Diane Selkirk was utterly enchanted by the remote island outpost of Saint Helena
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.
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.