St Helena: Home of Saints

Liz Gill visits St Helena, a speck in the South Atlantic and the world’s most isolated island


Some visitors go to St Helena for the hiking, some for the fishing, the diving, the wildlife or the connections with Napoleon. And some go simply because this is one of the most isolated places on earth.

The island is a 10- by six-mile speck in the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles from the coast of West Africa. Until the Portuguese explorer Juan de Nova was blown there by the Trade Winds in 1502, it had lain undiscovered for around 14 million years, able to evolve its own unique flora and fauna untouched by the outside world.

But within a century of being found it had assumed an importance out of all proportion to its size. It was a key stopping point for the ships of the East India Company and other vessels - at its peak it serviced a thousand a year. It played a role in both slavery and its abolition: when the trade became illegal it was the base from which the British sought to capture perpetrators and free their human cargo. And it was the place to which Napoleon was exiled after his defeat at Waterloo.

The emperor, who had escaped from Elba, was not going to get away so easily from here. He might have done so, however, had the attempt to smuggle a silk ladder to him in a chest of tea succeeded. The aim apparently was that he would use it to scale down one of the cliffs into a waiting rescue boat. The tea was supplied by a company owned by the Jewish entrepreneur Saul Solomon and though his complicity was never proved there was no doubt that his fortunes were linked with those of the world's most famous prisoner.

He traded with his entourage, arranged the funeral of his valet and probably smuggled out correspondence. He was appointed the French consul and when Prince de Joinville, third son of the King of France, came to repatriate Napoleon's body, Solomon was granted the honour of being allowed on the French ship Belle Poule. It was a remarkable success story for a young man who had set out from London to seek his fortune in India but had become so ill on the voyage he was taken off the ship at St Helena where he was expected to die.

Instead he recovered and founded a general store, a hotel and an insurance company. He became the High Sheriff, the Dutch as well as the French consul and a generous benefactor.

Although he died on a trip to England in 1852 at the age of 76, his daughter who knew he wanted to be buried on his beloved island managed to smuggle his body back there.

So successful was his business that Solomon sent for his three brothers who all married into local families, the last of whom only died in the 1960s. Since then the company has been part public, part privately owned but the name remains on all its premises in the capital Jamestown.

Next year a £218 million airport will open and make this British Overseas Territory less remote. For now the only way to get there is by sea and for most that means the Royal Mail Ship St Helena - the island's lifeline. The RMS carries supplies and up to 150 passengers such as returning or departing Saints (as the residents are known) and tourists, construction workers, entrepreneurs and conservation experts.

This means it's a ship of two halves: the front laden with dozens of huge containers, the back a sun deck where we take dips in the little swimming pool and play quoits, shuffleboard, skittles and passengers-versus-crew cricket. In between are a couple of lounges with bars where we can listen to talks, watch films and play more games.

Sailing on the RMS is like stepping back in time and I think a lot about all those ancient mariners crossing this vast ocean where in a 10-day round trip we sight only two other ships and even the wandering albatrosses say goodbye after a couple of days.

It's good preparation for the island itself, which emerges from the waves at dawn like a dream. There is in fact something rather Alice-in-Wonderland-ish about St Helena as if everything has shrunken to produce a geography and a society in miniature. So within only 47 square miles of land mass there are barren deserts and lush cloud forests, a black sand beach and towering crags, rolling pastureland and peaks of up to 2,700 feet.

Similarly in human terms for a population of 4,000, barely the size of an English village, there is a governor, a legislative council, a hospital, three primary and one secondary schools, a cathedral with a bishop, a police force, a prison, two newspapers and two radio stations.

I filled almost every hour of the nine days I spent there while the ship sailed on to Ascension Island and back. Two were spent walking through graded trails.

One day we climbed Diana's Peak in the company of David Pryce, an English invertebrates expert known locally as The Bug Man. On another we walked to Lot's Wife's Ponds, Lot and his wife being giant geological features and the pool being a serene inlet protected by rocks from crashing waves and filled with colourful fish. The walk was demanding but it was one of the loveliest places I have ever swum.

Marine life is a big attraction for snorkelers and divers - there are several wrecks to explore - and fishermen who chase tuna, wahoo and marlin. On a boat trip, dozens of dolphins cavorted around us as we sailed out to the seabird colonies. Another enchanting afternoon was spent watching wirebirds, the island's only endemic bird so-called because of its spindly legs.

We made a Napoleon-themed visit to Briars Pavilion where he stayed briefly, Longwood House where he lived for six years until his death in 1821 and his tomb in the pretty valley setting he chose himself. Though much of Longwood's contents, such as clothes and death masks, are replicas, the place is resonant if melancholy. It's not every day one can stand on the exact spot where an emperor passed away.

Other experiences included a cookery lesson making tuna fishcakes, pumpkin stew and pilau - pronounced "plo" - a spicy legacy of St Helena's diversity, its people made up from arrivals from India, China, Madagascar, Britain and West Africa. And a visit to the "world's remotest distillery" to taste a spirit called tungi made from prickly pear, and a coffee planation of Bourbon Arabica bushes originally brought over from Yemen in 1732.

Then there was the small museum, forts, batteries and cannons, a collection of St Helena prints and drawings at Prince's Lodge, the Boer cemetery (6,000 were imprisoned here during the Boer War) and the Plantation House to see Jonathan the tortoise who is at least 182 years old and probably the world's oldest reptile.

And finally I climbed Jacob's Ladder. Once a tramway for hauling goods up the cliff side this is now a terrifyingly steep 600ft-high staircase of 699 steps. Not wanting to risk passing out halfway up, I took it slowly, pausing every 50 steps and reaching the top in 28 minutes. I was pretty puffed up with pride but quickly deflated when I learned the record stands at 5 minutes 11 seconds.

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