35 years on, ebony hero Charlie gets his name on the map
A strong wind blew over the party that had gathered above St Helena’s wildest cliffs to honour Charlie Benjamin as an island hero. And nearly 5,000 miles away in London, a heavy drizzle blattered against the windows of the elegant room at Kew Gardens where his daughter was getting married.
Speeches at both locations recalled the perilous climb Charlie made, 35 years and one day earlier, to bring back the St Helena ebony from apparent extinction. No living specimen had been seen growing for more than a century: now there are thousands of them.
The famous George Benjamin had spotted the unfamiliar plant on a near-unreachable ledge, but he declined to risk climbing down to it. But his brother was reckoned the best climber on the island; it was his bravery in bringing up cuttings of the plants that was finally, belatedly celebrated on Saturday 14 November 2015.
The spot where the two last surviving plants were sighted has now been given the name Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. It will appear on island maps.
The ceremony came two and a half years after his daughter Wendy – now Mrs Duncan – decided it was time his bravery was formally acknowledged.
George received the British Empire Medal for his years of work to revive the fortunes of St Helena’s precious endemic species, she said, but Charlie had died in 2007 without ever receiving official recognition for risking his life.
Various ideas emerged, including reviving the past campaign for the ebony to become the island’s national flower, in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. Then it was realised that the cliff Charlie climbed had no name: perhaps it could be named in his honour.
On the island, Councillor Gavin Ellick – better known as Eddie Duff – took up the cause, holding a competition for school children to come up with a name for the cliff.
In the UK, Wendy was making plans for her wedding to fellow Saint Cambell Duncan when it was suggested she could marry at Kew, where botanists invented a new technique to propagate seeds from the ebony. Staff helped to make it happen when they heard about her connection with the plant, which grows in the Temperate House at Kew.
The date for the wedding was set for the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of Charlie’s first climb (he actually made two – but declined to go down a third time). The ceremony on the island would take place on the same date.
Out in the wind at Blue Point, ebony seedlings were planted by Charlie’s step-daughter, Rosie Peters, and her grandson Taylan. They also planted one on behalf of half-sister Wendy, to mark her marriage to fellow Saint Campbell Duncan in London.
The deputy governor, Sean Burns, and the island’s chief secretary, Roy Burke, also planted seedlings.
And then most of the 23-strong party of adults and children ventured down to stand at the spot from which the botanist Quentin Cronk had taken a single photograph of Charlie’s climb, hundreds of feet above the waves that crash against the wildest part of St Helena’s south coast.
Derek Henry, deputy director of the environment directorate, noted that the setting was one of the most spectacular on the island. “The weather was a little blustery,” he said, “but that did not dampen the spirit of the event.”
In 1980, Rosie Peters drove George Benjamin and Quentin Cronk round the island when the botanist – now a world-renowned professor – visited St Helena to investigate its plants. She watched Charlie climb down to the ledge with just a rope round his waist.
“As for Saturday and me standing on that cliff,” she wrote after the commemoration, “it was very emotional but I was also very proud that I could actually show my partner and my grandson where I was on the day that my stepfather retrieved the ebony slips.
“I had flashbacks of that actual day as I stood there surveying the cliff. I remembered the climb as my stepfather Charlie descended and then later reappeared with the ebony flower in his mouth.”
Charlie carried cuttings up the cliff in a bag, but gripped a single flowering stem in his teeth – keeping his hands free for climbing – so Quentin and George could confirm it was the ebony.
Dr Cairns-Wicks said after the ceremony: “A wild, windswept and breathtakingly beautiful landscape, this was a rather special pilgrimage for both those connected personally to Charlie and his historic climb and also to those who had never been out to Blue Point before.”
In her speech, she told how the island had benefited from the recovery of the first ebony cuttings.
“It inspired commitment from the local and international community to fight to save the ebony and the island’s other rare and endangered endemics, securing for the first time in the island’s history a dedicated section for conservation, which was very successfully set up and run by George Benjamin.
“Sean Burns also gave a short speech, followed by Father Dale who gave a reading and blessing and dedication to Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge.” Good wishes were also sent to Wendy.
“It was a touching ceremony and one that was particularly poignant for Rosie.
“But also it felt special and good, to give recognition to a silent local hero by making an indelible mark in the history of the island, naming the spot 35 years ago where Charlie climbed down the ledge in search of what turned out to be a very special flower.
“There are thousands of ebonies on the island today, and perhaps one day there will be thousands thriving around Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. I am sure that would make Charlie and George Benjamin very proud.”