It was once the crossroads of the world. Two hundred years ago, some one thousand ships a year called in at St Helena, a tiny British possession in the middle of the South Atlantic, on their way back from India. Every British ship sailing round the tip of Africa was blown there by the prevail- ing winds. Here they put in for repairs, took on water, fruit, food and fresh crews, picked up news from England and passed other ships setting off for America laden with their gruesome cargo of slaves.
Now there is only one ship that connects St Helena with the outside world – a British government vessel that goes back and forth from Cape Town to St Helena and then on to Ascension, seven hundred miles to the north-west and the vital staging post on the air bridge between Britain and the Falk- lands. St Helena, some one-thousand-two-hundred-miles from the African coast, is probably more isolated now than at any time since it became a British colony almost four hundred years ago.
But that is now set to change. Faced with the relentless decline of the popu- lation as the inhabitants seek work abroad and a rising bill to keep the island economically afloat, Britain has finally decided to build an airport on the island. It is one of the costliest and most challenging such projects anywhere in the world, and is the biggest single investment Britain has ever made in any of its overseas territories. It will cost British taxpayers some two-hundred-and-fifty million pounds – for a population of just over four thousand people.
Long discussed and much delayed, the airport will provide a fast link be- tween one of Britain’s oldest overseas possessions and the outside world for the first time since Portuguese sailors first discovered St Helena in 1502. It is an extraordinary challenge. Only ten miles by six, the island is formed of volcanic basalt cliffs rising sheer out of the sea, with deep ravines, high peaks and precipitous slopes in the lush green interior. There is almost no flat land for a runway – except a high dry rocky plain in the south-east known as Prosperous Bay. And here, for the past year, a South African engineering company has been transforming the landscape.
Every forty seconds, day and night, a dump truck tips forty tons of rock into a dry ravine, almost two hundred metres deep. Rollers swiftly level the rock, each load first sprayed with one thousand litres of water to help compression, and raise the floor level by almost a metre every twenty-four hours. This will continue for the next eighteen months, while a kilome- tre away engineers will blast off the entire top of a mountain. The rock will then be left to settle, covered in concrete and will form the safety overshoot for the long-awaited runway. The first plane is due to land in February 2016.
St Helena will probably see no more than two flights a week, linking the island with South Africa, the main trading and supply centre, and Britain, where several thousand islanders now work. There are almost one thousand ‘Saints’, as they are known, working in Swindon alone – most having ar- rived after the restoration of their full British citizenship, granted ‘in per- petuity’ by King Charles II and disgracefully revoked in 1981 by the Brit- ish Nationality Act that prevented citizens of the overseas territories from working in Britain and was intended to stop the immigration of millions of Hong Kong Chinese before the handover to China.
Napoleon, of course, arrived by sea almost two hundred years ago. With a small entourage of generals, aides and servants who stuck loyally by him after his defeat at Waterloo, he first saw the gloomy spectacle that has greeted every approaching ship – a rocky fortress rising out of the deep, swathed in mist and challenging anyone to find a landing place.
For centuries there has been only one – a narrow gully, wedged between the mountains, that leads down to the sea. This is Jamestown, the picturesque little capital, where Napoleon was brought ashore in October 1815, never to leave the island alive. Queen Victoria, in a goodwill gesture to France, bought Napoleon’s house and grave site with her own money and sold them to Napoleon III, some years after Britain had allowed a French warship and military escort to exhume the dead emperor’s body. Napoleon was taken back to Paris and re-interred in Les Invalides in 1840. A French honorary consul, the only Frenchman on the island, has restored the buildings and the furniture so that they look exactly as they did on the day that the sick exiled emperor died of stomach cancer in 1821.
St Helena has never forgotten Napoleon. Some two thousand British troops arrived to guard him, fortresses and batteries were built on the cliff tops and Britain annexed the islands of Ascension in the north and Tristan da Cunha in the south to prevent any French rescue attempt. Indeed, his exile here is virtually the only reason that most people have heard of St Helena, and both Britain and France are hoping to use the 2015 bicentenary of his arrival to stage historical exhibitions that might again put St Helena on the map.
At present there are few visitors or tourists, however. The Royal Mail Ship, the last survivor of its kind, is limited in its capacity, and has to bring every traveller such as British officials, Saints returning home and those evacu- ated on medical emergency to Cape Town as well as all daily supplies: cars, food, medicines, farm animals, clothes, pots, pans, nails, furniture, cement and every article essential to modern life.
But the heavily subsidised ship is getting old and will soon be scrapped. It is too slow for the modern world: it takes five days to reach Cape Town, and no investor is willing to put money anywhere that takes so long to reach. For almost sixty years there has been talk of an airport. Finally the last Labour government decided to go ahead. But it soon got cold feet over the cost. The project was put on indefinite ‘pause’. St Helena, long used to being treated badly by its colonial rulers – who for the first one hundred and sixty years were the former British East India Company – sank back into gloom and stagnation.
On coming into office the Conservatives, spurred by the enthusiasm of Andrew Mitchell, then the Development Secretary, took a gamble. They decided to throw St Helena an economic lifeline by going ahead with the airport in the hope that this would open the door to a tourist industry that would then create enough jobs and activity to keep the island economi- cally viable. At present Britain has to support St Helena’s budget deficit with annual subsidies amounting to some thirty million pounds. It has been estimated that the total wealth generated by each islander a year is no more than sixty-eight pence.
Work began a year ago. It is the biggest project ever undertaken by Basil Read, the South African company that won the contract: every piece of machinery and every component has to be brought in by ship. Before the engineers could even reach the mountain top where the runway will be, they had first to fashion a jetty in Rupert’s Bay, another gully separated from Jamestown by a towering mountain. Landing the heavy bulldozers on a flat-bottomed supply ship, they then had to carve out a twisting ten-mile road on the side of the precipitous cliffs to reach the interior.
