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Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
Austin Phelps

Read how St Helena has been reported in the world’s media.

This page is in indexes: Island Detail

St Helena{1} is one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands, but despite that it occasionally manages to feature in main-stream news. The following are news items featuring St Helena. Unless stated otherwise they are reproduced{2} in full and unedited, even where they contain errors. These are the most recent items; older items are here.

Our Library, next to Castle Gardens in Jamestown [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Our Library, next to Castle Gardens in Jamestown

Please note that this does not claim to be a comprehensive or exhaustive list of everything ever published about St Helena. That would be a massive task and would require a government grant to complete the work{3}. This selection represents items that a) came to our attention; and b) interested us enough for us to transcribe them. If you have published something about St Helena and it isn’t included here you might want to contact us and tell us about it.

If you want to read about how St Helena has been mis-reported, see our Do they mean us? page.


Below: St Helena inches closer to commercial air serviceSaint of HeartA St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes TrueSailing to Saint Helena - one of the world’s most remote communitiesHope for St HelenaThe Bones of St HelenaThe most extraordinary place on Earth?Irish doctor on a distant islandAntwerp aviation company organises first commercial flight to Saint HelenaRMS St Helena makes final call to the UK

St Helena inches closer to commercial air service, 12th June 2017{2}

SA Airlink [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

The government of Saint Helena has announced that SA Airlink has been chosen as the preferred bidder for the provision of a scheduled commercial air service to St Helena.

SA Airlink is a privately owned airline registered in South Africa. It is a franchisee to South African Airways. SA Airlink is a member of the International Air Transport Association and as such is IATA Operational Safety Audit accredited. SA Airlink is a well-established airline operating on a scheduled network with domestic and regional passenger and cargo services.

The government will now enter into a period of contractual negotiations with SA Airlink. It is anticipated that a formal announcement will be made in the coming weeks on completion of negotiations and contract signing. It is at this point SHG will be able to confirm details such as the commencement date, frequency, aircraft type, the international hub and connecting airports, explained a statement from the local government. Details on the cost of fares and sales distribution will be released shortly after contract signing.

The news marks the end of a torturous period for aviation on the island, with a newly built airport forced to close shortly after construction last year after safety fears were raised over wind levels.

Our Comment: We’d like to contradict the statement that our airport was not “forced to close shortly after construction last year”. It has been open all the time and, as at 1st May 2017, had serviced around 50 flights.

See also: Fly here?

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Saint of Heart

By Diane Selkirk, The Globe And Mail, 30th March 2017{2}

A view from St Helena looking toward the Atlantic Ocean [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
A view from St Helena looking toward the Atlantic Ocean
The island features impressive hiking viewpoints [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The island features impressive hiking viewpoints
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, offers scenic vistas [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, offers scenic vistas
A 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan, who likes his thighs tickled, is just one of the many wonders of the island [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
A 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan, who likes his thighs tickled, is just one of the many wonders of the island
The charming island has a silent appeal, which will soon change [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The charming island has a silent appeal, which will soon change
Visitors can wander around the island with rescue donkeys [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Visitors can wander around the island with rescue donkeys

Saint Helena, an enchanted little island of 4,500 in the South Atlantic, has wondrous things: a giant, ancient tortoise; a bell boulder; a retirement home for donkeys. But its best quality is its sweetly bizarre nature

I don’t recall the instant I fell in love with St Helena. If I had to pin it down, I’d say it happened on a walk with Dominic the rescue donkey, somewhere on the road between Fairy Land and High Peak, where the views stretch over impossibly green pasture land past granite spires studded with cannons and out to the place where blue sky and blue sea merge.

My family and I had been on the island of 4,500 for a week. Each day we’d encountered a new wonder: a 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan who likes his thighs tickled; a boulder that rings out like a bell when struck; a historic shipwreck in warm, clear water; and the rarest single-origin coffee in the world were just a few highlights. But when Dominic stopped for some juicy grass and I looked out over that singular landscape, St Helena struck me as enchanted.

It felt as if it was a moment from a fairy tale. Remote and uninhabited, the South Atlantic island first appeared to a Portuguese ship on May 23, 1502. St Helena then went on to become a major mid-ocean provisioning stop between South Africa and Brazil (or Europe) and was populated by British, Malay, Indian, African and Chinese settlers and slaves as well some of the greatest figures in seafaring history. Captains Cook, Dampier and Bligh as well as Napoleon, Darwin and Edmond Halley all left their marks here. But then the era of exploration ended and the island faded into obscurity.

Yet here I was, wandering around with a donkey in a place where the locals are called ‘saints.’ I was captivated.

For more than 500 years, the only way to reach the 120-square-kilometre British overseas territory has been by sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some thousand ships a year called at the East India Co. pier in Jamestown. In the more recent past, the island’s visitors have come from Cape Town on the supply ship RMS St Helena, by cruise ship or on board a handful of intrepid yachts.

The end of St Helena’s isolation was meant to come in May, 2016, when the island’s first airport opened. But like all good fairy tales, the island’s curse (or charm) of isolation wasn’t so easily broken. Unexpected wind sheer delayed the airport’s launch. So the island set out on a quest to find an air-service provider that could make a steeper landing on a shortened runway - while still carrying a full load of passengers. But now the airline bids are in, and 515 years after its discovery, St Helena will end its isolated slumber.

Rising like a rugged castle from the middle of the sea, the island is a place of improbable beauty: both welcoming and imposing. The capital of Jamestown, with its candy-coloured buildings, defines picturesque.

With buildings that date back to 1700, it could be mistaken for a historic film set, complete with friendly saints who stop to chat about the weather, your day’s plans or the hard-to-find bananas and lettuce that are just now available in the Queen Anne{8} (“Hurry!”).

Meandering out from the town centre is a collection of single-lane roads best suited to donkeys (which is how they were used until not so long ago). Winding through forests and hills of overgrown flax, the roads pass sites which include Halley’s Observatory (where he catalogued the southern sky), Napoleon’s prison home and tomb as well as Plantation House, the Governor’s mansion, where giant tortoises roam the front yard.

Around the island’s perimeter, stone batteries cut into red-hued cliffs protected the bucolic interior from long-ago Dutch and French invaders. But now the defences just make impressive hiking viewpoints, overlooking the vibrant tropical sea.

History feels tangible on St Helena - as though the island is caught between an idealized past and a time that’s not quite today. And perhaps only here is it possible to have a favourite fortification.

Mine was a toss-up.

There was the magnificent High Knoll Fort built in 1790 as a redoubt to hold the island’s entire population, should it be invaded. The fort was restored using traditional techniques and reopened in 2015. Exploring the High Knoll put us in the dreamlike state that becomes so familiar on St Helena. Our daughter claimed there should be dragons flying overhead. And when we passed through a wall she waved her imaginary sword and yelled, “For the love of Camelot!” before running into the fort’s depths.

Lemon Valley’s fortifications edged ahead as my favourite during our second visit to the spot. It’s hard to deny the rugged beauty of Half Moon Battery on its perch above a sparkling blue-water bay, which comes complete with a tidy defensive wall and historic whitewashed quarantine building. But add a barbecue site at the mouth of a mysterious cave and excellent snorkelling and you have a popular picnic spot.

It was here we first sampled plo. If there’s a dish that represents the rich heritage of the saints, it’s this one-pot curried rice dish. Calling to mind a pilau or paella, fresh tuna, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are currently available, make up the dish.

What makes it distinct is that while no version is the same, each one is declared the best. This good-natured debate occurs in the local, near-incomprehensible dialect - a linguistic mash-up that adds and subtracts syllables and letters, and speeds by at a dizzying rate.

The first time I actually followed this argument (realizing I grasped what was being said), I appreciated that St Helena had cast her spell so surely I became weepy at the thought of leaving.

With our deepening affection for the island, my family grew protective. We wondered how the saints would manage when their isolation ends. While we knew there are positives - new businesses have energized the island and brought the return of younger saints who had gone away for work - we were fearful that outsiders wouldn’t love the island the way we did. Or even worse, that they’d make fun of it.

