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Maybe it’s a state of mind?

Surrounded by Saints, you’ll think you’re in Paradise{c}


Renowned for a warm, friendly and welcoming attitude to visitors, what are Saints like to live amongst?


If you are thinking of coming here to settle this page should help you get a feel for the people you will be living amongst. You should also read carefully our Could you live here? and Jobs on St Helena pages.

St Helena is not a few acres of Britain in a sub tropical environment. Its remote location and history have conspired to produce a breed of people without equal who, given their lack of natural resources and the relationship with those responsible over the centuries for their governance, have developed a unique personality of their own. A view that Saints, as they are familiarly called, are heavily sun-tanned Englishmen, and wholly British down to Scouts, Guides, brass bands and church-every-Sunday is sadly wide of the mark, illustrating the visitor’s capacity for self-deception.{e}

The Legal Definition

Legal Definition

Unsurprisingly, there is a legal definition of what makes you a Saint, though in practice it only really addresses the subject of who is legally entitled to settle and work on St Helena. It cannot and does not attempt to address the many cultural issues associated with ‘Saint-ness’.

The legislation in question is the Immigration Control Ordinance{1}. You can download this from the Government of St Helena website. In summary it says that you can hold ‘Saint Status’ if either you are ethnically a Saint, i.e. you have one or more Saint parents; you marry or become the Life Partner of a Saint; or you explicitly apply for and are granted Status (after complying with certain rules).

Anyone with Saint Status can reside here, work here without the need to apply for a work permit, and buy and sell land and property here without limits. Non-Saints are restricted in these matters - the precise restrictions vary from time to time.

But, you say, you can become an American Citizen but does that make you truly an American? and that question can only be answered by asking what makes you culturally a Saint?

Saint Culture

I have never been to a place where there are so many friendly, helpful people! Everywhere I went, people waved and said hello.{f}

Do you have to enjoy Country Music? Do you have to like Plo{2}? Do you have to be a Christian? Do you have to go camping at Easter and weep uncontrollably whenever somebody plays ‘My St Helena Island’? Many of these things are typical of Saints, and so could be described as part of the culture, but they are by no means universal. So what follows is an attempt to describe what being a Saint living on St Helena is about.

Until the start of the scheduled commercial air service St Helena was physically a fairly isolated place. Apart from ex-pat Government officials and a relatively low volume of tourists few ‘outsiders’ ever made it here, and even fewer stayed. Their influence on the island’s culture was minimal. So when people describe St Helena as looking a bit like a small English town in the 1950s they may not realise how much this is also true of social attitudes.

Peters Family

The most important place to start is with the family, because it underpins life on St Helena. If a Saint meets another Saint for the first time (which is, of course, rare), the most important question is not where you live or what job you do, it’s Who is you family to?. Knowing somebody’s family allows you to fit them into the map, though it may lead you to make assumptions about them that are not true in the case of this particular individual{3}. Everything is family-based; often even Nicknames, so when ‘Lizzie Dover’ got married she became ‘Lizzie Dick’. Births, Birthdays, Weddings, Baptisms, Anniversaries and Funerals are all big family affairs and everybody attends (unless there’s a family feud in progress, of course!) A large family funeral, which almost always takes place mid-week{4}, can bring the island to a stand-still and no employer would consider refusing time off to attend a funeral{5}. Weddings can pack even the largest Churches and Castle Gardens is never busier than when it’s filled with wedding guests for the post-marriage photo shoot. Resulting from the emphasis on family, elderly care is not a problem on St Helena, with most older people remaining in their family home until physical disabilities make this impossible. After this there is sheltered accommodation or the Community Care Centre, but even there elderly people are regularly visited by family and remain part of family life. Similarly it is not uncommon for a Saint child to be raised by grandparents, uncles/aunts, etc., due to both parents working overseas (where children are not permitted). Family is undoubtedly the most fundamental aspect of being a Saint. However it is worth noting that ‘family’ does not, in many cases, imply a married relationship between the parents, or even that all the children in the group will have the same father or mother{6}. Families are strong and committed units on St Helena, but are flexibly defined.

The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.{g}

Age too is not a big divider on St Helena. As mentioned above, the older members fully participate in family life. You will also see children playing in groups with ages ranging from 5 to 15. The eldest look after the youngest and incorporate them into the play. This is not how it is done elsewhere, where children tend to operate is strictly age-stratified groups, and probably relates to the strong influence of family and the simple fact that if you only played with children of your own age+/-1 your group would be too small for any viable games.

Bus Ride

Celebrations are interesting. Big family events are usually held at the local Community Centre, but what do you do for a Hen Night, or if you and your work colleagues want to celebrate some event, or you simply want to party? Restaurants are too expensive and bars will only usually close for a private party until 10pm. For a group of 20-30 people the answer is a ‘Bus Ride’. This is exactly what the name implies. Everybody boards a bus (possibly a normal take-you-to-work bus, but there are a few dedicated vehicles), and travels around the island, visiting the various bars but by far the majority of drinking and partying takes place on the travelling bus itself. Normally only the bus driver remains sober! It is sometimes said that more than just tobacco is smoked on some bus rides but we have no evidence of this. Plo is often cooked and eaten onboard. Fancy dress (or even rather limited dress) is normal. Pole dancing is popular (the bus provides several convenient poles). The party continues until the participants run out of energy or the bus driver decides to call a halt, and then everybody is delivered either home or to one of the bars to continue partying. A somewhat quieter leisure pursuit is playing the card-game Euchre.

Talking of celebrations, special days, for example St Helena’s Day, are celebrated with great fervour. Compare this to England, where most people could not even say when St George’s Day is…{7} And the Christmas lights in Half Tree Hollow would put Picadilly Circus to shame!

