Move to recognise Charlie’s bravery – and the plant he saved

Charlie Benjamin's 1980 climb. Click on the image to see the full-size picture by Quentin Cronk

Charlie Benjamin’s 1980 climb. Click on the image to see the full-size picture by Quentin Cronk

Renewed efforts are in hand to adopt the St Helena ebony as the island’s national flower.

And a place on the map may be in store for the man who brought it back from extinction – in his teeth.

Charlie Benjamin scaled a dangerous cliff to retrieve the rediscovered plant. Now it has been suggested that the rock face should be named in his honour.

Councillor Eddie Duff has been sounding out colleagues and experts on the move.

St Helena Ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe

St Helena Ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe

The current national flower is the arum lily, but that is actually an invasive alien species – in effect, a weed.

The ebony is felt to be a better symbol for the drive to re-establish the island’s spectacular array of unique and rare plants, partly because of the inspiring story of its rescue.

It was actually spotted by Charlie’s brother, George, who was guiding the Cambridge botanist Quentin Cronk round the island in 1980. At the time, the ebony was feared extinct.

Charlie, who was renowned for negotiating cliffs to reach fishing spots, was thought to be the only man capable of climbing down to the plant, which was spotted during a rest stop.

Only when he clambered back up the cliff with a stem of the plant in his teeth was Quentin able to confirm it was an ebony.

Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years

Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years

George was awarded the British Empire Medal for his efforts to reawaken interest in St Helena’s extraordinary plant heritage, and Quentin is now a world-renowned professor.

But Charlie, who died in 2008, has never been formally honoured for his bravery in scaling the cliff below the Asses’ Ears, with waves crashing far below.

Councillor Eddie said: “I remember when we had the tree planting ceremony at the
Millennium Forest in honour of George and how he spoke about Charlie’s climb,
and I could see that it needed be highlighted more.

“I was working at the A&F [Agriculture and Fisheries] department when they rediscovered the ebony, and I for one hope we can do a piece for him, on the same level as George and Quentin.”

The idea has yet to win formal support, but there is enthusiasm for the idea in some quarters.

Executive Council member Ian Rummery said: “I think that this is really important. It is part of strengthening the social fabric and celebrating the uniqueness of St Helena.

“Eddie knows where the cliff is and he is also looking to create some form of marker for it, if not by the cliff then on the nearest road.

“To be honest he did show me on the map but I still cannot really work out where it is.”

Adopting the ebony as the island’s national flower may or may not be straightforward. The arum lily currently appears on coinage.

But naming the cliff in Charlie’s memory would present one problem – what to call it.

Suggestions so far include Benjamin’s Drop and Charlie’s Climb. A name could also be given to the spot where George stopped for a rest, and spotted the plant that looked as if it might be the lost ebony.

  • A new policy for propagating and selling St Helena’s endemic and native plants was published by St Helena Government in December 2013. The island has 45 endemic species – found nowhere else in the world – and several are at risk of extinction. Read the policy paper here

READ MORE: 
The Saint who risked all to rescue a plant
George Benjamin, the man who saved the St Helena ebony

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