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National Song

Unofficially, at least

It is best of all trades, to make songs, and the second best to sing them.{a}

How a non-Saint who had never even been here came to record the island’s national song…

National Song

As a British Overseas Territory the official national song of St Helena is, of course, the British National Anthem God Save the King. But the unofficial national song (commonly, but inaccurately referred to as our ‘National Anthem’) is ‘My St Helena Island’.

It is unquestionably our national song, but it was recorded (and, possibly, written - its authorship is the subject of some dispute) by an American called Dave Mitchell, who hadn’t ever been to St Helena. Appropriately for St Helena, it is a Country song.

The world’s first Country & Western national anthem, written by a man who had only ever seen a postcard of the island.{b}

How it came about

The only known photo of Dave Mitchell performing

Dave Mitchell, nicknamed ‘Old Saddlebags’, was a Country & Western Disc Jockey on AFN Volcano Radio on Ascension Island. He was also a ham radio operator. Dave was introduced to Saints on Ascension Island by one of his best friends, Charlie Renn, and became involved with them, playing for parties all over the island. The photo is the only known photo of Dave Mitchell performing (right, with hat).

At this point the stories differ:

Story 1: Charlie suggested that Dave write a song for St Helena. Dave was reluctant to do so, as he had never been to St Helena so Charlie, who had visited the island, promptly brought Dave some large colour postcards of St Helena. Sitting in his room for a night or two studying the postcards, Dave picked up his guitar and in a few minutes the song was written.

Story 2: The lyrics were actually written by a Saint - the late Hilborn Benjamin of Hutts Gate, who met Dave Mitchell while they were both working on Ascension Island. Dave Mitchell then set Hilborn’s lyrics to music and made the recording of himself singing it.

Story 1 is the most commonly told. Hilborn’s descendants, naturally, insist on the accuracy of Story 2.

Either way, the song was an immediate hit with the Saints on Ascension Island. With the help of recording company Camaro Records, Dave made two 45-rpm records (4 songs) in Memphis, Tennessee in 1975, receiving 600 copies, 400 of which were supposed to have been distributed to USA radio stations but apparently never were. Dave and Charlie had planned to make a trip to St Helena to deliver some records and some photographs of himself in person but it proved not to be possible so he had to mail them instead. The reaction on St Helena was as enthusiastic as that of the Saints on Ascension Island and ‘My St Helena Island’ quickly became the de-facto National Song of St Helena.

Dave was delighted that the RMS St Helena (1990-2018) took to playing his song whenever the ship left port, saying it gave him a big thrill to know that his song hadn’t been forgotten. Dave died in 2003 but his song is still played regularly as a request on local radio.

The song itself


Naturally you can listen to the song{d}{1} (right). And in case you can’t make them out from the audio file, the lyrics are below.

1: My heart is drifting southward
To my home down in the sea
To the isle of St Helena
Where my loved ones wait for me
Long since I left it
But I’ll soon be going home
To my St Helena island
And swear I’ll never roam
2: Diamonds they are pretty
So is your fancy cars
But St Helena island
Is much prettier by far
All the wonders of this world
I’m told they number seven
But St Helena Island
Is the nearest one to heaven
3: Diamonds they are pretty
So is your fancy cars
But St Helena island
Is much prettier by far
Someday if the Lord above
Comes out of heaven’s gate
I’m sure He’ll pick St Helena
And use it as His place

Note the line So is your fancy cars. This either supports the Story 2 version of the song’s origins (Hilborn Benjamin, being a Saint, would have written ‘is’ not ‘are’ - see our page Speak Saint), or it suggests that Dave Mitchell had been around Saints so much he had picked up their ways of speaking!

For posterity

As part of the St Helena airport development, in June 2014 a time-capsule was buried beneath the new terminal building. Contained within is an mp3 file of ‘My St Helena Island’. This should no-doubt fascinate archaeologists in many years to come. We don’t know who it credits as the lyricist.

National Hymn

St Helena actually has its own hymn, created for the occasion of the Consecration of St. Helena & the Cross church on 13th September 1952. The words were written by Rev. D.H. Cumming, who was Vicar of Jamestown from 1950-52. The music was composed by Mr. Algernon Broadway, an islander.

The words are:

O God, Creator, at whose word our land arose from out the deep. Grant us whose hearts by thee are stirred our faithful guard and watch to keep.

That on this Island, green and fair, may dwell a people blest by thee. Worthy of her whose name we bear, ringed by thy Love as by the sea.

We lift our eyes unto the hills, unto the hills whence comes our aid. We hear the mighty Voice that stills the storms and says, be not afraid.

0 God, to whom our praise we sing, bless him who holds thy Kingdom’s keys. Grant rest to those who first did bring the Faith from far beyond the seas.

Wisdom to those who rule us here that they may know whence wisdom springs. And all may serve, with holy fear, the Lord of lords and King of kings.

All praise to God the Father be. To his eternal Son be praise. And to the Holy Spirit we our hearts in adoration raise.