St. James


Church used to be a much bigger thing on St Helena than it is today. Formerly most people attended on a Sunday morning and many on Sunday evening too. Nowadays most younger Saints will only attend for ‘hatching, matching and despatching’. The majority of Saints are officially Anglican{8}, but that does not mean they are all practicing Christians - many were Confirmed simply because the local Anglican Church will not allow you to be a Godparent unless you have been Confirmed, and being a Godparent is an important family position. The non-Anglican churches have a higher rate of attendance amongst their members but even so most younger Saints on a Sunday morning are engaged in more normally British pursuits - washing the car; fixing up the house or just sleeping off the effects of the bus ride the night before! Sunday Lunchtime is when you visit relatives for ‘Sunday Dinner’, which usually goes on well into the evening thus precluding evening Church attendance by all but the dedicated few. It should also be noted that bars used to close at midnight on Saturday and remain closed all day Sunday, as did shops and pretty-much everything else. Now the bars don’t close until 1:30am Sunday and re-open early on Sunday morning. Shops open Sundays and a 2017 Ordinance now allows businesses to open and alcohol to be sold on Good Friday and Christmas Day (previously prohibited). The various religions on St Helena operate separately but apparently without open rancour{9}. Stories are occasionally told of people being refused jobs because they are of the ‘wrong’ religion, but then rumours abound here about almost anything and no hard evidence has ever been uncovered. Even atheists are tolerated{10}, but are treated as something peculiar. So does all of this mean the Church no longer influences life on St Helena? Not at all. Discussions about equalising Marriage to include same-sex couples in 2017 (as is required by Our Constitution) demonstrated that the Church (which opposed the move) is still able to rally considerable support, even amongst the leaders on St Helena society. Superstition and a belief in horoscopes and ghosts are widespread.

Radio 90.5MHz

The radio plays an important part in St Helena life. Before TV and the Internet it was the primary means of official news distribution (though rumour was - and still is - quicker). Many older Saints had limited literacy so radio took over where newspapers could not reach. Even though most Saints now have access to TV and/or the Internet, wherever you go you will hear a radio playing, especially in shops and even in offices. Birthday dedications are more essential than birthday cards{11}. ‘The Announcements’ (radio adverts), read after the News, are so popular that when you contact Connect Saint Helena Ltd. to ask why your electricity has gone off they will advise that they announced the interruption on the radio and be incredulous that you therefore didn’t know.

Taking about rumour, it has been said that the only thing that can exceed the speed of light is a rumour on St Helena. Maybe it started when the newspaper and radio were Government-controlled and only told people what the Government of St Helena wanted them to know, or perhaps it’s much older. A woman seen accepting a lift in a man’s car will start stories spreading that they are ‘Talking To’ each other, i.e. having an affair. Mis-deeds of the ex-pat Government officials are the basis of many rumours, many of which have no basis whatsoever in fact. Anything that might happen on St Helena is surrounded by a selection of rumours ranging from: It will happen; It won’t happen; or Something entirely different will happen. It has been known for a woman to be congratulated by passers-by on her way to the doctor to get the results of her pregnancy test. As a consequence of this, secrecy is much prized and extremely hard to achieve. A rumour is sometimes obliquely referred to as having been heard on ‘Radio Bamboo’.


Sport is popular, though probably no more so than in Britain or Europe. Local sport is usually played Saturdays & Sundays on Francis Plain and many families with both adult and child participants effectively camp out on ‘The Plain’ for the weekend. Plo is prepared and beer is consumed. Things are smoked. Work on Monday is time to rest. What happens if you don’t like sport? For adults there have always been other options but until recently the only group for teenagers was New Horizons which has a sport and physical activities orientated ethos (though not exclusively so). Nowadays Creative Saint Helena runs the ‘In+ventive’{12} arts-based youth club.

One thing that is not popular amongst Saints is precise timekeeping. If something is supposed to start as 10:00 the chances are it will get underway sometime between 10:00 and 10:25. We explore this further (and advance a tentative explanation) on our Time page.

Saint cuisine is also distinctive, being a fusion of the many groups from which Saints were derived. It is not uncommon to be served roast meat & potatoes with curry on the same plate. We explore local food more on our Fishcakes, and other food page.

And then there is the distinctive way Saints speak

Some aspects of Saint Culture can be clearly seen to be routed in the island’s past, particularly its former isolation and relative poverty. Being resourceful is essential. If you wait to import the precise replacement part for your broken car, fridge or other machine it will be out of action for months, even assuming that the necessary part is still available. So you adapt something else to do the job. A car that was originally a Ford can quickly become mostly Ford, partly Vauxhall and with a bit of Toyota thrown in. One of the local garages even machines spare parts for old cars, long since discontinued by the original manufacturer. Also, few people could afford to go away from St Helena on holiday, so in the old days people used to stay in the disused DWS buildings at Piccolo Hill until these were re-purposed to house Government officials. People still go to Blue Hill Community Centre (usually referred to as ‘camping’, but often there are no tents are involved).

Country Music

While most particularly older Saints like Country Music, many other styles are popular on the island which, for example, boasts several Rock Bands (including Blue Magic). SAMS Radio 1 plays mostly non-Country music and most modern styles have their fans. The days when if you didn’t want to listen to Loretta Lynn or Charley Pride you had few opportunities for entertainment are gone (though you would do well to avoid The Standard on Saturday nights and SaintFM Community Radio all day on Sundays!)