For all its beauty, St Helena is, as my daughter put it, a sweetly bizarre place. A few weeks in, the oddities had begun to add up. The island is more British than Great Britain and each home sports at least one picture of a monarch. While Queen Elizabeth is a popular choice, King George VI or even Queen Victoria are viable options.

The island also has a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars, just got mobile phone service in the past couple of years and has a tiny bit of France (literally) in its fertile interior.

It was while visiting this lush bit of France that the tourism director congratulated us on graduating from typical tourist activities to “the weirder stuff”: a memorial service for Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the fact Napoleon’s tomb is empty (his remains were returned to France in 1840), islanders hold an annual service for their most famous prisoner.

The Bug-eyed Tuners and Brass Monkeys provided music and sang the English and French anthems as the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and English and French dignitaries looked on.

While we stood shoulder to shoulder with the saints in that shady grove, I couldn’t help but send up a silent appeal for the enchanted little island. My wish was that its remoteness, which made St Helena so wondrous, gives way gently to change. And I hoped that the magical castle in the middle of the sea never fully finds its way into the modern world.


The RMS St Helena will retire after the airport is fully operational, but for those wanting to go by sea, bookings are still being accepted through the end of the year: Rates from Cape Town are £860 ($1,425) return.

Passenger air service to the island from South Africa is expected to be confirmed April or May, 2017.

Several new lodging options are open or are opening on the island including the historic Bertrand’s Cottage and the Mantis St Helena Hotel.

Our Comment: For the record:

  • May 23, 1502 is not actually one of the dates proposed for the discovery of St Helena. 21st May 1502 is the generally accepted date (thought we believe 3rd May 1502 is more likely).

  • The ‘Queen Anne’ is actually the Queen Mary, in Napoleon Street{5}.

  • If you want help understanding our ‘near-incomprehensible dialect’ see our Speak Saint page.

See also: Visitor InformationDonkeysFly here?RMS St HelenaForts and Batteries

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A St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes True [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

Published by Blue Marine Foundation, 20thFebruary 2017{2}

Family Photo of Trevor Thomas [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Family Photo of Trevor Thomas

In 1990, a fisherman, Trevor Otto Thomas, dressed himself in St Helena’s flag and led a march down Main Street in Jamestown, the island’s capital, to protest against a decision by his government to sell licences to Japanese industrial vessels which he believed would plunder the island’s waters. His family still have the petition he handed in to the governor.

As skipper of the offshore fishing vessel, the Westerdam, in the 1980s he had made an arrest at sea of a poacher and brought the vessel back to James Bay to show that St Helena’s waters were regularly being invaded. Thomas, who was born in Hout Bay, Cape Town to a St Helenian father and a South African mother, was that remarkable thing, a fisherman conservationist. In a picture of him revered by his family, he stands in fisherman’s dress tending a sick bird. Sadly Thomas did not live to see his wish come true - but his vision survived and became reality. Last autumn the waters of St Helena were declared a marine protected area which will allow sustainable fishing only by local vessels, to protect both the island’s fish stocks and its rich marine diversity. Thomas’s son, Waylon, was in place as chairman of the fishermen’s association, and the decision has become his father’s legacy.

Anyone who loves the sea will find the story of Thomas father and son intensely moving, for it sums up the achievement of this remote island in the south Atlantic in taking a huge decision to restrict fishing to highly selective fishing methods used only by boats from the island.

In a world of declining tuna stocks, the idea resonates. It seems entirely reasonable to believe that it is possible to create a niche product for the island’s yellowfin and skipjack not unlike that which the island’s coffee already enjoys on the shelves of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. But first a lot of work must be done because right now St Helena’s fishermen sometimes get less than a pound a kilo for their tuna.

I was there on a fact-finding trip to see if Blue and our allies in the GB Oceans coalition could do anything to help the island now it has announced its intention to create a meaningful marine protected area with sustainable fishing, thereby protecting St Helena’s extraordinary marine biodiversity. In theory, an MPA should enable St Helena’s fishermen to create a high-quality, low-volume tuna brand with appeal to markets in London and elsewhere where buyers are willing to pay top prices for tuna with a strong conservation story behind it.

On our trip I quizzed the governor, Lisa Phillips, about the airport, now due to open by June with smaller aircraft than the wide-bodied jets which were shown last year to suffer from wind-shear. The airport is only one of several changes coming to the island. A huge EU-funded £18m project to lay a fibre optical cable from Cape Town should improve the island’s currently expensive and unreliable satellite broadband by 2020 making it easier to conduct business.

There is talk of new tourist developments and some are being built.

An upmarket South African hotel chain is converting three town houses on Jamestown’s lovely Georgian Main Street into a hotel. There is a proposal for a massive golf development - on land where thousands of South African prisoners were encamped during the Boer War - which seems less in tune with what this unique island has to offer. Despite the £30 million a year that Britain spends on St Helena - the overseas territories are meant to have first call on the overseas aid budget - it seems there is little spent on the rich heritage of historic fortifications, some of which are actively falling down. If tourists are to be lured by a marine reserve, and the opportunity to dive with whale sharks just outside the harbour, they are going to want other attractions to be in good shape.

At present the only way to St Helena is via its own now unique Royal Mail Ship, which leaves Cape Town and five days later arrives at the island. It then sails on to Ascension, from where some passengers fly back to England while some return to the Cape. The RMS, as it is called, gives an insight into a former age of ocean liners, with a rigid programme of deck quoits and beef tea at 11, followed by lunch, then a film, a quiz or other entertainments and then a six-course dinner. It is easy to become institutionalised into this pattern of being looked after and enjoyable to spend hours talking to the band of influential locals travelling back to the island. It is also all too easy to put on weight if you do not spend time in the boat’s gym.

When we boarded the ship again for Ascension, it felt extraordinarily like home. At present the plan is for the RMS to be decommissioned next year after the airport opens and when a new cargo ship takes over the freight that it carries. There are few who will see it go without a pang of regret.

The island is full of surprises. Saint Helena’s cliffs seem vertiginous from the sea and the land looks impossibly arid. But after driving up hairpin bends there is a moment when you burst out into the valleys of the interior where everything is green and there are pairs of white fairy terns flying in perfect synchronization above the trees where they make their minimal equivalent of a nest by laying an egg on a bough. In a couple of hours’ tour with Kevin George, our expert guide, we were able to see several endemic and endangered plants - including he cabbage and she cabbage trees and ebony - and the island’s only endemic bird, the wire bird, a kind of plover named after its spindly legs. All will say of the island’s main tourist attractions, the sites associated with Napoleon who died on his final exile there, is that we noticed that these French possessions were pointedly flying the EU flag.

St Helena offers so much that is unique that it would be a shame to compromise it with the ordinary. Its new marine protected area is a way of celebrating that uniqueness and potentially an example to the world. It deserves our recognition and support.

Lush green valleys of St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Lush green valleys of St Helena

The RMS arriving at Jamestown, St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The RMS arriving at Jamestown, St Helena

Governor Lisa Phillips with a whale shark [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Governor Lisa Phillips with a whale shark

The Emporium, Napoleon St, Jamestown [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The Emporium, Napoleon St, Jamestown

The Market, Jamestown, St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The Market, Jamestown, St Helena

RMS chefs preparing a barbecue [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
RMS chefs preparing a barbecue

The sun deck of the RMS, laid for the barbecue [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The sun deck of the RMS, laid for the barbecue

The picturesque view from the hilltops of St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The picturesque view from the hilltops of St Helena

The wirebird, St Helena’s only endemic bird [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The wirebird, St Helena’s only endemic bird

See also: FishingVisitor Information

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Sailing to Saint Helena - one of the world’s most remote communities

By Diane Selkirk, Yachting World, 19th January 2017{2}

yachtingworld20170119_01 [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The rocky coast of Saint Helena appears off the bow [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
The rocky coast of Saint Helena appears off the bow
Gorgeous tropical seas surround the barren coast of Saint Helena, although the island’s interior is surprisingly lush [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Gorgeous tropical seas surround the barren coast of Saint Helena, although the island’s interior is surprisingly lush
Saint Helena map [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Saint Helena map
Saint Helena marked 30,000 miles of cruising on Ceilydh our Woods catamaran [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Saint Helena marked 30,000 miles of cruising on Ceilydh our Woods catamaran
Hidden churches lie dotted around the island of Saint Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Hidden churches lie dotted around the island of Saint Helena
yachtingworld20170119_07 [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Jamestown is a British village improbably wedged in a volcanic cleft [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Jamestown is a British village improbably wedged in a volcanic cleft
Jamestown, St Helena from Jacob’s Ladder [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Jamestown, St Helena from Jacob’s Ladder
Jonathan the 186-year-old tortoise [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Jonathan the 186-year-old tortoise
Hiking along coastal trails [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Hiking along coastal trails

Diane Selkirk was utterly enchanted by the remote island outpost of Saint Helena

We crossed wakes with Captain Cook 350 miles out from the Namibian coast and 245 years after he set out from Cape Town for the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. While spending six years sailing in the tropical latitudes, my husband Evan, 14-year-old daughter Maia and I found echoes of the early navigators in ports around the world; from the names of harbours and hills, to monuments and statues.

