St. Helena Island – a pilgrimage 2010
On our return to Cape Town from a wildlife tour of Southern Africa, we joined a ‘Napoleon Tour’ to the remote South Atlantic Island of St Helena, then only accessible by ship. This is my diary of our 2010 pilgrimage to the former home of our Balcombe ancestors, host to the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte.
Friday 22 October 2010
Following a three week African Safari tour of Namibia, Botswana and Zambia we said ‘goodbye’ to our fellow Peregrine travellers who went their own ways, some to return home, others to continue their holiday. We left Livingstone airport in Zambia and flew back to Cape Town where we arrived to find Bob’s bag, missing since we arrived in Africa, had finally turned up. So at last, after three weeks, we both had all our clothes…. it had certainly been a good idea to share suitcases so we each had half our clothes when one case went AWOL.
We were booked into the Commodore Hotel close to the Cape Town waterfront. We had a lovely view over Table Mountain and a very pleasant room on the 6th floor. There were lots of staff, several doormen and bellboys to push the buttons for the lifts. The hotel was used by Andrew Weir Shipping, the company that does the bookings for RMS St Helena, at this time the only way to travel to the small island in the South Atlantic ocean which was home to ancestor William Balcombe. So this really marks the end of our African safari and the beginning of our sea journey into history.
Saturday 23 October 2010
We enjoyed a lazy day in Cape Town, taking the Blue bus tour from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront area and spent time at the Botanical Gardens enjoying the beautiful proteas. We spotted a small tortoise and plenty of bird life to photograph.
It was fine weather so a good day to do the tour as the bus has an open top.
Afterwards we wandered down to the wharf area and exchanged some US$ for Rand.
We sent emails to the family from the hotel, possibly our last chance for a while, we are not sure of email accessibility on board either the ship or the island.
We had dinner in the Commodore where we met Scots Ruth and David Wilson (a vet) who are also doing the Napoleon tour to St Helena.
They had just been talking to an Australian lady called Skye who had arrived from the island, she’d been working there 16 months and was about to have a 4 month break. She was on a contract to fix up their tax system and her family was from the Tamworth area where she had been to school.
She told us to find “The Run” in Jamestown which is a stream with an adjacent path and was a bit more private than the roads. As she was leaving we asked to be reminded of her name, it was Skye Furner. “Are you any relation to Rob Furner?” asked Bob. “He’s my father!” Turns out Bob and Rob had both been jackaroos together at Clonagh Station in Queensland in 1970.
Sunday 24 October
This morning we went to the waterfront and posted 16 cards home. We bought T shirts for the small boys, a power point adaptor so I could recharge my new (Namibian bought) camera and a new shirt for me. I managed to get my hair trimmed, cost R380 i.e. about 54AUD, so a tad expensive! It rained heavily as we returned to the hotel. In the afternoon we sorted some clothes so we could leave a bag behind at the Commodore, including all the African material I bought for future patchwork quilts, as well as some items we thought would be of little use on the island. At one point Bob was busy sending emails to the family so I went to the waterfront to exchange some AUD$ money into Rand. I was walking down the street alone and suddenly had a fellow race up behind me. I ducked and swung round with clenched fists ready to clock him one. He was most apologetic for scaring me, said he was running to catch a bus! But I was even more uncomfortable when walking back from the ATM to the hotel with extra cash in my pockets.
We thought we might return for dinner to the restaurant Hussar’s Grill located very close to our earlier hotel, The Graeme, where we had stayed before joining the Peregrine African tour. We had enjoyed the meal and it was within walking distance of this hotel too. But the door-men advised that it was not safe to walk and said that if we really wanted to go, we should go by taxi and then before we left the restaurant we should ring the Commodore and they would arrange for a taxi to collect us, definitely not to arrange our own. We stayed in the Commodore for dinner!
Monday 25 October
The shuttle bus took us to the wharf and we embarked on RMS St Helena for her 150th voyage, with 95 passengers. Our cabin is spacious, B37, called Nightingale, on the starboard side of ship (ie right hand side, looking forward, green light… Philip’s remembering phrase was “No more red port left in the bottle.”) We have twin beds, a table and sofa, desk and dressing table and our own shower and toilet. Ruth and David are next door. We spent some time exploring, found the various lounges, laundry, gym and hospital.
Dinner was at 6.45pm as we had opted for early sitting. Our table companions were Margot and Larry Collins (he’s a retired geologist and both are vintage motor bike enthusiasts from South Africa) also on the Napoleon tour, as was Veronica Goulding, another lady from S Africa. Jim Beard was a Canadian railway executive en route home via St Helena and an RAF flight from the Ascension Islands to England then commercial flight to Canada. Dinner was a lovely meal, white tablecloths, waiter service, salad starter, main was lamb roast and dessert was meringue and strawberries.
We found the EPIRB and had the compulsory life jacket drill before sailing, had to learn how to put them on but we did not have to assemble at the lifeboats themselves.
It was 8.00pm when the lines were finally cast off and it was a lovely view of the lights of Cape Town as we sailed out of the harbour.
Tuesday 26 October
Our first night at sea and we had a remarkably good night. We’d taken Stugeron tablets (Cinnarizine 25 mg) before embarkation and I had an Avil (Pheniramine maleate 45.3 mg) at bed time, it can make you drowsy and I slept well. Peggy was our cabin steward, she brought a morning cuppa each day at 7.00am. I went to take some photos, a bit late for sunrise but I was asked by a crew member how I was. … “Bit wobbly on the feet but remarkably well, I’m surprised how calm it is.” He told me it was because we were going with the swell, it was always smoother going north from Cape Town to the Island … so we must save some tablets for the return trip!
We were introduced to the meal times and dress codes in the ships news, ‘Ocean Mail’ delivered to the cabin each morning. Meals were Breakfast 8.00 – 9.15am in the dining room. Lunch was 12.00 to 1.15pm with a choice of salad in Sun lounge or a three course meal in the Dining Room. There were two sittings for Dinner, early at 6.45pm and later was 8.00pm in the dining saloon. Red dress code was informal, open neck, no tie. Sundown was semi-formal, tie and long sleeve, Mess was formal and Blue was long sleeved shirt, tie, jacket optional.
There was a full timetable of activities each day, Sudoku and crossword were issued daily from ‘Bureau Square’, there was movies, meetings and talks, games, cocktail parties and a well stocked library where I had a look at a Napoleon book called “Terrible Exile” by Brian Unwin.
Today there was a very interesting movie on St Helena’s history. We had a brief meeting with Christopher Danziger (lecturer at Oxford University and also the University of Cape Town Summer School), the Napoleon Tour leader, who advised he’d be doing two talks on Napoleon during the voyage, first his career up to his exile, then his time on the island.
In the Sun lounge there was a DVD of Cliff Richard and the Shadows Final Reunion, the 50th anniversary concert at the O2 stadium in London…. a Cliff ‘tragic’ from wayback, I tapped and bounced my way through it much to the amusement of David Carter, one of our tour group.
The Captain’s Cocktail Party, complete with specific invitations was held this evening with some men very smartly dressed in dinner suits, and David Wilson was resplendent in dress kilt. I held my own in green top and silk Tilda skirt with the brown and green Egyptian pattern on show. After three weeks in safari gear it was great to finally dress more formally again.
We were told that at midnight the ship’s clock would be ‘retarded’ by one hour, what a quaint term.
Wednesday 27 October
This morning Christopher Danziger gave a very interesting talk on ‘Napoleon from Corsica to St Helena’, (the notes I took are in a separate document on this web site). I learned much about this notorious man who fought so many battles which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. David Carter was mentioned as having a St Helena connection via the Doveton family but Bob’s connection to the Balcombe family was not, even though it was known as our only reason for joining the tour.
Today I hit the library books, completing ‘The Delta’ by Tony Park and starting ‘The Miracle of Speedy Motors’ by David McCall Smith, obviously my thoughts were still in “African mode”. I borrowed whatever books I could find about St Helena’s history and checked for Balcombe references.
We photographed some pages from Robin Castell’s book “St Helena, a Photographic Treasury, 1856-1947” and noted that “A tour through the island of St Helena” by Capt. John Barnes in 1817 had William Balcombe Esq as a subscriber of 20 copies.
Thursday 28 October
We investigated email today, they were sent from the ship at 8.00am, 12 noon, 5.00pm and 8.00pm, cost £1.50 for transmission time, not writing time. Sent one to the boys with just brief news of ship, smooth sailing, not sea sick. Also I sent postcards via ship’s mail service. They will leave RMS at Ascension Islands and be taken to the UK by RAF, then sent on to Australia…. we speculate how long they will take to arrive home in Australia and how many kilometres will be travelled!
Today I finished reading the McCall Smith book which I enjoyed, just love that particular series of his. I started “Dear Fatty” by Dawn French, her memoir written in letter form with some interesting early chapters. However I ignored the later chapters thinking she had been unnecessarily unpleasant about some people.
We took part in the 10.00am tour of the Bridge with the Officer of the Watch. She gave navigation details every day at 12 noon. Philip would have felt very much at home here! We were pleased to see a large sign advising the ‘fins’ were out… thank goodness for stabilisers!
Today’s video in the lounge was “Jewels of the tropical South Atlantic on Ascension and St Helena.” It was filmed and produced by an amateur, David Rabbitts, who was trying to emulate David Attenborough in both his dress and way of talking… this became somewhat irritating as Attenborough times his pauses much better, but the scenery was stunning and he had lots of information. The film was nearly two hours long but entertaining. I decided to buy a copy on the return trip as it would be good to show the family.
Today Bob played deck cricket, passengers versus officers, the passengers won on this trip north. The ‘ball’ was made of thick twine twisted and knotted into ball shape by the ship’s officers… six went overboard. The rules were simple, everyone allowed to bowl, you could bat for two overs, score by hitting ball past markers in front of wicket.
Friday 29 October
As disembarkation will be on Saturday morning we were advised that our suitcases had to be left in the corridor today at 4.30 pm so they could be collected ready to go ashore. Thus we only can have a backpack with us overnight.
Dotted around the ship are a number of prints from St Helena, I hope the many photographs that I’ve taken turn out okay but they are in dark corridors and flash can’t be used with glass frames.
In the library I managed to find another three Napoleon books to examine for information.
“In the words of Napoleon – the Emperor day by day” edited by R.M. Johnston, new material by Philip Haythornthwaite, “The Emperor’s Last Island – a journey to St Helena” by Julia Blackburn, Secker and Warburg, London, 1991, “The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s exile on St Helena” by Jean Paul Kauffman, 1977, translated by Patricia Clancy 1999, Four Walls Eight Windows.
