St Helena Online


Hotelier Hazel, her dad, and thousands of dead crocodiles

The crocodiles of the Okavanga Delta learned the hard way that it didn’t do to get into Bobbie Wilmot’s line of fire. Some people on St Helena have learned the same about his daughter Hazel, the feisty owner of the Consulate Hotel in Jamestown.

She knows what she thinks is right and what she thinks is wrong, and she’s not afraid to tell people about it.

The consequences aren’t as severe as they were for those crocodiles, in the days before Mr Wilmot decided to become one Botswana’s leading conservationists.

He is reputed to have shot more of the giant reptiles than anyone before or since.

He remains a legendary figure in Botswana, decades after he was killed by one of the world’s deadliest snakes. And his one son and six daughters all inherited his robust approach to life, according to his grandson, Professor Harry Dugmore.

The story came to light when Harry travelled from Rhodes University in South Africa to speak at a conference on health journalism at Coventry University, in the UK.

The owner of St Helena Online was at the same conference, and got chatting to Harry over drinks on the opening night. The discussion got round to diabetes, which prompted mention of St Helena. Botswana also got thrown into the conversation somewhere.

After a few minutes, Harry mentioned that his aunt had moved to St Helena.

It could only be one person. “Is her name Hazel?”

It was. Harry may have been surprised at the chance of finding someone who could name his aunt just from knowing where she lived, in a bar several thousand miles from anywhere connected with either of them.

But he wasn’t surprised that she was well known on the island for speaking her mind.

Hazel has been the source of a number of stories that have found their way to St Helena Online. Some of them could even be published.

Harry was one of the opening speakers at the conference, setting out his university’s approach to teaching responsible health journalism in a country stricken by diabetes and obesity. He told of the courage of journalists who challenged the South African government to confront its appalling AIDS epidemic.

He also became the subject of one of the closing presentations, when delegates were told of the unexpected St Helena connection.

Colleagues were amazed – and delighted – by the story.

“Bobbie Wilmot really was a legend,” says Harry in an interview. “He was a crocodile hunter and hunted for the leather industry. His family subsequently – Hazel’s brother, Hazel herself, and other member of the family – got much more into conservation, with wonderful operations in Botswana. You can’t go to the Okavanga and not hear about the Wilmots.

“He did have it in for crocodiles. You hear all sorts of numbers: 145,000 is the number that I have heard, his lifetime tally. They are quite easy to hunt – you can go out and night and get 20, 30 or 40 of them. I’ve never done it so I’m vaguely remembering things my mother told me.

“[He had] seven children – six daughters – and all of them in their own way are quite amazing.

“I see a lot of them in my own two daughters – feisty, and concerned about things being fair and not tolerant of injustice. It’s a family trait.”

Bobbie died decades ago, bitten by a black mamba. Normally, victims succumb within minutes. But not Bobbie Wilmot.

“The story we got is that because he had been bitten before and got some anti snake venom, he didn’t die quickly. He was on a hunt and had to get back to his Land Rover in a canoe, and just didn’t manage to survive that second bite.”

Harry was also presented with a paper necklace made by a member of St Helena’s SHAPE charity. It was modelled on similar necklaces created by survivors of a bush tribe in the Okavanga Delta. Another of Bobbie’s daughters, Daphne, was given one of the necklaces at a tribal funeral, and sent it to Hazel to be passed on to SHAPE, to see if it could be reproduced. It became a popular craft product.

Some months after that encounter, the interview with Harry about the Wilmot family – and those necklaces – has finally been edited and sent out to the island. It is hoped it can be played on Saint FM Community Radio some time in the near future.

A copy will be posted online and linked from this website in due course.

Story: How a gift from a lost tribe helped island jewellery take shape
Pictures: Island jewellery inspired by a lost tribe
Another ship, another mad day at The Consulate

The ‘merchant king’ suspected of intrigue with Napoleon

Saul Solomon founded a business empire that has dominated commercial life on St Helena for more than two centuries. He was also suspected of smuggling a silk ladder to Napoleon, to help him escape from exile. Now documents relating to the sale of his properties have been found in Jamestown.

Saul Solomon. Click the pic to see the source
Saul Solomon. Click the pic to see the source

The long-lost title deeds of Saul Solomon’s properties on St Helena have added scraps of knowledge to the little that is known of “St Helena’s remarkable merchant king”, as the late historian Trevor Hearl described him.

His origins were mantled in mystery, wrote Hearl. “Where and when he was born, why and how he reached St Helena, no one yet knows.”

Tradition says he was born in London in about 1776, set sail for India in his teens, but was left on the island to recuperate from sickness – and stayed.

An internet article provides further insight, describing how Saul Solomon’s father, Nathaniel, had travelled to Holland and fallen in love with 14-year-old Phoebe de Mitz, who returned to England as his wife and bore him many children (possibly 21).