Being Gay used to be much more of a problem here than it is today. Homosexual acts between men remained illegal here until 2000, the law only being changed under pressure from the UK. The Church uses its influence to oppose Gay Rights. Recent arrivals of openly Gay ex-pat officials have made ‘being out’ somewhat easier than it was and where previously many Gay Saints simply left the island, a few are now returning, though they are still treated with some suspicion. It is not uncommon for openly anti-Gay jokes to be told in public, even by prominent members of society. If world norms apply around 10% of Saints are Gay but the number of openly ‘out’ Saints on St Helena is probably less than 1%. Same-sex Marriage became possible on St Helena with the passage of the Marriage Ordinance 2017.

Other often-quoted aspects of ‘Saint-ness’ are:


It should be noted that alcohol has been an issue on St Helena since the 18th Century. Early attempts to control the consumption of Arrack largely ended in failure and while most Saints treat alcohol responsibly, a number do not. In this respect St Helena is no different from most communities worldwide, though Governor Hollamby is on record as describing alcohol as the biggest social ill on the island, blaming it for much of the island’s crime. There are few social events on St Helena that do not involve alcohol and even events notionally for children will normally also have a bar. There are few evening adult entertainments where alcohol is not available. Alcohol consumption is a fact-of-life here, though a selection of alcohol-free beers is usually available in bars and at some events. Incidentally, the island’s first ever Temperance Society meeting was held on 21st July 1851, and a Total Abstinence League was formed on 6th November the same year. There is no trace of either today.

Freemasons Hall
Freemasons Hall

Freemasons, 1941
Freemasons, 1941{14}

There are Freemasons on St Helena but they are hardly a secret society. In such a small community everybody knows who the Masons are, and where & when they meet: Alternate Tuesday evenings at the Freemason’s Hall (photo, right) towards the top of Napoleon Street. Their influence on St Helena is unclear - rumours abound about job preferences and police prosecutions being shelved, but then the rumour-mill on St Helena can hardly be considered reliable.

Laid back

Governor Gallwey frequently expressed frustration at what he described as the ‘laid back’ attitude of the Saints. The 1921 Mason report into St Helena Agriculture stated that in Saints self-reliance and initiative are - with a few exceptions - to a great degree lacking. This is all completely untrue. Saints are as industrious and hard-working as anybody anywhere, but what Governor Gallwey and Mason were probably responding to was a lack of enthusiasm for yet another ‘make everybody rich’ plan. So many of these have been tried without success (see our Industries page for many) a degree of cynicism is only to be expected.

When dealing with Saints be aware that they are normally not confrontational. Do not assume that because the person does not advance and defend a counter argument that means they agree with you. The reasons for this may be that in a small and very connected community it is tricky to speak out, or it may be that in not too distant history the ‘colonial masters’ didn’t care what the Saints thought and ignored their opinions (and as the ‘Bailey Bridge’ project and the Airport Wind Shear debacle illustrates, they sometimes still don’t!) This also perhaps explains why many of the letters printed in Our Newspapers are written under a pseudonym{21}.

Inter-District Tug-of-War, 1970s
Inter-District Tug-of-War, 1970s

It used to be that, after your family, the next most important group was your District. Previously you were schooled locally and worked locally, so your District mattered. These days this is much less the case. Most of the local primary schools have closed, all secondary education is centralised at Prince Andrew School and with improved transport only farmers tend to work locally. District distinctions, including regional dialects, have declined and are noticeable only in a few, mostly older Saints.

Half Tree Hollow

Owning your own home is also important. 69% of Saints own the home in which they live and 59% of them own it outright{a}. Houses and the land on which they are built are passed down through the family, and it is not uncommon for the children’s house to be built within the plot owned and occupied by the parents. This explains why areas such as Half Tree Hollow are apparently crowded; sizeable plots have been divided and sub-divided over the generations.

Most Saints are not comfortable with satire, which is often seen as a personal attack rather than humorous. This even applies to politicians…

A view that Saints are just heavily suntanned Englishmen, and wholly British down to Scouts, Guides, brass bands and church-every-Sunday is sadly wide of the mark, illustrating the visitor’s capacity for self-deception.{h}

Many mostly-older Saints still make use of ‘traditional remedies’. Some of these are documented on our page Edible Wild Plants.

Every second year there is a ‘Miss St Helena’ contest to choose a female ‘ambassador’ for the island, despite beauty pageants having been abandoned in much of the rest of the civilised world for being demeaning to women. The ‘swimsuit round’ was not dropped until the 2020 contest, following media criticism after the 2018 event. Entrants have to be at least 18 years of age - the ‘Little Miss St Helena’ contest for children was stopped after the 2008 event.

22.2% of Saints smoke (tobacco); 29.8% of men and 14.5% of women. About 50% more under-50s smoke than over-50s. 16.6% of the people living here who were also born here have never travelled abroad from St Helena.{a}

Entertainment on St Helena, as elsewhere, has altered since the introduction of Television. The difference here is that TV only arrived in 1995 so the inevitable changes (less ‘going out’ - more ‘staying in to watch TV’) are in a much earlier stage of development. In 2021 58% of St Helena households had a subscription for the Sure TV service{a}. This is expected to fall when streaming becomes available (via cable or direct satellite link).

Nationalistic cartoon

One interesting question: are Saints ‘Nationalistic’? The answer depends on your definition of the term. Saints are definitely proud and fiercely defensive of their island. Just try posting a criticism of St Helena on any social media group of your choice and sit back and wait to be attacked from all sides! But normally when one uses the term ‘Nationalistic’ the implication is that Our nation is best and all the others are rubbish, and while Saints certainly believe their homeland is the best place in the world, they are also very happy to live and work in other nations. It is sometimes said there are more Saints living in Cape Town than there are on St Helena. Adding in big populations in the UK, Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands and individuals in just about every continent of the world (including Antarctica{16}), there are certainly far more Saints off St Helena than on it. All of them happily live and work in their chosen residences, adapting to local conditions while maintaining their essential ‘Saint-ness’. So we conclude that Saints are not ‘Nationalistic’ in the way the term is usually used. The cartoon (right) definitely does not represent most Saints’ views of other nations.

