ships of long ago. After clearing in with Customs and Immigration, the Captain and I went ashore to meet with Governor Gurr at the Castle and make our formal introductions. Within an hour the Captain had reconnected with several friends from visits past and the owner of the local book store had ‘given’ him a book he had sought 5 years before on the 4th World Voyage! We were greeted warmly everywhere we went and it immediately became apparent to me that this island is special.