By Thomas Hennessy
When Napoleon first beheld the island of St Helena, the site of his second and final exile, it is said that the emperor contemplated it in dread silence. This has defined its place in our imaginations since; the rocky prison where Bonaparte spent the remainder of his life, shivering and slowly succumbing to illness. This dot of Britain lost in the blue immensity of the South Atlantic between Angola and Brazil has been inhabited by thousands for more than two hundred years since. I spoke with Dr Philip Rushbrook, the governor of the constellation of British islands, which also includes Ascension Island and Tristan de Cunha, about its conservation initiatives and unique society.
At present, St Helena is characterised by a communitarian ethos; people wave at each other when their cars pass, the social life in the island’s capital is concentrated on their single answer to a nightclub, and most employment is in fisheries or agriculture. It is also not privy to the hyper digitised nature of the developed world. “People don’t use internet in the same way as say the UK, people do not go online very frequently and when you do it, it’s slow and it’s quite difficult to complete tasks. So, the result is that internet is not really permeating… When you add to that, there are the credit cards on the island. [But] the bank of St. Helena does not have international financial transaction arrangements through Visa or MasterCard. So, there are no credit cards”. This detachment from the wider world is part of the attraction to modern tourists, seeking their own rendition of Napoleon’s exile.
However, this could be about to change. In 2002, St Helena had a referendum about whether or not to build an airport, that would cut the time to travel from South Africa from five days by ship, to just hours by aircraft. This divided opinion on the island about its future, “There was the traditionalist position where you’d like the island to be pretty remote cut off almost sort of off-grid from the rest of the world. And there were the younger population to say: we’ve got to join the real world.” Under Rushbrook’s tenure, he aims to chart a course with this sentiment in mind. St Helena will no longer have limited access to the internet as it will be connected to Google’s Equiano cable shortly. In his words, “it’s going to change some of the way we do things, but then again, if we don’t do it, we’ll just live in the past. And, you have to prepare the island for the next generation. We cannot just live in the past.”
Although Rushbrook believes that it won’t simply become an anonymous outpost of the world economy, “I think the Saints are a very proud island community. I think they will do their utmost sort of keep the culture that they want. I think it has a pretty good chance of keeping its distinctive, Saint way of life and culture, I can’t see vast hordes of people coming to migrate to the island”.
Saint Helena, Ascension Island, and Tristan de Cunha are sustained by British foreign aid. I asked Rushbrook how the internet cable may change the economic situation of the island: “I think in the long term you’d like to have all the overseas territories be self-sustaining, but the reality is, I think given the remoteness, St Helena is never going to be a place where you’d manufacture things, because of the cost of shipping goods in, manufacturing them and shipping them out, erodes any sort of competitive advantage you may have.
“So for the island to go forward, I think we have to recognise it’s going to be supported by the UK with some sort of granted aid for the foreseeable future. But the key thing is that the more industry or the more business you can develop from your island, the more flexibility the island has in doing things it wants to do. So, the course will be to utilise the cable as much as possible. Look at other overseas territories, they’ve got offshore type of businesses. I suspect that some sort of businesses would find it convenient to come to St Helena, as its got UK style laws and approach to life and is on GMT time”.
Tourism is also set to expand with the greater connectivity. This is unsurprisingly so; the world class diving opportunities in the twinkling waters around St Helena and hiking atop jagged clifftops rearing out of the Atlantic are unique experiences. Despite such attractions Rushbrook recognises that “we’ll never be a mass market. There are no golden beaches on St Helena, there are no rolling plains or wildebeests. So, you’re not going to get a mass market. You’re going to get your niche visitors. The biggest successful areas so far before Covid-19 was dive tourism; there are unique dive sites in the area.
“Divers seem to be quite intrepid where they wish to go to, so that area was growing quite nicely as a source of income, and before Covid-19, four to five million pounds a year was being brought in through tourism. That may not sound a lot, but for an island of four and a half thousand people that is about a tenth of new public expenditure. So reinstituting dive tourism, cultural tourism for Napoleon, and some of the military heritage on the island, bringing in, sort of, ‘getting-away-from-it-all’ tourism. People have talked about creating wellbeing centres and that sort of thing here. There will be a steady increase in visitors to the island who come for one reason or another, from which we’ll get another contribution to the economy.” It is certainly an adventure destination to keep your eye on.
Conservation has long been central to this delicate necklace of island groups; Charles Darwin prompted the first ever example of terraforming by suggesting that plants from across the British Empire be utilised to seed a cloud forest atop Ascension Island. To this day, the formerly arid peaks are crowned with lush forest. Due to “the isolation of all the three islands, there are a number of unique species or subspecies of plants and insects that developed. I think there’s like three or four hundred unique species, mostly insects and some plants on St Helena”.
These include the striking cabbage tree and St Helenian plover. “The key thing there driving protection is to maintain that diversity and not allow the loss of animal species.” As Rushbrook seeks to open the island to the world, he also aims to ensure that its natural heritage is preserved even during this fateful chapter in its story.
The island is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire and is the second oldest overseas territory after Bermuda. Rushbrook holds the position of governor, the position that held sway over the island since it was a vital East India Company outpost. I asked Rushbrook if he ever felt that his role as the appointed head of a government on an island on the other side of the world ever felt antiquated, or even neo-colonial.
“Most of the day-to-day decisions are taken by locally elected politicians and instituted by the local public administration. I don’t have some divine right to make my own decisions. All my decisions just like in any other public service are traditionally reviewable. So, in that sense, I’m not sort of an omnipotent potentate he may have had in the past. Today a very much a collaborative form of administration is what we tried to seek in all our overseas territories.” That this form of local democracy flowers in the edifice of East India Company autocracy shows that change has visited St Helena before, just as it comes now.
Image: Orinta Gerikaite