History in the Tropics: The island of St Helena

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

The Island of Saint Helena, Napoleon’s last home, remains a starkly remote isle of unique inhabitants.

By Robert Pimm, Globe Correspondent

Boston Globe, September 2 2007

SAINT HELENA – Lot’s Wife stands near the Gates of Chaos, gazing over the South Atlantic. The rusty cannons lining the beach were left behind by the English after they recaptured the island from the Dutch in 1673. There’s a group photo, then we surge up the hill, led by “Buffalo,” who came in first last year. Ahead of us lies the volcanic column that is Lot, about a mile up the valley from his wife; the Diana’s Peak National Park; and, eight miles distant, the island’s capital, Jamestown. The Saint Helena Nature Conservation Group is off on its annual sponsored walk.

The island of Saint Helena, midway between Africa and South America, offers a stimulating mix of the familiar and the exotic. Lush pastures top sheer volcanic cliffs. English pubs serve local prickly pear spirit. Giant tortoises wander the garden of the governor’s Georgian mansion. Tropical flowers surround Napoleon’s tomb. And now the only way to visit one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands is on the last working oceangoing Royal Mail Ship.


Arriving on St Helena on the RMS St Helena – Photo Robert Pimm

The voyage on the RMS Saint Helena takes three to five days, sailing from Ascension Island to the north or from Cape Town or Walvis Bay, Namibia, to the southeast. (Saint Helena, Ascension Island, and the island group of Tristan da Cunha make up this British Overseas Territory.) The ship is staffed mainly by Saints, as the people of Saint Helena call themselves, and acts as a gentle introduction to the island’s way of life.

“I enjoyed the trip,” says Tina DuPlessis of Swellendam, South Africa. “There’s absolutely no chance of getting stressed.” Beef tea is served every morning at 10:30. Organized entertainment includes deck quoits, fancy dress parties, and quizzes. A daily newsletter announces the day’s activities (“Join Peter Steyn to learn about the history and people of Tristan da Cunha”) and gives guidance on what to wear (“Rig of the Day: The Captain and Officers will wear White Uniform during the day and Mess Dress in the Evening”).

Arrival on the island is an event. The great, green-brown bulk of the volcano looms from the sea and is flanked by pillars of rock. As you step ashore you’re following in footsteps as famous as Napoleon’s: the Duke of Wellington, Captain Bligh, James Cook, Charles Darwin, and the astronomer Arthur Halley all came here.

The island oozes history. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and settled by the English East India Company in 1659. The British have been here ever since, except for an interlude in 1672-3 when the Dutch seized the island. After its recapture, the Royal Navy built defensive “lines” across every potential landing place and stationed countless batteries of cannons. By the time Napoleon arrived in October 1815, four months after the Battle of Waterloo, the island was as secure a fortress as any in the British Empire.

Napoleon lived at Longwood House until his death in 1821. He was buried in the nearby Sane Valley, which he chose for its tranquillity and beauty. In 1840, his body was exhumed and removed to Paris. All the Napoleonic sites are open to the public. Each is fascinating, but I found the tomb most evocative: a fragment of world history in a silent, tropical glade.

There’s more to Saint Helena’s heritage than Napoleon. Jamestown is a Georgian architectural gem at the bottom of a rocky valley, shielded from the sea by a moat and high walls. Jacob’s Ladder, built in 1829, rises 600 feet in 699 steps to the top of nearby Ladder Hill. Complete the climb and you’re entitled to a certificate from the excellent Saint Helena museum nearby. Or you can scale the stairs in the cool of the night. To stand at the summit with a blaze of stars above is sublime.

Another must-see is Jonathan, the oldest of the tortoises in the garden of Plantation House, the governor’s residence. Jonathan was around 50 years old when he arrived in 1882 from the Seychelles, off the coast of East Africa. He weighs 440 pounds. “It’s amazing to come into contact with such an ancient being,” says DuPlessis.

The landscape and scenery on the island are spectacular. “I’ve been all over the world, and by far the best view I’ve ever seen was out of a kitchen window on Saint Helena,” says Eva Ravenel of Charleston, S.C.  “Each part of the island is different,” says Eric Arnold of London. “You come around each corner and there’s something surprising.”

