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George Benjamin: the man who saved the St Helena ebony

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George Benjamin had already discovered the last surviving St Helena Olive tree when, in 1980, he spotted an unusual plant on a cliff. It turned out to be one of the island’s “lost” endemic plants: the St Helena (dwarf) ebony, now widely re-established on the island. George died on 30 April 2012. BASIL GEORGE has written this tribute. 

George Benjamin standing next to an arboretum sign

George was one of St Helena’s great sons. He was born on 15 July 1935, one of 11 children, to Thomas and Irene Benjamin.

He left school at 15, worked in a flax mill at Broad Bottom and in 1958 went to work for the Agricultural and Forestry Department as it was then, initially as a labourer but then as a forest guard.

In 1984 George was promoted to forest assistant to work full-time on the conservation of the island’s endemic flora.

He later held the post of conservation officer, until his retirement in 1995.

It was during the time with the agricultural department that his work in the conservation of endemic flora became a lifelong interest. He discovered several endemic species of plants thought to be extinct, the most famous of which was the island ebony in 1980, along with Dr Quentin Cronk, a distinguished lecturer at Cambridge University and a world authority on St Helena’s flora and fauna, who says: “George was an extraordinary man with great talents.”

George’s work in conservation led him to be sent to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to learn propagation and conservation techniques. Simon Goodenough, who worked with George at Kew, comments that George was “a true gentleman and a very special person”.

In 1989 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his dedication and commitment to the conservation of the island’s endemic flora.

When George started working in this field, little recognition was given to its importance. Through his hard work, enthusiasm and knowledge he laid the foundations on which others were to build, most notably the St Helena National Trust and the conservation section of the agricultural department.

George’s interest continued after he retired by taking visitors on tour, including to the arboretum that bears his name. A day with George was one of the highlights for visitors to the island.

He had a dry sense of humour and when a visitor would be going along part of a path that was slippery George would say, “Be careful, otherwise you go bulltourin’ down the hill.”

George, through his dedication, leaves a legacy in environmental conservation that is critical to the island and its future. He passed away peacefully at the general hospital on 30 April 2012.

A separate tribute has also been paid by the conservation department and the island’s national trust and nature conservation group.

It says George Benjamin’s dedication “has left the island with a far richer legacy
then we would otherwise have had,” and his gift extended to the people he touched and inspired.

“Rescuing a whole species and preventing its extinction, when there are just one or two plants in the world is a monumental task and a big responsibility. George you took
this all in your stride, without fuss or bother and your achievements
are there for us all to see.”

An article by Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, describing George’s discovery of the St Helena ebony, appears in the 12 May 2012 issue of the St Helena Independent, available here (see page 15).

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