St Helena Online

Heritage

Crazy paving: 18th century slabs cause a ripple in Jamestown

When workmen broke up the concrete pathway at the bottom of Main Street, they uncovered an 18th century pavement that would have been the perfect finishing touch to the island’s new hotel.

Here was a historic feature almost as old as the hotel structure itself: a row of East India Company buildings soon to welcome the kind of high-end tourists who appreciate a bit of heritage.

Robert Midwinter, overseeing the work for Enterprise St Helena, was very excited. “When the contractors were breaking up the concrete, I was actually there,” he says. “I ran straight over to Jeremy.”

That’s Jeremy Harris of the St Helena National Trust. He contacted Adam Sizeland at the museum, who raced up with a camera to photograph the discovery.

“It was beautiful,” says Robert. “We got the chief engineer over and got in touch with the chief planning officer.”

They were asked if the planning consent for the hotel could be varied to incorporate the newly exposed stone slabs as a feature. They’d have to be raised up to the new height of the pavement, but it was all agreed.

The slabs provided an unexpected chance to complete work started by the former planning chief, David Taylor, to bring back the old look of Georgian Jamestown.

So far, so smooth. Unlike the stones, it seems. “Unfortunately, when the contractor started relaying them, [they] couldn’t get an even surface. They’re quite ripply on top.

“The contractor did a section, and the chief enginer came out and had a look and called out Jeremy, and it was agreed that for public safety couldn’t use them. We couldn’t get approval.”

Nick Thorpe, long-time champion of St Helena heritage, had been appalled to see the slabs replaced with modern concrete blocks.

“Could be a trip hazard, they say. ‘Visit historic St Helena is a sad joke.”

The old pavement outside 1-3 Main Street, freshly exposed
The old pavement outside 1-3 Main Street, freshly exposed

And Rob’s smooth explanation failed to satisfy Nick, who  produced a picture of the freshly-exposed slabs looking not exactly bumpy.

“The surface of the original pavement was perfect, as good as any you would encounter in Bath. My original comments still stand.”

The modern concrete paving blocks that have been laid are considered an improvement on the concrete, but they’re very obviously not historic. “They’ll weather over time,” says Robert, hopefully.

“It would have been so nice to incorporate the originals but unfortunately, we can’t. We had to try.”

And it wasn’t all disappointment. “Under that concrete was also the original kerbstones. They will be part of the project. That’s a continuation of what we’ve got in the rest of Main Street. We’ve put new pavement down but we’re using original kerb stones, so it looks almost the same.”

The hope had been that the pavement would be as pleasing as the cobblestones on the other side of the street that had also been covered by concrete and later brought back into the light… only for some of them to be dug up to make way for high-speed computer cabling.

At least these days, he says, there is an understanding of the importance of heritage features. “In the old days people didn’t show that level of care. People are getting on the ball now. We stopped the work. The National trust came over. There is a record of what was uncovered.”

As for the ancient slabs, they will be stored and preserved by the National Trust. “If they are able to be used in some heritage project somewhere, they will be.”

That’s as long as no one nicks them.

  • Far be it for us to suggest that the heightened concerns about safety might be something to do with a new breed of hotel guests, rich enough to sue for injuries…

The Last Farewell: Tony’s video tribute to the RMS St Helena

Captain Andrew Greentree had spent more than half his life at sea on the RMS St Helena. Patrick Williams and Eddie Benjamin had been on the maiden voyage up from Cape Town, 26 years earlier. Gay Marr was present when the keel was laid. And now here they all were, ploughing northward on what should have been the ship’s farewell trip.

When Voyage 242 was advertised, a year in advance, there was every expectation that “the RMS” would soon be retired, giving way to weekly flights into the island’s new airport. By the time the crew weighed anchor in James Bay and set course for London, St Helena had already given new meaning to the term, “flights delayed”. Wind problems on the runway meant the launch of the scheduled passenger service had slipped from “soon” to a not-very-reassuring “we’re working on it”.