“In the early 1790s a ship bound for India dropped anchor off the Port of Jamestown on the island,” continues the internet article by an unnamed descendant of Saul Solomon’s brother, Joseph.

“A young man was carried ashore to die. The ship sailed on and the young man, Saul Solomon, remained, not to die, but to become one of the most influential men on the island.”

His business is said to have been founded in 1790 – the date shown on the company website. Young Saul set up a boarding house and general store, along with an insurance business. He also installed the island’s first printing press, and served as undertaker.

Phoebe, said to be Saul Solomon's mother. Click the pic to reveal the source
Phoebe, said to be Saul Solomon’s mother. Click the pic to reveal the source

Early success meant a need for people to help run the business, so he sent for his brothers, including Joseph. The Moss family came too, remaining prominent members of the business for many years.

And then Napoleon arrived on the island in 1815. Solomon’s readily traded with the deposed emperor’s entourage at Longwood, and profits rose.

There were frequent complaints about over-charging. The company charged 1,400 gold francs for the funeral of Napoleon’s valet.

Running up debts with suppliers in South Africa brought a rival to the island: Richard Prince arrived in Jamestown in 1813 to collect money owed, but stayed on and set up a business that competed against Solomon’s for 89 years. He left Prince’s Lodge as his legacy.

Saul Solomon also earned a reputation for “dubious loyalty” to the island government, said Hearl. “Hudson Lowe listed the Solomon brothers, with their clerk Bruce, as the chief suspects of aiding Napoleon…

“His premises… became notorious for gossip and intrigue.

“He was even said to have smuggled a silken ladder into Longwood in a chest of tea to help Napoleon clamber down a cliff into a waiting boat! Certainly Longwood’s clandestine correspondence passed through his hands – at a price.

“In 1840, as French Consul, he was among the favoured few to accompany Napoleon’s coffin aboard the Belle Poule.” According to the internet article, he received a medal for his services to the emperor.

At one time, Solomon’s issued its own copper halfpennies, which circulated alongside the East India Company coinage.

It continued to prosper as the island became a haven for American whalers and a base for the anti-slavery squadron.

Over time, family members rose to prominent roles, including on benevolent committees. “For 50 years they almost monopolised the prestigious post of Sheriff.”

The last of the family line, Homfray Welby Solomon (“King Sol”), died in 1960. The business was later nationalised – and then part-privatised.

Saul Solomon himself had died in 1852 on a visit to England. His daughter managed to get his body to the Cape, where she smuggled it aboard a ship bound for St Helena, according to a fellow passenger, Mrs Harriet Tytler.

“The burden was a terrible one for fear that if the sailors found it out, they would chuck her father overboard,” wrote Mrs Tytler. “Of course we were all under vow not to disclose the terrible fact of a corpse on board.”

The two island newspapers praised his memory fulsomely. “We have many living witnessed to his kindness to the distressed and suffering,” wrote the St Helena Herald, welcoming the news that he was to be buried on the island.

An executor’s sale took place “under the trees” in Jamestown in 1854, at which “a rare selection of most desirable dwelling places” were auctioned, including The Briars and The Pavilion, once home to Napoleon. Six properties in Jamestown’s Main Street could no longer be identified, wrote Trevor Hearl.

Saul Solomon’s modest gravestone was among those rescued when the burial ground in Jamestown was cleared, to become a children’s playground. The inscription revealed nothing of Solomon’s life, beyond the date of his death at 76.

  • Saul Solomon’s nephew, also called Saul, left St Helena as a young man and became the founder of the Cape Argus, one of South Africa’s major newspapers. His memorial is in St James’s Church, “though St Helenians do not yet claim him as a distinguished compatriot,” wrote Trevor Hearl.

Lost Solomon’s deeds found after 150 years
The Solomon Family: St Helena

WHAAAAaaaat? Writer’s accolade for St Helena coffee

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 23.07.14Coffee writer Maja Wallengren’s cup was fairly flowing over when she reviewed the product of St Helena’s estates on her SpillingTheBeans website. Now she has declared it her Coffee of the Year.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 23.04.56She really was keen.

“SpillingTheBeans can hardly contain the excitement to be able to share SUCH a rare coffee with you,” she wrote.

“It is stunning to find an island coffee with so many flavour attributes.”

It was, she said, “the kind of coffee that makes you stop up after the first zip to take a look at the cup and say out loud “WHAAAAaaaat?” as you ponder in wonderful amazement over where this coffee comes from.”

Maja, a Danish writer who is “crazy beyond passionate” about her subject, was sent a sample by South Sea Island Coffees, the London importers for the island estates in Sandy Bay.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 23.03.02

Click the pic to read Maja’s review in full

Maja told the story of the original Yemini beans being imported into the island in the 1730s, and remaining unusually pure because of the island’s extreme isolation.