Chris Danziger gave the second of his talks, today’s topic was ‘Napoleon on the island of St Helena’. William Balcombe was mentioned as being his initial host but Bob’s connection was not acknowledged.
Our packed cases made it into the corridor by the deadline. The evening meal was a Sun deck barbeque which was lots of fun with dancing despite Purser Claude’s choice of music!! Sorry Claude!
Saturday 30 October
Up at dawn to see the island appear out of the mist and gloom. It looked wider and flatter than expected from this distance. The Saints on the ship were going home and so excited, there were quite a few tears, some were athletes who had been away competing at the recent Commonwealth Games, other were arriving home for a holiday after many, many years away. And for me approaching the island was a surprisingly emotional experience, I’d dreamed of visiting St Helena for so long and felt I knew so much about the place and the family but I strongly felt like I too was going home. How very odd!
As we sailed closer towards St Helena, sailing anti-clockwise round the leeward side of the island, I tried to describe the sights and sounds and imagine what the tall ships passengers would have felt as they sailed to their new home, be they free, soldiers or going into exile.
Swirling water, white foam, roll with the swell, dark grey sea, brooding, wind whips up white horses, when the sky is blue so is the sea, bright blue, happy, hurrying home; albatross and petrel follow us, not many gulls yet. In the days of the sail ships there would have been creak of sails, billowing wind, snap and crack of the lines, shouted orders, sea shanties, men talking, scurrying, cleaning the decks. When “Land Ho” was shouted what joy for some, despair for others. What a land to view, rising from the depths of the ocean like a fortress from the waves, dark, brooding, chocolate ice cream, layer upon layer slurping and squelching down the cliff sides, but hard, menacing, unfriendly, it looks dark, forbidding, harsh; there’s little vegetation, no sand, no friendly beaches, no sloping land but cliff after high cliff as you sail along the length of the island.
We took lots of photos and could understand the feelings of people arriving for the first time…how isolated the island was, how small it was, how steep the cliffs, how barren it appeared, was there ever going to be a landing place?
Jamestown eventually appeared, just a gash in the dark brown cliffs. There were lots of small wooden fishing boats anchored in the “Roads”, there was no dockside to tie up to, RMS had to anchor at sea and ferry passengers ashore in those smaller craft.
[In the photo of Jamestown above, The Briars is located behind the smaller pimple of a hill bathed in sunlight to the centre of the picture]
On the sloping tableland above Jamestown valley there are now many houses which would not have been there when the Balcombe family lived on St. Helena, at that time there would only have been the high fort located on top of the cliff. The town at the bottom of the hill was a thin ribbon of houses heading up both sides of the valley floor.
The overnight bag had been ready for transport by 7.30 am and we were subject to the formalities of customs and immigration personnel who had come on board the ship; one of them was a police officer, who seemed friendly and helpful. We then donned life jackets, were all helped down the steps and into the little craft which was to ferry us ashore thirty at a time. The steps from RMS to the Gannet Three and then from boat to shore were easier than I had imagined, lucky there were ropes to grab if the swell was high and the stone steps were slippery. Each time there was a helpful local to grab arms and guide you to safety. We then had to collect bags from customs and quarantine, they had been x-rayed and had a blue cross on if available for collection before being taken by bus up to our hotel.
We walked from the quay past curious locals. Soon recognised in our khaki gear as ‘the Australians’, we were quickly known as the Balcombe relatives and were warmly welcomed by every single Saint we met. “Where are you from?” “Australia.” “You’re the Balcombe relatives. Welcome home”
We walked along the old moat, through the ancient gate in the wall and up the main street.
We passed through the old parade ground square, now a car park, with the Castle (seat of Government) and police station on our left, the tiny HM Prison and Jacob’s Ladder on our right. St James’ Church where the Balcombe boys were baptised was also on our right, opposite the park and gardens and Mr Porteus’ house where Napoleon spent his first night ashore on the island.
It was like a walk into a bygone era, hardly any signs of modern buildings, neon signs were missing. We were back in the 1800s except for the cars and clothing.
We made our way up the hill to the Consulate Hotel, an old style English hotel. Our room was on the top floor, (there were three floors) with a king sized bed and small ensuite. There was plenty of cupboard space and lots of interesting and beautiful tapestry pictures on the walls in the room and corridors. The hotel extends into the adjacent white building with blue shutters and that is where our room was located.
We looked across to the Tourist office behind the tree and the 3 storey Post Office, and adjacent shop The Star which had been Balcombe’s. Behind the buildings was the steep rocky hill where Jacob’s Ladder rose skywards, what a daunting sight.
The baggage arrived and we quickly unpacked before heading out to explore…. we wandered up Main Street into Napoleon Street, part of the way up the hill towards The Briars, then back down ‘The Run’ which is the footpath Skye had told us about, behind the houses and shops, no traffic here, just a single narrow footpath alongside the stream, here in a man made drain, the water supply which in Balcombe’s time was used for the ships which called in for re-supply. We spotted white Fairy Terns and red Cardinal Birds, the latter too swift to photograph.
The Pilling Primary School was housed in the original Garrison building, it had a very sloped soccer pitch painted onto the playground. We found the museum at the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder but did not wish to explore it at this time, instead we went into the church.
St James’ Church is the oldest church south of the Equator. This was a garrison church, the first permanent settlement was built by the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) in 1659, the island used as a staging post for ships going to and from the East and into Southern waters. The church was built from 1772 and completed in 1774. The garrison increased in size in 1795 when more troops arrived as the British secured the Cape Colony in South Africa. The church door was open so we went inside to explore.
We enjoyed the coolness, the beauty of the stained glass window, the alter rail of teak and we soaked up the atmosphere. There were many plaques on the walls which told the stories of the men and women who were travellers or soldiers or East Indiamen on this island. Some pews were marked ‘military’. We took lots of photographs.
Near the back we found the old font where the baptisms of the Balcombe family had most likely taken place: William and Jane (Green) Balcombe’s daughter Mary and sons, William, Thomas Tyrwhitt and Alexander Beatson, and their nephew Robert, son of Teavill Leason and his wife Elizabeth (Green). The font was white marble set on a cylinder and plinth of black marble. It was made by J Mallcott of London who died in 1776.
Alexander Beatson Balcombe was baptised on 1 March 1812. Bob’s great-great-grandfather Thomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe was baptised here on 22 October 1810, so we were two hundred years and one week too late to see the actual event. What superb timing! Bob left an inscription in the Visitor’s book.
We had a better look at the gateway and protective wall. The plaque reads Capt John Dutton Governor of this Isle first erected this fortification for the English East India Comp ivne 4 An Don 1639 Opera Estantvr Deme
and the lower one The above stone alludes to a fort built in 1639 taken down and the present Castle built by Governor Roberts in 1708 The Honble Brigd General Dallas the last Governor of the Honble United East India Company in clearing away found it upside down in part of the foundation of this castle and restored it as now placed AD 1834
We then returned to the hotel to be ready for the walking tour of James Town with tour leaders Basil and Barbara George of Magma Way Tours.
They took us on a short visit back to the church and then past the small prison which is still in use. One of our fellow passengers was a young police officer and some of our party saw him make his first arrest on the Island and no doubt the recalcitrant would end up in the lock up for some time!
We were introduced to the awe inspiring Jacob’s Ladder, it was used to take manure from the stables in town up to provide some fertiliser for the farmland on top of the island. A funicular was built in 1829 to take ammunition and other goods from the port at the bottom of the hill to the fort at the top of the hill, in the days when a thousand ships per year called into The Roads. It was rebuilt as a staircase in 1871, so the Balcombe family would not have seen it when they lived on the island but Mrs Balcombe and daughter Betsy may well have seen on it their trips to and from NSW and England in later years if their ships ever called in to St Helena en route.
Basil showed us how to come quickly down this steep stairway… 699 steps, each 11 inches high, 600 feet in height… lean over the rail on your back, at shoulder height, arms out wide, holding along the length of the rail, legs on other rail with upper leg acting as brake!! Madness!
We saw the foreshore where, in 1717, there were 79 guns along the sea front. St Helena was vital stopping place for food but the Dutch and the buccaneers and pirates were not made welcome! The whole front of the valley was a fort round the parade ground. The HEIC had 700 of their own troops here in the mid 1700s. The moat (the location of the more modern swimming pool) was filled up by the Tank Stream. There was a portcullis in the gate. The coat of arms states the island was “under the protection (auspices) of the King and English parliament.”
‘The Castle’ was the seat of government, housing the office of Governor (currently Andrew Gurr) and his Council. There were 12 elected people with 5 in cabinet to provide all government services for the population of 3800. They charged their own taxes but were heavily subsidised by the UK.
There were plenty of old Royal photos are dotted round, The Queen visited with her parents and sister in 1947. Prince Charles (with an entourage of 16), Princess Anne in 2002 and Prince Andrew in 1984 have all stayed on the island, the secondary school being called Prince Andrew School.
The building had an interesting metal staircase, a replacement for the wooden one ravaged by the white ant problem many decades earlier.
These days websites help to keep Saints up to date with island activities are at <http://www.sainthelena.gov.sh/> and another at < http://sthelenaonline.org/>, a local newspaper at <http://www.saint.fm/Independent/index.htm> and a site to help with research, including family history, is at <http://www.archeion.talktalk.net/sthelena/>
The wall guarding the entrance to the town was a ‘curtain wall’, it had a moat and guns. We saw the old mule yard near the modern swimming pool, we sat in the Court House and, just outside the gate, was the location of the Cenotaph and memorial to the Darkdale, a ship in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary service, sunk by the Germans in 1941.
We spotted some red billed tropic birds nesting in a small cave in the cliff.
We walked under the cliff along part of the original path from the old dockside, the actual route the ex-Emperor Napoleon would have taken on his way ashore, his walk into exile on the Island on 16 October 1815. The crumbling path needed much TLC and some acknowledgement of its role in history! It led into the gardens and park. Porteus House, across the gardens, was little changed from the time when it hosted Napoleon on his first night ashore on this remote prison island.
So the modern route from the wharf to the arched gateway was not here in Napoleon’s time. (It was built in 1832). He walked along the base of the cliff , through the gates and into the side of what is now the garden near Annie’s Place, he did not have far to walk across to Porteus House, the white building near the trees.
He would have noted the steep inhospitable cliffs, the cool damp air, the feeling of being hemmed in. He was unnerved by the staring eyes of the population who came out to view their new inhabitant, he was surrounded by marching soldiers, his guards. He felt betrayed, he had hoped to spend his exile in either America or Britain itself; he must have felt feelings of despair very similar to the island’s slaves.