Even that road was not straightforward. It passed over a known area where slaves were buried. When archaeologists came to unearth the bones, they found the largest slave graveyard in the world: some ten thousand Africans who had died on the terrible journeys from Africa were taken to St Helena and buried. The island, of course, once had its own slaves, brought in from Madagascar, who were freed when Britain abolished slavery. They are the ancestors, together with the white British workers who serviced the navy ships, of today’s Saints. For some fifty years the Royal Navy then used St Helena as the headquarters of its Africa Patrol to combat slavery, intercept- ing Portuguese slave ships heading for Brazil. But even when they captured a ship, half the poor captives chained below decks were already dead. The corpses were unchained and buried in St Helena, and the rescued slaves who could not be returned to Africa – no one could speak their language or find out where they came from – were sent on to the West Indies as in- dentured labour.
The bones have been meticulously examined by archaeologists, and will be on display at the Museum of Slavery in Liverpool later this year. Those graves not in the path of the airport road will be left in peace.
Britain’s plan is that St Helena should be self-sufficient within a decade or so. But there are huge challenges. The biggest is to change a culture of dependency and the ‘them-and-us’ mistrust that exists between the island- ers and the small British administration based in a quaint and antiquated building by the Jamestown seafront known as the ‘Castle’. For hundreds of years, Britain used the island simply as a fortress and a naval base. But as ships stopped calling here, the economy declined. The Saints began to emigrate. There were few jobs around. The only industry, making bags out of locally grown flax, stopped when subsidies were stopped and the British Post Office started using nylon mailbags instead. The population fell from around six thousand at its height to about 3,800 a few years ago. Those left were usually the elderly, heavily dependent on British government pen- sions and subsidies. Wages are low, averaging only six thousand pounds a year.
St Helena is one of fourteen British overseas territories, former colonies that are too small or remote ever to become independent. Britain is deter- mined now to get things moving again. Enterprise St Helena has been set up to offer help and incentives for small businesses, often no more than one or two people, in traditional occupations such as fishing and agriculture as well as small high-tech and craft industries. A training restaurant has been set up to teach Saints to prepare for work in any new tourists hotels. Fishing is being revived with new techniques, new ships and radio communica- tions. At the same time the Department for International Development is pouring in money to upgrade the rather low-quality hospital, the island’s only secondary school is trying to raise achievement and nature trails and other tourist attractions are being improved.
There is never going to be a market for mass tourism or those seeking sand and sea. It is almost impossible to find any beach beneath the lowering cliffs. But there are plenty of wealthy travellers interested in niche tourism – rock climbing, adventure sports, diving, exploring the steep dells with arum lilies, sleepy hamlets with red-roofed houses and the Napoleonic sites as well as the two camps where some six thousand Boers were held pris- oner-of-war for three years during the Boer war. There is also a big market in ecological tourism, as St Helena, isolated from the mainland for some ten million years, has a rich array of unique species: insects and endemic plants, brightly coloured birds and a rich biodiversity. Scientists and bota- nists arrive from all over the world to study the spiky yellow woodlouse, the wirebird, the St Helena olive (now sadly recently thought extinct), tree ferns, cabbage trees and dozens of other endemic plants.
To prepare for tourists, St Helena must move fast. There is an urgent need for more hotels, to upgrade the narrow winding roads, open restaurants and redevelop the Jamestown waterfront which still looks much like a Jane Austen film set. Already a South African company is negotiating to build a small and exclusive hotel inside an old fort perched high up on the rocks next to the famous ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ – a vertiginous six-hundred- and-ninety-nine step stone staircase descending straight down the cliff to Jamestown below.
Many Saints are sceptical of all this activity. Some have no wish to see the island change, and do not believe the promise of more jobs and better wages. But most admit that without the airport, the island will die. The exodus of the young and energetic to the Falklands, Ascension and Brit- ain has left the island critically short of a productive middle generation. Some Saints are now returning, and the population has crept back up to four-thousand-two-hundred as people trickle home to take advantage of the coming construction boom.
The island’s legislative council voted for the airport, but there are still plenty of dissenters – the elderly, frightened of change, those suspicious that Britain has a hidden agenda (there is even rumour that the real reason for the airport is military), and retired British expatriates looking only for a tranquil life in a sleepy paradise.
Convincing the Saints to seize the first opportunity in two hundred years for real growth and development will be hard. The British-led administra- tion is reluctant to point out the harsh fact that British taxpayers see no reason to spend such massive sums on so few people, and that when the present pump-priming pot of money runs out, the annual British subsidy will be cut to zero. A population almost entirely employed in 8am-4pm jobs in the government bureaucracy has not yet understood that the rest of the world gets rich from entrepreneurial private enterprise.
For the moment, though, the place still has the dreamy feel of a vanished world. There are no mobile phones and the internet arrived only recently. Television has also been on the island only a few years, offering English football, BBC news, entertainment and a few other free channels. There are two competing local radio stations and a weekly newspaper was started a year ago to challenge the monopoly of a paper run almost single-handedly by a Swedish immigrant. But most news is transmitted the old-fashioned way – by a friendly wave in the main street, by knots of Saints drinking South African beer in the few traditional pubs, and by the swiftest way all small communities communicate – gossip and rumour.
It will all change. When the first plane touches down, St Helena will be shaken up more than at any time since Napoleon stepped ashore one-hun- dred-and-ninety-eight years ago. For years St Helena was Britain’s Atlantic Alcatraz. The airport is a new door that will open it up. Will the Saints go marching in?