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St Helena, Part One

St Helena Island: 15-56 South and 005-43 West, 1700 miles from Cape Town, Africa and 1800 miles from Brazil. And 3,600 miles from Grenada in the West Indies. Right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean with nothing nearby.

We had an excellent passage from Namibia and made landfall and came to anchor off Jamestown, St Helena in fine sailing weather. Saint Helena is one of the very few islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. As it happens it is right on the sailing ship road from Cape Town northwest to the delightful West Indies, is inhabited and is quite lovely and welcoming. So, lucky us, we get to anchor off in a fair anchorage, perfect for sailing ships with no engines (this fact features prominently in the island’s human history) and our crew get to visit this remarkable and inaccessible island in the Picton Castle.

A British island, St Helena is about five miles wide by ten miles long, steep rocky terrain rising dramatically from the sea with sheer barren cliffs broken by steep V-shaped valleys or ‘guts’ as they are called on the island. Not much flat land but still enough for farming which drew ships here in the age of sail for fresh provisioning and of course, fresh water.

This uninhabited island was discovered by Portuguese mariner Joao De Nova in 1502 while on his way back from a voyage to India. The Dutch figured it was theirs for a bit, brought goats and sheep which did a number on the island ecologically (can you imagine such a pristine Galapagos-like environment with no outside introduced species ever? Well, until…) then after a tussle the British have called it theirs and run the island ever since.

St Helena was a very important British military and naval outpost for the longest time and battlements all over the cliffs attest to this. The island was also an important port of call up through the 19th century for ships heading back and forth from the Far East to Europe before the Suez and Panama Canals provided the oceanic version of a highway by-pass. It remains a popular way-point for sailing yachts to this day, and the occasional world voyaging barque. St Helena is certainly important to the 5,000 folks who live here, and another 15,000 “Saints” who live elsewhere.

After watching it appear on the horizon and grow larger all day since dawn we sailed under the lee of the island and dropped the anchor off Jamestown about mid-day, the settlement nestled into this canyon cutting through the cliffs. A picturesque collection of whitewashed stone buildings dating back to the mid 1700s, often with floors of teak, Jamestown is nonetheless a modern small old-style English town with shops and eateries, small pubs, parks, police station, a nice museum and even a public swimming pool. Harbour Master Steve got us sorted out quickly and could not have been more helpful to us.

Napoleon

Most famously St Helena is known for being the final domicile and island of exile for the deposed Emperor Napoleon after losing his last battle at Waterloo Belgium. This battle being only 100 days back in command of his army after his escape from an earlier isle of exile. Seems he rallied the old guard and gave European unity (under him) another shot. Did not work out and European unity would have to wait for some time. But pretty impressive to put together an army in less than 100 days.

I have often wondered, if the English hated him so much, and the English used to call him many bad names, why they did not just dispatch him instead of setting him up on St Helena with many courtesies. At any rate, his former residence of Longwood is beautifully restored and maintained and flies the French Flag to this day. And a very worthy visit for all our crew who pile into a cool old 1922 convertible bus and see this and the beautiful countryside of the island as well. Napoleon lived here from 1815 to 1821 when he died, apparently of stomach cancer, although alternative theories as to his demise are a popular source of speculation. His body was repatriated to France in 1840 but his former tomb remains a venerated spot. It’s not everybody that gets two well attended burial sites.

The French take on Napoleon is a quite different one than the one found in English sea novels that feature Hornblower, Jack Aubrey or Nicholas Ramage. Interesting man, studied to this day by War Colleges around the world and introduced a legal code in France that simplified and rationalized matters immensely in France. It could easily be said that Napoleon had a great deal to do with creating modern France. He probably would have done well to pass on the march to Moscow though. A story beyond the scope of this Log entry.

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Picton Castle crew take the convertible bus tour to Longwood

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