But to sail the same actual route - matching latitude and longitude while comparing the sea conditions and the daily mileage of the HMS Endeavour with our Woods catamaran Ceilydh - was a first for us.

Cook’s log: “Wednesday, April 24th 1771. Gentle breezes, and Clear weather. Wind South-East by South to West-South-West; course North 46 degrees West; distance 98 miles; latitude 26 degrees 19 minutes South, longitude 350 degrees 42 minutes West.

It’s always a delight when a passage that promises easy sailing lives up to expectation. After the challenge of the Indian Ocean, the mellow South Atlantic felt like a reward. But unlike the much heavier Endeavour, our 40ft catamaran averaged over 6 knots in winds that were 10-12 knots from astern. While he was making 100-mile days, we pulled ahead with 150-mile ones. It seemed the distraction of our cross-century race with Cook would be short lived.

Racing Cook across the South Atlantic

When you are surrounded on all sides by water, it’s easy to lose track of the hours. Have we been out three or four days? When we changed time zones did the clock go forward or back? Passages that last more than four days become timeless. Days are divided into meals, watches, naps, sunset, moonrise and dawn. The rest of the world recedes; small things punctuate the days. The colour of the water for instance: close to the coast it was a nutrient-rich murky green. And it was chilly. We slept under fluffy blankets and drank litres of hot tea. Exiting the cold, north flowing Benguela Current, the water warmed; increasing from 12°C to 18°C over the distance of 100 miles and then it turned a brilliant tropical blue. But the sea birds were gone; there were no more albatross, kites or terns. We didn’t look out to see seals floating head down with their flippers warming in the sun. Visits by dolphins also dropped off, making the ocean seem vast, empty and endless.

Friday, April 26th 1771. Fresh Gales, and a large Swell from the Southward. Wind South-South-West, South-East by South; course North 50 degrees West; distance 168 miles; latitude 21 degrees 40 minutes South, longitude 354 degrees 12 minutes West.

Almost on cue, our conditions changed to match Cook’s. The GRIBs showed a low in the Southern Ocean which was sending up a steep mixed swell. The wind soon followed. Now we were neck and neck in this odd competition; the Endeavour’s noon position almost matched our own. Two days before reaching Saint Helena, we both crossed the Prime Meridian. For Cook it meant he had, ‘Circumnavigated the Globe in a West direction.’ For us it marked 30,000 miles of voyaging and a return to the western hemisphere, but we were still a long way from Vancouver, our home in Canada.

About 20 miles out, I sighted the volcanic bulk of Saint Helena. Charles Darwin wrote: “Saint Helena rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean.” Closer to the coast, we spotted stone fortifications built into the cliff faces, reinforcing the impression that we had fallen through the centuries and were approaching a mid-ocean fortress.

Wednesday, May 1st 1771. At 6 A.M. saw the Island of St Helena bearing West, distant 8 or 9 Leagues. At Noon Anchor’d in the Road, before James’s Fort, in 24 fathoms water. Found riding here His Majesty’s Ship Portland and Swallow Sloop, and 12 Sail of Indiaman. At our first seeing the Fleet in this Road we took it for granted that it was a War; but in this we were soon agreeably deceived.

Five centuries of seafaring

For over 500 years, the only way to reach the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena has been by the sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some 1,000 ships a year called. Travelling here, we followed not just in the wake of Captain Cook but those of Dampier, Bligh, Napoleon, Darwin, Edmond Halley and Joshua Slocum.

In the more recent past, the island’s visitors have come by the RMS St Helena, cruise ships and yachts. But now, thanks to the brand new airport (private and charter flights only for now), Saint Helena and all her wonders will be accessible to visitors who don’t have weeks, or months, to dedicate to a sea voyage. For the first time, new arrivals - be they governors or commoners - will be certain to avoid the possibility of an Atlantic baptism, no longer required to reach for the swinging ropes at the Jamestown landing and time their first step ashore.

When we took our mooring, in amongst yachts from seven different countries, I almost expected to catch sight of Cook’s square-rigged barque sailing past the base of the fortified cliffs. Saint Helena, more than any place I’ve ever been, feels unreal - caught in an enduring era of exploration and adventure.

The displacement continued with my first step onto the old East India Company pier. As I reached for the orange ropes, the strong arms of two Saints (as locals are called) pulled me safely ashore after our nine-day passage. Moments later we found ourselves looking through chinks in the doors of the pier’s old stone storehouses and making our way toward the harbour master’s office.

After a quick visit with Customs and the port captain, we were directed to the police and immigration. From there we were free to explore the laneways of Jamestown, a brightly painted English village wedged improbably into one of the tropical island’s volcanic clefts.

Isolation ends

Through the centuries Jamestown has been a popular provisioning stop for sailors. Fruit trees flourished in the valleys and goats roamed the hills - offering fresh supplies to passing ships. But the diminishment in shipping meant the market for fresh food dwindled. While it was once a vital and productive port, Saint Helena gradually became a forgotten outpost of the British Empire.

Eventually, entire generations of farmers and workers left the little island seeking employment and opportunity elsewhere. The pomegranate, mango, coconut, pawpaw and banana trees as well as the goats, cows and chickens that were once found in great numbers - and produced enough to meet the needs of both islanders and passing sailors - were supplemented by supplies brought in by the monthly mail ship.

Entering the shops and grocery stores, we discovered that the self-sufficiency that once marked the island was replaced by a reliance on the outside world. Fresh supplies including eggs, onions, potatoes and meat came from South Africa. Milk, cheese, frozen and canned foods were coming from the EU.

But the airport’s construction - which brought back young, highly-skilled Saints as well as an international collection of expats - is transforming the island. Local produce, which was limited to a couple of crops and has been in chronic short supply, is being grown by a new generation of farmers. Thursday, the day the local produce is brought into the shops, results in a good-natured scrum. The island’s extreme dedication to mannerly conduct is overlooked and pushing past an elderly lady is completely acceptable when there’s a gorgeous leafy lettuce at stake.

Falling in love with quirky Saint Helena

Ships and yachts have typically only remained in the Jamestown harbour for as long as it takes to provision. We expected our visit to be similarly short - but we fell in love with the quirky little island and our one week visit stretched to six.

While the island’s exterior appears ruggedly volcanic the interior is as lush and pastoral as the English countryside. The cows that graze the vibrant green fields are cared for by compassionate farmers who let them reach a venerable old-age before dispatching them to the table as nearly inedible stewing beef. There is a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars and a 186-year-old tortoise called Jonathan, who, along with the much younger David, Emma, Myrtle and Fredrika, lives on the lawn of Plantation House, the Governor’s mansion.

Eighty-year-old tour-guide and self-trained historian Robert Peters took us to see the island’s most popular tourist stops. We visited Napoleon’s residence Longwood House and his tomb, checked out the imposing High Knoll Fort, viewed the exterior of Plantation House and saw the island’s highest point, Diana’s Peak. The peak is one of the island’s most popular hikes and is flanked by two hills topped with Norfolk Pines that were planted there deliberately, it is said, as navigation markers by none other than Captain Cook himself.