St Helena had a history of slavery. There was civilian law, military law and slave law. They were sold in the castle gardens and the poor souls were sometimes treated abominably. In 1723 half the island’s population of 1128 were slaves. Governor Brookes banned their importation in 1792, the same year Captain Bligh of the Bounty arrived with a cargo of Breadfruit trees. Slavery was abolished in England in 1807, but it continued until around 1830 in some of the colonies.
The Navy patrolled the seas looking for ships carrying out the illegal trade and often freed these people destined for slavery who were then put ashore on St Helena rather than being returned to their homelands of Madagascar, India and Malaya. Twenty six thousand were freed from ships and brought ashore to Rupert’s Valley. Many were so ill, diseased and starving that over a third died. The locals did not want to mix with them because of fear of the diseases they potentially carried (measles introduced from South Africa had decimated the population a few years earlier). However they did what they could to help, placing food at the top of the hill and firing a gun to let them know it was there. Their recently discovered graves are now being excavated and new knowledge being gleaned.
As slavery declined, in 1810 the Chinese indentured labourers came to till the soil for food crops and to do other menial tasks.
Our first day in Jamestown was Carnival day, a biennial fundraiser for cancer research. It appeared that the whole population was involved with the bright and colourful parade. We watched from the height of the hotel balcony.
There was lots of colour and laughter as the Saints processed from the hospital down to the waterfront park for a picnic. The balcony on the first floor of The Consulate was accessible via one of the two lounges, home of the library of books and videos. There were some lovely pieces of antique furniture, china and paintings here. The owner Hazel was from South Africa, she ‘retired’ here to do some writing but couldn’t find a house to buy so ended up buying the hotel and then found she had no time to write.
Across the road from The Consulate was the Post Office. There are no mail deliveries to outlying areas, people travelled into town to collect their mail when the ship came in, the dates well known for months in advance. There was a notice outside to tell them what time their letters and parcels would be available. Outgoing mail was posted in the Post Office and sent with RMS to be forwarded from Ascension or Cape Town.
We bought a large Ordnance Survey map of the island at the P.O., it gave a great idea of contour lines, and the steepness of those cliffs and how far the roads were unable to penetrate into places with names like Old Woman’s Valley, Friar’s Ridge, Devil’s Garden, the Gates of Chaos and Man and Horse where a man galloped his horse off the cliff and both fell 600 feet to their death.
Dinner was at the Hotel, a fixed menu each evening and bookings needed. Tonight was tuna steaks and our wine was from the western Cape of South Africa, called Tall Horse, it had a giraffe on the label. We joined Larry and Margot for the meal, they are a lovely couple. It is not the same ‘all in together for meals’ as it was on the Peregrine tour of Africa.
On board RMS most passengers seemed to attend all the lectures and it was not possible to fully sort out who were members of this tour group. We were a mixture of nationalities. The Tour Leader was Oxford University lecturer and Napoleon expert Christopher Danziger and wife Seanaid (pronounced Shaun-na), brothers Eddie and Ron O’Keeffe (both retired, Eddie lived on a boat, Ron was an absolute Napoleon ‘tragic’); and Chris and Helen Barker. From Scotland were keen sailors Ruth and vet David Wilson, from near Aberdeen, and Irishman Tony Curran, a librarian.
From South Africa were Larry and Margo Collins, David and Sally Carter and David’s sister Jeanne Croquet de Rosemond (Governor Doveton descendents), Ian Morrison and Sally Mills. Also Veronica Goulding who sounded exactly like one of our neighbours from home when you spoke to her, I wish I’d known R’s maiden name to see if they had attended the same school. Other South Africans were Ken and Meg Fargher, they ran a hotel and Meg wrote books on parenting.
We also have Belgian Robrecht Brike, and Sara and Peter Christiansen from Denmark, he was a former EU diplomat. Zbynek Tichy and his wife Charlotta Ticha were from the the National Trust of the Czech Republic and interested in Napoleon because of his illegitimate son Alexandre Florian Joseph, Count Colonna-Walewski (4 May 1810 – 27 October 1868) by his mistress, Countess Marie Walewska from Poland. We are the only Australians.
There was a service in the Jamestown Church this evening to celebrate and commemorate the twenty years that this specific RMS St Helena has been supplying the island. Looking back I think it was a pity that we didn’t go. We were part of the 150th voyage which was significant in itself, never mind attending a service in the same church as the ancestors.
Sunday 31 October
This day we were touring the Napoleonic properties with Basil and Barbara George. We needed to sort into two minibuses for the trip up the hill. The roads were very steep and narrow and we stopped en route for spectacular views back over the town nestled in the valley.
The Balcombe family home was called The Briars and it was our first destination. The house itself had long gone, white-ants chewing their way through the internal walls. We drove through the ghastly mess of the Cable and Wireless Company to the car park for The Pavilion, the building in the Balcombe’s garden where Napoleon stayed during his first months on St Helena.
No one could tell us where the old house had been located, there was a new cottage and stone retaining walls which we think probably used the original building material, some stones had been painted and would have been internal walls.
(Subsequent excavation in 2011-12 to repair the car park wall has revealed the foundations of The Briars, so in the place where the vehicle and people are in this ↑ photo.)
There were a few old trees in the grounds, a palm and a pine: we suspected these may have been ‘originals’ if we could find old photos to compare. A French flag fluttered in the breeze. There was a brass plaque near the door commemorating Dame Mabel Brookes (descendant of William Balcombe via his youngest son Alexander Beatson) giving the land to the French government. In the centre of the room was a glass case containing a broken saucer and a piece of the original carpet, red with a heavy pattern. That was all that was original.
Tourists could enter one room of the Pavilion, the place which housed Napoleon for his first three months on St Helena. It had bright green paint on the walls, no doubt considered to be the fashionable colour used in his day. The pictures on the walls were of Mrs Balcombe wearing a veil, blonde Betsy as an adult, not the child she was when living here, a photograph of William Balcombe (which is the one found in our National Library) and pictures of Napoleon … but really all were “modern”.
The meeting of Napoleon with the two Misses Balcombe was depicted in a painting called Napoléon à L’ile Ste Hélêne by artist Edouard -August Villain. The original is hanging in the Château de Malmaison et Bois-Préau near Paris…. there are many web sites selling copies of it as a poster of the Balcombe girls meeting the Emperor (about £25-£30 seems to be the going rate.) It would be more appropriate if a copy of that had been here!
The painting includes the Slave Toby who was shown to the right and Count Emmanuel Las Cases with Napoleon and the two girls. A copy of this image is owned by Vera Balcombe-Gaden descendent Andy MacDougal. Under this photo of the painting there is an inscription written in French. The translation reads:
Hardly had we arrived when we were met by the two young daughters of the Master of the House who were fourteen and fifteen years of age, one lively, scatterbrained, with no respect for anything, the other extremely naive. Both spoke a little French. They had soon rambled over the garden and collected a presentation to offer to the Emperor whom they bombarded with the strangest most ludicrous questions. The Emperor was much amused with the familiarity to which he was unaccustomed. “We are leaving the masked ball” he said when we had left them.
Meg asked me how I felt, finally returning to the place, “Disappointed” was my response, “There’s nothing original, there’s too many people and not enough time to soak up the atmosphere.” “You need to come back alone”, was her suggestion and I wholeheartedly agreed. Bob and I had already decided we would make the time to walk back up the old road and sit in the garden, imagine the little boys playing, their sisters teasing and laughing, the family playing cards and we would talk to the ghosts.
The tour moved on to Bertrand’s Cottage near Longwood. It was being restored by the President of the local National Trust, Jamie and his wife who were posted to live here for a couple of years. The garden was in a poor state of repair, it desperately needed a slasher and team of gardeners for a week. There was an original orange tree and a large Callistemon tree growing, testament to the seeds which arrived from all over the world as travellers on the tall ships called into this haven from the sea for a few days of respite.
Monsieur and Madame Bertrand and their four children lived here during Napoleon’s time, with their 7 servants, it would have been quite crowded. There was an attic not yet restored where the servants lived.
From the garden here we could look across to the original Deadwood Plains the location of the camp for the troops guarding the former Emperor. It was also where the race meetings were held during Balcombe’s time, holes in the shutters being where Bonaparte watched proceedings through his spy glass..
One time when Betsy’s pony had been loaned to another girl, Napoleon lent Betsy his horse so she could ride in the Ladies Race, a superb grey called ‘Mameluke’ complete with sidesaddle and housings of crimson velvet embroidered with gold. Betsy won the race. Governor Hudson Lowe was incensed, reprimanding William Balcombe for a breach of discipline in permitting one of his family to ride a horse belonging to Longwood.
Adjacent to Bertrand’s Cottage was Longwood House, official home of Napoleon during his exile until his death, after he moved from The Briars to Longwood on 10 December 1815. The house and gardens were now beautifully maintained by the French Government. The French flag was flying here and also the European Union one but sadly no St Helena flag, we think that is a bit of an insult to the Island!
This house also appeared to be full of non-original furniture and artefacts, the campaign bed, bath, chairs and chandelier were apparently copies. In fact after Napoleon’s death there was an auction of all the things from the house, it went over several days and I have a catalogue listing all the items and the names of those who bought them. Obviously there are pieces in homes all over the island but not much has made its way back to Longwood.
Two ladies, volunteers, did a really interesting commentary as we walked through from room to room. We saw the spy holes in the shutters where Napoleon could peep out but not be seen by soldiers; he watched the guards from here. A similar green paint to The Briars had been used on some walls, it must have been considered very fashionable in 1815.
It was reputed to be a cold damp house in Napoleon’s day and even now they had humidifiers in each room to collect all the moisture. One room had material draped down the walls, copying an attempt by Napoleon’s household to soak up the water. There was just too much post-Napoleon stuff here… lots of sketches depicting his deathbed. The death mask was on display. We were unable to go up the steep steps into the attic where the staff had their quarters.
The garden was lovely, well maintained and the sunken paths still visible, they were used by Napoleon for walking so he could not be seen by his guards! There was plenty of colour with callistemon, agapanthus, geranium, and a beautiful native ebony, a plant thought to be extinct but now rediscovered and painstakingly regenerated and planted across the island.
There was a magnificent view across the island right down to the waterfront where we could still see RMS berthed as cargo was offloaded.
It was a bright and sunny day so difficult to imagine the chill of the damp air. I also wondered how much was this ‘chill’ due to the depression of exile and isolation and imprisonment on this tiny island. On the other hand if the mist suddenly swirled in, as it frequently did over this small rock in the middle of the Atlantic, the whole atmosphere would change and ‘chill and depression’ would be very real, especially during the long dark nights.