Incidentally, most Saint households have a dog and approximately none of them have any definable pedigree.

Effects of Television

It was thought that the introduction of TV in 1995 might change all of the above, but years on there seems to be little evidence of it having significantly done so.

Saints Overseas

Saints Overseas

Saints moving abroad often settle in groups, thus recreating island life as much as possible. The Saints on Ascension Island and The Falklands live, work and socialise together, and most of the Saints in the UK live in an area of Swindon in Wiltshire, usually known as ‘Swindhelena’. Cape Town is said to house more Saints than are living on St Helena. Those that live in the UK, and many living elsewhere in Europe and beyond travel whenever possible for the annual Reading Sports.

Off-Island Saints on social media always refer to St Helena as ‘home’ and remain fiercely loyal, even though many have not lived here or even visited for more than twenty years. There is also a tendency amongst them to be more cautious about developments on St Helena, with many decrying the passing of the RMS St Helena; they perhaps want St Helena to remain as they remember it?

Interviewed for The Sentinel, two Saints living in London responded to the question ‘What do you miss most about St Helena?’ with: Family, the clean air and the natural scenery.

Why ‘Saints’?

The history of the title ‘a Saint’ is obscure. It does not seem to have religious origins. According to our research the term was probably coined by Americans in the 1940s to describe the people from St Helena who worked on Ascension Island building the airport there. It certainly doesn’t seem to appear in any Records earlier than then. St Helena Britannica (2007, Hearl/Schulenberg) accepts this theory. The nickname ‘The Old Saints’ was given to the St Helena Regiment in the 19th Century but it doesn’t seem to have been applied more generally.

Where did Saints come from?

Genetic origins
Genetic origins{i}
‘ Liberated Africans ’
Liberated Africans

The ethnic group that we now know as Saints also has an interesting genesis. Originally the island was settled by ethnic English, who were divided (by social class) into Planters (i.e. landowners) and skilled craftsmen. Unskilled manual labour was provided by ‘Blacks’. A fourth group was ‘The Regiment’ - soldiers serving here, either for The East India Company or the Crown. The following is from an account by a visitor in 1747{j}:

On the whole island, I am informed, there are about 150 families, all of English extraction.

There are commonly about 300 soldiers maintained here, in the company’s service. They are bound to remain five years; their livery is red, faced with blue; and, it being a healthful climate, look as clean and well as any troops in Europe.

There are also 300 slaves, brought from Guinea, Madagascar, and Bengal. The Governor retains a few of them for his own use, but they chiefly belong to the planters or farmers of the island. The slaves are clothed to the legs, but their feet bare. Those of the female sex, who are pretty agreeable, and all well shaped, are very familiar with our sailors.

These groups intermingled to some extent - soldiers married tradesman’s, and sometimes Planters’ daughters - but it was illegal for a non-Black to have any form of relationship with a Black, and the Records give several accounts of quite serious penalties being applied against transgressors (there are some examples on our Titbits from the records page). These divisions remained even after the emancipation of the enslaved in the early 19th Century.

Visiting sailors would have added a contribution; most ships returning from India and the Far East stopped off at St Helena and their crews and passengers came ashore ‘for recreation’. And Chinese labourers arrived in the early 1800s and seemingly intermarried - the surname ‘Yon’ remains to this day{17}.

From about 1840 to 1849 nearly 300 Slavers were intercepted by the Royal Navy and over 15,000 people captured to be enslaved, commonly known as ‘Liberated Africans’, were landed on the island. Most of those who did not die from their mistreatment were shipped off to other destinations, but according to The ‘Blue Book’s around 1,000 chose to settle here. Sometime between then and today the divisions between white and black broke down and the formerly separate groups began to inter-marry. St Helena’s physical isolation was probably a factor in this; it would be hard to remain in segregated groups in an area of only 16 by 8 kilometres, or 121 km² - see our How Small Is St Helena? page to understand this better. In 1864 Bishop Welby, writing to the UK, referred to:

…a large native population of East Indian, African, Malay, Chinese and all European races blended together…

Writing in 1886 in ‘St Helena as I saw it’, Rev. John Walker described the island’s boatmen thus:

Half-castes of different racial types and shades of color, graduating from the sharp, thin-lipped, small-limbed, bronze-coloured Malayan to the thick-lipped, broad-faced, strongly-built, true sable Hottentot and Negro{18}.

It is hard to imagine that the many visiting Whalemen did not make their own genetic contribution, and later some of the Boer PoWs joined the mix (surnames ‘Piek’ & ‘Vanguard’). Gradually the homogenous group we now know as Saints came about.

It is often said that the genetic makeup of Saints can be defined by the three ‘S’s - ‘Settlers, Soldiers and Slaves’, but actually it is more complex than that. Most of these are explained by St Helena being on the main sailing route between Britain and the far east. The Scandinavian link may come from the 19th Century whaling fleets.

Incidentally, the enslaved were only ever known by a first name, and when they were freed they were often given as a surname the first name of their former owner. This explains the number of islanders with surnames like Benjamin, Duncan, Francis, George, Henry, Joshua, Lawrence and Leo.

The Final Journey

Most Saints are, at least nominally, Anglican, though most attend church only for special occasions (Hatching, Matching and Dispatching). Most are therefore buried by the Anglican Church in one of its cemeteries after a service in one of its churches. Other faiths and atheists are buried in the unconsecrated cemetery at The Dungeon (St Helena has no crematorium). Even Saints that have lived most of their lives overseas are often brought home for burial. Open-casket funerals are common and graves are maintained and visited by the deceased’s family.

Will I ever be a Saint?

You can certainly acquire Saint Status, but will Saints ever accept you as one of them, or will you always be an outsider?

There is no easy answer to this question but, from observation, the answer is probably that you will never be fully accepted as a Saint, though your children (if brought here when small) might be. That is not to say that you will not be accepted into society and that Saints will not be your friends. It’s just that you didn’t grow up here, didn’t commit your youthful indiscretions here and don’t fit into the complex web of St Helena families, so you will always be seen as something different. You will be more accepted if you stay out of politics and avoid expressing any views about the future direction of St Helena society.

If your children are young enough when they arrive, and remain here when they finish school, have Saint partners and eventually marry Saints they are more likely to be accepted as Saints. Nobody can be considered fully accepted unless they have a Nickname, and nicknames are usually assigned at school

Saint Faces

The following portraits were taken in the late 1970s and illustrate some of the variety of faces on St Helena{19}:


A Census is taken on St Helena on the first year of each decade (though sometimes at different intervals). The most recent Census was taken on 7th February 2021 and details from this Census appear throughout Saint Helena Island Info. You can read the full 2021 Census report{k}.

You can also read the summary 2016 Census report{k} (intentionally out of sequence, to record the situation before the Airport opened), the 1946 Census report{l} (immediately after the end of World War 2) and the 1921 Census report{l} (shortly after the end of World War 1).

Population Graphic

What this graph shows is the population of St Helena, broken down by gender and also into age bands. The blocks are figures from the 2016 Census; the lines are figures from the 1998 census (before full UK Citizenship was restored to Saints).

What can clearly be seen is all the ‘missing’ people in the 20-40 age band. These people are working overseas, in the UK, Falklands, Ascension Island or elsewhere.

The general effect of the ageing population can also be seen; a global issue!

Note also Governor Gurr’s erroneous comments about our population profile.

The ‘Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)’, in force since 3rd September 1981, was finally extended to St Helena on 17th March 2017.

Around The World

In addition to having a genetic makeup feturing many parts of the world, Saints themselves are today widely dispersed around the globe. The map below was compiled in 2021 by the Saint Cooks to illustrate this (larger dot = higher concentration of Saints).

(for an online version see www.saintcooks.com/global-saint-community-map.)

Read More

Below: Article: The island where isolation is part of everyday lifeFilms by Green RenaissancePopulation, by Melliss, 1875Doctorate Thesis ‘Spatial identities of the citizens of Saint Helena’Article: ‘What it means to be a Saint’ essays

Article: The island where isolation is part of everyday life

By Mike MacEacheran, 7th August 2020{15}

Geography has shaped the way of life and culture of far-flung St Helena for centuries. Now, cut-off from the world again because of Covid‑19, how is the tiny British Overseas Territory surviving?

St Helena is the other side of British life, the one that very few travellers ever see.

It is a place of unimaginable extremes with sub-Saharan savannah, Jurassic rainforest and English country gardens. It exists in a bubble, a headache-inducing distance off the coast of southwest Africa in the middle of the South Atlantic. Go farther west and you are on a coconut-fringed bay in Brazil. Neighbours here aren’t easily won.

St Helena came to tourism only in 2018, when direct flights from South Africa made it easier to get to and from Europe. The resulting connections, via Johannesburg and Cape Town, saw visitor numbers sharply rise. Last year, more than 5,100 arrived for wildly-remote hiking, scuba diving and out-of-this-world stargazing.

Even so, Covid‑19 has abruptly stopped all that. The island remains cut off - lock, stock and barrel - with international flights not expected to resume for some time from the new terminal at Bradley’s Camp. But that’s just the beginning of the problems for the island’s fledgling tourism industry. St Helena is already one of the most isolated islands on earth, but it’s also one of the last places with zero Covid‑19 cases. Currently, ‘welcome’ is a dirty word.

Struggling to stay afloat

For Colin and Marlene Yon, who run The Town House guesthouse amid the historic swirl of island capital Jamestown, the local industry could take years to recover. As much as we want the virus kept away from the island, it’s a real drain for the business, says Colin. The last time we had a booking was back in March. No one is making any money here right now.

The field has never been truly level for St Helena and there is a definite sense that the future is fragile. To survive, the Yons have repositioned the hotel as a takeaway. We’re doing curries, fishcakes, tuna, wahoo - the market is flooded with fish right now because there’s more than islanders could ever eat, says Colin. But there are also real food shortages and shopkeepers are enforcing rationing. Potatoes and rice are like gold.

Considering how isolated St Helena is from the rest of the world, the global pandemic continues to have a knock-on effect on daily life. Covid‑19 remains absent, but social distancing was in full effect until recently, with islanders - or Saints as they’re also known - acting as if the island was in the throes of an epidemic. Which is just as well: because with its elderly population, any outbreak would be devastating. Health resources on the island are finite.

Plenty of other tourism businesses are feeling the impact too. South African-born brothers Keith and Craig Yon, who run diving and deep-sea fishing operation Into the Blue, have also moved into the food business. Until March, however, their whale shark snorkelling tours were wowing wide-eyed visitors. Now? Nothing.