The RMS St Helena: picture by Bruce Salt
The RMS St Helena: picture by Bruce Salt

Before the seriousness of the travel travails was officially admitted, there was talk of the RMS being sold to Alderney, in the Channel Islands. As the ship sailed teasingly close to the island on its way north, Captain Greentree announced to passengers the breaking news that the RMS would continue serving St Helena instead, for another six months (and he could have added, “at least”).

Tony Leo, veteran island broadcaster, was on the bridge to capture the announcement on camera. Just over a year later, it features in The Last Farewell, a documentary that pays tribute to this most loved of ships. The irony is that it was the RMS, still sailing doggedly on, that transported the DVDs to Jamestown for sale in the island shops. Clearly, the RMS and its crew were having trouble saying farewell after all.

Click here to buy a copy of The Last Farewell (from PM 14 July 2017)

The film emerged from the edit suite within days of SA Airlines being named as preferred bidder for the second attempt at providing an air service, with months still to wait for actual regular flights.

So maybe it wasn’t quite the adieu that had been anticipated when the voyage was planned; but it would be the last trip between St Helena and England, and that made it historic.

Among the passengers there was a poignant link to another momentous voyage. Eddie Leo was the last survivor of The Hundred Men, who had made this same journey in another ship in 1949, at a few days’ notice, to accept a grudging offer of work from the British government when it was scarce on the island. Some never returned to their families. Eddie finally went back after 67 years, planning to stay, but he couldn’t settle and so now he was rolling home to the UK. There was no better way to make the trip.

The arrival in London was spectacular, with a helicopter flying overhead as the ship passed triumphally through Tower Bridge (with very little clearance) to take up a berth next to HMS Belfast, within sight of officials and Parliamentarians in Westminster who could perhaps do with a visible reminder of St Helena’s existence.

“People could see the ship,” says Captain Rodney Young in the film. “Had it worked out, it would have been the time the island would be ready for tourism.” Ah well.

It wasn’t the only tiny detail that didn’t quite work out, says Rodney, who joined the ship in London to take command for the homeward voyage. They had to compromise on gifts. “We wanted honey but the island didn’t have any. We wanted tinned fish: not enough.” Instead, they took local goat meat, and crayfish from Tristan da Cunha.

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Captain Rodney Young (picture: St Helena Government)

Tony filmed from the quayside as the RMS slipped back under Tower Bridge, stern-first this time, and made the trip down-river to Tilbury Docks for the real farewell. Saints had gathered from across the UK to wave goodbye to “the ship that probably brought them to England many years ago.”

Kedell Worboys, the island government’s indefatigable London representative, was among the 113 south-bound passengers. She had worked for eight years to bring the ship to London.

Gay Marr had been the London rep when the ship’s keel was laid at the Hall Russell yard in Aberdeen. As guest of honour, she took along a coin to place beneath the keel block – a shipbuilding tradition. “I gave the shipping people a St Helena crown, but they wouldn’t do it. They put it in a plaque which they presented afterwards. So I still have that.”

Cathy Hopkins was also making the journey south. She was Kedell’s predecessor in the London office, and had to deal with the chaos of the ship breaking down in the Bay of Biscay in 1999, which meant getting the crew and passengers back from France to England and then on a flight to South Africa to board a relief vessel. Many passengers abandoned their attempts to reach the island – as would happen again when a propellor failed in 2017. Cathy is glimpsed only briefly in the film, at the gala dinner on the final evening, linking hands with neighbours and singing Auld Lang Syne. She died in 2017, much mourned.