With the well-known spots covered it was Aaron Legg - farmer and 4x4 tour-guide - who convinced us Saint Helena was worth getting to know better. He took us to isolated valleys to see picturesque churches and pointed out cannons, which are found around the island in remote defensive locations as well as on the walls and fortifications which are built in every valley. And he showed us the Bell Stone, which was a popular curiosity during Saint Helena’s original tourism boom (back during Cook’s era). This is simply a normal-looking boulder that makes a remarkably melodious sound when struck with a rock. It made me want to whack every rock I could find, just in case others sound like bells, and no-one but a Saint had ever thought to check.

We could hit more rocks instead of continuing the tour,” Aaron graciously offered. It takes a while to adjust to the easy-going nature of islanders. There’s an old-world virtuousness that we delighted in. The most publicised crime during our visit was theft of a traffic mirror from a hairpin turn. And we learned it’s the height of rudeness to fail to wave at a passing car - a reflex that took two countries to shake.

I decided to forgo searching for more bell stones in favour of further exploration. One of my favourite spots was Lemon Valley. Accessible by hiking trail or a one-mile dinghy ride from the moorings, it was here that some of the 30,000 freed African slaves were processed and quarantined after being rescued from slavers in the mid 19th Century (they were later moved to Ruperts Valley when their numbers overwhelmed Lemon Valley). Now an inviting spot for picnicking, snorkelling, or hiking up to the old fortifications, the valley gracefully mixes beauty, history and modern use in a way that is quintessentially Saint Helena.

Leaving celebrations

Saint Helena still strikes me as an enchanted place and we knew it would be tough to leave. I was afraid that if we left we’d never find our way back. So we delayed.

I met the new Governor, Lisa Phillips while walking retired donkeys at the Saint Helena donkey home. Our hour-long chat led to an invitation to Plantation House. The house was off-limits during the last Governor’s tenure, but Phillips has opened it back up to tours. We saw the chandelier that once hung in Napoleon’s Longwood Estate, and noted the portrait of Napoleon hanging directly across from a portrait of his jailor, the governor of the time, Sir Hudson Lowe - humorously positioned so they could scowl at each other through eternity.

Saint Helena is a reminder about all that is wonderful about voyaging. Remote and unknown, it’s hard won. It’s most certainly not a place that is full of attractions and ‘things to do’. To enjoy such happy days on the island we had to be our best selves, reaching out and meeting local people and learning the rhythms of the island.

We left on Saint Helena day. Our plan was to enjoy the day, see the parade and leave at dusk. When fireworks lit up a small but very special portion of the sky we were ten miles out. The sail was a gentle one: soft tropical breezes from astern, easy seas and a moon each night.

Again, we sailed with Cook: “Sunday, May 5th 1771. Gentle breezes and Clear weather. Weigh’d, and stood out of the Road in company. North 50 degrees 30 minutes West; distance 71 miles; latitude 15 degrees 5 minutes South, longitude 6 degrees 46 minutes West.

Arrivals and departures

There are currently no commercial flights to and from the airport, only private jets and charter flights. Early indications are that even this limited service is benefitting the locals.

The RMS St Helena is slated for decommissioning and, thanks to the new breakwater and pier in nearby Rupert’s Valley, freighter operations, cruise ship landings and fish processing will all be moved off the historic Jamestown Wharf, which will be reconfigured as a public space. The Saint Helena Yacht Club is looking forward to an increased presence on the wharf, providing a warmer welcome to cruisers. There’s also a plan for a short-term haul-out facility on either the Jamestown Wharf or Rupert’s Pier.

Costs: Well maintained moorings are £2 or £3 (GBP) per night. Ferry service runs £2 per round trip. Port fees are £40 and visas are £17 per person.

See also: YachtingVisitor Information

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Hope for St Helena

By Lord Ashcroft, published on, 17th January 2017{2}{a}

It had been more than 68 years since I last set foot on St Helena, famously the fortress home to Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile, yet I quickly learnt that some things do not change.

Its 4,500 residents are as friendly, fun-loving and relaxed as ever: strangers say a cheery “hello” in the street, drivers wave to you from the open windows of their cars, houses remain unlocked at night because the crime rate is so low and ignition keys get left for days in unlocked, parked vehicles.

St Helena, a volcanic island that first erupted out of the South Atlantic some 15 million years ago, may be one of the remotest places on earth but it is also one of the most welcoming. ‘Saints’, as residents are affectionately known regardless of their diverse ethnic origins, religions or creed, rarely fail to live up to their name.

Before landing at the island’s troubled and underused new airport last week, I filled in an entry form that asked for the purpose of my visit. “Curiosity” was my one-word reply.

Aged two, I had travelled to St Helena by ship with my parents in 1948, when my beloved, late father, Eric, was on the way to his first Colonial Office posting in Africa. As I grew up, my parents’ fond recollections of St Helena gave me an affinity for the island and I have long intended to return.

This time last year the entire island was riding a giant wave of expectation with the airport unveiling scheduled for the next month: February 2016. And then, with economic prosperity seemingly just around the corner, it all went horribly wrong…

As I revealed in my first blog on St Helena in June last year, the official opening of the airport was twice postponed amid major concerns over ‘wind shear’ - dangerous and unpredictable cross-winds caused by the island’s unique topography.

Even when the airport did quietly open for business, it was considered unsafe for use by the two commercial airlines, Comair and Atlantic Star Airlines, which had planned to operate from South Africa and the UK respectively. British national newspapers revelled in highlighting the woes of a hugely expensive airport, paid for from £285 million of taxpayers’ money, where large aircraft could not land.

As I first disclosed eight months ago, the airport, though a remarkable feat of engineering, was in danger of becoming an expensive ‘white elephant’ and a deep embarrassment to the British Government.

Jacob’s Ladder [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
‘Le pond’! [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
‘Le pond’!

St Helena is 47 square miles in size, about a third the size of the Isle of Wight. A British Overseas Territory, it lies some 1,200 miles from the African mainland and 1,800 miles from Brazil. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, but later run by the British East India Company which, in turn, eventually handed it over to the Crown.

St Helena has near full employment with the local Government the main employer and others working in agriculture, fishing and various small businesses. However, the average wage is only around £7,000 a year despite high costs for food and other essentials that are a result of the island’s isolation.

In modern times, the island’s lifeline to the rest of the world has been the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena, which takes five days to sail between Cape Town and St Helena, and operates on a fortnightly cycle. ‘The RMS’, as it is known locally, had been due to be decommissioned last year after reaching the end of its natural life but, while the airport’s future use remains uncertain, it is still in operation.

I am in the fortunate position of having use of a private jet. Eight months ago, I had hoped to become one of the very first non-test flights to land on St Helena but widespread safety concerns scuppered that plan.

However, last week I finally flew from the Namibian capital of Windhoek to St Helena, a journey of some three hours and 17 minutes. With weather conditions favourable, my two pilots elected to approach the island from the south, landing on what is known as ‘Runway 02’: this has the advantage of encountering less wind shear problems but the disadvantage of approaching with a tail wind. Pilots, for safety and performance reasons, always prefer to land and take-off into the wind: however, the tail wind of eight knots was within the plane’s safety limit of ten knots.

The dramatic approach to the airport provides an awesome sight: I found it exhilarating and my only fear was that a sudden deterioration in the weather might prevent us landing. However, we landed on the 1,000 foot-high runway to the south-east of the island on our initial approach and without incident.

One of my first ports of call that afternoon was Jacob’s Ladder (pictured, right) where, in 1948, my father, then recently out of the Army and blessed with both fitness and determination, carried me up its 699 steps, cut into the steep cliffside in 1829.

The next day I also visited Longwood House, where Napoleon lived in exile from 1815 until his death in 1821 (unlike me, the deposed French Emperor was never a fan of the island, once saying its only redeeming feature was its coffee).