The hymn seems to be sung on special occasions. It was sung for St Helena’s Day 2013 and also for the service commemorating the Coronation of King Charles III on 7th May 2023.

Read More

Article: Fascinating facts about 10 national anthems

By Arika Okrent, published on theweek.com 22nd July 2013{2}

If you listen to a bunch of national anthems one after the other, they all start to sound pretty much alike. The typical anthem is in the musical style of a march or a hymn, and the lyrics have to do with struggles for freedom and independence, beautiful landscapes, and symbols of unity and pride. But every anthem has a story - not just of its nation’s history, but of itself and how it came to be. The fascinatingly comprehensive site nationalanthems.info has the full background, lyrics, and music on ‘over 400 anthems, past and present’. Here are some interesting facts about 10 of them.

1. Malaysia: an on-the-spot decision

The national anthem of Malaysia originated in a moment of panic for an aide to the Sultan of Perak. When the sultan arrived in London at the invitation of Queen Victoria in 1888, the aide was asked for the music to the anthem so that it could be played during the welcome ceremony. He thought it would look bad to admit they had no anthem, so he hummed the melody of a popular tune from the Seychelles. He then told the sultan what he had done, and reminded him to stand when the tune was played. It remained the official anthem of the state of Perak, and when Malaysia became an independent nation in 1957, it was chosen as the national anthem and new lyrics were written for it.

2. Mexico: written under duress

In 1853, Mexico held a contest to see who could write the most inspiring poem to serve as the lyrics of an official national anthem. The girlfriend of the poet Francicso González Bocanegra tried to convince him to write something, but he wasn’t interested, so she locked him in a room in her parents’ house filled with pictures of scenes from Mexican history until he came up with something. She let him out after he slipped a 10-verse poem under the door. The poem went on to become the national anthem, and the girlfriend went on to become the poet’s wife.

3. St Helena: never been there but it sounds nice

The tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena is under British rule, but they have an anthem that is played when the RMS St Helena (1990-2018) leaves port. It was written by an American named David Mitchell who had never been to St Helena. He was working on the nearby island of Ascension Island (only 1,300Km away) when a friend who had been to St Helena suggested he write an anthem. Inspired by looking at some postcards of the island, he came up with ‘My St Helena Island’, the only country-and-western-style national anthem in the world.

4. Netherlands: fun with word games

The anthem of the Netherlands did not become official until 1932, but the song had been around for at least 300 years before that. The lyrics consist of 15 verses and make up an acrostic for Willem van Nassov, a hero of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Taken together, the first letter of each verse spells out his name (though in modern orthography it comes out as ‘Willem of Nazzov’).

5. Andorra: a first-person narrator

Many national anthems tell a story about the nation’s founding or history. Only Andorra’s anthem tells its story in the first person, with the nation referred to as ‘I.’ The ‘I’ of Andorra is imagined as a princess being protected by her princes (the people):

The great Charlemagne, my Father, liberated me from the Saracens,
And from heaven he gave me life of Meritxell the great Mother.
I was born a Princess, a Maiden neutral between two nations.
I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian empire.

6. Cook Islands: making beautiful music together

The national anthem of the Cook Islands, officially adopted in the early 1980s, was written by a husband-and-wife team. The music was composed by Sir Thomas Davis, the prime minister at the time, and the lyrics, in Maori, were written by his wife, Pa Tepaeru Terito Ariki, a tribal high chief.

7. Czech Republic and Slovakia: a 50-50 divorce

When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, it created an anthem by combining one verse from a Czech opera (Fidlovačka) and one from a Slovak folk song (‘Kopala studienku’). When Czechoslovakia split up in 1993, the anthem was simply split up too, with the first verse going to the Czech Republic and the second going to Slovakia.

8. France: parental discretion advised

Lots of national anthems are about the violent battles that gave rise to nationhood or liberation, but they usually focus on the glory more than the blood. France’s anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, doesn’t sugar-coat, keeping things incredibly gory, especially in its full version, which refers to blood-soaked flags, soldiers slitting throats, fields being fertilized with the blood of enemies, and metaphorical tigers tearing apart the breasts of their mothers.

9. South Africa: bringing it all together

Until the end of apartheid in South Africa, the official national anthem was the Afrikaans ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’, but a different song, ‘Nkosi Sikelei’ iAfrika’, served as the anthem for the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement. In 1997, both melodies were united (resulting in an anthem that begins and ends in different keys) and new lyrics were written, incorporating five languages. The song begins with two lines of Xhosa, followed by Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English.

10. United States: not declared until 1931

‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was a popular choice for official state occasions in the 19th century, but it wasn’t the only one. ‘Hail, Columbia’ and ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’, among others, also served as anthems until 1931, when Congress declared ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ official. The tradition of playing it before every baseball game didn’t start until World War 2.


{a} Hilaire Belloc{b} Wanderlust magazine, 21st March 2014{2}{c} Radio St Helena/Museum of St Helena, digitised by Burgh House Media Productions{d} Museum of St Helena


{1} You can download a studio-quality version{d}.{2} @@RepDis@@