RMS St Helena
The RMS heads out of The Thames. Picture supplied by St Helena Government

At Tilbury, time for departure. A military band marched on the quayside. It rained a bit; and then confetti filled the sky and the mooring lines were let go, and the RMS eased out into the Thames Estuary and into a haze of spray from the escort vessels’ fire hoses. “This is the final voyage of this ship from the UK,” announces Captain Rodney over the tannoy, “Thus bringing to the end over 175 years of mail ships to the Cape. We are heading down the Thames…”

Out at sea, Tony shows us the life of the ship: the Captain’s cocktail party, the cricket on the after-deck, the invitation-only disco in the crew quarters, and evening events such as the Ascot Night parade of 26 hats in the forward lounge: “Pam’s come as the RMS,” says the compere. “I think the funnels are a bit big on that one.”

One passenger knitted five garments on the voyage, we learn. Food consumption included 360 eggs, 330 rolls and 228 loaves in a day.

This last UK run meant the revival of a tradition not seen on board for a few years: the Crossing the Line ceremony at the Equator, in which King Neptune and his courtiers command obeisance and selected passengers are covered in gunk (not suitable treatment for vegetarians), before a soaking in the pool. The greatest value of Tony Leo’s fine film is that it captures once-familiar moments like this that will not be seen again.

Adam Williams, 19 years at sea and unaware he would soon become the ship’s third St Helenian captain, is pragmatic. The ending of the RMS service will be “like losing a family member,” he says in the film. Without the arrival of air travel and the opportunities for tourism and maybe some export trade, the island cannot thrive in the 21st century. “It’ll be sad, but for me the needs of St Helena comes first.”

Adam Williams - captain of the RMS in its final months
Adam Williams – captain of the RMS in its final months

Nigel Thomas, petty officer, puts it in context: “For so many hundreds of years, St Helena has always been connected with ships, so it’s going to be a sad day when it sails away.”

What’s missing from these interviews, and the film, is the story of the RMS. A lot has happened in a quarter of a century and more than two million miles of voyaging. There have been moments of tragedy. Ship-board encounters have led to marriage. There has been spectacle, such as the ship’s role at the start of the Governor’s Cup yacht race to St Helena, and a close encounter in mid-ocean with a replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour (the only time the RMS has faced cannon fire).

Tony Leo will have reported on many of those stories in his 40 years of broadcasting on St Helena but his film sets out only to capture this one voyage: it gives a flavour, not a full history. The big story can be another project, perhaps best attempted on radio, Tony’s first medium.

The Last Farewell is a tribute not only to the ship and its personnel, but also to Tony’s own career, recognized just before the film’s release with the award of an MBE.

Tony Leo MBE
Tony Leo MBE

It has often been said that this ship is special not just because of its unique role as both cargo and passenger vessel, with the need to load and unload in open water, but because of the spirit that prevails on board.

What passengers may not have sensed is the strength of community among the officers and crew. Captain Andrew feels it deeply: “The ship is part of me,” he says.

Merchant seafarers might typically work on several ships in a career, but for most sea-going Saints, this has been their ship. Lenny Hayes, remembered bringing “the old RMS” from Vancouver at the start of its South Atlantic service, and here he was, still serving. Chief petty officer Pat Williams, nearly four decades at sea, was one of the volunteers who served in that same ship as part of the Task Force that sailed south during the Falklands War. “That was the highlight of my time out here,” he says. “A good crowd of guys was on board.”

The RMS: picture by Jonathan Clingham
The RMS: picture by Jonathan Clingham

Captain Rodney was interviewed by numerous film makers and journalists over the years: as the first island-born Master of the RMS, he was a seagoing ambassador for St Helena. His interview with Tony would be his last before his unexpected death on holiday in January 2017: an immense loss, felt all round the world. His pride in the ship and its personnel shines through.

“It’s been our home for over 25 years,” he says in the film. “One of the things about the ship is we actually look forward to coming back to work. Because there is a happy, family atmosphere on board. It doesn’t matter who’s on or who’s off. This is a team and one person can slip into another person’s shoes. It’s just the way we work.”

If one watches the ship sail away from high ground on St Helena, it is lost to sight long before the horizon is reached. When the final departure does come, a whole culture will vanish into the blue. We must be grateful to Tony Leo for capturing its essence in his documentary.

