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Read articles about St Helena (Older)

Older articles about St Helena

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

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

This page is a continuation of Read articles about St Helena, containing older items. Even older St Helena stuff can be found on this blog: Much Older St Helena Stuff{1}. If you want to read about how St Helena has been mis-reported, see our Do they mean us? page.

The Library, 1961
The Library, 1961{b}

Below: Expats from ‘Swindolena’ to gather for sports day this weekendRemote St Helena Airport shrugs off ‘World’s Most Useless’ tagSt Helena’s cherished lifeline ship to return as anti-piracy armouryNew British postage labels feature ships that have carried the mailEnd of an era as RMS St Helena makes final voyage from Cape TownSt Helena: The island where everyone knows your nameUnusual Coverage!Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?Napoleon, tourists, divers and flu: flight opens up remote St HelenaFirst commercial flight touches down at St HelenaFisherman’s Wish Comes TrueSailing to Saint Helena - one of the world’s most remote communitiesBones of St Helena

St Helena expats from ‘Swindolena’ to gather for sports day this weekend

By Daniel Angelini, Swindon Advertiser, 24th August 2018{2}

DID you know that Swindon is known as ‘Swindolena’ to St Helena expats?

The town is known to residents of the remote island by this nickname because of its large community of expats, known as Saints, from that island. St Helena, located in the South Atlantic, is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world and its current population is around 4,300 people. The UK’s largest gathering of St Helena expats takes place over this Bank Holiday weekend on Saturday and Sunday in Reading this weekend. Saints from across the country will gather at Reading Abbey Rugby Football Club for a weekend of fun activities at the annual St Helena Sport Day. The event has been taking place in Reading for nearly 40 years and is organised by the charitable St Helena Association. To find out more, visit sthelenasportsday.com{3}.

See also: Reading Sports • Sport in St Helena

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Remote St Helena Airport shrugs off ‘World’s Most Useless’ tag

By Andreas Spaeth, Airline Ratings, 27th April 2018{2}

The airport on the remote British Overseas Territory island St Helena, once dismissed as the world’s most useless airport by British media, is proving to be a reliable asset.

The airport, built for 285m British Pounds ($A521m) in taxpayer’s money, opened on the South Atlantic island in June 2016 but it took another year from it to be certified to receive commercial passenger jets.

The originally planned Boeing 737-800 flights by Comair (flying as a British Airways franchise) from Johannesburg didn’t materialize after severe wind shear was detected on the first test flight in April, 2016.

In October 2017, after another bidding process was won by private South African regional carrier Airlink, regularly scheduled flights to one of the most far-away places on the globe started with one weekly flight from Johannesburg with a fuel stop in Windhoek/Namibia.

The airline now utilizes its two factory-fresh Embraer E190ARs with increased gross weight and extra thrust.

Official statistics by the St Helena government show that from October 2016 to February 2018 a total of 1,417 passengers arrived on the Airlink flights and 1,386 departed. And that was while the sole former link to the outside world, the mail ship RMS St Helena needing five days one way to reach Cape Town, was finally decommissioned only in February, 2018.

Overall, operations have been unexpectedly smooth and on-time on average, with just one flight having had to be postponed and rescheduled due to weather in the first half year of operations.

Between the airport’s opening in June 2016 and March 21, 2018, there were a total of 81 aircraft movements carrying 3,376 passengers, among them 16 Medevac flights operated exclusively by Guardian Air out of Lanseria airport near Johannesburg.

The demand for seats has exceeded expectations, Airlink CEO Rodger Foster told airlineratings.com.

The Saints, as the 4,300 islanders call themselves, desperately hope for more than just one weekly service. There are hints this might happen later in 2018 as South African and Namibian authorities negotiate on issues related to routing and fifth freedom rights.

But these seem tiny issues compared to connecting one of the world’s most remote islands to international aviation, a major milestone in St Helena’s history, an island famous for being the place in which exiled French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to live the last years of his life from 1815 to his death in 1821.

