JAMESTOWN, St. Helena – The Gates of Chaos, Lot’s Wife, Old Woman’s Valley, Man and Horse Cliffs. These are the names of places on St. Helena, an otherworldly Atlantic Ocean island far from anywhere whose British-ruled population of just over 4,000 is reaching out to the world.
Charles Darwin, astronomer Edmond Halley and Napoleon Bonaparte are a few of the luminaries who spent time on St. Helena over the centuries, though the deposed French emperor would rather have been elsewhere, confined as he was in exile until his 1821 death at Longwood House, which was prone to damp and rat infestations.
Now a new airport, condemned last year by British taxpayers as a boondoggle after dicey wind conditions were discovered, has opened to regular traffic (a single weekly flight from South Africa) that islanders hope will boost tourism and the sagging economy of what was once a linchpin of the British Empire.
The airport is a gamble, but tourists with time and money will experience the sense of stepping into history on an island that until recently was only reachable by boat and lies about 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Africa and even further from South America.
The coat of arms of Britain’s East India Company, the trading behemoth that helped to build the British Empire, adorns the arched entrance to the capital, Jamestown. The commercial brands that are so familiar in other parts of the world haven’t made it to this rugged island. The island only got its first cellular telephone network in 2015. The Saints, as islanders are known, speak English with a strong accent that is sometimes hard to understand.
“You don’t need to peel many layers. You’ll find we’re more rogues than saints,” said Basil George, an elderly guide with a spry step who escorted visitors around downtown Jamestown. The capital is something of an architectural oddity, jammed into a narrow valley floor with one main road up the middle. One stop on his tour is what is said to be the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere.
Skirting the island offshore, the visitors, including an Associated Press journalist, surveyed forbidding volcanic cliffs, as well as a humpback whale and brown noddy seabirds nesting in the crags.
Anthony Thomas, owner of the Sub-Tropic Adventures diving company, told his guests about the lore associated with the giant walls of rock 180 metres or so high: a couple whose car accidentally rolled over the cliff edge, spilling them to their deaths, and a boy who suffered a similar fate after stepping over a fence to retrieve a ball.
Current affairs on St. Helena include a petition against the introduction of a law allowing same-sex marriage, and the question of whether a jury trial can be fair on an island where everybody knows just about everybody.
A reported 1,000 ships a year used to anchor at St. Helena, which was uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it in 1502 and became a critical way station for trading vessels travelling between Asia and Europe. That role diminished after the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal offered a shortcut to intercontinental shipping.
The British used the island as a prison for Napoleon and for rebellious Zulu king Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, thousands of Boer prisoners from South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century and, in the late 1950s, three leaders from Bahrain, then under British control.
Other notable events include the dispatch of settlers to St. Helena after the Great Fire of London in 1666, the use of the island as a base for British anti-slavery patrols and the 1941 sinking of a British vessel at anchor off Jamestown during World War II. A memorial to the 41 people from the RFA Darkdale “who have no grave but the sea” sits on the waterfront.
Through this historical sweep, the Saints have lived mostly by modest means, some learning how to build their own homes or fashion harpoons out of broom handles.
“If you’ve got a good family, you’re not that bad off,” said Mario Green, a taxi driver. “They’re always going to make sure you’ve got a roof over your head, or you’ve got something to eat.”
Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris