St. Helena

St Helena is about nine miles by six miles. It is inhabited by 4,000 “Saints,” as the locals are called. And 5,000 “machines,” according to our guide, referring to cars. Our guide is Robert Peters, who is the go-to guide among the yachties. He is 80 years old, a former school bus driver, and a man full of stories about island life when he was a boy.

It was at times challenging to understand Robert…the Saints have an interesting variant on the British accent. For example, we got into some serious confusion when we couldn’t distinguish between “story” and “distillery!” But yes, we did visit the distillery — a Brit who retired and decided he would like to make spirits, despite having no experience in the field. He had a still made for himself in Germany and shipped it to his very nice home on the island and, with the help of some books, started making Tungi (from local cactus) and rum and gin and wine and whatever else strikes his fancy. We did a brief tasting, and bought a sampler set from him (the only place on the island that will take a credit card!). But the real treat was just listening to him engage with Liam about the details of the still and the processes. I had to drag Liam away, back to our tour.

One of the best parts of the tour was simply driving on roads that were carved into the mountainsides. In many places there is not room for two cars to pass. Uphill has the right of way. Going down you have to look ahead and gauge if you can make it to the next wide-enough spot before meeting a car coming up. This can make for slow going down at 4pm, when many of the workers in “downtown” head for their homes on high.

On to see Napoleon’s tomb. Napoleon was exiled to St Helena in 1821 (I think it was), and lived there six years until he died (probably from stomach cancer). On his tomb the French wanted an inscription with the title “Emperor” but the Brits wanted “General,” and being unable to agree, there is no inscription at all. Nice spot in any case. His remains didn’t stay put, though. France took ’em back.

Next we go to Longwood House, where the Emperor/General was “imprisoned” for most of his stay. Beautiful house on a beautiful hilltop, which made it “guardable” by sentries at a discrete distance. And the prisoner could look…in vain…at the distant horizon for a ship coming to rescue him. Apparently he didn’t like St Helena, though most people would be thrilled to be exiled to Longwood House!

Another major attraction on our tour was the brand new airport. For many, many years there has been just one way to travel to this island, if you’re not sailing your own yacht. That was the “RMS” — the Royal Mail Ship. The RMS sails monthly from Cape Town to St Helena, unloads for a couple of days (5,000 machines, remember), then sails on to Ascension Island, then returns to Helena and Cape Town. I had heard that an airport was opening this year on St Helena, and I imagined a delightful old place being overrun by tourists. Well…not yet, at least. The British government spent many billion pounds flattening out a piece of the volcano, but it has such severe wind shear that it is not considered safe for commercial aircraft! More billions will probably go into modifying the surrounding landscape before the tourist hordes can descend. But now that I’ve gotten to know the island a little, I don’t imagine it will be drastically altered by an occasional jetload of visitors. When the RMS comes in there is a flurry of activity, and then much of the island seems to go back to sleep. I expect when there is regular airline service there will be some reduction in sleepiness.

We stopped outside the Governor’s House, not so much due to interest in the Governor herself, but to see the tortoises that were imported many years ago. Several remain, including “Jonathan,” who was born before Napoleon arrived!

The island was discovered in 1502 by a Portuguese sailor. Unlike many “discoveries” of that era, there were no inhabitants to displace, infect or enslave. I’m not sure how/when it became British; the tour wasn’t big on pre-1821 history. But lemons were grown here, and sailors with scurvy were left here to recover (eat lemons) and then join a crew again. And of course it was a watering-place, though in the last couple years they’ve had a drought along with southern Africa. The island was also used as a place of exile for the Zulu king Demizulu (I think it was), and it held 3,000 Boer prisoners in the Anglo-Boer War. Based on my reading of Michener’s The Covenant, Boers brought to St Helena were the lucky ones, in that few died here, while huge numbers died in camps in South Africa.

Back to the present. The Saints are incredibly friendly. People say hello, and wave. They go out of their way to be helpful. What a nice “outpost” in mid-Atlantic. Almost makes me want to stop at Ascension Island, too. But no. Time to head for Brazil. We spent just three days at St Helena. It was enough for me.

2 thoughts on “St. Helena”

  1. Some sailing, some history. Doesn’t get much better than that… The road(s) remind me of the ones in Bhutan. With no guard rails. Phew…


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