A few days before its release, another passing was announced: the death of Charles Frater, who recorded life on St Helena in the early 1960s, when the island’s flax mills were still working and their products were transported by donkeys. Like Charles’s film, The Last Farewell will surely become a St Helena classic.

  • The Last Farewell, Tony Leo’s film of the last UK voyage of the RMS St Helena, can be purchased online from Reach Back St Helena from 15 July 2017, and shipped anywhere in the world. A film trailer, information and updates can be found on Facebook pages for TL Productions and St Helena Local
  • The RMS leaves St Helena
    The RMS leaves St Helena

Bride Wendy has her flower on her cake – and eats it

Campbell-Wendy by window wide 660
Kew for a wedding: Campbell and Wendy

The St Helena ebony, rescued from extinction by Charlie Benjamin, has found a place in UK national ceremonial – and on his daughter’s wedding cake. Simon Pipe of St Helena Online was honoured to give a speech telling Charlie’s story.

Wendy Benjamin would have liked to have living ebony flowers at her wedding to Campbell Duncan. But they’re classed as critically endangered, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

wendy cake 350
Mary Benjamin decorated the wedding cake with icing ebonies

No matter. She had them on their cake instead, crafted in icing by her aunt Mary – Charlie Benjamin’s sister.

It was given pride of place in the fine Cotswold barn where more than 150 people, mostly Saints, gathered to celebrate both the wedding, and Charlie’s unique role in St Helena’s natural history.

Most guests knew of George Benjamin BEM, the man who spotted two surviving ebony plants growing on a treacherous cliff.

Fewer knew how his brother Charlie risked his life to climb down and take cuttings from those surviving plants.

Campbell-Wendy wedding dance 300x250
Campbell and Wendy led the dancing

His brave act spurred a conservation effort that has brought St Helena international recognition.

Charlie did not live to give away his daughter. He died in 2007. It was Wendy’s son, Bronwyn Joshua, who took that role in the marriage at Kew Gardens, where ebonies grow today.

But through the telling of his story, Charlie could be part of the occasion.

Wedding guests were told of the ceremony that had taken place earlier in the day on St Helena, to name the site of Charlie’s brave act in his honour.

But his climb had left another legacy in UK ceremonial, they heard.

Wendy and good luck sign 300x200
Wendy’s wedding day was doubly special

“At about this time of year, you might also see the ebony on national television” they were told. “Because here’s a coincidence: Charlie’s climb was made on the 13th of November, 1980. But Georgie actually spotted the plant on the 11th of November – the anniversary of the ending of the First World War.

“On Remembrance Sunday, the nation’s leaders mark that event by laying wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in London. But the Foreign Secretary lays a wreath that’s crafted at Kew, made up of plants from the UK’s overseas territories, including – very often – the St Helena ebony.

“There can be no finer tribute for Charlie Benjamin than that.

“But he has one other legacy, in his children, and their children, and as of now, his new son-on-law. And if he were with us today, he might well say that was the legacy that gave him the most joy.”

SEE ALSO: 35 years on, ebony hero Charlie gets his name on the map

Jonathan’s birthday… what the tortoise never taught us

We hate to disappoint the newspaper readers of Holland, but Jonathan the Tortoise will not be celebrating his birthday on 7 February… regardless of what it may say on  the Wikipedia website.

Jonathan exact birth date. If it's on Wikipedia, it must be true...
Jonathan’s exact birth date. If it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true…

Since exact age of the oldest known living creature on the world can only be guessed at, it was hardly likely that his actual birthday would have been recorded.

So it was somewhat surprising when reporter Tim Kooijman got in touch to ask how the old boy would be celebrating it.

He planned to write a story for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. “I’ve noticed on Wikipedia that this coming Saturday is tortoise Jonathan’s birthday,” he wrote. “People here love stories about birthdays and animals.”