In 1948, I had carelessly fallen into Longwood House’s fishpond only to be rapidly scooped out by my parents. Last week, I was delighted to find that, nearly seven decades on, the pond remains in place and this time I managed to negotiate my way around it rather than plunge into its waters for a second time.

My other numerous stop-offs last week included Plantation House, a 35-room Georgian mansion set in 280 acres where I was given a warm welcome, first by Lisa Phillips, the island’s first woman Governor, and then by St Helena’s most famous resident: the giant tortoise Jonathan. He is believed to have been born in around 1832 and stakes a claim to be the world’s oldest living animal. In St Helena, giant tortoises celebrate their birthday on January 1 and so Jonathan is now deemed to be 185 years old.

St Helena has any number of attractions for foreign visitors: while some are enchanted by its unique wildlife, flora and fauna, others marvel at how the vegetation can be green and lush at one moment and then semi-desert a mere two miles down the road. Yet more visitors are captivated by its numerous historical landmarks, everything from ancient churches and an impressive museum to Napoleon’s Tomb and High Knoll Fort, constructed in 1798 as the island’s first major fortification. However, without large, accessible beaches and devoid of a busy nightlife, St Helena is always likely to remain a niche tourist destination for the more adventurous and thoughtful traveller.

One of the primary purposes for my visit was simply to meet as many islanders as possible. I wanted to discover whether, after the airport fiasco, they despair at a missed opportunity or whether they remain hopeful that the island’s best times still lie ahead. In truth, I encountered many islanders with both views: resentment and optimism were equally apparent.

On my first full day on the island, I took an early morning stroll. Within minutes, I had met three new acquaintances, all happy to share their thoughts with me despite the fact that it was little after 7am. My chance meeting with Brian Davies, an island carpenter, was swiftly followed by introductions to Colin Yon, a builder, and Dave Marr, a plumber. All shared a common passion for their island home.

For my stay on the island, I booked into the 18th-century, 18-room Consulate Hotel, which lies in the centre of Jamestown, the island’s coastal capital and its heartbeat.

The hotel is owned and run by Hazel Wilmot, aged 60, who is believed to be the biggest individual inward investor on St Helena, having come alone to the island from Botswana in 2008. Since then, she has spent more than £2 million buying and renovating her hotel, as well as investing in a 17-acre farm to provide meat, eggs and other food for her hotel guests.

Ms Wilmot says her money was only spent with the prospect of a new airport and new prosperity for the island - but now her hotel is largely empty and last year her electricity was (temporarily) cut off because she could not afford to pay an outstanding bill. She says she and others on St Helena are on the verge of bankruptcy with homes, boats and other possessions in danger of being repossessed.

I have been left high and dry by matters beyond my control and I feel angry and frustrated,” Ms Wilmot told me. “I am broke, with some £175,000 worth of debts.

Today Ms Wilmot is a constant thorn in the side of both the Department for International Development (DFID) and the St Helena Government. She insists she and other islanders should receive financial compensation because their financial woes are largely the result of the airport’s failings.

At Jamestown’s dockyard, Johnny Herne, 43, born and bred on the island, is equally unhappy with DFID and the island’s Government. He says that he has borrowed £150,000 to buy a new boat, Emerald Isle, to provide trips for tourists to see the dolphins and whale sharks, and for private fishing trips.

With monthly interest repayments of £2,500, on top of monthly insurance and fuel bills each of £1,000, he says he has a daily battle to avoid bankruptcy now that visitor numbers remain so low. Official predictions were that tourist numbers would leap from around a 1,000 a year at present to 29,000 a year by 2042.

I know I took a risk but I feel very let down. We were promised a busy airport and yet it hasn’t happened,” said Mr Herne, who added that he now has three different jobs and works up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep his head above water.

However, others investors are much more optimistic and appear confident that the airport’s problems will be solved. A January 27th deadline has been set for airlines to put in tenders to run an air service to and from the island.

Lucille Johnson, 43, and her business partner, Patrick Henry, 51, spent £15,000 on two new taxis last year with the intention of launching an airport shuttle on the island. When the passengers failed to arrive, however, they adapted their business, V2 Taxi Partners, to specialise in a 24-hour service for islanders and visitors alike. Within months, they had bought two more taxis at a further cost of £15,000 and are employing two part-time staff.

The failure of the airport has been a disappointment but Saints feel it will be fixed. There will be uproar if it is not sorted,” said Ms Johnson, who like Mr Henry was born and brought up on the island.

One proposed solution to the wind shear issue is to blast away hundreds of tons of volcanic rock, known as King and Queen Rocks, that lie above the airport runway. However, conservative estimates say the work would cost more than £75 million and, inevitably, if the work is authorised but it fails to solve the problem, DFID will come in for further public ridicule.

With airport behind [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

A decision on which company will operate the airlines to and from St Helena is expected in May and regular services should be in operation before the end of the year. Airlines, including the British-based Atlantic Star, are convinced that the wind shear problems can be overcome using the right aircraft and routes.

One suggestion from Atlantic Star is to expand the capacity for civilians to share military flights from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to Ascension Island - nearly 800 miles north west of St Helena. Atlantic Star Airlines would then use an Avro jet, with a maximum capacity of 60 passengers, to fly to and from St Helena and Ascension twice a week. Atlantic Star Airlines expects competition from a handful of South African and Namibian airlines for the tender.

For all the hard work and positive public comments of Niall O’Keeffe, the Chief Executive for Economic Development, and Christopher Pickard, the Director of Tourism, I have no doubt that an announcement on regular flights is needed before they can achieve their respective aims of bringing significant investment and large number of tourists to St Helena. A permanent solution, rather than a ‘cut and paste’ one, is what islanders crave and deserve.

Basil George, aged 80, used to teach on St Helena before becoming its Director of Education. An astute observer of island life, Mr George speaks for many Saints when he tells me: “We are at a crisis at the moment which is a good time to rethink how this island can progress.

I was flattered that on arriving on the island I was already looked upon as a ‘friend of St Helena’ because, despite my long absence, I have vigorously championed the island’s cause.

During my visit, I gave an interview to Tammy Williams, of Saint FM Community Radio and the St Helena Independent newspaper, that resulted in both two lengthy radio broadcasts and also front-page news. Mike Olsson, a Swede who has lived on the island more than 20 years, owns the newspaper and is a board member of the radio station. In fact, I gave a live radio interview to Mr Olsson, now a councillor, in 2009 when I ‘buzzed’ the island in my plane as a show of support.

I have already posed tough questions relating to DFID and the St Helena Government in terms of what went wrong last year and what the future holds for islanders. They are questions that remain largely unanswered.

I am an unashamed critic of the UK’s policy that results in so much of our annual £12.4 billion foreign aid budget being squandered by corrupt and incompetent regimes.

However, while we still have a commitment to spend 0.7 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on foreign aid, I would much rather see such funds allocated to our Overseas Territories, including deserving causes such as St Helena.

During my visit, I observed a hard-working, enthusiastic, resilient community but one that needs help in improving its infrastructure and its skills if it is to welcome tourists on the ambitious scale that is planned.

Today water and fresh food are scarce, credit card payments are not accepted, the internet service is both slow and expensive and up-market hotel rooms are in short supply (even the new 32-room hotel in Main Street, due to open later this year, is not without controversy since: because it was bought and is being refurbished with £1.5 million of local government funding, private hoteliers resent the subsidised competition).

Although significant improvements have already been made in the past decade, tens of millions of pounds are needed to improve St Helena roads, health service and schools. Even its prison, currently home to 13 miscreants, needs to be brought into the 21st Century. Yet the challenge facing Saints is to modernise the island while still preserving its distinctive charm.

St Helena is run by a DFID-appointed Governor together with a 12-strong elected council and senior civil servants (together they provide the members for both the Executive and Legislative Councils).

Yet, according to senior sources, relations between DFID and the council are at ‘rock bottom’. Councillors feel they have been “kept in the dark” over major plans for St Helena and that too often local wishes are ignored.

DFID does not listen to the people of this island yet we are the ones who know best what can, and cannot, be achieved,” said one senior source. “DFID imposes more and more, and listens less and less,” said a second source, adding: “We need to see more openness, transparency and accountability if we are to work successfully with DFID in future.