We moved on to Sane Valley or Geranium Valley, site of Napoleon’s burial and his tomb was still here even though his remains were returned to France some 20 years after his death. Located down a steep grass track, it was well maintained, the lawn and paths mown and there were many colourful plants, including geraniums. We saw Impatiens, fuchsia, daisy, Norfolk Island Pines and, below the tomb a banana plantation complete with empty fertiliser bags under the trees. Sane Valley was a peaceful serene place and still had a sentry box tucked away along the path.
There was no sign of the original willows seen in early prints and mentioned in reports of this place, willows which struggled to survive as so many people took a commemorative twig home with them, one reputed to have been brought to Australia by William Balcombe.
Basil showed us how the locals took a large shield shaped leaf and folded it to become a drinking vessel… you didn’t need to carry a cup.
We moved onto have a look at the small St Matthew’s church with its nearby cemetery, badly neglected and overgrown. What a shame that historical places which should have been nurtured and cared for were so ignored.
Our next stop was the hilltop site of Halley’s observatory. It had a forest of flax in front and we had to stand on the remaining walls to see the view and also get an idea of our height above the valley. In 1677 this place was used by the astronomer as he attempted to map the stars.
Basil and Barbara took us to the Sunflower Café for lunch, there was plenty of salad and quiche as well as the very yummy local fishcakes.
Overall it was great to get a better idea of the stark scenery of this rugged island and imagine what it was like when horses or donkeys provided the means of transport. The trees showed us that wind was an obvious weather item. But from our visits to The Briars and Longwood in the bright sunshine it was hard to imagine the long dark, dank days of moisture laden winds from the Atlantic which seemed to be so pervasive in the accounts of Napoleon on St Helena. We were surrounded by people and had no chance to take photos without ‘tourists’ being in then, no chance to soak in the atmosphere, to imagine the children playing with the deposed Emperor. At one point I made the comment that it was a pity the guides couldn’t tell us the original location of The Briars house. Chris Danziger said “What on earth for, it was so unimportant.” We are quite amused at his attitude. And we are surprised that not once has he publicly thanked the guides on behalf of the group, nor asked anyone in the group to do so which we find most unusual for a tour leader.
Monday 1 November
At 8.30 am we had our first opportunity to visit the Archives located in the Castle Courtyard through the tiny door at the foot of the steps. I have had much email correspondence with archivist Karen and I’d asked her to do some paid research and find out quite a bit of specific information and advised that I would pay what was owed when we arrived. I was half expecting her to pull out a folder and say ‘here are some of your answers’. She produced nothing, she had done nothing. I was so incredibly disappointed as I knew we would not have the time to do much research with their short opening hours (we have to leave by 3.30pm) . We felt it was important to go on the tours and try to understand what it would have been like for the family living here. We had an hour before today’s tour and we found some stuff on leases taken out by Balcombe. Assistant Archivist Tracy is quite helpful but time would definitely be our enemy.
The following paintings were done by GH Bellasis in 1815, the time the Balcombe family lived on St Helena, so interesting to compare with modern times.
Tall ships off St Helena ↓
↓ The Briars is behind the knoll shown half way up the valley
↓ Sandy Bay and the column Lot
↓ St James Church and Parade Ground
Plantation House ↓
↓ Friar’s Rock and Valley
Today we took the Scenic Tour with Basil and Barbara. We could look down on The Briars pine tree and Pavilion and see the Heart Shaped Waterfall as we drove up the hill. Basil talked about bad weather being ‘scruffy’ weather.
He explained that the island was the result of two volcanoes, one to the north east and one to the south west at Sandy Bay. It was a shield volcano and now 3000 feet high, but was much higher, with deep huge valleys. The central ridge ran east-west and the valleys run off it. Each layer was another eruption and 7000 million years ago, both had erupted.
We saw some goats and sheep and one donkey as well as some cattle, cows but apparently not for milking, we were told there was no dairy on the island. Later we spotted a few breeding pigs.
Green Hill had a lovely view, we took photos of Great Stone Top and Little Stone Top in the distance, but the picnic area was unmown. The ‘viewing’ seat had been installed by the Disabled Persons Aid Society in 2002 but the grass was so long it was well nigh inaccessible to an able bodied person.
There was an ugly old flax mill here, fell into disuse in the 1960s when flax suddenly was no longer needed for Postal bags and the industry became unviable almost overnight. This meant the donkeys were also of no more use. Unsupervised, these delightful hard workers used to transport the flax leaves from the cutters up or down the very rugged hillsides to the mill and then return for another load… they knew the way there and back again.
Bob with Larry and Margot
We had lunch at the SHAPE centre… the St Helena Active Participation Enterprise. They raised funds by make shampoo and soap to sell and I also bought a couple of necklaces made from shredded recycled paper. They are a pretty blue and cost me £5 for the two.
Lionel Leo gave us a recipe for fruit fly bait, 1 litre water, ½ cup urine, 1½ teaspoons vanilla essence, 100 gram sugar, 10 g/10 ml Pyrethrum. He wanted me to write and tell him how it worked in NSW, so he gave me his address.
There was an indoor area housing a whole series of excellent informative posters about St Helena and its history. They had been put together by Basil and the SHAPE crew. I’m not sure whether they stayed here all the time or could be taken for display elsewhere, on the wharf perhaps when a cruise ship drops off passengers for an hour or so.
We saw pretty flowers and relics from the past.
Images include stark volcanic landscape, lush green interior, permanent wet, permanent moisture in some places, lichen on the trees, crumbly volcanic rock, (wrongly known as ‘rotten basalt’) which is dangerous for rock climbing.
Lot and Lot’s Wife in the distance are two columns of this rock which are not useful for building. (Rock in the High Knoll Fort area is volcanic, full of air bubbles, called vesicular trachybasalt, but good for building as it is hard and can be cut).
William Burchell, naturalist and a former business partner of William Balcombe wrote “An address to Lot” when he was resident on the Island on 25 February 1807. I subsequently transcribed it from a photocopy of the handwritten original which I obtained.
Say lofty monarch of the rocky bay
Speak I adure thee and unbending say
Why from the Isle thou can’st resolve to go
And look’st with frowning brow on all below.
No storms nor snow e’er vex thy timeworn head
But gentle dews alone are on thee shed.
No rival near disputes thy rude domain
Thy wife alone is equal and her train
Of nesting Island children kindled round
As fearful of the dashing surge to sound.
Behold thy well built palace and it’s walls
Of rock basaltic formed whose sight appals
The wond’ring mind of all who further tread
With cautious steps along their sandy bed.
Behind thee view the verdant barrier rise
When still Diana’s sun to seek the skies
And Luna’s peaceful course each night commence
Whose smile serene seems oft to call me hence.
Her canopy spreading Gum trees all are thine
And Stringwood too with branches coralline.
Her Cabbage trees with tortuous trunks hang o’er
And to thee bend obeisance as before
Why from the island dost thou bend thy way
Speak I adjure thee and relenting say
It is thou fear’st of foes a ruthless band
From other countries may invade the land?
Behold the guns and view the batt’ries there
So wary placed by P[atton]’s guardian care.
Thy flight forego and yet remain a year
When Albion here will turn with judgement clear
The Veil which hides this fairy spot from them
Shall be withdrawn and who will them condemn
The rocks without which blessings guard within
Yes, then thy hills flourish will begin.
Why silent monarch of the Sandy Bay
Speak I adjure the condescending say
Why with a sad and solitary pace
Refusing converse with the human race
Thou seem’st prepared to quit this banished isle
Where Spring and health and Nature ever smile
But solemn monarch is’t thy voice I hear
That rolls like thunder on my ‘stonished ear
Yes, Yes it is, and with the awful sound
Of Truth, I hear the mountains echo round.
“Morality has fled this place prophane
And love of God is chased by love of gain
The social joys of life far yonder view
Prepare to follow me ye virtuous few.”
Burchell kept a diary which is now located in the archives of Oxford University. A copy of part is held on the Island but I was eventually able, with great difficulty and persistence, to obtain a complete scan for my research from Oxford University, and a paid researcher also sent me copies of Burchell’s letters found at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
The tiny Sandy Bay Baptist Chapel was a delight, but quite remote. (We couldn’t drive down to Sandy Bay, it had to be by car, the minibus was too big). There were yellow paper daisies here in profusion, like some of the ones we have at home. Charlotta picked some flower heads full of seeds to take back to her home… they told me they were Napoleon’s favourite flower and she hoped to get some to germinate and grow back home (and she did!)
After lunch we moved to the Boer Cemetery, perched on a hillside and beautifully maintained by funds from the South African Government. During the Boer War many captured prisoners were held on St Helena. The Boer General Piet Cronjé was amongst the first contingent of 514 to arrive in St Helena on board the troop-ship Milwaukee, escorted by the HMS Niobe. On 27 February 1900, Cronjé had surrendered to Lord Roberts after the battle of Paardeberg. Illustrating his arrival on the island of St Helena, Punch magazine depicted the Boer general saluting the ghost of Napoleon and saying ‘Same enemy, Sire! Same result!’ (http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol113an.html)
Several of our South African members were most interested in this place, searching for the names of their relatives. There are individual graves step-wise up the hill and also cenotaphs at the lower end, all in a beautiful peaceful setting.
St Paul’s Cathedral and graveyard were next on the tour, a lovely old stone church but the graveyard was an appalling mess of un-maintained memorials and un-mown grass … and this was a church with a Bishop, or is he even an Archbishiop?
In many ways the neglect was so disappointing, the Islanders have all this exciting history but they appeared to have little sense of pride in it. If they want to encourage tourists when the airport eventually opens in 2016 they will have to be more pro-active in caring for their magnificent heritage.
We saw lots of arum lilies growing wild. At the time it was the emblem of the island but there has been a move to replace it with the image of the rediscovered native ebony which would be more appropriate.
We had St Helena coffee at Farm Lodge on Rosemary Plain, the coffee farm, and saw coffee beans being dried after being picked by hand and sun dried. There was none for sale, a pity that we couldn’t buy any but I’m pretty sure we’d not be allowed to take it back into Australia.
The house was a delightful guest house and full of beautiful furniture including a ‘chaise longue’ and the ice making machine or wine cooler that was once at Longwood with Napoleon. Really they should go back to Longwood but I can’t ever see that happening!
There were many prints depicting Napoleon on the walls. The gardens were manicured and well cared for. A Rolls Royce was in the parking lot, owned by a former purser on RMS who now owns this coffee plantation and house.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at the top of Jacob’s Ladder and watched RMS departing. It was 5.00 pm. We were now totally isolated on this island until she returned from her trip to the Ascension Islands, a surprisingly daunting image as our umbilicus deserted us!
The view down the ladder was scary as it was so steep, 699 steps, 600 feet … for those suffering vertigo it was a frightening view. From the safety of the railings I decided it was perhaps not quite as bad as I had imagined. Bob said it was twice as bad as he had imagined. I didn’t think we’d be doing much climbing!