The story is the same right across the island, says Shelley Magellan Wade, St Helena Tourism supervisor. We remain open and we are accepting visitors, but any travel here is classified as non-essential. So it’s come to a complete halt. As a safety precaution, local government restrictions continue to enforce two weeks of quarantine, barring time spent at sea.

Unexpected guests

Two British sailors who did arrive, however, have since decided to stay longer than first planned. They anchored for a two-day stopover, but have been here for three months now, says Shelley. They planned to sail onwards to Brazil, but instead have integrated into island life, renting a house and helping out in the grocery store.

As for the future, St Helena Tourism is working on a new post-COVID 19 recovery strategy, including creating a virtual tour so the rest of the world doesn’t forget about the far-flung outpost.

What is also new is the attitude: islanders once resistant to change are now full-heartedly embracing an outward-looking approach, After two years of regular flights, we stopped feeling so isolated, says Shelley. We’ve become used to a constant supply of visitors and goods. All those little things that we took for granted are sorely missed now.

Oh, and there is another silver lining: the island has grown far closer as a community, with the buzz words being solidarity, connectivity and communal goodwill. The distilled essence of St Helena - the warmth and hospitality Saints are famous for - is a singular reminder that this remote outpost will survive, as it has done since the 16th century. For me, our isolation has been our saving grace, concludes Shelley. Now, there’s more appreciation for what we have and it’s made us realise how fortunate we are.

St Helena’s allure is to witness a different way of life and the island’s pipsqueak size helps pare down that relentless holiday urge to see everything. Here, you really can do it all.

Plus, fair dues to the Saints. To build a tourist industry at the end of the world takes guts. And it’s going to take far more than a global pandemic to stop them from doing that.

Films by Green Renaissance

In 2018 a team from Green Renaissance made a number of short films about St Helena, but instead of focussing on the scenery and sights, they focussed on the people. The films make fascinating viewing and you might say they feature modern-day local characters. You can view them on the Green Renaissance website.

Population, by Melliss, 1875

The description below, included in ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875, describes St Helena after the ‘Liberated Africans’ arrived, but before the population integrated to create the Saints of today{20}:

As is elsewhere stated, there were no human beings on the Island when it was discovered; yet in the present day the term ‘natives’ has, it appears, its significant application there. The ‘natives’ of St. Helena are rather tall, slight built, good featured specimens of the human race, with straight hair, good evenly-set white teeth not prone to decay easily, and pleasing countenances; their general colour is a very light brown or copper, sometimes deepening into nearly black, and in other cases becoming almost white. They speak very fair English as their only language, and are not a little proud of their local designation of ‘Yam stalks.’ Their ancestors came from various parts of the world, though chiefly from Europe and Asia, and there is now some difficulty in tracing the prevailing element in their composition, or in saying which predominates, whether it is Portuguese, Dutch, English, Malay, East Indian, or Chinese. Their early history was that of slavery through a couple of centuries, indeed until the year 1832, when they were emancipated by the East India Company purchasing their freedom for a large sum; but, as might be expected, they possessed none of those qualifications which are absolutely necessary to command success in settlers. The habits of dependence and indolence, as well as ignorance, which so long a period of slavery had engrafted, remain to this day evident, not only in individuals, but pervading the whole character of the place. The ‘Yam stalks’ must not be confounded with the Africans or negroes, as the greatest insult they can hurl at one another is the epithet of ‘nigger’; they respect and look up to the Europeans and white population, but consider themselves as occupying a much higher step on the ladder of social position than the Africans, who certainly had the disadvantage of arriving at the Island just eight years after the ‘natives’ became freemen. They are a very quiet, tractable, inoffensive people, amongst whom crime is small, murder unknown, and burglary so little thought of that doors and windows of houses are not secured by bolts and bars, or even locks and keys; their greatest vice is drunkenness, and their thieving does not go beyond mere pilfering of the poultry yard, the orchard, or the pantry. There is, however, one exception to this, in the partiality some few of them possess for stealing sheep, though it is invariably the case of the hungry man meeting the sheep without a shepherd, and if the sheep were better looked after by their owners this crime would soon disappear. They are very superstitious, and still retain some belief in witchcraft. My servant told me on one occasion that a man’s protracted illness was caused by an enemy poisoning his tools while he was absent at his meals, and that his recovery was hopeless until his enemy permitted it; he further informed me that some few persons could reveal the image of the enemy in a bowl of water without mentioning the name, but that such was an expensive art. As domestic servants, when carefully and kindly treated, they are excellent, becoming closely attached to their employers, and exceedingly jealous of whatever belongs to them, but still they are as indolent as most inhabitants of warm countries.

The negroes, or pure West Coast Africans, who constitute about one-sixth of the population, were introduced after the year 1840, when her Majesty’s Government established at St. Helena a court of adjudicature for vessels engaged in the Slave Trade and captured by British cruisers on the West Coast of Africa. The captives were landed at Rupert’s Valley, where an establishment for taking care of them was formed, and some thousands of the poor miserable creatures were there restored to health and strength previous to being sent on to our West Indian Colonies. Many of them remained at the Island as domestic servants in the first instance, and, very soon adopting the English language, the tall black hat, and the green cotton umbrella, became settlers also. They are a strong race of men, capable of doing any amount of hard work upon a scanty supply of food, and are very tractable and well-behaved until their jealousy is excited or passion roused, when, in a sort of momentary phrensy, they will commit crime even to murder. With the ‘natives’ they do not blend, but live apart in little colonies or settlements; not half a dozen instances of intermarriage have occurred during thirty years, and the ‘natives’ still consider themselves superior.

The European or White population is chiefly formed of Government officials, a few clergymen, a small garrison of about 200 men, a certain number of mariners including shipwrecked seamen, and those, with their descendants, who settled there during the East India Company’s government, either as merchants, shipping agents, or farmers of the land.