The list of grievances from islanders and its council is long but near the top is what they see as dishonesty and incompetence over their airport: first insufficient weather surveys and test flights took place before the island’s runway was chosen and then, once safety concerns were identified two years ago by the Met Office, the relevant parties, including prospective airlines and investors, were not at once made aware of them.

The council and islanders also say that DFID then dithered for too long before making a commitment to continue running the RMS St Helena boat for a least a year ahead while there was no air service. With most hotel reservations made a year in advance, potential visitors had been unwilling to make a holiday booking when they could not guarantee they could get to and from the island when the time came.

At present, St Helena receives nearly £30 million a year in Government subsidies from DFID but the hope remains that, with a vibrant economy based on tourism, the island will eventually be self-sufficient within quarter of a century.

No one will be happier than me if that is achieved but I suspect the reality will be that it may take far longer for St Helena to survive without some kind of subsidy from Britain which, given the island’s remoteness and isolation, is perhaps unsurprising.

As my plane lifted off from south-facing ‘Runway 02’, under blue skies and into a 12-knot headwind at 3.40pm on Wednesday of last week, I took some pride from the fact that I was about to create a small piece of history on the first flight from St Helena to mainland Europe.

After a take-off that was as equally as smooth as my landing two days earlier, I glanced back at the island with nothing but fond memories of my short stay: St Helena and its warm-hearted Saints had lived up to all my expectations and more.

If ever a small community deserve a change of fortune, it is the residents of St Helena, and I will continue to play a small part in making life uncomfortable for those who let them down. One thing is certain: this time it will be closer to seven months, rather than seven decades, before I return to visit my new friends once again.

See also: Fly here?Fly Yourself Here

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The Bones of St Helena

By Diane Selkirk, PS Magazine, 10th January 2017{2}

Two cinematographers are capturing the secret history of a South Atlantic island full of the bones of Liberated Africans.

Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest

The bones aren’t in pizza boxes, despite what the rumors said - though it was this very rumor that drew filmmakers Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere of the British film company PT Film to a macabre mystery on the island of St Helena. “The bones are actually in archival boxes, in an old storeroom attached to the prison,” Curran says. But the rest of the story - forgotten corpses excavated from mass graves to make way for an airport, after which the bones languished - is all true.

Best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled and died, St Helena was in the news last year because of the awkward opening of its first-ever airport. (News reports said it was too windy for a lot of planes to land.) What most people still don’t know is that this island, located in the middle of the Atlantic between southern Africa and Brazil, is a physical link to the Middle Passage, the notorious route slavers used to reach the New World with their human cargo.

Between 1840 and 1874, an estimated 30,000 Liberated Africans were released into refugee camps on St Helena. When they died, an estimated 8,000 were buried in three vast graveyards in the shallow volcanic earth in Rupert’s Valley and at the quarantine station in Lemon Valley.

Curran, de Vere, and soundman Oliver Sanders say that, while locals knew about the bones, few knew who they belonged to. These bodies didn’t represent ‘Saints,’ as locals are called - they weren’t seen as part of the island. One resident named Colin Benjamin told the film crew about using a skull and leg bone to play baseball: “I’m sorry about that, but being kids that’s the way we grew up.

Bones sometimes just appear here,” Curran says. We’re walking through an industrial area in Rupert’s Valley, on the northwest of the island. Continuing up the valley, we reach a freshly paved road and the second designated graveyard, which was put into official use after the first burial ground was filled. It’s a scramble down from the road, through dry prickly bush, into the unmarked burial ground. I catch sight of a bone-white fragment and cautiously brush away the earth. It’s a piece of old china. The entire area, which stretches up a dry gully to where it meets graveyard number three, is scattered with rocks and debris.

Curran explains the road was built to bring fuel and supplies to the airport. It was during a geotechnical survey that workers discovered signs of the burials, and, in 2008, archaeologists led by Andrew Pearson, an independent archaeological consultant, excavated the bones of some 325 Liberated Africans.

Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]Butcher’s Grave detail [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Left: Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave, Right: Butcher’s Grave detail

Costal view [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

The archaeologists unearthed a combination of individual, multiple, and mass graves. Most contained children between eight and 12 years old; some were wearing ribbons or beads; in one case, a tiny copper bracelet.

Annina van Neel, chief environmental commitment officer of the airport construction company Basil Read, oversaw later finds. “She told us about finding remains, and the sleepless nights it would cause her,” Curran says. “I cried for the first time when I watched van Neel cry. The humanity of it all just hit me.

Curran says that filming the documentary was like assembling a puzzle; every person they interviewed had a different relationship to the bones and was just a small piece of the story. As their interviews continued and the story took shape, de Vere and Curran began to realize how timely it was: “There were times when the numbers of African refugees almost numbered residents,” he says. The islanders would send word to England to say they needed help - that they were struggling to manage and care for the new arrivals - “and then another ship would show up, and they had to cope.” With an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond, the bones of St Helena today tell an urgent story.

Slavery and St Helena have been linked almost since the island was discovered, uninhabited, by Portuguese sailors 500 years ago. Five of the island’s earliest inhabitants were escaped enslaved people. By 1723 over half of the island’s 1,100 residents were enslaved. Slavery began its decline in St Helena in 1792, when local laws made it illegal to import new enslaved people. In 1832, slavery was abolished when the East India Company purchased the 614 remaining slaves from their owners for a sum of around £28,067{6} - and, soon after, the role of many Saints shifted from owner to ally.

Oliver Sanders recording at Diana’s Peak [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

One way that the denizens of St Helena helped fight slavery was by sea: De Vere explains that ships like the British HMS Waterwitch formed a blockade off the African coast. When they caught a slave ship, crews boarded it and brought it to St Helena, where the human cargo was released and the ship was broken up. During her years of service, Waterwitch captured around 40 slave ships, liberating thousands of Africans.

In April 1843 Waterwitch captured the Brazilian-flagged ship Conceição de Maria. Some 390 people had been loaded aboard the small boat in Benguela, Angola. After 22 days at sea, 349 captives, 60 percent of whom were children, were liberated in St Helena; 41 had died during the voyage. Many were buried in St Helena’s mass graves.

Beyond the sheer tragedy of the finds on this island, archaeologists say the importance of these lives can’t be underestimated. This is the only known assembly of large numbers of first-generation enslaved Africans in the world. They are thought to be the last trace of the estimated 1.8 million people who perished on the Middle Passage, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

Research opportunities have been limited by local politics, but bone fragments from the graves were part of DNA sequencing and radiogenic isotope analysis in the eurotast project. The project’s goal is to identify the origins of the people who were stolen during the slave trade. Simply put, knowing who is buried in St Helena may answer elusive questions about the people who arrived in the Americas.

St Helena is a magical place. Granite spires rise out of rolling green farmland on one part of the island, while, in other places, multi-hued volcanic cliffs drop abruptly into the sea. These days, the population of 4,000 relies on supplies brought by ship. But in 1850, the island’s farms, fishery, and water supply had to provide for a population nearing 7,000, the hundreds of ships that called each year, and the influx of African refugees.

One sunny afternoon, the island appears more pastoral than imposing. Curran suggests we sail the inviting waters toward the Liberated Africans Depot, the camp set up to house refugees, in Rupert’s Valley. From aboard a 40-foot catamaran, he wants to film the sea route the captured slave ships would have taken before visiting the graveyards by land. Sitting on deck, listening to gentle waves, we’re entertained by swooping black noddies, and soon catch a glimpse of a huge whale shark as we approach the rugged red cliffs.

A section of the road that connects Rupert’s Bay to the airport [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]Rupert’s Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Left: A section of the road that connects Rupert’s Bay to the airport, Right: Rupert’s Bay

Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]The airport check the runway as part of their daily routine [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]The island’s interior [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Left: Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House; Middle: The airport check the runway as part of their daily routine; Right: The island’s interior

Even beauty can’t obscure the truth: Experts argue about the true human cost of slavery, but estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database say some 12.5 million people were loaded aboard ships by European slave traders for the journey to the New World, and between 10 and 20 percent died during transport. Records tell us that people were packed into the dank hulls of ships, separated by sex, and kept naked and chained. When the slave ships arrived in St Helena, the captives were often near death thanks to dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, and violence.