The South Sea Islands Coffee website tells how a joint venture with Solomon & Co led to production being resuscitated following the demise of the Napoleon Estate of David Henry, who had left the island.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 23.03.50“Production is now focused on the historic coffee farm of Bamboo Hedge, it says. “The land around the adjoining Wrangham’s Estate is also being cleared for renewed coffee cultivation and, it is hoped, that this will come on stream in the near future.”

Quality controls are more rigorous for St Helena’s delicate bean than would be possible on larger estates, says the website, but there are difficulties – apart from the difficulty of export.

“One of the major challenges for coffee production in St Helena is the deep scarcity of local farm labour,” it says.

20 years serving world-beating coffee

For two decades, people on St Helena have been able to enjoy a cup of their own island’s coffee, thanks to the efforts of Bill and Jill Bolton.

They founded the Rosemary Gate Coffee Estate in 1994 and it is still going strong, reports the St Helena Wirebird tourism website.

“Years of growing and perfecting the recipe has resulted in St Helena’s coffee being one of the finest in the world market,” says the Wirebird.

“It’s a flavour that represents more than three centuries of history.”

The site explains the patience that goes into the Rosemary Gate product, which is sold by the cup or the bag at the Coffee Shop on Jamestown sea front.

“No doubt new commercial opportunities will arise with the introduction of St Helena airport in 2016,” it says, “when inevitably there will be a rise in tourism and the potential for the coffee export market to really spike.

“Until then St Helena’s coffee remains a rare luxury for those outside of the island.”

Coffee of the YEAR: St Helena – SpillingTheBeans website
Rosemary Gate Coffee Estate – St Helena Wirebird
South Sea Island Coffee
St Helena Coffee Company

SEE ALSO: Coffee: how a bag of beans made St Helena a world-beater

Afloat again: last survivor of St Helena’s whaling days

Stern of the Charles W Morgan, pictured before re-launch. Click the pic for original image
Stern of the Charles W Morgan, pictured before re-launch. Click the pic for original image

Well over a century has passed since John Knipe deserted from the crew of a whaling ship at Jamestown, and he is long dead; but far across the Atlantic, that same vessel is being prepared to take to sea once more.

The Charles W Morgan, once a familiar sight in James Bay, has been relaunched at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut after five years of restoration.

The vessel is the world’s last surviving wooden whaling ship: first launched at New Bedford in 1841.

Charles W Morgan before restoration. Picture by Steve and Sara Emry, via flickr
Charles W Morgan before restoration. Picture by Steve and Sara Emry, via flickr

When her $7 million dollar restoration is complete in 2014, she is due to embark on a commemorative voyage to the great whaling ports of New England, including New Bedford. There are no plans for her to make the dangerous voyage to her old hunting grounds around the islands of the South Atlantic.

Thousands turned out at Mystic Seaport, the vessel’s home since 1941, to see her floated once again on Sunday 21 July 2013.

The final stage of restoration will include fitting new masts.

A deck house built for the wife of one of the ship’s captains will remain on the quayside. Clara Tinkham left the ship at St Helena to find her own way home, unwilling to put up with life aboard a whaler.

The crowd saw Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of original owner Charles Waln Morgan, smash a bottle containing ocean water over the ship’s bow.

Documentary maker Ric Burns praised the preservation shipyard at Mystic Seaport and the organisations in more than 20 states that helped with the restoration of the ship – which had been declared a national historic monument.

First voyage of the Charles W Morgan, in 1841
First voyage of the Charles W Morgan, in 1841

He said: “Having taken in and cared for and lovingly provided a home for the Charles W Morgan, the last and only whale ship in the world since 1949, you’ve now done something even more extraordinary: you’ve given her back her wings, made it possible for her to sail again and given her back to the sea.”

While a large team of craftsman has been stripping the decks and steaming great hull planks – some from 200-year-old oaks that were felled by Hurricane Katrina – others have been working through the ship’s records.

Thus we know that a 38-year-old adventurer, listed as John [Knife] Knipe, joined voyage 10 of the Charles W Morgan at New Bedford in April 1875 and escaped ashore at St Helena on 15 November the following year.

His place of residence was listed in the record as Providence, another New England whaling port, and there was a brief description of him: height 5’8″, eyes dark, hair black, complexion dark.

He was one of 24 men who deserted at various ports during that three-year voyage, but there were plenty of others willing to take their place, including six who shipped at St Helena during various calls at the island.

Refitting masts and rigging is the last part of restoration. Picture: Steve and Sara Emry
Refitting masts and rigging is the last part of restoration. Picture: Steve and Sara Emry

Some of those joining the crew at Jamestown over the years would be whaling men looking for a ride home; others might have been islanders prepared to take on the hardships of a brutal trade to escape poverty.

