An extra £1.2 million from the UK in 2015 has helped fund a series of measures to protect children and care for victims of sex abuse.
St Helena Online asked the island government to detail measures taken to improve safeguarding of vulnerable people since concerns became public.
A new safeguarding directorate
two refurbished family centres for victims
extra specialist staff
better training for people who work with victims
specialised resources for police, social services and judiciary
“The results are already clear for all to see, with more cases reported and investigated and offenders sentenced to significant terms of imprisonment,” says a St Helena Government statement.
“We are also working with our UK partners to obtain expert support to investigate historical cases.”
Child safeguarding training is ongoing for all SHG employees who work with children, and with more being developed for private-sector organisations.
The government has:
partnered with the Samaritans in the UK to provide a free,confidential telephone support service.
recruited an experienced professional from off-island to lead the new safeguarding directorate, and six full-time, qualified social workers now in post.
enhanced neighbourhood policing, with one of the team trained as the schools liaison and youth engagement officer.
held regular public awareness campaigns, including on child safety on the internet.
set up an Achieving Best Evidence suite with specialist equipment.
St Helena Police Service has recruited three officers from the UK with specific experience in investigating current and historic sexual offences. Staff were trained in November 2015 in conducting serious case reviews.
The government statement says: “Much safeguarding work was underway here before the [Wass] Inquiry was established and has been carried out since the team departed the island – but there is clearly more to be done.
“We have already achieved strong results in improving the ability and capacity of SHG to protect vulnerable individuals and to fully investigate allegations.”
“Of course, it would be naive to think that government can tackle all of this alone.
“Everyone on St Helena has a responsibility to work together to help to protect the vulnerable in our community and anyone with information that would assist the authorities is urged to come forward in confidence.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Charles Darwin glossed over it, but now St Helena has been officially recognised as Britain’s wealthiest spot on Earth when it comes to natural treasures.
The island is home to a third of the endemic species that are found on British territory around the world – that is, plants and creatures that appear naturally in only one place.
A “stock-take” by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds puts it far ahead of second-placed Bermuda. But it also highlights severe ignorance in London about the ecology of Britain’s far-flung territories, and a lack of strategy for protecting it.
St Helena even beats the iconic Galapagos Islands – seven times over – when it comes to unique invertebrates (judged on land mass).
Sadly, spiders and insects don’t attract eco tourists in quite the same way as the natural wonders of the Galapagos, but perhaps that’s just as well, given the massive strain that tourism has brought to those islands.
Their human population has grown five-fold since the 1970s, when it had the same number of people as St Helena has today. And with three airports and a stream of cruise ships visiting, they’re under daily threat of alien species being brought in and causing havoc to a fragile eco-system.
Bio-security is already being strengthened on St Helena in readiness for the opening of its first airport in 2016.
A press release from The Castle in Jamestown describes the island as “a mid-Atlantic life-raft of rare and irreplaceable species”.
Concerns about protecting agriculture and public health are cited as further reasons to control what comes in to the island.
The RSPB’s findings have been welcomed by Linda Houston of Shelco, the group planning to build an eco resort at Broad Bottom on St Helena.
She said: “This is great news and underpins the importance of a low volume, high value tourism strategy for St Helena.
“As illustrated by our approach to invasive species clearance and the establishment of [our] wirebird sanctuary, St Helena’s biodiversity is a central component of our scheme.
“In our work at Broad Bottom we aim to encourage innovation and knowledge transfer amongst local and international renowned centres of excellence, which can be applied across the island.”
The RSPB’s stock-take of Britain’s overseas territories is the first one ever to be undertaken.
It was commissioned after a cross-party body of Members of Parliament in London attacked the British government for failing in its duty to protect the environment in its overseas territories.
The Environmental Audit Committee said the government did not even know what it was supposed to be looking after.
The survey brought together all known records from the past 300 years.
Many of the species recorded in those archives are now lost, including the St Helena olive that was rescued from apparent extinction by George Benjamin BEM, who first woke St Helenians up to the importance of their endemic plants.
He also began the planting of gumwood trees on the east of the island that evolved into the Millennium Forest.