The closest land is neighbouring Ascension Island, occupied solely by a military air base, 1,131km to the northwest, and also a British Overseas Territory. To reach the next continent, Africa, one needs to travel 1,950km to the east to reach the city of Namib in Angola. Turning west it takes 2,900km to get to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil.

The extreme location and the current low passenger market volume, as St Helena tries to build up a tourism industry and hopes for tens of thousands of visitors per year in the future, makes it difficult to make commercial flights economically viable.

Balancing the economics of these flights is a serious challenge as due to its remoteness and the concomitant logistics issues, fuel at the island is extremely expensive, as are all other aspects of aircraft handling due mainly to the very low passenger traffic volume, says Foster.

One major criticism involves ticket prices, which start at 804 pounds (AUD 1,470) return in economy. These are not discounted for Saints, making the journey by air unaffordable for a populace earning an average annual income of just 8,000 pounds.

The UK government underwrites the air service, St Helena governor Lisa Honan tells airlineratings.com. If the average load factor drops below 48 passengers per flight, the UK government will pay for the losses.

Initially only up to 76 of the 98 seats were sold, with two extra ones occupied by Airlink maintenance mechanics monitoring the aircraft en route and on the ground.

Now, thanks to two aircraft with enhanced engines, 87 seats can be sold.

In December 2017 Airlink got its first leased E190AR aircraft, equipped with CF34-10E6 engines instead of the E5 variant. This offers thrust increased by 1,000lbf to a total of 21,000lbf per engine.

The additional performance offers an advantage in hot and high situations such as prevalent on departure from Windhoek at 5,640ft/1,719m of altitude for St Helena, explains the CEO. The ambient temperatures at Windhoek during summer can be high, often more than 35°C and the E6 engines will enable an increase in payload by approximately 1,200kgs, which is of material benefit especially in terms of revenue opportunity.

When airlineratings.com took flight SA8131, the one-hour refuelling stop in Windhoek is used to fill the two tanks almost to capacity, giving Captain Johann Du Toit 13 tons of fuel.

That is enough for an endurance of six hours, taking us to St Helena, do several approaches and if need be continue on to Ascension as our alternate airport including extra provisions, Du Toit points out. Though a point of no return (PNR) is calculated over the ocean, it’s more academic than of practical importance. It’s done to ensure ETOPS doesn’t live up to its nickname: Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim.

About three hours after taking off from Windhoek, the approach into St Helena’s main runway 20 starts. Captain Du Toit announces he might have to go around.

This is apparently his reading of wind shear warnings in the cockpit, and enough for some fearful flyers to cover their faces in terror. Then the routine announcement on these flights is made by the flight attendant:

Approaches to St Helena can experience turbulence, please make sure your seat belts are fastened tightly.

Only minutes before touchdown, the island, a tiny rocky pancake of land becomes visible in the endless Atlantic.

On the two-mile final for runway 20 aircraft are usually hit by swirling updrafts while battling crosswinds. Today, a short moment of light turbulence occurs, followed by a very smooth landing without any hitch.

This is because just after the threshold, having been relocated 280m down the runway and leaving a Landing Distance Available (LDA) of 1,550m, the wind dies down, due to the shelter the King and Queen pinnacles on the left provide.

After a flight time of 3:22 hours from Windhoek, another scheduled flight to this formerly almost inaccessible island has landed safely and on time. Proving again that the label as the world’s most useless airport is utter nonsense.

See also: Fly here

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St Helena’s cherished lifeline ship to return as anti-piracy armoury

By Joe Brock, www.reuters.com, 18th April 2018{2}

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The RMS St Helena, Britain’s last working postal ship, was for nearly three decades the main source of contact between one of humanity’s remotest islands and the outside world.

The second RMS St Helena lies berthed in Cape Town harbour, South Africa
The second RMS St Helena lies berthed in Cape Town harbour, South Africa

Now the ship, cherished by the 4,500 residents of British-ruled St. Helena, will start a new life as a floating armoury, packed with automatic weapons, bullet-proof jackets and night vision goggles, all stored for maritime security operatives.

Renamed the MNG Tahiti, the 340-foot ship will undergo some tweaks before sailing to the Gulf of Oman where it will be used to ferry guns and guards to passing vessels navigating stretches of water lurking with pirates, its new operator said on Tuesday.

The ship is good to go with a few adjustments, said Mark Gray, a former British Royal Marine and founder of floating armoury firm MNG Maritime. By the middle of the year we hope to have her operating.

Tahiti Shipping, a subsidiary of MNG Maritime, bought the ship for an undisclosed fee on Tuesday, the St. Helena government said in a statement.

The construction last year of a commercial airport on the isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic rendered the 156-passenger ship obsolete, prompting St. Helena authorities to put it up for sale and begin planning a gala farewell.

Before weekly flights to South Africa began in October, a five-night voyage to Cape Town on the RMS St Helena was the only major transport route off an island made famous as the windswept outpost where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died.

The yellow-funnelled ship was purpose-built by the British government in 1989 to service the island and is the last of a royal mail fleet that once connected the far-flung tentacles of the old British Empire.

Its final voyage was marked with a public holiday on St. Helena, with flag-waving crowds gathering on the rocky coastline to catch one last glimpse of the ship that had delivered them everything from car parts to Christmas turkeys.

A flotilla of fishing vessels and yachts flanked the ship with those on board popping champagne corks as plumes of balloons were released into the sky to cheers from St. Helena residents, known locally as ‘Saints’.

I fully appreciate the role this vessel has played in all ‘Saints’ lives, MNG Maritime’s Gray said. It is not a responsibility we take on lightly. We will continue to treat her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

See also: RMS St Helena

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New British postage labels feature ships that have carried the mail

By Denise McCarty, Linns’ Stamp News, 16th February 2018{2}

New post & go self-adhesive postage labels
Royal Mail issued new post & go self-adhesive postage labels Feb. 14th featuring six ships, representing the history of mail transportation by sea.

A generic New York City skyline of the 1930s is pictured on a new self-adhesive postage label from Great Britain’s Royal Mail. The label is part of a set of six designs focusing on the theme of mail by sea.

Issued Feb. 14th, Mail by Sea is the fourth set in the Royal Mail Heritage series with the theme of mail transportation. The previous three sets in the series were Transport (Feb. 17th, 2016), Mail by Rail (Feb. 15th, 2017), and Mail by Air (Sept. 13th, 2017).

Royal Mail calls such labels ‘post & go.’ The service inscriptions are printed at the time of purchase.

The label showing the New York City skyline honours RMS Queen Mary, which made its maiden voyage May 27th, 1936. In announcing the new post & go labels, Royal Mail said that with the advent of Queen Mary, mail could be transported from England to New York to less than four days.

This flagship of the Cunard Line transported more than the mail.

The website said: For three years after her maiden voyage, the Queen Mary was the grandest ocean liner in the world carrying Hollywood celebrities like Bob Hope and Clark Gable, royalty like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dignitaries like Winston Churchill. During this time she even set a new speed record, which she held for 14 years. But when the Queen Mary docked in New York in September 1939 that would be the last time she would carry civilian passengers for many years.

After serving as a troop ship during World War II, Queen Mary returned to passenger service in July 1947. Twenty years later, Queen Mary made its last voyage, arriving in Long Beach, Calif., Dec. 6th, 1967, where it remains as a floating hotel, attraction, and event and wedding venue.

The other five labels cover more than 200 years in sea mail history, from the packet Antelope in 1780 to RMS St Helena in 1990.

Antelope was captured twice by the French, in 1781 and 1782. In 1783, the packet’s crew successfully fought off the French privateer Atalanta. Among other awards, the crew were praised for the successful protection of the mail by postmaster general of the United Kingdom, Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

RMS St Helena was designed and built to carry mail, cargo and passengers to and from the remote South Atlantic island after which she is named, according to Royal Mail.

The ship’s website reports: She is one of only two ocean-going vessels in the world still to carry the venerable title of Royal Mail Ship, held in the past by so many famous British passenger liners.

The site also describes the range of supplies the ship carries to St Helena as wind turbines to automotive parts; sheep, goats, and Christmas turkeys to furniture, food and paint.

The other three labels depict SS Great Western, 1838; SS Britannia, 1887; and RMS Olympic, 1911.

Designed by engineer Isambard Brunel, Great Western was the first steamship built for the purpose of crossing the Atlantic. In 1847, this steamship was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.

The passenger liner Britannia set a record in November 1887 carrying the mail from Brindisi, Italy, to Adelaide, Australia, in 23 days and 10 hours.

The sister ship to RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic was the largest British-built passenger ship in regular service before the introduction of Queen Mary. Like the Titanic, Olympic included a dedicated post office and mail room.

Royal Mail Group Ltd. designed the labels, using illustrations by Andrew Davidson. International Security Printers printed them by gravure. Each label measures 56 millimetres by 25mm.

These postage labels are available from terminals in post office branches throughout the United Kingdom. The terminals allow customers to weigh their letters and packages, pay the postage, and print the appropriate label.

Royal Mail is offering a first-day cover franked with all six Mail by Sea labels. The labels also are packaged with a carrier card that includes additional information about the history of carrying mail by sea.

See also: RMS St Helena

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End of an era as RMS St Helena makes final voyage from Cape Town

Traveller 24, 25th January 2018{2}

Cape Town - A British ship that was once a lifeline to the outside world for St Helena has begun its last voyage to the remote South Atlantic island where Napoleon died in exile.

The RMS St Helena on Wednesday, 24th January left the South African city of Cape Town on a final round-trip journey of three weeks to St. Helena and Ascension, another British-ruled island. After that, another ship will transport cargo about once a month to St Helena.

The only means of regular passenger travel will be by air, thanks to a South African airline that started a weekly commercial flight in October after the delayed opening of an airport.

Ship mechanic Lionel Peters says the ‘royal mail’ vessel, which sailed to St. Helena for nearly three decades, will be missed.

Cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, St Helena, which lies isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is now reachable by plane for the first time.

The aviation breakthrough has promises to lift the British-run territory from obscurity and bring it within reach of international tourists. The arrival of the first commercial flight in 2017 was also a relief for islanders frustrated by a delay to the opening because of high winds.

After years of procrastination, London gave the green light in 2011 a full runway on the island. The ambition was to bring it within six hours of mainland Africa instead of the five days previously needed to make the ocean voyage from Cape Town. British officials hoped that 30,000 tourists a year would visit the island, which is home to just 4,500 residents - known as ‘Saints’.

See also: RMS St Helena • Fly here • Visitor Information

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St Helena: The island where everyone knows your name

By Emma Thomson, ‘Stuff’, New Zealand, 29th December 2017{2}

Control tower and terminal buildings
The control tower and terminal buildings are seen from the window of a passenger plane as it takes off from St Helena airport
RMS St Helena
The RMS St Helena sails in the harbour in Jamestown
Napoleon’s Tomb
Napoleon’s Tomb lies in a clearing near Alarm Forest, Saint Helena. The French Emperor was exiled to the island before dying in 1821, with his body returning to France in 1840
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral in St Pauls, St Helena
Old graffiti
Old graffiti welcoming the RMS St Helena adorns a deserted World War II gun emplacements at the harbour
Jacob’s Ladder
A man poses for a photograph at the top of the 699-step Jacob’s Ladder
Travellers disembark
Travellers disembark the second scheduled passenger flight at St Helena airport in Prosperous Bay, Saint Helena
View of the harbour
A view of the harbour in Jamestown, Saint Helena

I’m going to break the first rule of travel writing and mention the view from the aircraft window. In this case, you see, it really is important. For four hours, cotton-ball clouds had been rolled out across an unbroken blanket of blue.

Cabin crew to seats, please, instructed the captain, his voice tight with nervous concentration.

Seated aboard only the second commercial flight to St Helena - one of the world’s most remote islands - I’m among the very first to see her like this.

For half a millennium she’s only ever been seen from the sea: an impenetrable ring of volcanic rock hunched against the restless Atlantic waves. Now I can glimpse her emerald interior of mist-laced, fern-filled forests. The only chink in her armour is a candy-coloured clutch of buildings squeezed into a 1000ft ravine - the capital, Jamestown.

The new airport - built at a cost of £285.5 million (NZ$541.3m) - was due to open last year, but suffered a series of setbacks while they solved the problem of wind shear - essentially updrafts of ocean wind that hit the rocks and churn upwards, pushing the plane down.

It was dubbed the world’s most useless airport, but that’s unfair. Parking on a pebble is downright tricky.

Only four pilots in the world are currently qualified to fly into St Helena, says Jaco Henning, the man who was responsible for landing the inaugural flight on October 14.

We’ve been training intensively since March.

Until now, if you wanted to reach St Helena it would have taken five nights sailing aboard the RMS St Helena from Cape Town - a seafaring tradition that hasn’t changed in more than 500 years, since the island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502.

It is hoped the new airport will bring the chance of self-sufficiency to an island previously dependent on aid from DFID, Britain’s Department for International Development. Now I don’t have to wait three weeks for my next client, explained Aaron Legg, a fifth-generation ‘saint’ - as locals are known - who has combined 4x4 adventure tours with his family’s tradition of farming.

It will mean I can actually run a business.

Reversing his vehicle up an off-road track to an outcrop called Flagstaff, he suggested we get out and hike towards the peak. The trees were hunched over protectively against the ceaseless wind; beneath them sprang delicate yellow flowers.

Everlastings, said Aaron, gently cupping the petals. The seeds were sent over by Lady Holland to Napoleon [who was exiled here at Longwood House] and now they’re everywhere. St Helena is a melting pot of plants - hibiscus, bananas, flax - and people - Indians, Madagascans, Sri Lankans and Chinese - who have passed through here over the centuries.

What’s it like to live somewhere so isolated? I asked, staring out at the limitless ocean, its hazy lines melding with the sky until it feels as if you’re floating in blue orbit.

I was 18 years old when I saw an escalator for the first time. Ever seen the movie Crocodile Dundee? I was exactly like that! Can you imagine a young boy from Sandy Bay driving through Cape Town at rush hour? I’d never seen traffic lights before. I’d never seen a KFC or a Nando’s - I bought a sweet-chilli twister and went straight back for a second, he giggled, as we kept an eye out for the red flash of a Madagascan Fody, a tiny bird.

Now the airport gives me the freedom to travel, without taking too much time away from my business.

Isolation has crafted the island’s charm. The hurricane news cycles we’re exposed to daily don’t swirl here. Nothing is rushed. Clothes ordered online can take months to arrive and mobile phone coverage wasn’t rolled out until September 2015. Life isn’t dominated by screens. In the late afternoons, I would sit in the living room of Farm Lodge, owned by Stephen Biggs and Maureen Jonas, listening to the reassuring chime of the grandfather clock and the clackety-click of Katie the dog’s claws on the polished hardwood floors. Good Housekeeping magazines from 2004 lay spread on the table and I could hear the occasional bleat from their 36 sheep.

Following the introduction of weekly flights to the island, resident St Helenians, known locally as ‘Saints’, are preparing for a potential influx of tourists and investment as well as enjoying the possibilities brought by much faster transport links with South Africa.

Thirty-five after tonight’s dinner, winked Stephen, arriving with a G&T.

Everyone I passed in my rented Ford Focus would wave from behind their steering wheels. Slowly a cloak of calm unclenched my shoulders. Instead of hurtling along the winding lanes between appointments, I would pootle. Fifth gear doesn’t get much action on St Helena. Neither does fourth or third, for that matter. Signposts are merely a suggestion. If you get lost, who cares? The only witnesses are the cows.

From day one, Saints stopped on the streets of Jamestown to ask: How you, lovey? in their smooth lilt. By day two, people I’d never met were greeting me by name in that mellifluous accent.