The record for voyage ten lists Jose Cuemintel, a “greenhand”; Antone Vera, a boatsteerer; Adolphus Hayard and William Brown, seamen; Joseph Parry, 4th mate; and George Thomas, “boy”, who shipped at St Helena in November 1876 and was discharged at the island eight months later.

Others followed on later voyages: William J George on voyage 13, George T Samuel on voyage 22, and Thomas Stokes, “preventer boatsteerer” in 1899.

The ship’s voyage of 1856 to 1859 saw three men in their early 20s join the crew at Ascension Island: their names are listed as Joe Ascension, Tom Ascension and Friday Ascension.

The records also contain an account of the ship’s working days by a “grand sailerman” named John Levitt. He described how, by 1913, the ship was laid up, her whaling days apparently over, when she was bought and repaired by Captain Benjamin Cleveland, who hoped to go after sperm whale and sea elephant oil off Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean.

Model of the Charles W Morgan. Picture: Mary Harrsch
Model of the Charles W Morgan. Picture: Mary Harrsch

The cost of making her seaworthy was met partly by a film company for a picture set partly on a whaling ship.

The Charles W Moore eventually sailed in 1916, but she began leaking after a storm and eight men deserted at the Cape Verde islands, believing she would sink. Four men were lost when one of the ship’s boats capsized in heavy surf at Desolation.

“Leaving Desolation Island on 12 May,” wrote Leavit, “the Morgan worked northward into the South Atlantic and on 8 August raised the island of St Helena, where she anchored next day.  There she lay for eight days while fresh water was taken aboard, some repairs were made, and the crew was given a chance to stretch their legs ashore, a watch at a time.”

When the Morgan embarks on her 38th voyage in May 2014, after final fitting out and crew training, her goals will include telling the story of different cultures that came together at sea, and of America’s changing attitudes to the natural world.

“The last is the most significant,” says the Mystic Seaport website. “Whales were hunted almost to extinction. Today, America celebrates the whale and works for its recovery. Where once the Charles W Morgan’s cargo was oil and bone, today her cargo is knowledge.”

Charles W Morgan in 2007. Picture by Ken Mist
Charles W Morgan in 2007. Picture by Ken Mist

St Helena historian Trevor Hearl wrote that St Helena could have much to add to that knowledge.

In a paper re-published in June 2013 in the book, St Helena Britannica, he pointed out that little was known about the island’s biggest source of income after flax-growing.

“Think what must be hidden in St Helena newspapers and archives,” he wrote. “Shipping lists alone would give details of every whaler at Jamestown from 1829 to 1883, perhaps longer.”

The records recall resentment on the impoverished colony at American whalers making fortunes in St Helena’s waters, while efforts to establish a local whaling company failed. In 1882, islanders even watched a visiting ship catch a whale within sight of Ladder Hill Fort.

The trade effectively ended with the coming of the First World War. The Charles W Morgan’s visit to St Helena in 1916 was one of the very last to be made by a whaling vessel, aside from a call by a massive Norwegian factory ship in 1960, bound for a last hunt in Antarctica.

Restoration of the Charles W Morgan
Mystic Seaport launched historic whaling ship Charles W Morgan (news report)
Charles W Morgan – a volunteer’s account of the restoration

AUDIO: new St Helena Britannica is a tribute to island historian

Airline dream that began with a map on the kitchen floor

maps montage 640Three pilots are setting up an airline to bid for the contract to fly to St Helena when its first airport opens in 2016. St Helena Online went to meet the man who dreamed up the project. 

Captain Richard Brown first heard about St Helena as a child, when he saw an item on the BBC’s Blue Peter programme.

A Star tail 300It stuck in his mind. And for the past seven years, he has been dreaming of flying to the island in his own aircraft, with his own airline.

Or rather, the island’s own airline. Before it can take off for Prosperous Bay Plain, of course, it has to land something even tricker than an aeroplane: the contract.

Atlantic Star Airlines, as the project has become, was born on the floor of Richard’s kitchen, between flights in his job as a training captain at British Airways.

“I got reading about the airport and I thought, wow, what an interesting and challenging concept it would be to try to operate somewhere so remote and with such a limited set of facilities.

“The start of it was getting a map of the world, spreading it out on the kitchen of our old house, getting a ruler out and starting to do some very basic calculations about speed time and distance, and thinking, if I was going to build an operation to service this island, how would I do it?

Atlantic Star wants to fly London-St Helena-Cape Town
Atlantic Star wants to fly London-St Helena-Cape Town

“That has led beyond basic curiosity to what has become quite a passion for me, and also for the other members of the team that I have put together to create this airline.”

That team includes fellow British Airways pilots Captain Carl Haslam – who’s left to set up his own training company – and Captain Andrew Radford. Richard is the chief executive officer.