But from up here we had some super views of Jamestown and its restricting steep-sided valley.
The Tourist Office adjacent to the tree looks down the street. The Consulate is adjacent to the blue and white building and uses part of its top floor. Our bedroom, with king-size bed, ensuite and all those tapestries, was on the uphill side of the blue and white building.
Taken from the balcony, the photos show the tourist centre, shops and blue Wellington Guest House.
Tuesday 2 November
In our pre-tour visit to the archives we checked the birth registers to ensure the details we already had were correct. We also found that William and Jane Balcombe’s niece, Lucia Green, had travelled to St Helena on Walmer Castle in 1808 and subsequently sailed on to the colony at the Cape of Good Hope. On her return she and Miss Jane Balcombe returned to England. Lucia’s behaviour had caused much scandal on the island. She was engaged to be married to Balcombe’s business partner William Burchell, the wedding was already arranged to take place as soon as she arrived in Jamestown, but en route, she had changed her mind, agreeing instead to marry the Captain of the Walmer Castle, Luke Dodds. She sailed with him onto the Cape then returned alone to St Helena on her way back to England as he sailed onto Benkulen and China. On the trip to England Lucia was accompanied by her young cousin Jane who was probably going to school or to visit her relatives. (Subsequently Isabella Lucia Green married Luke Dodds in 1810, by then he was a wealthy and well connected member of the community. They had a son Henry Luke who became a well respected Anglican Minister and a daughter Lucia who married into the gentry.) Unsurprisingly Burchell was incredibly distressed by Lucia’s action and his diary reveals his torment.
Today we visited Plantation House, Princes Lodge and High Knoll Fort. The tours were ‘organised’ by the Tourist Office, not Basil and Barbara’s Magma Way Tours, and were not done well at all. No one knew when and where to expect us, no toilet stops had been arranged and no drinks break. We were split into two groups for the two mini buses but the drivers also had been given no itinerary. We were late to everywhere.
The Governor’s wife Mrs Jean Gurr showed us through the residence of Plantation House. It was tastefully furnished, not the brighter colours like we saw at other places. The original Longwood chandelier was looking resplendent here in the dining room and Mrs Gurr expressed the wish that other appropriate furniture should be restored to the rightful houses, (but not the chandelier!)
This picture of Governor Hudson Lowe ↑ immediately reminded us of cousin John Gaden.
Mrs Gurr showed us this interesting old chair which turned into steps to reach the top shelves of the library of book
Outside there were men making hay, they collected the grass which had been cut by hand, then tied the sheaves with a leaf of flax; it was destined to be mulch for the Millennium Forest trees.
We saw Jonathon, a Seychelles giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa) taken to the island in 1882 and thought to have been about 50 years old then. He is the last of his kind, sadly the two females bought to keep him company have been found to be a different species. They have access to all the grounds of Plantation House. Mrs Gurr told us of some controversy about the length of grass best for the tortoises, the hay was being cut so there was a choice of length for the animals.
(As far as we know Jonathon was still going strong in November 2015.)
And so we farewelled Plantation House and guessed it would be little changed from the days of the Balcombe family and Napoleon.
Our visit to Princes Lodge was disappointingly short, it was a house with the walls lined with many prints associated with St Helena and Napoleon, the house was owned by Robin Castell, a historian who lived in Cape Town. We only had time to race through and photograph any picture we could find of The Briars and one of the Heartshaped waterfall. Luckily Castell had published some books so I bought what I needed and would have to study them later. It was hard to take photographs through glass, reflections were a major problem.
We were three hours late to the High Knoll Fort, there was lots of history and lots of restoration needed. We didn’t do the place, or our speaker, justice. It was very high up and gave us the aerial view we wanted of The Briars below, (shown to the right of the white house with the central courtyard and green roof of the French Consul’s house.) Not sure if my photos would be any good. I realised the card was full but I’d still been able to click and take pictures. Which would be missing?
We had dinner at Anne’s Place (in the park and garden behind Porteous House) before heading across the old Parade ground for the talk at the museum by the Honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.
He spoke on the ‘History of the French Properties on St Helena’. His talk was crammed full of facts and figures and dates and plans. It was rather too long but it was good to make contact with Michel and obtain his blog address of http://www.domfrance.helanta.sh/ for his fundraising efforts to restore and replace and refurnish much of the buildings. He had grand plans not to repair but replace much of the structure of the Napoleon properties to ensure they survive hundreds of years. It seemed odd that modernising or even replacing the structure should be done, it’s an expensive exercise but also there could also be a great loss of the inbuilt history.
Wednesday 3 November
We had a Botanical Tour this morning, starting in the town near the original slave tree close to Porteus House where, in 1807, slaves were still sold… they were classed as ‘property’ and could be passed on in a person’s Will.
We started with an interesting talk by Dr Phil Lambden a botanist trained at Kew Gardens in London. He came to the island three years ago and spent 6 months surveying the plants on the island, a series of 1 km grid cells for the survey and it took 6 months to get round the island with a team of two. Before his survey there were 350 known species, now there is 460 species and he hoped to soon have a book, a field guide published. He told us of the importance of trees and other plants on the island. It was small, remote and people and animals had to survive on what was there. He commented that “Plants make or break colonisation” and said that on Easter Island the plants did not survive so the people also did not survive.
My summary of Phil’s talk: The Island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, no permanent settlement but stopped for fresh water and food. Not much to survive on. Broad valley, slopes similar to today, stream (The Run) had a marshy base, valley floor full of native forest likely to have been the ebony tree with trunk 1 metre across, a heavy dense black wood. It was very heavy, grew slowly and a valuable timber and was thought to have dominated the island valleys but it became extinct very early. The Portuguese brought fruit trees (citrus) herbs (mint and camomile). The fruit trees grew well as there were no pests. They also released goats (thought they would become a future meat supply for sailing ships) but they caused huge damage, the trees were killed off and island wiped bare.
In 1600s the island settled by the British in the form of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) who developed Jamestown and cut down timber for building. By 1700s there were no trees were left in James Valley. A crisis had been reached. Remaining trees were to be preserved. And they spent 50 years building a walled area to try and keep the goats and pigs out. It was unsuccessful, the wall was just an enjoyable challenge to goats!
In 1743 fig trees were introduced and they are still on the island, Sacred Indian is a resilient species, Indian Banyan is very big and Chinese Banyan. In late 1700s George III organised for James Cook’s expedition to catalogue the island’s vegetation. In Captain Bligh’s day St Helena was a staging point for transferring plants between Europe, South America, India and Africa. He brought bread fruit.
When Alexander Beatson was Governor (during in Balcombe’s time) he was keen on agriculture and cropping. The HEIC commissioned Burchell to write some decent records. He set up a botanical garden to introduce crops and trees. He discovered the recorded plants and suggested that just a small proportion of the island was covered by native plants, the rest being introduced. In modern time St Helena has 85% introduced plants. The Mango from The Briars is now found everywhere. Capt Cook introduced the Everlasting daisy from Australia, it is now all over the island (and one of Napoleon’s favourites). The long tailed blue butterfly also loved it! Other pollinators were brought in including the honey bee which made a huge difference but the white fly which was also introduced wiped out citrus trees. Australian eucalyptus was introduced post second World War, about 8 species.
The ebony was extinct before 1800, by 1771 only a couple of trees were left, three closely related species were here, ebony tree on valley, the ebony shrub in the cliff tops and the redwood on the lush high slopes. There were 4 pressed specimens in overseas museums. Specimens have been rediscovered and a breeding program has brought it back from extinction.
We then went to the Millennium Forest. This was past Longwood and the golf course, near Horse Point. Our host was Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, a British scientist who went to the island on secondment and ended up marrying a local!
She explained about the Gumwood which was endemic but on the brink of extinction when an isolated remnant of it was discovered and a breeding program has brought it back. The gum wood are umbrella shaped trees growing to about 5 metres. Only 2 originals were found.
The Millennium Forest is where saplings were being replanted and cared for. The aim was 10,000 trees by 2010 and they were nearly there, started in 2000, the project was working very well. Other under-storey plants would be added to the list later.
The Great Wood was the largest expanse of forest within St Helena’s 47 square miles. As such, it was home to an unknown number of birds, plants and insects now extinct.
The Great Wood was entirely destroyed as settlers cut down the trees for firewood, used the bark for tanning – thereby unnecessarily killing them, and by allowing goats and other introduced animals to graze on the saplings. The site of the Great Wood became semi-desert. In the summer months particularly, the hot south westerly winds sucked all the moisture from the ground turning the soil to sand. Soil erosion is still a big problem on this windward side of the Island.
The decision was made to embark upon an enormous reforestation project which would inevitably need to continue for decades if most of the area previously occupied by the Great Wood is again to become an established forest. The enormity of the task is magnified by the miniscule size of St Helena and the resources available on the Island for a project of this sort.
We planted three specimens; one for us, one for our three boys and one for the Balcombe family. We received a small certificate to mark the planting.
Bob proposed a vote of thanks on behalf of the group to Rebecca and her helpers.
On the way back we passed the golf course, the most remote in the world. … Basil teased that there was only one green but the tees were located on 9 separate hillsides.
This afternoon there was no tour and the shops were all shut, half-day closing. We spent some time at the archives in the Castle courtyard.
We discovered William Balcombe asked the HEIC for leave on 1 March 1814. He was told the job of Superintendent of Sales would be held open for him, for a year. In 1818 he was not sacked by the HEIC, or Hudson Lowe, as rumour has it, he had again asked to return home due to his wife’s ill health, and the position was again held open for him for 12 months before a new appointee would be installed. William Burchell’s diary mentioned that Mary Balcombe was very sick with measles, and her subsequent death. He also mentioned Mrs Balcombe needing the doctor and “child linen”, the baby was lost but not Mrs Balcombe.
After leaving the archives we went to the base of Jacob’s Ladder. I climbed part of the way up Ladder but decided to aim for the top was foolish. Bob set off for a few steps but thankfully he decided not to climb more than a quarter, not too many steps before returning to the bottom. Vertigo won. It was very steep and the individual steps very high.
I took the chicken run half way off to the landward side of the valley and had a pleasant walk back down to the shops, passing the back of HM prison and The Run again.
Today were birthday celebrations for David, Robert and Seanaid… we had champagne and pre-dinner nibbles in the Consulate’s bar. Can you believe three people would have a birthday in the same week and meet on the same tour on St Helena.
We had dinner in the Orange Tree Oriental Restaurant in Smith’s Yard, a tiny low yard hidden away through inside Association Arcade….no fancy signage here! We had booked at lunch time and even placed our order then. I had asked for lemon chicken and it had been thawed but not heated when it was served. Margot and Larry joined us.