We sound like a bunch of pigeons when we get together - we talk so fast, chortled Ivy Robinson, owner of Wellington House B&B, as we sat in her lounge. We go ‘up the eel’ - not up the hill! My dad always said I had to ‘talk tidy’ (in proper English), she said, shrugging off the suggestion.

Their nearest neighbour is Africa, 1931 kilometres away, but locals have nothing in common with that continent. Although St Helena is classed as a British Overseas Territory, the Saints aren’t particularly British either. Slaves (from ships redirected here after abolition in 1833), Chinese labourers and Boer War prisoners have all added to the ethnic mix.

Early on Thursday morning, the RMS St Helena steamed into harbour. Local ladies sat under a bench festooned with pink blossoms waiting to eye up the arrivals and soak up the gossip. The atmosphere at the airport is the same, said Stephen, who had turned up there to welcome his new guests.

There are lots of families showing up to greet each other. We’ve mentally carried over the new form of arrival and it’s the place to be seen now on a Saturday lunchtime.

But when the RMS St Helena sails for the last time from Cape Town on January 24, arriving in St Helena on February 18, bidding goodbye will be bittersweet for most islanders.

When she’s taken out of service, you won’t find me there [on the docks]. It’s too emotional. All our lives she’s been there, through good and bad - she helped us survive, said Ivy, her hands twisted nervously in her lap at the thought.

However, even bigger change is snaking its way beneath the ocean. A branch of the South Atlantic Express submarine fibre-optic cable - connecting South Africa to the US East Coast - will arrive in 2020, ending St Helena’s digital isolation. It will have a much bigger effect than the airport, said Helena Bennett, the island’s director of tourism.

Both developments will give younger Saints a shot at a future that doesn’t force them off the island in search of work. Indeed, the new four-star Mantis hotel in Main Street is already providing jobs.

It remains to be seen whether St Helena will be made or marred by the change. Back home, I found myself greeting every car I passed out of habit - but their windscreens were empty of waves.

FEATURES:

The World’s Most Remote…Distillery: Local distiller Paul Hickling puts prickly pear cacti to good use by harvesting them to produce Tungi, the local bush brandy. Saints have been making it since 1881 following a recipe brought by ivory traders from Africa. It won silver at the 2007 and 2009 Bartenders’ Challenge. Also on offer are a Jamestown gin made with Bermuda juniper berries and a rum based on spices from the Orient.

Whale sharks: Clusters of these gentle filter-feeding giants gather off the rocky shores from November to April, peaking in January and February. With visibility sometimes reaching 164ft, divers and snorkelers are guaranteed jaw-dropping photographs. Two operators on the island offer day trips.

Marathon: Held every November as part of the St Helena Festival of Running, the event raises money for the National Amateur Sports Association of St Helena and covers a 26-mile route from Francis Plain, weaving through the four districts of Sandy Bay, Longwood, St Pauls and Levelwood.

See also: Fly here • Visitor Information

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Unusual Coverage!

Published in ‘Le Petit Quotidien’, 25th October 2017{2}

You can download and read this article in a French children’s newspaper (but NB it is in French - you’ll figure it out!)

Our Comment: We think the cartoon strip pontificates that the weight of the aircraft landing sinks the island. So far we haven’t noticed any evidence of this, but we’ll keep you informed!

See also: Visitor Information • Fly here

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Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?

By Fiona Parker, Daily Mail, 19th October 2017{2}

Daily Mail 20171019

Long-term relationships often lead to slowly uncovered secrets about partners, but Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, was in for a shock after 26 years of enjoying a physical relationship with what keepers thought was a female. Elderly Frederica who lives on St Helena with Jonathan is actually Frederic.

Many people who have been in long-term relationships will tell you they slowly uncovered secrets about their partner over the years. But none of them are likely to have been as surprised as Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, when he discovered something ground-breaking about his lover of 26 years.

Jonathan 1990
Not a 1900 photo

At 186 years old, Jonathan is the most senior resident of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. He arrived on St Helena in his thirties, as a gift to the governor. He also famously once posed with prisoners held captive on the island during the Boer war.