They also have a team of business and technical advisers, including Daniel Coe, who has worked with Tesco, Carphone Warehouse and the accountancy giant KPMG in Bermuda.

“What we want to do is to create an airline specifically to serve St Helena,” he said. “Not to do anything else.

“Not to try to become a huge international mega-carrier, but specifically to serve the needs of the island in total.

“So that means the Saints living on the island, the Saints living elsewhere in the world, the businesses on the island that will want to import and export goods, and also the tourism industry.

“We have three potential developments on the island and all three of those are going to want a high quality service to bring their clients to St Helena, and we see a business there that will allow us to meet all the needs of all those people.”

Richard spoke to St Helena Online at his large house he shares with his wife and young children in Hampshire, in southern England. On the wall of his office was a picture of the Boeing 737 he flew in his first job as a pilot. There was also a picture of a World War Two Spitfire. “We’re not going to be flying any of those to St Helena, that’s for sure.”

In the week before our interview, he had flown to Bangalore and Tampa. His next stops would be in Nigeria and Boston, in the United States.

Captains Carl Haslam and Andrew Radford
Captains Carl Haslam and Andrew Radford

“My job at BA is fantastic, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “At the moment I’m on the 777 and 787 fleets flying worldwide.”

So would he walk away from all that to fly to a tiny, if fascinating, island?

“British Airways have been immensely supportive of my involvement in this project but what I’m looking forward to is going to the chief pilot and saying, ‘Boss, I’m off to set up A-Star.’

“He’s going to say, ‘Rich, that’s fantastic, let us know how it goes.’

“I wouldn’t have given up the last seven years working on this if I didn’t think A-Star could come into being and be a viable and long-term business. 

“We are incredibly excited about the potential that St Helena has in all sorts of areas and the way that Atlantic Star can be part of that success story.”

One of the biggest obstacles – for a team of professional pilots – is that they can’t actually fly to the island for another three years. That means that despite having built up an almost obsessive knowledge of St Helena, they haven’t actually been able to visit yet.

“I have done a lot of research, as have the rest of the team, and almost certainly one of us will be out there, if not in 2013 certainly 2014 without a shadow of doubt. We know we need to do that.

“Because of our work commitments and the journey time it is difficult to come and visit right now.

“But we are very minded of the fact that we do need to get onto the island in order to meet people, to talk to the businesses on the island that hopefully we can partner with in launching the airline.

“There are lots of services that we are going to require on St Helena, and we are very much hoping that St Helena companies will be interested in providing those services for us.”

But that’s another story. St Helena Online will be telling it in the coming days.

Atlantic Star Airlines
St Helena Airport project

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


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

St Helena National Trust

Carnival catcall echoes round the world

Duck! Deon de Jager pilots a plane down Main Street. Picture: Debbie Wahle
Duck! Deon de Jager pilots a plane down Main Street. Picture: Debbie Wahle

Radio listeners around the world have been regaled with the story of the low-flying aircraft that turned out not to be quite low enough when it led the St Helena Carnival procession down Main Street.

Writer Mark Stratton took advantage of the episode to open his piece on the island for the BBC World Service programme, From Our Own Correspondent.

carnival 500Click the pic for an updated Carnival gallery

As a result, a cheeky heckle from the crowd has been heard around the globe – and it didn’t exactly pay a compliment to the company that’s earned plaudits for its Herculean work to fill in an entire valley to make way for the island’s new airport.

“It was carnival day in Jamestown,” the piece began. “The quaint capital’s high street of Georgian buildings and purple flowering jacarandas was thronged with St Helenians in fancy dress, blowing whistles and banging drums.

Clear for take off - picture by Barbara George
Clear for take off – picture by Barbara George

“A ripple of laughter swept through the crowd. The procession’s only motorised float was just too tall to fit under a large carnival banner strung across the street.

“But this was no ordinary float. It belonged to South African construction company Basil Read, which back in 2011 was awarded a 375 million dollar contract to build St Helena’s first-ever airport.

“Sitting astride a large scale model of an aircraft on top of this float was Basil Read’s project director, sporting an airline pilot’s cap. He clambered off the model aeroplane’s fusilage to help deconstruct the float so it could fit under the banner.

“The irony of this wasn’t lost on the revellers. ‘They can’t even design a float properly,’ yelled a middle-aged wag in a lurid pink wig. ‘How on Earth can they build our airport?'”

Basil Read’s response is keenly awaited.

Mark Stratton also had a six-page spread in “Britain’s best-selling magazine about France”, called… France.

Click the pic to read Mark Stratton's article
Click the pic to read Mark Stratton’s article

His article begins: “Michel Dancoisne-Martineau looks nothing like Napoléon. He is taller, leaner and bespectacled”.

