World Voyage 7

Approaching St Helena

We are sailing along beautifully here in the Picton Castle crossing the South Atlantic Ocean. Ten days out of Luderitz, Namibia we are on a sailing ship passage as fine as one could hope for. With steady trade winds blowing over the quarter, we steer, trim sail, and keep lookout, watch after watch. Studding sails set to windward. Warm breezes buffet us but they are hardly hot. Royal yard getting shaped, decks planks renewed, rigging getting tarred, sextants out in force to catch sun and stars, sails being made on the quarter deck, galley putting out meals, decks getting scrubbed down every morning. Running rigging given a pull on the 4-8 watch. Blue skies, moderate even seas with pretty Force 4 white caps frosting the deep blue seas. Occasional shoals of flying fish bursting from the sea to either side of the ship as we plough along towards the island of St Helena laying about 300 nautical miles over the horizon and dead ahead.
St Helena was first discovered by Europeans in 1502 by a Juan de Nova Castella on a voyage back from India. The island was found to be uninhabited. No people there anyway. Maybe some lizards. Roughly five by ten miles, it is about 50 square miles of land, much of it around 2,000 feet high from the surrounding sea.

Craggy and rocky, St Helena, although well in the tropics, is coolish and temperate due to the constant flow of SE breezes blowing in from higher latitudes towards the Antarctic. Imported English oak trees can be found growing next to equally imported banana palms and bamboo. I don’t remember any coconut trees but there should be some. No freshwater fish but the seas around the island have plenty mackerel, barracuda, wahoo and tuna. There is one endemic land bird but one wonders what other rare or unique species or birds, animals or plants that may have lived here, in an island so truly isolated and untouched by humans for so long. Galapagos and Madagascar are famous for unique species but it seems that most isolated islands would have had a similar ecological situation. One must think that so did St Helena so far from anywhere.

Once the ocean road around Africa to India and the Far East was opened up for Europeans it is not surprising that St Helena would become an important way-station for ships returning from that part of the world. Like Bermuda, a perfect place for an island. Sailing from the Cape Of Good Hope bound for Europe following the winds by way of passing near the West Indies even if not bound there, a sailing ship must almost run into St Helena so close is it on the windship’s track. And at 2,700 feet at its highest, sight of this island to those who can see might be had at 40 – 50 miles or more in the right conditions, making for a target almost 100 miles broad. This makes for an easy landfall in days of imprecise navigation. Also helps being high so as not to run into it.

The English started to take an interest in St Helena in the late 1500s. It is likely that Francis Drake stopped by homeward bound on his circumnavigation in the Golden Hind. The Dutch claimed the island in 1633 for a while but the English East India company appropriated the island sometime later. The English government would eventually spend some time and money and much blood over the following centuries cleaning up after this commercial corporation in the name of empire back when it was still in private hands. A lesson there? One can speculate. The importation of slaves was made illegal here about 16 years before it was done in the British Caribbean and steps towards emancipation were also taken much earlier here than in the British West Indies. In the early 1800s, the population was about 1,000 half European, half African, probably some in between. At this time hundreds of Chinese were dragged from Canton to work. From these European, African, Chinese populations the folks of St Helena are principally descended. No doubt with a little help from passing ships and the occasional groups of the incarcerated Zulu and Boers later on. And friendly folk of this island – we call them “Saints” today. An exclusive club to be sure. It is as British as can be now.

What a perfect ocean outpost for an empire. What an excellent and easily controlled way-station for global shipping – if this happened to take place in an age of sailing ships. Situated far from any warring factions, easily defended with high cliffs for cannon, a roadstead tradewind anchorage easily approached from sea under sail alone, and just as important, easy enough to sail away from when the time comes. Heave up and set sail and you’re gone away from the island. Most of the time. No tugs needed. Most of the time. Perfect for any sea-minded empire in the age of sail. Then in 1869, the Suez Canal opens giving steamships, relying on lots and lots of coal and coaling stations, a short cut to the Far East through the contrary Mediterranean Sea. Shaving off about 5,000 miles but perhaps, more importantly, avoiding the Cape of Storms as well as being able to make useful port stops in the British Empire (Malta, Egypt, India, Singapore, Malaysia, onward) along the way. In 20 years steam tonnage took over from sail tonnage worldwide. In 50 years the age of sail was done. Navies too become steam powered. And St Helena slips slowly into a vestige of the empire instead of the important crossroad, bulwark and pillar of the empire it had been for so long.

Most popularly known about this island, St Helena became the land of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte after his loss at Waterloo in 1815 in his final attempt to get back into action. He was sent to St Helena after losing that notorious battle. After his first collapse the Brits had locked him up at Elbe in the Med but he escaped from there and got into mischief again. I have often wondered, given that animosity England held for him why they didn’t just end him. Not saying that they should have, but it does seem a bit indulgent to set him up with a nice cottage and many retainers after all the wars they had fought against him and all the nasty names they had called him. He died in 1821, maybe by stomach cancer, some say poisoning, was buried there for a while until the French took his remains back to Paris with great ceremony sometime later. His house, high up on St Helena, known as Longwood, is still considered French soil and is a must-see place on a visit to St Helena. The tri-colour French flag flies there permanently. The French history of Napoleon is quite a bit different than the British version. Worth reading too.

Once upon a time when the “sun never set on the British Empire”, British ships designated Royal Mail Ships (RMS) carried the mail and the flag everywhere in their official capacity. India, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad all saw ocean greyhounds of the day in the form of the RMS fleet of magnificent ships. The huge wreck of the RMS Rhone is a popular dive site in the British Virgin Islands. Until recently, the last “RMS” of so many, sailed the seas in the form of the RMS St Helena, sailing from England to the Falklands off Argentina, Tristan de Cunha deep in the South Atlantic, Ascension and St Helena right in the middle of said ocean. Now that last RMS has been put to pasture (Pitcairn could use such a ship) and with some effort and no doubt considerable cost an airport has been built. Does it help? We will find out. Is it a better deal than a regular seagoing ship? Maybe so. Operating ships is expensive, but planes are not free either.
What to do at St Helena in 2019? Longwood and Napoleon’s (now empty) grave is a must. A round island tour in the old 1920s open tour truck is pretty cool. Checking out the old gun emplacements is something. A cold beverage or a burger at Annie’s downtown is hard to beat. The excellent ‘olde tyme’ Consulate Hotel is up on the left. Hope it is open. Very classy place. A walk through the old 1700s James Town is lovely. Before treated lumber was to be had to avoid termites they used teak from Burma. Lots of teak in these old houses. Climbing the million steps up Jacob’s Ladder is for those with toned thighs. Small shopping can be done at the hardware store, stationery store and pharmacy. St Helena coffee might be the most exclusive in the world. The whole place is just charming. If our gang is friendly they will find much friendliness in return.

If all goes well in a couple days we will let go the hook on the lee side of the island off James Town which climbs up a steep ravine, the main (only) town on St Helena. We will anchor in pretty deep water not too far from some old wrecks well under the sea. We will wend our way in the skiff between the moored lighters, into the small boat landing, hope the swell is not too much to land – and our gang will trek about ashore to see what there is to see for a three-day stay. St Helena is right in our way, may as well go ashore for a spell.

And then Picton Castle and gang sails onward for the West Indies….