A battle is currently being fought to save the false gumwood tree, which has died out in one of its two last remaining outposts. Just seven adult trees survive in a single location, and efforts are being made to harvest and propagate its seeds.
The same delicate technique recently saved the bastard gumwood when it became the world’s rarest tree, with only one specimen surviving.
Jeremy Harris, director of the St Helena National Trust, said: “Over 14 million years, St Helena has developed a totally unique biosphere of incredible diversity protected by thousands of miles of ocean.
“Five hundred years ago, it was discovered by people who brought goats and rats and other species that had a huge impact on its fragile environment.
“What remains today is still clearly remarkable and unique and of international significance. St Helena, now more than ever, needs our protection and care as the airport approaches, bringing with it new risks and challenges.”
Senior Veterinary Officer Joe Hollins said the opening of the airport would remove the “quarantine effect” of a five-day sea voyage to reach St Helena.
“Biosecurity on St Helena is necessarily being tightened,” he said.
“We already have laws in place for live animals and related genetic materials, and for fruit, vegetables, plants and related products; and the Bees Ordinance protects our disease-free bees and honey.
“But remaining loopholes to be closed include certain meat, dairy and fish imports.”
RSPB report highlights woeful ignorance and lack of plans
Glaring gaps in knowledge about Britain’s overseas territories and their wildlife are highlight in the RSPB’s report on its findings.
“Whole groups of species remain almost entirely undiscovered,” says the report, which was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Whilst some excellent conservation work is underway on the ground… the UK Government still has no strategic overview of where the most urgent priorities lie, or even a simple understanding of actions undertaken, such as the number of nature reserves established.”
The UK’s environment department, Defra, has “no dedicated evidence plan for the OTs”, and its advisory body on nature conservation has no strategy for dealing with “biodiversity knowledge gaps”.
It says: “The OTs hold at least 1,500 endemic species, compared to around 90 endemic species in the UK. This is equivalent to 94 per cent of known endemic British species.
“Much of the endemic OT fauna and flora is threatened, although only 145 species (9 per cent) have ever had their global conservation status assessed. Of these, 111 (77 per cent) are listed as Globally Threatened.”
The RSPB adds that there could be 50,000 unrecorded species in the island territories – more than two thousand of them endemic.
Nearly a million people read The Observer newspaper. And in the final issue of 2013, they have been treated to a picture of Cynthia George and Raymond Hudson, posing in their scouting uniforms on Jamestown seafront.
The photographer, Jon Tonks, has a thing about uniforms.
The Observer says they illustrate the strangely British, but not-quite-British culture of the South Atlantic islands he features in his new book, Empire.
The picture of Raymond and Cynthia is one of the thousands Jon took for the book – 400 rolls of film in all.
During a five-year tour of the UK’s South Atlantic territories, he’s photographed firemen, police officers and the governor of the Falkland Islands in their official garb, and others besides.
Observer writer Sean O’Hagan says the book highlights “the often absurd traces of an older kind of Britishness that linger in these in-between, out-of-the-way territories”.
It also, we’re told, “evokes the everyday oddness of life” in these remnants of the British Empire.
Scouting, of course, is found all over the world, so there’s nothing odd about two Saints wearing their uniforms – Raymond as “an honorary member of the St Helena Scout Group”, and Cynthia as assistant beaver leader.
Jon, whose pictures of the territories previously appeared in the 50th anniversary issue of the iconic Sunday Times Magazine, travelled 50,000 miles in the course of his project, and spent 32 days at sea.
He visited the Falklands, St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, where he photographed two lifeboats that had been hurled up a cliff by storm seas.
The Observer’s verdict on his arduous mission: “It was worth it.”
Signed pre-launch copies of Empire can be ordered from Jon’s website, here
Click any of the thumbnails below to see larger images from Jon’s book:
Work has begun in earnest on ending the entrenched culture of secrecy within St Helena Government – but one councillor has questioned whether it should be a priority.
Open government became a key issue in the island’s July 2013 general election, a year after the launch of a campaign on St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent.
Campaign member John Turner, who set up the St Helena Freedom of Information page on Facebook, says a planning meeting was “entirely positive.”
“I’m sure that Freedom of Information legislation for St Helena is only a few months away,” he writes.