Sure enough, a side-panel on the online encyclopedia gave the old boy’s date of birth as 7 February 1832 (which is 159 years after the Dutch invaded St Helena).

Tim took it well when it was pointed out that Jonathan’s actual birthday couldn’t possibly be known. He did wonder, though, how the Daily Telegraph could have been taken in, with a website video that put his age at a confidently precise 183.

A quick check was made with Kerisha Stevens at the press office in The Castle, just to check this wasn’t some promotional thing.

“As far as we know Jonathan hasn’t been ‘allocated’ a birthday,” she replied. She wasn’t sure who was responsible for the Wikipedia entry.

Tim said he’d write a story for Algemeen Dagblad all the same, because it was quite amusing. And perhaps he did: it all looks Dutch to us.

Down in Jamestown, though, Independent editor Mike Olsson rather liked the idea. “If Wikipedia says it’s his birthday, then we’ll give him a birthday,” he said. He’d have a word with Joe Hollins, the vet who hand-feeds him once a week, and rubs his neck to help the food go down.

“We’ll give him a piece of lettuce, with a candle.”

What – just the one candle?

Watch the Telegraph video here

Lost Solomon’s deeds found after 160 years

indenture 640For years, it had been believed that the deeds of several historic houses on St Helena had been destroyed by fire. But then someone pulled out a drawer from a desk in Jamestown, and made a most surprising discovery.

Behind the drawer, lost to sight for decades, were papers documenting the sale of properties once owned by the island entrepreneur, Saul Solomon.

The desk was in the basement of the building taken over by the St Helena National Trust, the very organisation set up to preserve and protect the island’s historic riches.

Click the pic to see larger image
Click the pic to see larger image

Island historian Nick Thorpe said: “There are quite a few deeds, mostly relating to the Metcalfe family, who owned Willowbank and Robinsons in Fisher’s Valley, together with a house in town.

“The gem of the find is a deed relating to the sale of several town properties for £16,000. The seller was Saul Solomon, who established Solomon’s in 1790. The buyers were his son Nathaniel Solomon, baptised 1800, and George Moss.

“Many years ago an old man called Billy Peters told me that Solomons had a fire in their office which destroyed all their deeds, but not, according to Billy, their money.

conveyance side 640“If that is the case, then these deeds discovered recently by the National Trust may be the only 19th century ones in existence with a Solomon’s connection.”

The discovery was made in early October 2014.

One of the documents, an indenture, has a plan of a property attached with string and sealed with wax.

Another, dated around the time of Saul Solomon’s death, is a “Conveyance of messuages and tenements in James Town, St Helena”.

SEE ALSO:
The ‘merchant king’ suspected of intrigue with Napoleon
Saved: ‘national treasure’ is found on rubbish dump

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.

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

Carnival honours the memory of St Helena exiles

The exile of Zulus and Boer War prisoners on St Helena has been commemorated in a carnival and march led by the premier of KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa.

zulu march 2014 450Before the event at Woodburn Stadium in Pietermaritzburg, Senzo Nchunu urged people of all cultures to unite in paying tribute to figures such as the Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo.

He said: “Natal, as it was then known, played host to many battles, conflicts and confrontations in South Africa. These resulted in many of our heroes exiled in St Helena island.

“The French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte I, spent six years in exile on St Helena island from 1815 -1821 under stringent British supervision following his defeat at Waterloo.
Importantly, 61 years later Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, nephew to King Shaka, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on St Helena island.

“The King had dared defy the British, who had not recognized him as the rightful heir to the throne of the Zulu nation.

“Three years after King Dinuzulu left St Helena, more than 5,000 Boer War prisoners were also exiled in St Helena for having participated in a war against the British.

“Ten years after King Dinuzulu returned home to a Zululand which had been annexed to Natal, he led the defiance to the poll tax imposed by the British to pay for the needs of the developing territory. The King was accused of high treason and was moved to a farm in Middleburg. About 25 Zulu rebel chiefs were exiled to St Helena for their participation against poll tax.”

