St Helena Online

Tag: botany

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

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Walkers return from Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. Picture by Derek Henry

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.

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Rosie Peters and Gavin Ellick (Eddie Duff). Charlie climbed down the cliff to the left of the picture (image courtesy of Derek Henry)

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.

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Quentin Cronk took a single photograph of Charlie’s 1980 climb

 

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.

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Rosie Peters and grandson Taylan planted ebony seedlings
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.

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Rebecca Cairns-Wicks gave a speech about Charlie’s climb. Picture by Derek Henry

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.

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St Helena ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe
“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.

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Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years
“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.”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

SEE ALSO:

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

LINK:
St Helena National Trust

Buttercup find completes Falklands set at Kew

After several failed attempts, botanist Richard Lewis has managed to collect seeds of the only endemic Falklands plant missing from an important collection at Kew.

‘I was thrilled to find large stands of the silvery buttercup (Hamadryas argentea) in a few remote valleys on Weddell Island,’ he says in Kew’s UK Overseas Territories blog. ‘I had tried to collect seeds of this species several times before in other parts of the Falklands but always been defeated.

‘Once a cold spring had made the plant flower late, another time the plants only had male flowers, so no seeds were set, and a third time some goats had escaped from a nearby farm and eaten all the female flowers.’

All thirteen of the Falklands’ unique plant species are now being preserved in low temperatures at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.

Read the full post here.

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