Next steps are for the government’s social and community development committee to agree what should remain secret, how information should be presented, and how to settle disputes over whether information should be released.
“In the meantime, council continues to operate on the basis of openness: that data should be published unless there is a good reason not to. A welcome change!”
Seventeen councillors and FOI supporters attended the planning meeting on Monday 9 September 2013.
Afterwards, Councillor Ian Rummery told SAMS Radio: “This has to be fit for purpose for St Helena. We don’t want to put in a whole new bureaucracy which is not maintained or just becomes so overly bureaucratic that it just doesn’t work.”
Councillor Tony Green told the station he was concerned about spending time and money on drafting a new law.
He said: “The principle of freedom of information, I don’t have a problem with and actually, I think it’s very important.
But he went on: “I don’t actually believe that we should at this particular time be devoting resources to putting up freedom of information draft legislation and setting up a regime when there are more perhaps important things.
“I’m thinking about social policy, I’m thinking about benefits.
“I need to know how much it’s going to cost – also how it will affect other priorities.
Many people will agree with Councillor Green when he says that issues such as benefits should be given higher importance that something that may seem idealistic.
He believes in open government, but he’s got legitimate, pragmatic concerns.
But without transparency, and open decision-making, how do we know councillors are really acting in the interests of the vulnerable, and everyone else?
Open government is better government, and some high-ranking people have said so. Secretive government is bad for democracy.
Is it any surprise that many Saints were disenchanted with past administrations, and that councillors were voted the least trusted people on the island in a recent survey?
The governor has complained about a lack of public engagement in democracy, and yet his government actively dis-engaged the people by hiding information from them, in clear breach of their human rights.
Why should anyone have trusted a government that operated in the shadows, and refused to trust its own people by letting them know what it was doing in their name? How could people be engaged in decision-making when it happened behind closed doors?
Members of the previous council nearly all declared themselves to be in favour of open government.
But when asked if open government should actually be practised – by holding Executive Council meetings in public – they nearly all said “No”.
The logic of that one is difficult to grasp. Maybe Governor Capes had good reasons for dissolving the last council early.
The present councillors have imposed a new policy of openness, with every sign that they mean it.
But there are strong grounds for fearing that a future legislature might revert to the bad old ways of the bad old days, unless there is legislation in place to prevent it.
Councillor Green is right: this is not the best time to be drafting laws that won’t put food on the plates of the poor.
The best time was a long time ago.
But the alternative is that we simply trust future governments, with the risk that they will go back to spending many millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money with virtually no public scrutiny, and little to prevent them making bad decisions.
The flags of St Helena, Ascension and the other British overseas territories flew in London’s Parliament Square to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Picture courtesy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Kedell Worboys, the island’s UK representative, was among guests at a commemorative service in Westminster Abbey.
A cutting from one of St Helena’s endemic plants formed part of a wreath that stood out among the hundreds laid at the base of The Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday, 2012.
Old Man Live Forever was one of the plants used in the wreath laid by Foreign Secretary William Hague, in honour of those from the UK’s overseas territories who gave their lives in conflict. St Helena ebony and boxwood was also used, along with scrubwood from the “St Helena dependencies”.
The green wreath of the overseas territories, now a traditional feature of the ceremony in Whitehall, is only one of the major wreaths not to feature bright red poppies – the symbol of Remembrance.
Eighteen flowers from Gibraltar and British islands around the world are used in the wreath.
They are cut from the collections at Kew Gardens by horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena. He has used a different arrangement every year for the past decade.
He actually makes two identical wreaths. One is transported to the Foreign Office in King Charles Street on the morning before the ceremony.
The second acts as a reserve in case the first gets damaged or if any of the flowers wilt. If not required, the spare wreath is laid at the war memorial at Kew Gardens.
While Mr Hague was paying his respects in London, watched on television by millions, a large crowd was doing the same at St Helena’s own Cenotaph, on the seafront.
Governor Mark Capes laid the first wreath of white flowers – “the Colony’s Wreath”. Others were laid for the French Republic, the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, the Merchant Navy, the St Helena Police Force and the St Helena Fire Service.
Members of the public laid their own floral tributes.
The Service concluded with the traditional March Past outside the Supreme Court.