The total number of the population is 6,860, of which 4,844 were born on the Island, thus giving 152 persons to each square mile or, after deducting 20,000 acres of barren, almost useless land, a proportion of nearly one-and-a-half acres of arable and pasture to each person.

The Doctorate Thesis ‘Spatial identities of the citizens of Saint Helena’ (2002)

Maarten & Daniël - ‘The Dutchies’ - in 2002
Maarten & Daniël - ‘The Dutchies’ - in 2002

By Maarten Hogenstijn & Daniël van Middelkoop, University of Utrecht.{15}

Although written in 2002, this provides a picture of what it means to be a Saint that is still remarkably current. Also, despite being a Doctorate Thesis the document is very readable with only a little jargon. We quote from this below.

You can download and read the entire Thesis{15}.

Article: What makes a Saint?

Extracted from the Doctorate Thesis ‘Spatial identities of the citizens of Saint Helena’{15}

Looking at the issue of social identity in less scientific terms leads to the question: what makes a Saint? This was exactly the question of an essay competition held in Prince Andrew School in July 2002. It is interesting to first hear what young Saints themselves see as core elements of being a Saint.

A number of key elements were stressed throughout the essays, some of which were published in the St Helena Herald of 19th July 2002. In a general review of the essays, a teacher wrote: Saint Helenians are proud of their island, their reputation for courtesy and friendliness, lack of colour prejudice, acceptance of other religious denominations and their loyalty. Other typicalities of Saints that were apparent throughout the essays included:

The prize-winning essays are reproduced below.

In our interviews, many of the same issues came up. Comments on the identity of Saints can be grouped under the following headings:

Article: ‘What it means to be a Saint’ essays

St Helena Herald

Here is the St Helena Herald’s report on the essays mentioned above{15}

Some of the children at Prince Andrew School were asked to write a page about what it means to be a Saint Helenian. Here is a summary of what came out of those written by all the children. Of course, these are the ideals and we all know that we are not as perfect as they sound, but this is the best of what a St Helenian can be, and how most of our children see us.

We accept each other as brothers and sisters, and are, generally tolerant towards and accepting of others, and see ourselves as One Community.

St Helenians are proud of their island, their reputation for courtesy and friendliness, lack of colour prejudice, acceptance of other religious denominations, and their loyalty.

They feel they are diplomatic, and one comment said We are very tolerant people who don’t like change and grumble among ourselves when something doesn’t suit us, but we accept everything. This has been true in the past at least - let us hope not now!!

Resourcefulness was stressed in the fact that we can make something out of nothing - be it food or repairs.

The local dialect came in for comment. Just as we cannot understand a strong Scottish, Irish, Geordie or Dorset dialect - although all English, - so foreigners find it difficult to understand the St Helena dialect. It is something that people are rightly proud of, as language is part of identity.

Food was a big feature - mentioning how Saints adore their food, and how people take a great deal of pride in preparing the traditional dishes.

The sense of freedom that we have is in sharp contrast to the outside world - and something which our young people cherish. Long may it last!

The selected essays…

First Prize{m}

There is no set factor which makes a person a Saint Helenian. ‘Saints’ is the name given to people who have been born in, or are connected with, the island of St. Helena.

St. Helena is an isolated island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The only access is by ship. Perhaps this is why Saints are renowned for improvising. The island develops slowly at times, and this can be seen as being for the better. It has been said that Saints don’t like change. In my opinion, it is only natural for islanders to greet change with mixed feelings because change can threaten the culture of our island.

St. Helena has been used as a prison for Napoleon, Dinizulu, the Boers and Bahraini’s, as well as a workplace for slaves from the East and Africa, Chinese indentured labourers, and Indian lascars.

The introduction of these races to the island has meant that present day Saints resemble people from other cultures. Some of our ancestors’ characteristics have been passed on to us. The features of ‘Saints’ have become mixed with time and it is difficult to label them. As a result there is no racial prejudice on the island.

Many visitors will notice how everyone greets them and St. Helenians are known as some of the friendliest people in the world. Our island has shaped the way we approach life. There is little crime and we have almost nothing to fear.

That is why we welcome others and hope that they will feel as we do about our home.

We are not short of talents. Many Saints can play musical instruments, sing and dance, and local crafts used to flourish. St. Helena food is loved by all, not only because the fish and vegetables are fresh, but also because Saints take a pride in their cooking.

Saints are made by the island which we live on; the ground which we tread upon has our culture embedded in it.

Second Prize{n}

A Saint is a person who is friendly towards everyone, treats people like a friend of the family and goes out of his way to help others. If you are born here or have parents from St. Helena you are born into an island wide family. One of the unique and wonderful things about St. Helena is that everyone knows everyone else. St. Helena is also proud to say that people here can let their guards down and just have fun, because we have no major crimes committed. People here are very understanding and tolerant towards other people.

Saints look further than skin colour. They look within your personality. This is probably due to the fact that Saints do not all have the same skin colour, and are a mixture of skin colours. Although Saints speak English, we have a unique way of pronouncing the words. This might be due to the fact that we’re descended from many different nationalities. The use of nicknames on St Helena is very common. Many people inherit these names from their parents, and many people are more commonly known by their Nicknames than their Christian names. People who have nicknames are rarely offended and it soon becomes normal. The foods we eat and what they are called also form part of the island’s culture. Part of our main diet consists of fish which although you can find it in other parts of the world, how it is cooked is sometimes unique to St Helena. Fishcakes are an island delicacy and if people who visit the island have nothing else to say about the island they comment on the food we eat. So what is a Saint? I think to sum up a Saint I would have to say would be a friendly and caring person always ready with smiles, and ready to help someone out.