But late into his eighties, Jonathan became irritable and began knocking over benches and interrupting cricket games between residents on the lawn in front of the governor’s Georgian mansion.

Vets decided he needed a girlfriend and in 1991 he was given a mate. Romance blossomed with Frederica and it wasn’t long before the couple began enjoying regular mating sessions every Sunday morning, The Times reported. But despite their amorous antics, the pair never had any young. Now, almost three decades after the romance began, the reason has been revealed. When vets went to repair a lesion on the tortoise’s shell it was discovered that Frederica was actually a Frederic, putting a whole new spin on the relationship.

The island’s vet Catherine Man said the pair were creatures of habit and ate and slept at set times, living off a healthy diet of vegetable titbits and vitamins. But Jonathan now suffers from cataracts and his sense of smell is gone.

A bill was introduced last year to allow same-sex marriage on the island, which has a population of 4,255, but it was withdrawn after local outrage. Consultations are being held across the island to canvass opinion on whether a bill should be presented to the council before a court case that is set to challenge the current law on discrimination grounds.

Our Comment: This piece is amusing but, typically, full of errors. Frederik[a] could hardly be described as ‘elderly’ Jonathan arrived aged at least 50; the photo was pre-1886 and not with Boer prisoners; and only a few noisy people objected to the Marriage Bill - most Saints treat minorities equally. Still at least they didn’t manage to make yet another dig at our most useless airport

See also: Jonathan the tortoise • Get Married Here

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Napoleon, tourists, divers and flu: flight opens up remote St Helena

By Ed Cropley, Reuters, 14th October 2017{2}

JAMESTOWN, St Helena (Reuters) - On St Helena, the remote volcanic outcrop in the South Atlantic where Napoleon breathed his last, big changes are afoot - well, big by St Helena standards.

In the heart of the capital, Jamestown (population 600), Constable Cowie is worried about the Christmas traffic; Craig, the dive-master, is checking his emails twice a day; and Lucille, the local taxi magnate, is introducing 24-hour shifts.

For the 4,500 residents of the island, separated from Africa by nearly 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of ocean, the arrival this past weekend of the first ever commercial flight was cause for celebration and marked another step closer to their inclusion in the 21st century.

Saints, as locals are known, only got mobile phones and the Internet 18 months ago, supplementing the five-day boat trip to Cape Town that represented their only connection with the outside world.

Now, there is a weekly flight from Johannesburg - via Namibia’s Windhoek - to the spectacular St Helena airport, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Locals are hoping for a steady trickle of aviation thrill-seekers, French history buffs and whale-watchers.

According to Craig Yon, owner of diving company Into the Blue, a group of Swedish divers who had been contemplating a trip to see Whale Sharks next year booked within minutes of reading online that the inaugural flight had landed safely.

Things are really picking up, he said. Before, I’d only check my emails once a day. Now I have to check them in the morning and the afternoon.

FLU IMPORTS?

There has been talk since the 1930s of an airport on St Helena, the involuntary abode of British colonial adversaries ranging from French emperor Napoleon to the Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and 6,000 Afrikaners taken prisoner in the Boer War.

The current site was selected a decade ago after the prime location on the notoriously craggy 16x8 km (10x5 mile) island was ruled out because it was home to an important colony of the endangered wire bird, a type of indigenous plover.

Even after its construction, a mammoth engineering feat involving 8 million cubic metres (yards) of rock and 285 million pounds ($378 million) of British taxpayer money, the airport nearly didn’t happen.

The first test flights were buffeted by vicious cross-winds, making it too dangerous for large aircraft to land and leading to an 18-month delay in its opening, during which time the British press dubbed it the world’s most useless airport.

Saturday’s landing, in a 100-seater Embraer, involved a pre-touch-down briefing about emergency go-around procedures but passed off smoothly, to the cheers and delight of those on board and hundreds of Saints crammed into the glass-fronted terminal.

I was quite happy to see the plane land safely because there have been a lot of problems around that, with the wind shear, said 22-year-old police officer Sophie Cowie, whose beat is managing the traffic on Main St., Jamestown’s one road.