The article tells how Michel arrived on the island as a student and was adopted by the honorary French consul, Gilbert Martineau, who wanted to retire and asked him to take over. “I said yes as I was craving money and it was originally only for three years,” said Michel.

The writer says that after a quarter of a century, Michel still feels very French and merely a guest on St Helena.

“I wondered if his time had felt like being in exile. ‘No, never,’ said the 46-year-old from Picardy, ‘I’m comfortable being the only Frenchman on the island and it was my choice to come here.’

“Asked if there was anything he missed, Michel said: ‘Yes, confit de canard. Every time I go to Paris I do my confit de canard. Then there are veal and oysters… it’s food-related things I miss.'”

In English, confit de canard is duck’s leg. Perhaps Michel could get some in, to share with Rémi, the other resident Frenchman on St Helena…

Listen to From Our Own Correspondent reports from St Helena: 
By Mark Stratton, April 2013
By Horatio Clare, December 2012
By Simon Pipe, October 2009

IN PICTURES: St Helena Carnival 2012, by Debbie Wahle and Barbara George

We took to the lifeboats off Ascension – a captain’s story

As a young seaman, Jonathan Mercer spent an anxious time in an open lifeboat after crew and passengers abandoned a burning Union Castle ship between Ascension Island and St Helena. Almost exactly 40 years on, he revisited both islands as Master of the cruise ship MS Amsterdam. 

In his online Captain’s Log, Jonathan Mercer made just the briefest mention of the near-disaster that had taken him to Ascension Island in July 1973.

“I know this island well,” ran his entry on 19 April 2013. “One might almost say intimately. I spent over a week here after abandoning my ship, along with 83 others.

“We were brought back here by the tanker which sighted our lifeboats and rescued us. Having nothing but a rather dirty white uniform to my name, the Americans on the base were kind enough to donate clothing, mine being a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of bright blue and white striped trousers. One could see me coming a mile away.”

And with that, he left off to write of his disappointment that this time, he and his passengers could not go ashore, as 950 of them had done at the previous stop at St Helena. Conditions at the landing pier were too rough.

In another journal entry recalled how he came to be in the South Atlantic, notching up sea time so he could earn his First Mate ticket.

“Union Castle line was part of our group and then ran the ‘mail’ boats, a scheduled run with several ships, each leaving Southampton, England, on a Friday and returning five weeks and two days later,” he wrote.

“The majority were passenger ships, on which I spent some time. Two others were smaller, very fast cargo ships and it was on these that I mainly served and incidentally, had the dubious distinction of abandoning into a lifeboat, following a fire, which we fought for 24 hours.”

Others have also written of the incident, including Chief Officer Robert “Rab” McKillop, who had been a young Third Purser aboard the Good Hope Castle when it departed Ascension on 29 June 1973.

“Despite all efforts to contain and extinguish the fire, it defeated us and the order was given by the Captain to take to the boats,” he wrote.

“What I remember most is my lifeboat had no engine and all had to take their turn on the oars; that, and the huge swells that caused almost everyone in the lifeboat to experience intermittent bouts of seasickness.

“The vessel had been well outside the usual shipping lanes (not much traffic between Ascension Island and St Helena), and the Radio Officer had failed to get a distress message sent before abandoning ship, due to the noxious fumes inside the superstructure being too great.

“Flares were sent up during the night more in hope than expectation. Against all odds the flares were spotted and all were eventually picked up by a tanker en route to Brazil, their Italian Captain following a course off piste so to speak.

“I heard later he had diverted his ship as he had wanted to show his wife Ascension Island, and that he was subsequently sacked for not following the designated and quickest course: a great shame if true.

“A short time afterwards a Merchant Navy padre called at my parent’s house to tell them I was all right, and that was the first they knew I had been in danger. No instant communication in those days.”

Captain Peter Ashcroft, a veteran of the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company, gave more details on the Merchant Navy Nostalgia website. He wrote:

“From the South Atlantic island of St Helena on 1 July, 1973, came a message that the Good Hope Castle, which should have arrived there the previous evening, had been in radio silence since leaving Ascension Island in the afternoon of 29 June.

“Anxiety increased as the Good Hope Castle became more and more overdue.

“Fears were confirmed in a later message from Ascension that the ship was ablaze and had been abandoned, burning and listing, but that everyone aboard was safe. The only tragedy was a little dog that was too frightened to come out from beneath the Old Man’s bed.”

The fire had broken out on 29 June, when the ship was only 35 miles from Ascension, steaming towards St Helena and The Cape. A broken lubricating oil pipe sprayed oil onto an exhaust manifold, and the resulting fire spread to the accommodation.

The fight to control it was lost, and passengers and crew took to the boats. They were lucky to be spotted in the vastness of the ocean, and taken aboard the steam tanker George F Getty.