Thursday 4 November
Today’s tour was not by minibus but by boat, on board Gannet Three, the small boat which had brought us ashore from RMS.
We walked to the dockside and saw the steps Napoleon landed on and a large anchor and cannon, rotting away, surrounded by piles of boxes, wood and rubbish. The hillsides were covered in thick mesh for the full height of the cliffs. Rock falls had been a real danger, in the past men had been killed, and the wire mesh was to provide protection to the workers below. The hillsides above the town, near Jacob’s Ladder and beyond were currently receiving the same treatment.
It was very steep so the workmen had to abseil down the cliffs to install steel posts, the concrete was carried by helicopter, a helicopter brought out by ship and reassembled on the island to help with the work, quite a novelty for small boys… and bigger boys who were often looking sky-ward!!
The James Town wharf was being rebuilt. When the airport goes ahead Rupert’s Bay will become the cargo terminal and have to house huge road building equipment ready to build a road to get up to the airport site, only then can they start to build the runway and terminus buildings. I hope the relics connected to Napoleon and all the other long history of trading can be left in James Bay for the tourists…..here were so many magnificent gun batteries, defensive positions built in impossible places, and cannons, forts and superb stone walls to support the roads, but they all needed repair and restoration. The Saints don’t seem to appreciate what they have and this will have to change if they want to develop a tourist industry with the arrival of the regular weekly air service (now due in 2016).
We travelled down the leeward side of the island, mercifully out of the wind! We went north east past Munden’s Battery, Rupert’s Bay site of the fish processing plant and cold storage…. and all the graves of thousands of people freed from the slave ships.
We saw some fortifications at the various points before turning round and sailing south west back past Jamestown and heading along the coast past Egg Island, site of the ruined Cockburn’s Battery. We saw amazing cliffs, steep valleys, volcanic flows in weird and wonderful designs shaped by the winds and wave.
We saw lots of nesting sites, plenty of birds but the most magical thing was a pod of dolphins, a huge pod of several hundred who escorted us and played along the bow of the boat. There were apparently two or even three different species who sheltered in the lee of the island and swam together as one large pod, and no doubt ventured to the windward side only if there was not sufficient food on the more sheltered side.
Pan-tropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and other cetaceans around St Helena in the tropical south-eastern Atlantic by Colin D. MacLeod and Emma Bennett
The occurrence, distribution and structure of cetacean communities in the tropical South Atlantic beyond the shelf edge are poorly known with little dedicated research occurring within this region. At 15°58′S 005°43′W, the island of St Helena is one of the few areas of land within this region and the only one that lies in the tropical south-eastern Atlantic. As a result, St Helena offers a unique opportunity to study cetaceans within this area using small boats and land-based observations. This paper describes the results of a preliminary, short-term survey of the cetacean community around St Helena in the austral winter of 2003. Pan-tropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) were the most numerous species recorded, followed by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and rough-toothed dolphins (Steno bredanensis), a species not previously reported from St Helena. This last species was only recorded occurring in mixed groups with bottlenose dolphins. Pan-tropical spotted and bottlenose dolphins differed in their spatial distribution around St Helena. While pan-tropical spotted dolphins were primarily recorded resting in large groups in the lee of the island during daylight hours, bottlenose dolphins and rough-toothed dolphins were recorded closer to shore and on both the windward and lee sides. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were also recorded once during the survey, but interviews with local fishermen suggest that this species regularly occurs in the waters around St Helena in small numbers during the austral winter. The results of this preliminary survey suggest that the cetacean community around St Helena during this survey was relatively simple, consisting of up to three species that are present year-round and one seasonally occurring species in the nearshore waters, with a small number of additional species occurring occasionally in deeper offshore areas.(Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom / Volume87 / Issue01 / February 2007, pp 339-344
When we arrived at South West Point with Man and Horse cliffs towering above, we hit the wind. The swell increased, the white horses were everywhere on this windward side of the island which took the full force of the Atlantic swell rolling across thousands of kilometres from South America…. and this was a fine day, the swell was relatively small. I felt sorry for the poor souls who had continuously been forced to patrol these waters in a sailing ship during Napoleon’s exile on the island, no wonder so many had died. The cliff height and rough waters would have made his escape or rescue impossible. The South Atlantic swells were better than four confining walls.
When we arrived back on shore I ventured into the Jamestown library to ask for a book ‘Assassination on St Helena revisited’ by Ben Weider. The librarian, a lady wearing a sari, was not very helpful. It was 5 minutes before she acknowledged me standing next to her desk then she told me the Napoleon books were in a locked glass-fronted cupboard … but it was covered with notices, so totally impossible to see the contents. We were subsequently told her husband was one of the local doctors at the hospital who had recently been placed under house arrest as there had been several complaints from patients and other staff, so, poor soul, she obviously had many worries on her mind. (We subsequently heard that he left the island when his contract expired.)
Friday 5 November …Guy Fawkes Day
This morning Bob asked Chris Danziger if there was going to be a farewell dinner with all of us together but he didn’t consider it worthwhile. We asked was there to be a collection to give to Basil and Barbara but he said it was not necessary as they were running a business. What about a final reflections lecture? He’d consider it.
Today we had no organised tours so decided to walk up to Barnes Road and then to The Briars. As we walked up the hill we passed lots of school children all wheeling prams containing their Guy Fawkes, evoking happy memories of my Yorkshire childhood. We quickly ran out of coins! We had to go up Market Street past the Primary School (the old Garrison building) with its sloping soccer pitch in the former Barrack Square. At the hospital with its verandahs, we kept left into New Bridge Road, over The Run stream where we met our pretty colourful friend, the Cardinal bird sitting on some blue rope.
At one of the hair-pin bends we continued straight on Barnes Road, the original road that the family would have used to go to and from the town, (we wondered if it was named after the Captain Barnes who wrote A tour through the island of St Helen by Capt. John Barnes in 1817 and had William Balcombe Esq as a subscriber of 20 copies.
The road was not sealed and you could only drive as far as the Heart Shaped Waterfall (HSW) by vehicle, there were rock falls from above and slippages leaving holes.
There was a new footpath being cleared to the waterfall, lots of rubbish and vegetation had been cleared out, steps for easier access had been built and the official opening was in a couple of weeks. We descended 75 steps to the track and passed a conservationist measuring the bastard gumwood plantings to see how well they were growing in their new permanent home. There was only one plant left in the world and it has a mechanism to prevent self-pollination. The flowers have all had to be hand pollinated and they only get 2-3 viable seeds per thousand set. Not a good fertility rate. The seedlings planted in this area did seem to be thriving, so hopefully the plant would have a future. But the scientist was visiting to remove any grubs by hand every day or two. That was dedication.
We made our way further towards the waterfall but there was still much vegetation to clear. Apparently the top of the waterfall is 1250 feet above sea level and there is an uninterrupted drop for 260 feet for the water. There is a dam located above the falls now, a more secure water supply for the islanders.
I bent down and picked up a random small piece of pumice-like rock and slipped it in my pocket without even glancing at it. Several minutes later I pulled it out to examine, and when I turned it over I realised it was heart shaped and even appeared to have a waterfall flowing…. what a talisman to keep.
We passed walled gardens thought to have been cultivated by Chinese indentured labourers who grew all the vegetables for the island and the thousand ships which called in annually for replenishment of food and water. But when Napoleon and entourage were housed on the island fresh food was unobtainable, everything had to be imported, mostly from The Cape.
We returned to Barnes Road and continued up the hill. It was steep, had hairpin bends, would have been very scary if your horse set off to gallop down the hill. We came across a second small waterfall, very high but we couldn’t see clearly because of the dense vegetation. There was a small bridge off one of the bends in the road, the stream came directly from the area of The Briars above us. The main town was hidden by a bend and High Knoll which blocked the view.
We spent a long time at The Briars. We talked to people in one of the houses (Briars Rose Villa) and they let us wander in their garden and we found an original wall. We looked at the aged trees and worked out the location of the original house from the sepia photograph we had. An old pine tree and a palm tree were clues. We found stone used to make a new retaining wall which had paint on some stones… someone in The Briars had had a room painted salmon pink and another was white.
We wandered over the whole area, it was very steep with not much flat area for children to play, especially ball games. The garden was very overgrown away from the Pavilion entrance which would be the only part that interested the tourists. We took photos of the original trees, we saw what we think was the location of the stables and we found a well maintained vegetable garden area behind the house, probably the same area where the Balcombe’s grew their vegetables and other produce worth £500 or £600 each year.
The old road went through here and curved round the hill towards the waterfall, no longer in use, unless the school children could walk back along it from the Prince Andrew School located up behind the HSW. Overgrown and neglected was a recurring and familiar theme.
We sat and soaked in the atmosphere. We could hear the waterfall, the birds, the bell frogs…. and also the intrusive car horns as drivers negotiated the hair pin bends. We thought the small boys would have searched for frogs and fish in the stream, they would have chased the beautiful red Cardinal birds as they flitted through the Acacia trees.
There was not much flat area for play, kicking a ball would have been a trial! And riding horses would have been uphill or down hill, little flat except up at Deadwood where the island held their race meetings, not the place for a nervous rider or carriage passenger.
We imagined all the children spending time with Napoleon, scared of this ogre at first but then, as they grew to know him better, with increasing confidence.
Napoleon himself would have revelled in the freedom of The Briars Pavilion. He had arrived on this Island after the confines of a long sea trip. He had had a chance to ‘mourn his losses’ and start to accept his fate. He would have been horrified by the impregnable fortress that St Helena appeared to be, but in the garden of The Briars he could stroll, there were children to amuse, the boys similar in age to his own son. He would have enjoyed the children’s play and laughter and probably remembered his own island childhood on Corsica.
Betsy Balcombe no doubt was a breath of fresh air. She was not conscious of “Court Protocol” and treated him just like a benevolent uncle to play with and entertain. He joined in the children’s games, he cheated furiously and openly to tease them, to the delight and horror of the children who had a real sense of fair-play at that age … there would have been squeals of protest. How Napoleon must have enjoyed the exchanges, the times he could relax… he was able to withdraw if he wished. He must have been so sick and tired of the ‘kow-tow’, the protocol. The children treated him as a friend not an emperor. What a diversion and delight he must have found them.
At last we felt fulfilled, in tune, we had been able to sit quietly and talk to the ghosts and were at peace. We were pleased we had made what amounted to a pilgrimage to the former home of the Balcombe ancestors.
We walked down the old driveway past the ancient palm tree and through what we thought were the original Briars gateway adjacent to Michel Martineau’s garden at the French Consulate.