While some in Britain may question the value for money of the airport - more than 60,000 pounds per Saint - for the islanders it has already proved its worth, enabling several emergency medical evacuations, including a newborn child.

However, one possible unintended consequence of more arrivals is the increased spread of disease to an island whose animal and human inhabitants have been protected from many of the world’s germs.

In the past week, the island’s schools have been almost empty due to a bout of flu. Said to have been brought in on the boat from Cape Town, it has laid low 80 percent of pupils.

Our Comment: Mobile ‘phones came 18 months ago; the Internet has been here for 20+ years; and there are two principal roads in Jamestown, not one!

See also: Fly here • Visitor Information

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First commercial flight touches down at St Helena

www.itv.com/news, 14th October 2017{2}

The long-awaited first scheduled airline service to the British overseas territory of St Helena has landed on the remote South Atlantic island.

True to the much-maligned airport’s chequered history, it was late.

The UK taxpayer-funded development saw 78 commercial airline passengers land just before 2pm on Saturday, approximately 45 minutes behind schedule, following their departure from South Africa.

St Helena Airport, built with £285 million of funding from the Department for International Development (DFID), was due to open last year but the launch of commercial flights was delayed because of dangerous wind conditions.

Further trials were carried out in August and the airport was given the go-ahead to begin operations by South African aviation authorities.

Airlink’s Embraer E190-100IGW aircraft was due to land at 1:15pm local time (2:15pm BST) on Saturday but ended up touching down at 1:58pm (2:58pm BST).

Our Comment: We’d just like to point out that, yes - the plane was 45 minutes late, but that was due to a delay in Namibia. Nothing to do with our ‘much-maligned’ Airport!

See also: Fly here • Visitor Information

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A St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes True

Published by Blue Marine Foundation, 20th February 2017{2}

Family Photo of Trevor Thomas
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’ 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 St Helena 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.

See also: Fishing • Visitor 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
The rocky coast of Saint Helena appears off the bow
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
Gorgeous tropical seas surround the barren coast of Saint Helena, although the island’s interior is surprisingly lush
Saint Helena map
Saint Helena map
Saint Helena marked 30,000 miles of cruising on Ceilydh our Woods catamaran
Saint Helena marked 30,000 miles of cruising on Ceilydh our Woods catamaran
Hidden churches lie dotted around the island of Saint Helena
Hidden churches lie dotted around the island of Saint Helena
yachtingworld20170119_07
Jamestown is a British village improbably wedged in a volcanic cleft
Jamestown is a British village improbably wedged in a volcanic cleft
Jamestown, St Helena from Jacob’s Ladder
Jamestown, St Helena from Jacob’s Ladder
Jonathan the 186-year-old tortoise
Jonathan the 186-year-old tortoise
Hiking along coastal trails
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 Fort, in 24 fathoms water. Found riding here His Majesty’s Ships 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 Frederika, 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 Ruperts 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 Ruperts 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: Yachting • Visitor Information

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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
Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest

The bones aren’t in pizza boxes, despite what the rumours said - though it was this very rumour 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 Ruperts 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 Ruperts 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 GraveButcher’s Grave detail
Left: Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave, Right: Butcher’s Grave detail

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 - and, soon after, the role of many Saints shifted from owner to ally.

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 Slaver, 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 Slavers, liberating thousands of captured 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 Ruperts Valley. From aboard a 40-foot catamaran, he wants to film the sea route the captured Slavers 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 Ruperts Bay to the airportRuperts Bay
Left: A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airport, Right: Ruperts Bay

Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation HouseThe airport check the runway as part of their daily routineThe island’s interior
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 Slavers 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 Melliss in 1861, describes how horrified Melliss 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: Attacking the Slave Trade • Ruperts

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More recent items are here. Even older St Helena stuff can be found on this blog: Much Older St Helena Stuff. You could also check out the various sources listed on our Related Sites page.

Credits:
{a} www.bairdmaritime.com{b} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{2}

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Footnotes:
{1} See more blogs.{2} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{3} Or our Reading Sports page.

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