The drifting ship was later sighted by the Southampton Castle, 24 miles off Ascension and listing by 30 degrees, with a propellor visible in the swell. On 4 July, the Clan Malcolm circled the ship and found hatch covers glowing red, deck cargo alight, and flames coming from the accommodation. The front of the bridge had collapsed.

“Next day, the Good Hope Castle was drifting in a near-gale some 100 miles WNW of Ascension, still on fire,” wrote Captain Ashcroft. “An afterdeck cargo of drums had exploded, mail in No 5 & 6 hatches was burning, the midship accommodation was gutted, but the hull beneath the weather-deck was still seemingly intact and in good condition.”

On 7 July, a salvage tug put a Union Castle superintendent aboard. He found no flames, but  the deck severely buckled and still hot. Two days later, the tug began the slow tow up to Antwerp.

The entire midships structure was destroyed, but a dry dock inspection showed no twisting of the hull. Restoration fell to a repair yard in Bilbao.

“After extensive repairs,” wrote Captain Ashcroft, “RMMV Good Hope Castle departed Bilbao on 19 May 1974, and arrived at Southampton to resume her position in the mail service to South Africa, departing Southampton on 31 May 1974.”

Air travel had already brought an end to the weekly Union Castle runs to St Helena, but not for Good Hope Castle and her sister ship, Southampton Castle. They had started out on the route as purely cargo ships – the world’s fastest – but were later fitted with passenger berths, specially to serve St Helena.

Island historian and shopkeeper Nick Thorpe had known both ships well, sailing on them with his brother Mike to get to school in the UK. “Saints going to work on Ascension used to sleep on deck upstairs,” he said.

“Many of my generation have travelled on the Good Hope Castle and experienced drama: smoke coming up from the engine rooms, breakdowns – all kinds of problems. It was considered to be a pretty jinxed ship.

“We had cargo on it when it caught fire. I know the margarine went up in smoke. It was the first time we had to do an insurance claim. They paid up.”

Tristan da Cunha wreck lifeboat drifts to Australia
St Helena and an ordeal at sea

Merchant Navy Nostalgia (scroll down to see pictures of the stricken Good Hope Castle)
Captain’s Log: Ascension Island – by Captain Mercer
Captain’s Log: How I became Master – by Captain Mercer
Recollections of a Retiring Man by Chief Officer Robert ‘Rab’ McKillop

How Thatcher’s ‘Act of injustice’ brought despair to Saints

Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013
Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013

A “great injustice” Margaret Thatcher perpetrated on the people of St Helena has been largely overlooked in coverage of her death.

Saints were denied their right of free access to the UK for nearly two decades, along with people of Tristan da Cunha, Ascension and most other British overseas territories.

A Falklands councillor, Mike Summers, has praised Baroness thatcher for transforming the fortunes of his islands after the 1982 invasion by Argentina.

He notes that she restored the Falkland islanders’ British citizenship, without mentioning that her government had taken it away in the first place – or that St Helena, with at least as good a claim to be British, was overlooked.

When full UK nationality was finally restored by the Labour government on 21 May 2002, on the 500th anniversary of St Helena’s discovery, Governor David Hollamby did not hold back.

Wearing full ceremonial rig for a speech at the annual St Helena’s Day celebrations, he declared: “St Helenians suffered a great injustice when the British Nationality Act of 1981 effectively reduced all the British dependent territories to second-class citizens.”

When Saints could not go marching in
When Saints could not go marching in

The legislation was passed to protect Britain from a wave of immigrants before the handover of Hong Kong to China, said the Daily Telegraph in 2002.

But “the baby was thrown out with the bath water,” said Mr Hollamby. Many Saints were all-but imprisoned on their own island, unable to lift themselves out of poverty.

Ironically, one of the few places they were able to travel to freely was the Falkland Islands. Many parents left their children behind to work at RAF Mount Pleasant in menial jobs.

Saints faced obstacles whenever they travelled to other countries because immigration officials were often reluctant to recognise the crude passports issued in St Helena. 

In the 1990s, The Bishop of St Helena’s Commission on Citizenship was set up to campaign for an end to islanders’ status as British Overseas Territory Citizens. It was co-chaired by Nicholas Turner, the vicar of Ascension, and Cathy Hopkins – now the Speaker of St Helena’s legislature.

Leading figures on the islands and in the UK were involved, including Dorothy Evans, Lawson Henry, John Clifford, Earl Henry, Owen George, and Trevor Hearl. Tristan da Cunha was included in the case for restitution.

After disruption caused by the breakdown of the RMS St Helena in 1994, the Commission produced a campaign pamphlet with the title, St Helena: The Lost County of England.

It argued that St Helena had been mistakenly classified as a British Colony in an Act of 1833, meaning that it was wrongly caught in the British Nationality Act 150 years later.

