The Saint who risked all to rescue a plant

Charlie Benjamin rescues the St Helena Ebony. Click the pic to see the full image by Quentin Cronk

Charlie Benjamin rescues the St Helena Ebony. Click the pic to see the full image by Quentin Cronk

The day Charlie Benjamin climbed up a cliff with a flower in his teeth may become part of  St Helena folklore. That perilous act brought back the island’s ebony plant from apparent extinction. There has since been talk of declaring it the national flower. Charlie’s daughter, Wendy Benjamin, wants to ensure the story of his climb will live on, just like the flower he rescued.

A single photograph was taken of Charlie’s climb in November 1980. It shows how treacherous a task he took on; and even that spectacular picture cannot fully convey how unnerving it must have been, clinging to a cliff on one of the steepest parts of the island, several hundred feet above the wild waves of St Helena’s southern coast.

An island benefactor has now promised to pay for copies of the picture to be hung in key places around the island, including the museum and the St Helena National Trust office. A copy will be offered for display on the RMS St Helena.

Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years
Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years

The picture was taken by Quentin Cronk, then a young student, who was on a two-week research visit when the long-lost ebony was spotted.

His companion and guide, George Benjamin, saw a few unfamiliar flowers on a cliff during a tea break near the Asses Ears, in the rugged west of the island, when the pair stopped for tea.

“When George and I found the ebony that day in 1980,” recalls Quentin, “George said that the only person he knew who had a chance of getting it was his brother Charlie, as he was the most skilled islander in cliff climbing.

“He was able to get down to the most inaccessible fishing spots at the bottom of cliffs – and come back up the cliffs with a heavy bag of fish! This was a skill only a few of the old time fishermen knew and Charlie was the best.

“I remember that when we showed Charlie the ebony cliff he sat in silence looking at it for maybe 15 minutes, as if he was solving a chess problem. My thought was, ‘Oh no, it’s too difficult. He’s going to refuse to go down.’

Part of Quentin Cronk's photograph of Charlie's climb. Click the pic to see the full image

Part of Quentin Cronk’s photograph of Charlie’s climb. Click the pic to see the full image

“Then eventually he said, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ and George and he went off to the cliff ledge with a rope to start the descent. I stayed on the cliff opposite, watching them, and it was fascinating to see Charlie traverse down the cliff with great skill and get to the ebony.

“He put cuttings in a bag, and it was from these that we propagated the species.

“He also (to keep his hands free) put a flowering shoot of ebony between his teeth. When Charlie’s head came up over the top of the cliff and I saw the ebony flower between his teeth, that was the first time I was 100 per cent sure it was the ebony.”

Quentin, now a globally respected academic, took a single photograph from his perch on an opposite cliff. That dramatic image has been published in a pamphlet and a copy was printed for the St Helena Museum, but until now it has not been on permanent display. 

“With the excitement it was hard to remember to take any other photos,” says Quentin.

“The two small ‘stick figures’ are George and Charlie: George in black at the top and Charlie wearing blue jeans down on the cliff. The rope between them can faintly be seen. There was no climbing equipment on the island then. Basically Charlie was “free climbing” with the rope to steady himself.

“It was indeed a brave act to go down the cliff to get the ebony. When I tell the story I always mention Charlie’s role.”

Rebecca Cairns-Wicks and Phil Lambdon described the climb for a museum exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the ebony’s re-discovery.

St Helena Ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe

St Helena Ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe

“On the 11th November,” they wrote, “Quentin and George walked from Wild Ram Spring to the Ball Alley and down to Castle Rock and round under the Asses Ears. Here they found old pieces of ebony and tea plant. Fragments of wood can still sometimes be found brought to the surface after rains, a depressing reminder that the hillsides were once richly covered in vegetation. From there they walked on to Frightus.

“It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and whilst sitting down to have rest and a drink of tea (George’s was always black and very sweet) George spotted an unusual plant growing on the cliff.”

George told Quentin he could not climb down to it: “Not if you give me one thousand pounds I won’t be going down there. Perhaps my brother Charlie would go”.

Charlie agreed to go along, with his step-daughter Rosie Peters, who had been giving George and Quentin lifts round the island for their explorations.

“So it was, two days later, that George and Quentin returned with Charlie and Rosie, and with ropes and stakes they made an attempt to recover the plant: a plant they dared hope might prove to be a long-lost endemic.

“With one rope firmly anchored to stakes to climb by and another tied around his waist as a safety line that George held fast to, Charlie descended the cliff. Quentin, standing where he could see Charlie, helped with directions.

“When Charlie returned he brought with him a few precious cuttings from one of the two plants he found on the cliff, together with a flower and a seed pod.

“On seeing the plant up close, Rosie recalls, George and Quentin knew immediately that it was the ebony. The experience of that moment on the cliff was one not to be forgotten – it was a very happy moment for all.

“Collecting the cuttings had required heroic effort and was a cause for celebration as the men shared a well-deserved drink of brandy that evening on their return to Pounceys.

“Charlie was to return once more to the ebony site in 1983 to collect cuttings from the second plant on the cliff. He declined a request to go a third time, to collect soil samples. He knew his wife would be worried.”

George Benjamin went on to be awarded the British Empire Medal for his great efforts to re-establish the ebony, which now grows around the island, and to raise public awareness of the importance of the island’s endemic plants – those that grew nowhere else in the world. George died in May 2012.

Charlie’s reward was the satisfaction and honour of knowing his bravery and skill had made possible the recovery of the ebony. He died on 28 April 2007.

As the anniversary of his passing came round, Wendy contacted St Helena Online to see whether his role could be commemorated in some way, partly for the benefit of future generations of her family. She was delighted to be told that pictures of the climb were to be printed for hanging on the island:

“What can I say… emotions have sure kicked in. But thank you so much. My son will be overwhelmed with this news.”

Some more permanent recognition may yet be possible. 

And perhaps one other event of 2012 will also serve as a tribute to Charlie and George: the birth of a baby girl to Rémi Bruneton and Sophy Thorpe.

She was born on the island, and they named her Ebony.

Gallery: click a thumbnail to see the original picture of Charlie’s climb

SEE ALSO:

George Benjamin, the man who saved the St Helena Ebony
Thefts hit effort to revive endangered island plants

LINK:
St Helena National Trust

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0 Responses to The Saint who risked all to rescue a plant

  1. Rémi says:

    nice article Simon! will keep for Ebony to read when she’s older…

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