As we walked back down the hill and reached the town we asked a local where we would find a supermarket as we wanted to buy some of the local coffee flavoured liqueur as we’d missed the tour to the distillery, preferring to see the dolphins and starkness of the island. “Go down past the school playground to the big tree, there’s a lane to your left, go up there and in through the first door on your left and you’ll find the supermarket.” And we did, no signs, no windows but we did!
Immediately recognised as the Balcombe relatives from the Napoleon Tour, the checkout lady told us her husband and son would be at the reception the next night… they were serving the food and drinks.
It was five hours from our departure before we returned to The Consulate for sandwiches and tea before a final trip to the archives. We took more photographs of the material. Karen was kind enough to allow us an extra 15 minutes, until 3.45pm… we said our good-byes and thanks.
This evening Chris Danziger told Bob he would be doing a final lecture on the ship, a reflection on Napoleon’s life. Not once has he asked us if we had found anything of interest in the archives or on the Island, yet of all the tour members we’ve done the most family history research, we probably had the closest connection to this place, a direct family connection going back over 200 years and we had an obviously strong emotional link to this remote island.
Saturday 6 November
Bob played golf this morning, agreeing to make up a four with experienced players Chris Danziger, Ron O’Keeffe and Peter Christiansen. Perhaps he should have cancelled it so we could have done The Briars walk today and spent all day yesterday at the archives… they are not open today.
The golf course was close to Longwood and they had spectacular views. Par 5 hole 8 was in front of Bertram’s Cottage. Fairways were grassed, but hard and dry, crossed the road a couple of times. Greens were mown and hard but more like a cricket wicket than the greens at home. Some were grassed with kikuyu. Most greens had bunkers with hard red clay, no sand. Bob found that approach shots were easiest if run along the ground, through the bunker and onto the green. The neat chip shots of his more experienced co-players were nowhere near as accurate, so Bob was able to hold his own and just missed a birdie on the 18th on the most remote golf course in the world.
At breakfast I had a talk with Charlotta Ticha who told me that Napoleon played with his nephews and nieces, he liked children as they were so natural and he didn’t have to wonder about their ulterior motives. She also said Hudson Lowe went to Paris and attempted to assassinate the son of Las Cases. Lowe fired a shot but a wallet saved Las Cases’ life. The Paris police found Lowe and quickly arranged for him to be sent back to England before a diplomatic incident could occur.
The Archives were shut so I went shopping and bought T shirts (Where on Earth is St Helena?) and others for the small boys. I found cook books and history books and lily tablecloths. Then I hit the museum and saw some good prints of The Briars. On the way back up the hill I noticed the Arts and Craft Centre was open for the first time. I was delighted to find a small doily of lace for sale, the pattern looked like a heart shaped waterfall. I said I just had to have it and I was then introduced to the lady who had made it, Violet Johnson… she was thrilled that a piece of her lace was to go to a Balcombe relative in Australia.
Once home I arranged for these precious mementoes including the [sliced] rock and sepia photograph of The Briars and Heart Shaped Waterfall to be mounted and framed, so now we have a magnificent reminder of St Helena.
We took a group photo (not everyone was there) before heading back up the hill for the Consular Reception at Longwood, hosted by Michel Martineau. Having spent all week in beige trousers and simple tops I think I surprised the tour group with my smart outfit, black top with silk Tilda skirt, choosing the pattern with black, turquoise and hot pink circles. The necklace I bought in Namibia with this skirt in mind, a large turquoise circle, finally came into its own!
We were in two rooms that had not been open on the tour, the Generals’ rooms covered with many prints on the deep blue wall in one room and deep red in the other, far more tasteful and elegant than that ghastly green.
It was an interesting reception, plenty of local dignitaries, officials and media. It was a classy event, bow-tied waiters and high quality savouries. There was a delightful spat between Michel and Mrs Gurr about Napoleon’s chandelier, now located in Plantation House.
Jeanne?, Charlotta, David W, Caroline, Bob, Veronica, Tony, Zbynek, Robrecht, Seanaid, Sally, Chris, Ken, Meg.
The tourism people from the island pumped us for comments and suggestions, they explained how hard it was to get locals to support tourism, the conversations consolidated our impression that the push was coming from the ex-pats, the Saints would rather be left alone. But they rely on huge subsidies for the ship to maintain their lifeline with the world. They are not self-sufficient and the island would die without a constant injection of outside funds. What would happen if Britain pulled the economic plug and they had to rely on tourism?
We were interviewed for the local radio by Garry and hope we came across as enthusiastic about the history of the island and the archives. We had just loved the friendliness of the people, they had been so welcoming to these Balcombe descendents from Australia.
Susan O’Bey (firstname.lastname@example.org) had information on the brewery at The Briars and Michael Dean (email@example.com) wanted tourism ideas. Basil and Barbara are also on email (Busy.Bee@cwimail.sh)
Michel is passionate about fund raising for the restoration work but says the French are the least supportive… he surprised us when he said that every town in France has a Rue de Gaulle but very few have a Rue de Napoleon.
It was wonderful to be there on a formal, social occasion, more as it would have been during Napoleon’s time, ladies in lovely clothes, smartly dressed men, people swapping yarns, sipping wine, laughing, circulating, easy to imagine the Balcombe family enjoying similar occasions.
It was a quiet reflection as we walked down the driveway, it was dark, cold, swirling mist, no moonlight. We suddenly had a better idea of what it was like for those men and women who shared the exile with Napoleon, a damp swirl of moisture and chill. The house was completely different by night, the dreariness and dampness was almost tangible.
We’d enjoyed a good evening and were sad to be leaving. I can only imagine the sorrow with which the Balcombe family would have left this place for the last time, a time when it would have been the clip clop of hooves, no motors, no car horns blaring at every hairpin bend, no bright headlights, but a slow peaceful carriage ride home in the moonlight or mist.
Sunday 7 November
RMS should have been here yesterday but had to delay her departure from Ascension so she could bring a doctor to replace the suspended one and an impartial Police Inspector to investigate the charges. We spent the day down by the docks and watched the activity from a distance. The ship had to unload and then load the cargo bound for Cape Town. This included a yacht Galaxy hoisted onto the deck, going to Cape Town for some repairs to be then ready to sail back to the island in the Governor’s Cup Race.
It was an interesting exercise to see it lifted onto the deck, propped into place and strapped down. Every two years, intrepid sailors looking for the race of a lifetime, could take part in the yacht race, a downwind 1,700 nautical mile race from False Bay Yacht Club near the historic Simon’s Town, round Cape Point, and across the South Atlantic Ocean to the finish line off Jamestown, St Helena. (In 2012 the race starts on 22 December 2012, with the leading yachts are anticipated to cross the finish line around 31st December 2012. The majority of the participating sailors and their yachts are booked onto the RMS St Helena for departure from the island on 11 January 2013, arriving back in Cape Town on 16 January 2013, so it is a time consuming race, over Christmas, and expensive as bookings with RMS need to be made….what will they do when the airport is their only means of passenger travel?
We were eventually called to go through immigration and customs prior to departure. What a sheeeeemozzle!! Queues doubling back on themselves in a confined space, no one checking the X Ray machine of bags which started to fall off the far end as they continued to be piled on the front…people had no idea where queues started or ended and it was hard to be given a number allocation to take the bus all of 20 metres down to collect a life jacket then meet the small boat which took us out to RMS … hopeless organisation but somehow we weren’t surprised. The Saint’s laid back attitude sometimes could do with a shake-up!
There were over 30 stevedores working on the ship and it was dark and late by the time they all departed and we sailed.
It was so sad to see the lights fading in the distance; Jacobs Ladder was lit to the top and one of the last things to disappear from view. I was surprised by how upset I was on leaving, knowing I’ll never see the place again and having felt so in touch with the Balcombe family on the island, it was a strange feeling, a severing of a tangible spirit and link to the past.
We had been allocated the same cabin, B37 and this voyage are in the 8.00 pm sitting for dinner, our table (number 8) is hosted by the ship’s Doctor Ravi Kaul and we are joined by Ruth and David, the Scottish vet and Malcolm, a Saint who worked on board a millionaire’s luxury motor yacht based in the Mediterranean. We understood Malcolm’s job was looking after staff, supplies and catering. We are not allowed to ask who the famous person was that he worked for and he certainly maintained everyone’s privacy. He did tell us that in July 2011 the yacht, which had a dozen crew, was to be replaced by a new one requiring a crew of twenty, (so we think it may have been the Rupert Murdoch yacht, which was replaced then.)
Monday 8 November
We had a good sleep and at 7.00 am became reacquainted with Peggy our cabin steward when she brought our morning cuppa. Like most of the crew she is a Saint, had been with RMS nine years, she had a six year old son back on the island who was cared for by her parents. Her father was a fisherman and, when young, she was up very early each day to help with the catch and consequently was too tired to bother much with schoolwork, something she now regrets. She did go to Germany to work for a short time but became homesick for the island.
Today was a chance for quiet reflection, and I jotted down my thoughts on the visit, and also some quiet reading, Dick and Felix Francis’ book ‘Silks’ being flavour of the day.
At 12 noon the Officer of the watch gave us our daily location, as usual we were at lunch but today, for the first time, I managed to find a pen and serviette and write it down!
We were at 18°37’ South, 2°33’ West, 253 nautical miles from St Helena, 1447 nautical miles to Cape Town, travelling at 15.8 knots, our ETA in Cape Town was 12 noon on Friday. The air and sea temperature were both 20° and we had 5102 metres of water under the ship. Wind was ESE, Force 8.
This evening was the Captain’s Cocktail party. I wore the hot pink top and silk Tilda skirt again, this time with the pink, turquoise and blue flowery pattern showing rather than the circles. I was complimented on my beautiful skirts. Perhaps not such a ‘colonial’ after all!!
We joined the passengers in the main lounge for a Quiz, ‘Spot the tune’… we didn’t do so well in our group!
Tuesday 9 November
Today Chris Danziger showed a movie called “Monsieur N”. He thought it had been shot on St Helena but it was obvious right from the start that the buildings and vegetation were incorrect as were the number of horses used in the movie… the island has not had horses for several years. It was filmed in South Africa.
It purported to be the love story of Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon, ending with them being married and living in America with a dark haired Corsican daughter. Oh so wrong. I was asked by a couple of our group to give the real story of what happened to Betsy, so I asked Purser Claude to organise a time… it was to be on Thursday.
Bob played cricket and this time the crew won, so the South Atlantic Ashes were a draw!
In the evening I re-watched the Cliff and Shadows reunion concert, I’d only seen half of it last time so was delighted to be able to sit through the whole lot.