Third Prize{o}

What makes a Saint would have to be just everything especially the way we speak because if you had to listen to a Saint they have a different accent compared to a person from England or even America, they speak very polite. But we Saints speak any kind of way, for example if someone asks you to say or repeat something they usually say Excuse, can you say that again? but we say usually Ha what you say? So we speak differently.

We also have all kinds of mixtures of colours here on St Helena because in other parts of the world people are having fights with others because of their colour.

Sometimes people on St Helena can be mean and act on people because of their colour but they don’t mean harm to anybody. In other parts of the world people will fight and may be end up killing each other in the end. St Helena also has foods that a lot of Saints like to eat, for example ‘pilau’. Also we don’t have any Saints on the streets or on the roads asking for money and food, like in some other parts of the world.

Sometimes we like to go and get our own food like catching fish and people like to grow food like yam, carrots, potatoes and many more. Saints also have a habit of calling people nicknames. Usually wherever you go on St Helena you would hear a lot of people calling other people by their nicknames. Saints also love to party, for example they like to go to Donny’s. A lot of people also like listening to country music, especially the older people, but also some young people as well. So what makes a Saint? Well all of these things make a Saint and you must be born on St Helena to be a Saint.

Highly Commended{p}

When I hear the word Saint I think of many things. I think of down Donny’s dancing to the joyful music. I think about curry and rice and all the other things that make Saints and St Helena the best things ever. I come from the big world where life moves so fast and never stops. When I tell people I would rather stay in St Helena than America they think I’m crazy and ask me why? I tell them because of the people.

There are many things that make a Saint, the way we speak is one. St Helena is an island ruled by the British, so generally most people have an English accent but the dialect is very different. When I hear a person speak Saint it makes me really happy.

I don’t care what anybody thinks, but Saints have to have the best personalities ever. Since I’ve been here they’ve done nothing but show me a good time. We have to be the best nationality that likes to have fun.

Coming from an American father and a St Helenian mother, I’ve lived with two different lifestyles. Truthfully I like my mum’s best. All round I think Saints are the best people because even though they live on a small island and don’t have all the pleasures other people get they are still very grateful for what they have.

So to rap it up, what makes a Saint is their accent, their gratefulness, happiness and they are the best people in the world.



{a} 2021 Census, taken 7th February 2021.{b} Saint Cooks{c} Inscription on a t-shirt{d} Simon Pipe for St Helena Online from Reading Sports{e} Governor Smallman, in ‘Quincentenary: A story of St Helena, 1502-2002’{f} Vistor, posting on St Helena News (group){g} Alledged reply to a student exam question{h} Governor David Smallman in his book ‘A View from the Castle’, 2018{15}{i} Chris and Sheila Hillman{j} Charles Frederick Noble, 1762. ‘A voyage to the East Indies in 1747 and 1748’{k} St Helena Statistics Office{l} Government of St Helena{m} St Helena Herald, 19th July 2002{n} St Helena Herald, 26th July 2002{o} St Helena Herald, 9th August 2002{p} St Helena Herald, 23rd August 2002


{1} Normally we would give a year, as in ‘Immigration Control Ordinance, 2011’, but this Ordinance is constantly being changed so whatever date we gave would probably be incorrect within a few months.{2} Sorry - doesn’t everybody like Plo???{3} Sometimes your family reputation and standing can be more important than your individual skills and personality, which is sad when it means you get turned down for a job you are qualified to do, and equally sad when you are given a job for which you are not really qualified.{4} Nobody it seems, even the clergy, wants to work at the weekend.{5} And because everybody pretty much knows everybody else’s family, the system isn’t abused - if you tried to get the day off for a funeral that didn’t exist or where you weren’t related your employer would know immediately.{6} Only 35% of Saints declare themselves as Married. 39% describe themselves as Single and 15% as Co-habiting{a}.{7} 23rd April.{8} 63%{a}.{9} Although it should be noted that, apart from Muslims (0.4%), Bahá’ís (0.2%) and Atheists (9%){a}, most are variations of Christianity.{10} Saint Helena Island Info’s editor is openly atheist.{11} Possibly a cost issue but also there is no local door-to-door postal delivery and a birthday card that you have to go to the local shop to collect loses some of its impact!{12} At the time of writing In+ventive is suspended due to funding cuts, but it is hoped it will resume.{13} Note that there is a degree of divide between resident Saints and the ex-pat (usually from the UK) Government officials, who are sometimes viewed locally as being aloof and overpaid. They are, however, still treated with courtesy and any grumbling that may occur applies equally whether the official is white or black, so can be seen more as an economic issue rather than a racial one.{14} In this case the Governor is not present, but other Governors are known to have been members - including Governor Capes.{15} @@RepDis@@{16} A Saint served on the British Antarctic Scientific Survey team.{17} Though some dispute its Chinese origins, arguing that the name comes from a mis-recording of the very-English name ‘Young’.{18} His words; the term was not considered offensive in 1886.{19} If you or one of your relatives is shown here and you object to us displaying this image please contact us, identifying the image, and we will remove it.{20} The language has not been moderated for modern political-correctness and the opinions expressed are those of the author, not of Saint Helena Island Info.{21} Though other explanations have also been advanced. Yes, it can be challenging to voice an opinion that might upset someone else in your family, but there have also been recent documented examples of employers badly treating employees who have spoken out in the press against them. There is no ‘whistle-Blower Charter’ here. The image comes from a 2017 newspaper{15}. [Image, right]



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