That includes unique flora and fauna. The Peaks area is home to 22 species of spider. The wirebird, a symbol of Saint Helena and the island’s last surviving endemic land bird, is critically endangered, with only a few hundred of the ground-nesting adults remaining. But I see several of them when I visit Deadwood Plain, and on a walk in the woods I’m buzzed by the exquisite, inquisitive fairy tern. Other local specimens are more plentiful. “The coastal trip was a highlight,” says Barbara Mosdorf of Cape Town. “The sea was boiling with dolphins.”

The Millennium Forest is the site of an ambitious rescue plan for one threatened species. To mark the year 2000, islanders planted over 4,000 saplings of the endemic gumwood tree on the exposed slopes overlooking the site of a new airport, due to open in 2012. The forest now has over 6,000 trees. Visitors can plant saplings for a small fee. It’s wonderful to walk through the brilliant green groves and feel you’ve done something to make Saint Helena a better place.

Saint Helena is a nice place already. That owes less to the dramatic landscape and historic heritage than to the Saints themselves. “People are so open and friendly,” says Ravenel. “The second day I was there someone stopped and said, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Thirty minutes later we were still talking.” ‘It’s like time has stood still,” says Mosdorf. “In Saint Helena they have time to stop and talk.”

That doesn’t mean Saints aren’t competitive. Raymond “Buffalo” Young does the coast-to-coast sponsored walk over Diana’s Peak in 1 hour 54 minutes, two minutes ahead of the next competitor. I take around four hours.

With the coming airport, some visitors wonder whether the island’s charm is under threat. “Let’s hope they don’t ruin it,” says Susie Gollwitzer of Windhoek, Namibia. “They’ll have more money but less peace and quiet.”

It’s too early to say how the airport will affect the island, though it seems sure to boost its economy. But I sense the Saints will be OK. On the walk we pass Banyan Cottage, advertised on the local radio as having “running water, a wood stove, and NO ELECTRICITY.” Saints, living on this remotest of islands, say they go to Banyan Cottage “to get away from it all.”

As we sail away from Saint Helena, a fiery sunset fills the sky. Doug Wakeling of Valla, Australia, stands at the ship’s railing. “I’m glad I came,” he says. “It’s one of the world’s last exotic little hidden paradises.”

Robert Pimm is a London-based freelance writer. Proceeds from this article will go to plant trees at Millennium Forest.

P.S. Did you enjoy this (slightly dated but affectionate) piece?  If you like this kind of writing, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish).  You will receive a free Hotel Story in return!  Or I would be delighted if you would like to friend me on Facebook.  

How to get there

The only scheduled way to reach Saint Helena is on the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena. Routes include a twice-yearly sailing from Britain; a fly-cruise option via Ascension Island, or a cruise from Cape Town or from Walvis Bay in Namibia. Prices vary according to route and cabin. For example, a return fare from Walvis Bay to Saint Helena can range from about $645 in a shared four-berth budget cabin to about $3,500 for a single on the upper decks.

Visit rms-st-helena.com for details on the RMS St. Helena.

Andrew Weir Shipping Call for a brochure or request through the website.

What to do

1. Visit the Napoleonic sites: Longwood House, where he lived and died; the Sane Valley, where he was buried; and The Briars, where he stayed temporarily while Longwood was prepared for him.

2. Go walking: There are spectacular walks and hikes on Saint Helena, ranging from easy to challenging.

3. Plant a tree in the Millennium Forest and do your bit for biodiversity.

4. Take a dolphin-spotting and bird-watching boat trip.

5. Climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, the longest single-flight staircase in the world.

Where to stay

Farm Lodge Country House Hotel
Rosemary Plain, St. Paul’s
Built around 1690 and set in 10 acres of tropical gardens, rates at this handsome restored country house about six miles from Jamestown go from about $100 per person per night in a double room plus breakfast to $200 for a single room with full board.

Consulate Hotel
Main Street, Jamestown
A mid-18th-century building with wrought-iron balconies and a lively public bar on the ground floor. Rates from about $77 for a double plus breakfast to about $165 for a single, full board.

Where to eat

The Coffee Shop on the seafront in Jamestown, a local meeting place for lunches ranging from hot roast pork rolls served with stuffing and apple sauce for about $4 to homemade chicken lasagna served with garlic bread and salad for about $8.

Café St. Helena
On Nosegay Lane in Jamestown, it offers simple snacks during the day (pumpkin fritters about $.60, fishcake, rice, and vegetables about $4) and full evening meals ($17-$23).Check out the hand-made Scottish furniture.

Anne’s Place Castle Gardens
Offers a range of local specialties such as stuffed tuna, fishcakes, and curry. Entrees $7-$9.


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