In the Jamestown library, I come across one account of a ship’s arrival. The paragraph, written by the surveyor and engineer John Mellis in 1861, describes how horrified Mellis was at the brutalities endured by the Africans: “The whole deck … was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape which I had never seen before. One’s sensations of horror were certainly lessened by the impossibility of realizing that the miserable, helpless objects being picked up from the deck and handed over the ship’s side, one by one, living, dying and dead alike, were really human beings.

Despite grave odds, for the three decades the Liberated Africans Depot was open, locals nursed thousands of the newly freed back to health. Over the years they offered English lessons, schooling, and church services to survivors. Hundreds of refugees opted to stay on the island. The remainder, speaking multiple languages and originating from far-flung parts of Africa, often couldn’t communicate where they were from, making it impossible to return them. Instead they were sent as indentured servants to places including British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Walking through the dusty heat of graveyard number two, I can’t help but compare this dreary place with Sane Valley, the lush grove in the island’s interior where Napoleon was interred. Napoleon, whose body was returned to France in 1840, gets an annual remembrance ceremony. The nameless 8,000 Liberated Africans buried on St Helena don’t have a single memorial plaque or grave marker between them.

Curran explains that a memorial for the Liberated Africans will come - but because the bones are claimed by no one, islanders have argued over how best to commemorate them, and even who should be given a role in the decision. People have offered various ideas: immediate interment; plantings to beautify the area; an art installation; a tomb; or even sending the bones back to Africa. Until a decision is made, the excavated bones sit off-limits in a dilapidated storeroom, and the rugged graveyards remain unmarked, untended, and largely unknown.

I think it might not matter how the bones are memorialized, but simply that they are.

I recall that passage I read - Saints picking up the dying Africans one by one as they carried them to freedom - and about how the island’s small population did all it could to care for and bury the refugees, who just kept coming. I think about how deeply the archaeologists were moved during the excavations; and how the descendants of enslaved Africans may find answers to questions about their history within the DNA. I reflect on how the film crew is so committed to telling this story they simply can’t let it go.

And I wonder if maybe this story can serve to remind us of the value of human kindness and compassion in this new era of mass displacement, with so many souls in peril on the sea.

See also: Slaves and slaveryRupert’s

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The most extraordinary place on Earth?

John Apps published on, Practical Boat Owner, 28th December 2016{2}

PBO reader John Apps sails to St Helena, an island so full of superlatives he has to pinch himself to ensure he didn’t dream his visit

Anchorage and Foreshore from Ladder Hill [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

St Helena, in the middle of the tropical South Atlantic Ocean (16°S 5°W), styles itself as the most extraordinary place on Earth. And for the visiting yachtsperson, it is indeed anything but ordinary.

Technically, it is not the most remote place in the world in distance, being beaten by Easter Island which is 400 miles more distant than its nearest inhabited neighbour (1,100 miles to Pitcairn Island). There are 700 miles between St Helena and its nearest neighbour, Ascension Island, but unlike Easter Island St Helena has no airport.

The RMS St Helena, serving the British territories in the South Atlantic, takes two days to get from St Helena to Ascension with its airport links to the UK and the United States.

If you want to phone someone from your boat as you arrive, or send a text, you’ll find there is no mobile phone signal. So unless you have a satellite phone you’ll need to go ashore to contact loved ones on your arrival at the coin-in-the-slot payphone near the landing dock.

This remoteness and lack of mobile communications or ATMs seems to have created the friendliest people on Earth. It is quite extraordinary the number of times you’re greeted as you walk the streets of Jamestown.

I spent a week on St Helena, and felt that I had a whole community of new friends by the time I left. In some ways it is unfortunate that St Helena is so identified with being Napoleon’s island prison, which takes away from its importance as a great crossroads in the ocean.

Before the opening of the Suez Canal it was a stopping place for almost every ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The list of visitors is really a who’s who of famous sailors and explorers: my personal favourites are James Cook, Joshua Slocum and Thomas Cochrane.

St Helena is very easy to get to when going north in the South Atlantic with either the South East Trades as a following wind or on a broad reach, depending which of the capes you have rounded.

James Bay is the main anchorage and is found on the north-west side of the island directly adjacent to the main town, Jamestown.

Unless you have entered the anchorage previously, a night approach may be difficult. There is one major shipwreck close inshore which is exposed at low tide, and a large number of unlit boats in the main anchorage.

I was fortunate to arrive about two hours before sunset so I found pilotage quite simple. The port authority has provided a large number of oversize moorings which are free for the first night then £2 per night thereafter.

A ferry service is operated between 06:30 and 18:30 each day and costs just £1 each way, which you pay at the end of your stay.

The ferry operator, like everyone on St Helena, is very accommodating. I was invited for drinks at Donny’s Bar after work one day and the ferry operator offered a late pick-up for me to take me back to my boat so that I didn’t have to rush.

Of course you can use your own dinghy to get ashore, but quite a swell runs into the bay: it is much easier to leap from a stable ferry platform than to do so from an inflatable while trying to hang onto a painter.

A place of superlatives

St. James, oldest Anglican Church in the Southern Hemishpere [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]

St Helena is said to be Britain’s second-oldest colony, and St. James’ Church lays claim to being the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere. Similarly, the prison is reputedly the oldest working prison south of the equator.

Jonathan, a land tortoise, is thought to be the world’s oldest living land animal (aged 183!), while the wire bird, a species of plover, is claimed to be the rarest of the world’s endangered species.

Wonderful weather

Best of all is the climate. I was there in December, which is summer in the southern tropics, and found the temperature almost perfect. Being the South Atlantic, tropical revolving storms such as hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons are almost unknown.

The only time I found the heat a little warm was mid-afternoon on board my boat, when I would go ashore and use the free tepid shower at the landing place and spend an hour or so in the cool of the castle gardens.

I did climb Jacob’s Ladder early one morning which raised a sweat, as it’s 699 steps up to Ladder Hill Fort.

St Helena is one of those places that makes me have to pinch myself to believe that I have actually been there in my own boat. While I would classify it in my ‘once in a lifetime experiences’, I have a great desire to go back.

Wonderful people, great weather, safe anchorage - what more do you want when you are moored?

Our Comment: Although published in December 2016, this article seems to relate to a visit that took place in December 2015, so a few things have changed: There now is a Mobile Phone service; the Wirebird is no longer ‘Endangered’, though it is still ‘Vulnerable’; and St. James’ Church now has a spire! Apart from that it’s all still correct.

See also: YachtingVisitor Information

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Irish doctor on a distant island

By Paul Cullen, The Irish Times, 8th October 2016{2}

Kevin O’Brien with his wife and daughter [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Kevin O’Brien with his wife Aoife McGough and their daughter Síomha at home in St Helena. About 4,000km east of Brazil and 2,000km west of Africa, St Helena is about as remote as remote gets.{b}

As one of St Helena’s two GPs, Kevin O’Brien continues a tradition of Irish doctors there

To take up his new job, Kevin O’Brien first took a flight from Dublin Airport to Heathrow, then travelled to the RAF base at Brize Norton, where he joined members of the British Antarctic Expedition on a long-haul flight to Ascension Island, a tiny rockfall in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

O’Brien’s travels were far from over; from Ascension, he boarded the last working Royal Mail ship in the world, which steamed for three days before arriving at his ultimate destination, St Helena.

About 4,000km east of Brazil and 2,000km west of Africa, St Helena is about as remote as remote gets. The island, no bigger than Achill and just as mountainous, has been home for the past year to O’Brien, his wife Aoife McGough and their daughter Síomha.

The plan was always to move away,” O’Brien explains down a surprisingly clear WhatsApp connection, given that his five-digit home number on the island was on the blink. “We figured this was a good time in our lives to travel, when we weren’t tied down.