“These are the heroes who yearned for independence, political self-determination and the protection of their culture and languages. Now that we have achieved democracy and freedom, we must all come together and remember these heroes.”

Not for sale: the shirt worn by ailing Bonaparte on St Helena

A French court has stopped the auction of the shirt that was worn by Napoleon just before he fell into his final coma on St Helena, reports The Guardian.

The sweat-stained garment was one of a number of souvenirs taken back to France by Achille Thomas Archambault, a former horse-breaker who became a member of the fallen emperor’s domestic staff at Longwood.

The items, including a small walking stick and a lock of the emperor’s hair, were due to go under the hammer at Fontainebleau on Sunday, 23 March 2014.

But the servant’s descendants obtained an injunction preventing the sale shortly before it was to take place, fearing the objects would leave France. The newspaper also quotes the auction house, Osenat, saying that various people claim ownership rights, including a government minister.

Read the full story here.

When Jonathan met Sally – and the story went global

 

Jonathan stares at the camera, beak open wide
Jonathan the tortoise, pictured by Guy Gatien

The BBC’s prestigious From Our Own Correspondent programme evidently has a fascination for St Helena: the island has featured on it at least four times in the space of five years. Judged against the size of the island’s population, this might make it – unofficially – the most interesting place on the planet, in the eyes of one BBC editor, at least.

Strange, then, that the BBC refused to answer a Freedom of Information request a couple of years ago, asking how many programmes it had recorded on St Helena in the 80-plus years of the corporation’s existence.

It claimed the matter was editorially sensitive, but it may well be that it didn’t want to admit that the answer, as far as anyone can recall, would be “none”. Foreign and independent documentary crews have been out, but Britain’s state broadcaster has not done so well.

From Our Own Correspondent, though, has enjoyed rich pickings from the island – this time, with a piece on Jonathan the tortoise, the world’s oldest known living creature.

The full text of Sally Kettle’s piece was published in the St Helena Independent on 14 March 2014 and can be found on her website.

Sally achieved the distinction of having an extract played on BBC Radio 4’s Pick Of The Week programme a couple of days later, when it was introduced with the question, How can you tell whether a 200-year-old tortoise is happy?

Jonathan’s age dropped to a mere 182 in the piece itself (leaving aside the fact that his exact age isn’t known; he could be 20 years younger).

It was Sally’s passionate delivery of her script that really stood out. Click here to listen.

She describes watching Joe the Vet feed Jonathan, whose blindness and blunted beak have made it difficult to find food for himself – but whose greedy hunger almost cost Joe the tip of a finger on one occasion. 

As often reported, the old boy has no difficulty mating, producing what Joe calls “a noise like a loud, harsh escape of steam from a giant battered old kettle, often rounded off with a deep oboe-like grunt.”

Sally reports that her piece was picked up “like crazy” on Twitter, the micro-blogging site.

Her website also includes an interview with the St Helena Wirebird, in which she talks about the visit she made (at two weeks’ notice) to film a documentary about St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension.

She says she can see the benefits of the island’s airport project, including medical support, work opportunities and tourism.

“But I can also appreciate the drawbacks that are perhaps difficult for outsiders to understand,” she says. “I spoke to the head girl at Prince Andrew School and she explained her reticence. She told me that the voyage on the RMS prepares you for the gentleness of the island; it gives you time to think about the journey and appreciate the remoteness the islanders’ experience. When tourists arrive on the plane they will just step off without that appreciation. I can see her point. The trouble is the airport is coming, and I’m not sure everyone is prepared for it.”

SEE ALSO: 
Carnival catcall echoes round the world – St Helena on From Our Own Correspondent
Jonathan the Tortoise on From Our Own Correspondent
Sally Kettle website
Rower Sally heads for islands (the easy way)

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.”

READ MORE: 
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

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