2012: the year of change, part 1 – January to March

Basil Read staff arrived to start work on the airport, the housing shortage was worsening, the UK increased its aid grant by 13%, an urgent appeal was made for bone marrow donors, the island’s water supply was infected by bacteria, and outgoing education chief John Sullivan warned of poor schooling. And in the media, the St Helena Herald closed, The Sentinel was launched, and the St Helena Independent closed, all in the space of 22 days.

St Helena’s big year began with the award of an MBE for Father Dale Bowers, and news that the RAF was reducing St Helena’s allocation of seats on Ascension-UK flights from 26 to just ten – seen as a serious threat to the island’s tourist industry. The limit was raised again later in the year, but not as high as before.

JANUARY

Island media reported that the first vehicles belonging to airport construction firm Basil Read rolled up through the arch in Jamestown on 4 January 2012, and the company began setting up its offices in the old Longwood first school. Matt Joshua, charged with persuading St Helenians to bring their skills back to the island, estimated that there could be 10,000 Saints living overseas. St Helena National Trust had set up 32 cat traps around the island, to cut down on the number of wirebirds being killed. The Trust also called for a law to protect the island’s heritage.

On 13 January, the island’s media reported that farmers were frustrated at having to plough unsold crops back into the ground; plans were in hand to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena, and the Saints Moto-Cross club was looking for a new place to race. It also appealed for the return of its chequered flag!

A campaign was launched to divert a high-speed internet cable via St Helena, with one writer saying that tourists wouldn’t come to an island where iPhones didn’t work.

The St Helena Independent reported on 20 January 2012 that divers investigating the potential site of a new wharf for Jamestown had found a large number of ship’s anchors, some potentially centuries old. The Planning Board, meeting in public for the first time, rebuked the government for failing to obey its own planning laws. Pet imports via South Africa were banned, but animals could still travel by ship from the UK. A new landing place was in position in Lemon Valley. And sponsors were needed for the St Helena cricket team’s first international tournament.

At the end of January, St Helena Government began a consultation on land use – a controversial topic.

FEBRUARY

Photographer Jon Tonks had a picture spread on Britain’s South Atlantic islands in the 50th anniversary issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. The paper called them “nationettes”.

St Helena’s worsening housing shortage prompted a government statement saying it would bring a hundred empty properties back into use.

Columnist Julian Cairns-Wicks attacked plans to build tourist accommodation in some of the most beautiful parts of St Helena – where Saints would not be allowed to build homes.

The St Helena Independent reported on 17 February 2012 that Basil Read had taken on its first 15 Saint airport construction workers, out of more than 50 applicants. Martin Joshua told visiting advisers that more sites were needed for growing crops in poly-tunnels if the island was to produce enough of its own food. In the UK, Councillor Cyril Gunnell visited NHS Devon, which was setting up a skills sharing link with St Helena (and the island health service revealed barely any information about this link in the subsequent 11 months). And a Devon vet travelled 5,000 miles to clip the hooves of the island’s donkeys.

A plea went out to UK Saints to consider donating bone marrow for a severely ill St Helenian. A hospital had been unable to find a match for her outside the Saint community in Britain.

The fish cannery in Rupert’s Valley closed suddenly in February, and Basil Read took over the building. It said it would begin blasting for rock in the valley on 1 March – but stone in Rupert’s was later found to be unsuitable for building a temporary wharf.

On 24 February 2012, the Independent reported that St Helena could become a magnet for star-gazers, because of its clear night skies; an astronomer was to ‘audit’ the sky. UK aid was to rise by 13%, to include fitting extra berths on the RMS St Helena. Dr Joe Mays, a general practitioner, arrived to spend a few months on the island assessing its health needs as part of the new partnership with NHS Devon. Film-maker Charles Frater revisted the island 50 years after making a widely-seen documentary about the island’s life and its flax industry. Archeologist Ben Jeffs wrote about the importance of St Helena’s built heritage – such as unique architectural detail – and others objected to elements of Jamestown’s enhancement scheme.

On Tristan da Cunha, islanders carried out a daring rescue of a whale with an entangled tail.

Councillors voted to invite the Queen and the president of France to join celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena in 1815.

A deal was agreed for the Tygerburg public hospital in the Western Cape to treat Saints. Previously, specialist treatment was provided by expensive private hospitals.

St Helenian Janet Lawrence was named airport project director by the Castle. And the island’s economist warned that islanders must not “blow our golden chance” by resisting change brought about by the airport project.

MARCH

St Helena Government said it was considering selling off some of its majority shareholding in the island’s biggest company, Solomon’s – seen as a barrier to development of a free market economy. Nothing else was heard on the matter in 2012.

An historic cobblestone pavement was uncovered and partly broken up in Jamestown, to allow new cabling to be buried. The St Helena National Trust said that aid cash, which was paying for fibre-optic cables, was being used to destroy the island’s heritage.

eColi bacteria was found in the water supply, and people across the island were ordered to boil all water for drinking and cooking. The service was gradually restored over several days. The cause, and the strain of bacteria involved, were never revealed.

A book about the excavation of more than 300 slave graves in Rupert’s Valley was launched with a lecture at Bristol University.

The St Helena Herald published its last issue on 9 March 2012, to make way for a new newspaper, The Sentinel, funded by St Helena Government but run by a community-owned company, the St Helena Broadcasting (Guarantee) Corporation.

Shock greeted an announcement on 24 March that the St Helena Independent would close a week later – after it was learned that the new Sentinel could compete for advertising. The government insisted the new paper would not be controlled from the Castle.

The island’s outgoing head of education, John Sullivan, warned that learning must improve dramatically: Saints needed more qualifications and skills to meet the challenges the airport would bring. A report found poor standards.

The first edition of The Sentinel appeared on 29 March 2012, with a column calling for Saints to be allowed to catch and eat dolphins, which had become so numerous since the practice was banned that fishing catches were suffering. The Independent published its “final” edition on 30 March,¬†congratulating the government on putting it out of business. The government said that had never been its intention.

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