The couple arrived last February, three months after O’Brien answered an online advertisement. “Like many others in my GP class, I was reluctant to commit to general practice in Ireland in the current state of change. And then countries all over the world are crying out for Irish doctors.

But while the medical brain drain has led most Irish doctors to sophisticated health systems in Australia, Canada or the UK, O’Brien finds himself in a British Overseas Territory with a population of 4,500 and a stripped-back medical service to match.

It’s very British but also has a tropical island feel,” he says. “Everyone stops to talk when they pass. You salute every car, and say hi to everyone.

We were worried at first about it being claustrophobic, about not being able to get off the island for a day. But it’s an amazingly beautiful and varied place, and the people have been so welcoming. We felt at home very fast.

The locals are descendants of English settlers, Chinese labourers, Boer prisoners and African slaves; names such as O’Bey and O’Dean hints at an Irish lineage too. The Union Jack is the official flag and English the lingua franca, though spoken with a unique dialect. “Place names such as Half Tree Hollow, The Gates of Chaos and Alarm Forest could have been plucked from Tolkien, and the laid-back pace of life and tropical fruit trees give an almost Caribbean feel.

Island life has its own “nuances”, as O’Brien refers to them. The shops close at 5pm and that’s it for picking up supplies. Fresh fruit arrives on the boat every three weeks, and the best produce sells out fast. When his mobile phone broke recently, it was sent for repair in South Africa and came back two months later.

As one of St Helena’s two GPs, O’Brien is continuing a long tradition of Irish medical presence on the island. Its most famous resident, Napoleon, was attended to during his enforced exile by an Irish doctor, Barry O’Meara.

Then, there was the curious case of Dr James Barry, another Cork medic who performed one of the first caesarean sections in 1826 and lived on St Helena for two years. After his death, it was discovered that Barry was, in fact, a woman.

O’Brien’s life is more prosaic. Clinics are based in the island’s 31-bed hospital, which boasts an operating theatre and other basic facilities. Scans have to be reported remotely from South Africa, while specialist services are provided by visiting doctors. Serious cases have to be sent to Cape Town, where patients can spend months away from home.

In June, O’Brien found himself as the leading doctor in the first ever evacuation from St Helena, involving a sick premature baby who was flown to hospital in Cape Town.

Just as in Ireland, he spends a lot of time dealing with chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. But unlike at home, he can access tests directly. “In Galway, I used to have to send patients to a hospital appointment in order for an ultrasound to be booked. You also realise how much more careful we could be in Ireland with our drug spending when you work somewhere that is more prudent with its drug choices and budget.

When he signed up for the posting, St Helena was on the cusp of great change, with the planned opening of a €300 million airport in the spring. However, the opening of the airport, which was built with a view to opening up the island to tourism, has been postponed indefinitely because of safety concerns over the wind shear. The project, already dubbed Britain’s biggest overseas aid fiasco, risks becoming a white elephant.

So for another while yet, St Helena remains marooned and apart. A round trip visit for two people costs a prohibitive €8,000 from Europe, making it unlikely that the parents of O’Brien and his wife will get to make that hoped-for visit to see their only grandchild.

The other worry we always have is the amount of time it would take to get home in an emergency if needed - a minimum of one week and possibly up to three, depending on where the RMS St Helena is in its schedule.

Our Comment: We included this article not because it contained any radical new insights into our island, but simply because it was the first thing we’ve seen in ages that was not a political jibe at the UK government using our airport as an excuse.

See also: Could you live here?

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Antwerp aviation company organises first commercial flight to Saint Helena

By André Orban,, 19th July 2016{2}

The Aviation Factory brings the first three tourists by plane to the ‘island of Napoleon

Bombardier Challenger 300 [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Bombardier Challenger 300

First airborne tourists [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
Our first airborne tourists{7}

Saint Helena is a small island located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about four hours away from the African continent. Until recently, the island where Napoleon died was only accessible by sea, because there was no airport. The British government decided in 2011 to build an airport on the island. However, few aircraft have the range and the ability to fly to Saint Helena and to land and take off. On July 13th, 2016 the first flight took place bringing three tourists to Saint Helena. This première was awarded to the Antwerp aviation company The Aviation Factory.

Saint Helena is best known as the place where Napoleon spent the last years of his life (after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815). He died there in exile on 5th May 1821. His residence, Longwood House, is now on display as a museum. The commissioning of Saint Helena Airport will boost the tourism and the economy on the island.

The construction of Saint Helena Airport began in 2013 with 2,000 tonnes of sand imported from Namibia. On May 20th, 2016 the first plane landed, but it was not until July 13th before the first passenger flight arrived there. A Bombardier Challenger 300 from ExecuJet brought the first three tourists to the small island. The aircraft with registration ZS-ACT took off at 8.30am in Lome, capital of Togo, and landed four hours later at Saint Helena Airport. The aircraft then departed the next day to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Benoit Duvivier, one of the driving forces behind The Aviation Factory, was responsible for organizing the first ever commercial flight.

Saint Helena was discovered in 1502 by Portuguese explorer João da Nova. From 1645 to 1659 the island was claimed by the Dutch Republic. In 1658 the British East India Company founded Jamestown and shortly thereafter took possession of the whole island. In 1673 the Dutch recaptured Saint Helena, but two months later they were again expelled by the British. The island then always remained in English hands. By the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Saint Helena, however, lost its strategic value.

See also: Fly here?Fly Yourself Here

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RMS St Helena makes final call to the UK

By Rebecca Moore, Passenger Ship Technology, 9th June 2016{2}

RMS St Helena passes through Tower Bridge on its last UK call [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]
RMS St Helena passes through Tower Bridge on its last UK call

RMS Saint Helena has made its final call to the UK, amid news that entities in countries as diverse as Norway, Australia and Guernsey have expressed interest in taking on the vessel once it is decommissioned from its current service.

PST was lucky enough to be invited on board to mark its last UK call and to celebrate the vessel’s 26 years of service to St Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The last working Royal Mail ship is retiring from service due to an airport opening on St Helena Island later this year.

PST understands that both Alderney’s Chamber of Commerce and shipping lines in countries including Norway, Sweden and Australia have expressed interest in buying the vessel.

St Helena Line Ltd chairman Matthew Young said to the gathering on board: “It is truly the last working RM ship that actually transports mail and has served the island well for the last 26 years, it has been remarkable in maintaining its schedule over the last 26 years and has performed the service remarkably well… it is very much a living entity as far as the island is concerned and is described as a lifeline, which it really is as without it, the island would have a significant problem.

Looking ahead, he said: “We don’t know what the future holds for it yet but clearly that will be determined in the not too distant future. But I am sure there will be life after the service to the island and it will continue for many years to come to serve some other province.

The 6,767gt ship has capacity for 156 passengers and 56 crew as well as cargo.

The last ship to be built in Aberdeen, it last underwent a major refit seven years ago, when passenger capacity was upgraded from 128 to 156 by adding extra cabins; it also underwent a technical overhaul as it was refitted with new, more fuel economical engines, the ship’s captain Andrew Greentree who started his career on RMS St Helena as a cadet told PST. The refit took place in Cape Town. The ship operates on low sulphur fuel.

Our Comment: There were many articles about the RMS’s visit to the UK; we chose one from a more unusual source.

See also: RMS St HelenaFly here?

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{a} Pictures: Lord Ashcroft

{b} Ed Thorpe


{1} The “most extraordinary place on earth”.

{2} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{3} If anyone from SHG (or anywhere else, for that matter) wants to offer us such a grant please contact us.

{4} While technically this might be considered an advertisement (which Saint Helena Island Info does not carry) we actually see this more as a service to anyone wanting to learn more about our extraordinary island.
Saint Helena Island Info receives no income from any sales and takes no responsibility for any commercial arrangements into which you may enter..

{5} We understand that prior to Napoleon’s exile Napoleon Street was known as Cock Street. We do not know exactly when it was renamed. The Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:Read articles about St Helena]Moonbeams Shop is in Napoleon Street.


{7} In all the coverage this event inevitably received we cannot find the names of these ground-breaking people!

{8} Queen Mary, actually, in Napoleon Street{5}.


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