Wednesday 10 November
Bob was in the Deck Skittles team which won their competition. I read Ian Rankin’s Rebus book called ‘Exit Music’. I enjoy crime writers with realistic, less-than-perfect characters. I also spent time preparing for my talk on “What really happened to Betsy Balcombe.”
Tonight was the Ship’s Cabaret. Claude, the purser, the ship’s doctor, engineer and other officers made fools of themselves with much hilarity and good humour. A really fun night in the tradition of the old passenger-carrying ships when entertainment had to be self made.
Thursday 11 November
This morning Chris Danziger gave his talk on ‘Reflections of Napoleon on St Helena and Elsewhere’. It was interesting but I’m still pleased that I ‘know’ the Emperor best as someone who played with the children.
Later I gave my talk on ‘What really happened to Betsy Balcombe and her family’. I gather there were many who were surprised at the extent of my research and the resources covered and there were several favourable comments, including one from Seanaid Danziger!
We also joined in the Drawing Game…. Bob and I managed Ayers Rock within a half second but some of the others were more difficult and our team didn’t win!
The charity raffle was drawn but we missed out on any of the prizes, never mind.
The ship’s clocks were advanced by an hour at midnight to bring us back to South African time.
Friday 12 November
Disembarkation today, so luggage had to be outside cabin by 7.30am. We said our farewells to Peggy, she has been quiet, helpful and efficient.
We enjoyed watching the pilot come on board and the tugs push us into place at the wharf where we were able to watch the unloading of the yacht Galaxy from the deck whilst we waited for the formalities of South African immigration and customs.
We were sad to leave the ship. It’s been a lovely experience and given us a glimpse of old fashioned sailing in days past, the fun and games, activities and social life. We didn’t partake as much as we probably should, especially on the way north, it had been a time for us to catch up on sleep as well as reading!
We said our thanks and farewells to the Europeans and South Africans from the tour and only Ruth and David were returning to the Commodore Hotel. Our taxi took us back there and we were reunited with the other bags we had left behind.
In the afternoon we spent some time shopping down at the Red shed at the waterfront. We’d now bought all the gifts we need for Christmas presents for the family … if they arrived safely home
Saturday 13 November
We repacked our bags several times to ensure we could fit in all that we wanted to take home and to check the weight. We had a quiet but busy day sorting it all out! We left some clothes and shoes behind for the room cleaner to make use of, or pass onto friends. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who can make use of stuff, the people who live in the shanty towns are so poor. Souvenirs were placed in hand luggage which was much heavier than the allowed 7 kg. We hoped nothing would be lost on the trip home, especially things like the African material.
Sunday 14 November
Transfer to airport in Cape Town. The check-in lady wasn’t going to let us take the three bags but we were under the weight limit and we pointed out they had lost our bag in the first place so we had had to buy another for our trip. We contemplated getting the two smaller ones wrapped in plastic security wrap as one bag, but fortunately she agreed to book them through to Johannesburg but no further. That didn’t matter, it’s what we wanted to ensure they at least made it to Jo’burg check in.
When we went to Jo’burg check-in there was no problem with putting all three bags through and we were upgraded to Premium Economy…. we were not sure if it was due to the Qantas Club label on Bob’s or the British Airways Club label on mine, or if we were tagged as having lost luggage in the past or if he just took one look at our height and decided to be kind! We could have hugged him!
Oh what bliss to have leg room on the plane… what a difference it made on the long flight home, no claustrophobia this time..
Safe journey back to Sydney, then to Armidale where our car was waiting, neighbours had been kind enough to leave it there for us. So we arrived home late, tired but delighted to be back…. and so began the big write up!
Our Reflections on St Helena.
These days St Helena is a non-divided society. The people are very friendly, as the Australians we were quickly known as the Balcombe relatives and were warmly welcomed by every Saint we met.
“Where are you from?” “Australia.” “You’re the Balcombe relatives. Welcome home”
They appear to be happy, smiling, friendly, with no colour problems, no snobbery or pretensions, our South African friends were amazed.
The history of the island and all its travelers means it really has been the great big Melting Pot (like the Culture Club song)
Culture Club “Melting Pot” Lyrics
Take a pinch of white man
Wrap him up in black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty bit of red indian boy
Oh like a curly latin kinkies
Oh lordy, lordy, mixed with yellow chinkees, yeah
You know you lump it all together
And you got a recipe for a get along scene
Oh what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true, you know, you know
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough enough enough to take
The world and all it’s got
And keep it stirring for
A hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score
[ Lyrics from: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/culture+club/melting+pot_20034666.html ]
The Saints are descended from the original British and European sailors, soldiers and officials and merchants but also the Chinese indentured labourers and slaves from all over the world, places like Africa, Malaya, and India. They are a truly coffee coloured people and are the most unconcerned about race or colour of any peoples that I have come across. Our South African members were amazed and loved it.
The Island had an air of neglect, there was rubbish in the main street and all over, many buildings were derelict or needed a new lick of paint. It is traditional for Saints to build their own homes but many then leave the island for years as they go overseas in search of work. The houses may stand empty for a long, long time with little or no maintenance…and no one to weed the garden… the best kept gardens are those owned by RMS employees who work ‘2 months on then 2 months off’ and spend the time on their homes when they are there.
No one seems to grown their own vegetables. Fresh vegetables and fruit come out on Thursdays, from cold store or only when the ship comes in?? There is not even a dairy on the island, we heard “They’re going to kill a 1400 kg bull this week”, fish were in short supply, so were tomatoes, bananas and yogurt. They rely on RMS for EVERYTHING,
The island is also ‘small’, everyone knows everyone’s business. It can be an advantage… we were told if we needed a taxi and had forgotten the number to ring any four digit number beginning with 2, 3 or 4 and the person who answered would give us the correct number.
The archives needs a qualified archivist and a better storage system. There are priceless documents here, no humidifier, right on the water front, all higgledy-piggledy on the shelves. Digitisation is needed (and has since started). They also open from 8.30 am to just 3.30 pm…. When a ship has dropped off passengers why not stay open for longer hours and then have shorter hours when the ship has taken the people away. We had a tour on Wednesday morning with nothing organised for Wednesday afternoon when the shops are shut… an afternoon tour timed then would be more sensible. Robin, another visitor we met on the ship, was there to traverse some of the walking trails. He told us the walks were badly maintained and poorly signed and he spent one day trying to find the actual start of the one he wanted to do.
But the island has no continuity with the experts, they come for a few months contract, two years if you’re lucky, and then they go again. The odd one will marry a local but wages are low, average wage is £4000 per annum (about $7000 AUD). Internet is available but it is sooo slooow.
No one appears to have much get up and go, they are reliant on handouts from England and input from ‘experts’ (which they don’t follow up when the ‘expert’ has returned to England.) There is plenty to do, cleaning up the graveyards would be a good start if they want to rely on their historic past to attract tourists when or if the airport is built.
Margaret came out on ship with us, she is a retired Science teacher from England on a few weeks contract to show the teachers at both the primary and high schools how to run Science lessons. The labs are all fully equipped and the teachers timid with Science but enthusiastic after her input, but she is appalled that at 3.30pm each day the bell goes and by 3.31pm the whole school is empty… one day she was locked in by 3.35pm and had to call for help to undo the padlock on the gate!
The Consulate Hotel relies on the bar to survive. The ship bringing in tourists is not enough to keep it going… when the Soccer World Cup was run in South Africa there were very few visitors to the island as flights to and accommodation in Cape Town (to meet the ship) was impossible to obtain. There were just 4 visitors that month, so Hazel put off the staff amid much controversy. She was looking for a house to buy on the island for two years and none came up, so she bought the hotel which she is now renovating and refurbishing…. her dream of spending time writing is taking a back seat. She has furnished it with some lovely antiques. The hotel has Foxtel and plenty of DVDs but there is no TV on the island. We have since heard that she has closed the hotel, will only open part of it to special guests or friends.
Cars are a mixture of old and older, most are small to cope with the hairpin bends, many look non-roadworthy, they would never be allowed on the road in NSW. There is no seat belt requirement and child restraints are not compulsory. Diesel was 86 pence per litre and unleaded petrol was 133 pence per litre, the only two bowsers for private cars.
Shops close for Wednesday afternoons and on the other weekdays, at precisely 4.00 pm, the workers swarmed into the Main Street to catch the buses back home up the hill.
During our visit the meals in the local cafés were basic and poorly presented. At Annies I had a Raspberry Fool mousse which was in a plastic cup, not taken out of the mould and not even served on a plate. I had crayfish one night, it was served with a salad but the crayfish had been heated, but not with cheese like a ‘thermidor’… Bob had finished his meal before I even received mine and there were no nutcrackers to attack the legs and no finger bowls to rinse fingers. At the Chinese my meal was cold, I think it was defrosted but not warmed up. Except at The Consulate, every dinner we had there was no co-ordination to ensure everyone at the table was served to be able to eat together. Initially we thought “quaint” but on reflection we found it sad.
The day we left, a Sunday and RMS was late in, and we all went to the seafront to watch her unload and load … the bar was open but the adjacent eatery was not… they would have made a fortune as all the passengers and many locals were there for the whole day… okay it’s a Sunday, but take Monday off when the ship has gone!
In the intervening years since we visited St Helena, the airport has been built and is due to open in early 2016 for a regular weekly flight each Saturday from the inland city of Johannesburg, thus breaking the Island’s very long-standing link with Cape Town and their former umbilicus RMS St Helena. There will be many sad to see the demise of the Mail Ship. No doubt the island will have already changed under the influence of the airport construction workers. I keep in touch via the Wirebird magazine and learn of things like three huge tourist liners turning up on the same day, ships arriving wanting tours on Wednesdays, but there is nothing open as it’s half day closing… I guess things will need to change.
So was it worth travelling all this way?
Yes, to get a feel for the isolation of this island.
Yes, to get a feel for the geography and ecology of the island
Yes, to understand the ‘small population’ outlook on the island’s social life.
Yes, to get some stuff from the archives, nothing like as much as we’d hoped but better than nothing, if only they’d been open longer hours.
Yes, to be able to walk in the footsteps of the family and of the Emperor as we walked to The Briars and in its grounds.
Yes, to have walked up the old road with its spectacular views and terrifying drops, views with which the family would have been familiar.
Was I sad to leave?
Yes, I’ll miss the beautiful birds, the songbirds and bell-frogs, the waterfalls, the streams, the Georgian houses, the steep hills, narrow roads, the stone walls, the flowers, the ruins, the netted hillsides, the welcome and friendliness and delightful lilting language of the local people …. and the ghosts, most definitely I’ll miss the ghosts but the lace and (now sliced) rock hanging on our wall keep them forefront of my memories.
Written by Caroline Gaden ©
Photographs by Bob and Caroline Gaden ©