“In 1673 King Charles II confirmed by Royal Charter that the Island was to be regarded in perpetuity as a detached part of England, and its inhabitants as among its citizens,” it said. “The Island of St Helena is an outpost of Great Britain. It’s citizens are British, and always have been.”

The introduction to the pamphlet spoke of the “frustration and despair of all islanders at the erosion of their historic rights”. 

It went on: “An injustice has occurred. Most notably, Saint Helenians now require entry permits to visit part of their own country.

“A wrong has been done, and the moral demand for justice is common to all who are British, irrespective of colour, sex or creed.”

The paper argued that the loss of citizenship was not just immoral, but was also a religious wrong. And it hinted that the Conservative government itself – by this time headed by John Major – was immoral.

It asked: “Is there or is there not a moral basis to British government? The treatment of the British subjects of St Helena will answer that.”

The document even broached a taboo subject: “Is it racism? This is the nagging fear and shame that never leaves the stage…

“It does sometimes seem to be the case that Saint Helenians have been penalized for the colour of their skin. In particular it is true that Saint Helenians have as good as, or even better, a claim to be British as do the Falkland Islanders, with this one exception, that all the latter are white.”

The fear was dismissed: the British Government would not have used colour as the basis for denying nationality, said the pamphlet; the real factors were more subtle.

Nor was the slave heritage of many Saints a reason to withdraw British status, as some had suggested to the Commission – “often quite forcibly”.

The situation had come about simply because of an “ad hoc” law to deal with Hong Kong, said the pamphlet. “Its political bankruptcy will one day have to be acknowledged, and corrected.”

That acknowledgement came after Tony Blair’s Labour government promised to put matters right in its 1999 White Paper on overseas territories.

But the following year, campaigners took their case to the United Nations to try and force the British government to deliver on its promise. 

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality” – but that was precisely what had happened to the Saints and the people of Tristan da Cunha, and most of Britain’s other overseas territories.

The Saints’ case was put to the UN Committee on Decolonisation by Professor Hudson Janisch, a Canadian academic who was a direct descendant of St Helena’s only island-born governor, who had the same name.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said the promise of British passports would be kept: “It will happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Two years later, on 22 May 2002, the Telegraph reported:

St Helena’s 5,000-strong population on the remote Atlantic island staged a noisy double celebration yesterday marking 500 years since the island was discovered, and the restoration to the islanders of full British citizenship.

A Salvation Army brass band and the bugles and drums of the local Scouts played as Governor David Hollamby, in full ceremonial rig, represented the Queen at a march past.

As church bells rang out and a sun-drenched drizzle broke the heat, Saints – as the islanders call themselves – broke into applause at the news that the Princess Royal would visit in November. Islanders welcomed the news as recognition of their restored status.

Ironically, it was another Labour government that later “betrayed” St Helena, as many saw it, by defaulting on its promise to fund an airport for the island.

And it was a Conservative cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, who finally pushed through the airport plan, bringing about the possibility of the kind of prosperity enjoyed by the Falkland islanders.

Baroness Thatcher died on 8 April 2013, at the age of 87.

A story went round that the Falklands capital, “Port Stanley” (as it is incorrectly known to the British media) was to be renamed “Port Margaret” in her honour. It was quickly dismissed by the Falkland Islands Government.

At the Castle in Jamestown, the people of St Helena – British once again, and famously loyal – were invited to sign a Book of Condolence.

“Flags were flown at Malf Mast on Tuesday 9 April,” said a St Helena Government statement, “and will be flown at Half Mast again on Wednesday 17 April, when the funeral ceremony, with full military honours, will take place at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, following a procession from Westminster. The Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, will attend the service.”

St Helena celebrates the restoration of full citizenship
St Helena’s passport plea goes to the UN
(both stories from the Daily Telegraph, London)
A view from the Falklands on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, by Mike Summers

Statistical wits show their humour has a broad side…

The staff in the Statistical Office in Jamestown clearly have no doubts about the importance of their work, but it appears they might benefit from a ramrod when it comes to persuading other people of it.

St Helena is undergoing unprecedented transition, writes chief number-cruncher Dr Paula McLeod on the International Year of Statistics website. It is vital, she says, that the government, businesses, investors and the public have the figures they need to plan for the island’s bright future, post-airport.

So far, so serious. But then comes the picture caption:

The staff of the St Helena Statistics Office (from left) Justine Joshua, Kelly Clingham, Dr Paula McLeod and Natasha Stevens stand next to the cannon that flanks the entrance to the statistics office and serves as a reminder to passersby of the importance of statistics for evidence-based decision-making.

Readers are welcome to suggest witty pay-off lines. Your editor lacks the courage.

LINK: Around the world in statistics – St Helena