Former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon returns to St Helena, one of Britain’s costly overseas territories and the second most remote populated island on the planet
For the first time since its discovery more than 400 years ago, visitors can now fly to St Helena, Britain’s most remote overseas territory and the island where Napoleon spent his last six years in exile until his death.
A new airport has been built, costing almost $400 million, for the 4,500 people living on the tiny volcanic island in the south Atlantic. It was possible only by cutting the top off a mountain and filling in a gully with eight million cubic metres of rock. But although one of the most expensive airports the world, it has been unusable for the past two years, because turbulence and wind shear meant that landing planes on the long flight from Africa – 1,700 kilometres away – would have been too dangerous.
The result has been a huge row over what has been called “the most useless airport in the world.” It has also drawn attention to how much Britain has had to spend to support the remnants of empire – its 14 tiny overseas territories, most of them islands and small patches of land that were once strategic staging posts for the Royal Navy but are now too small to be viable as independent states. Recently, Britain paid out huge sums for two small islands in the Caribbean – Anguilla and British Virgin Islands – that have been devastated by two hurricanes.
In October, however, after months of delay, the first plane touched down on St Helena. Experts and scientists found a way of measuring the wind speed accurately and are using smaller planes that are not so affected by dangerous wind turbulence. And St Helena, the second most remote populated island on the planet, has suddenly found itself in the headlines again, as it launches a campaign to attract tourists from around the world to the rugged speck of rock where Britain sent Napoleon in 1815 after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
The exiled emperor spent six years there, after being put aboard a British warship when he surrendered to British forces. He took with him a big entourage of French generals, aides, servants and assistants, and was housed in a modest farmhouse, swiftly enlarged to accommodate his companions. But it was not a happy time. He quarrelled bitterly with the British governor, who was ordered by London to treat the fallen emperor harshly. Surrounded by some 2,000 British soldiers sent to guard him, he spent his days dictating his memoirs, cultivating the garden around Longwood House and sitting in a tin bath regularly filled by servants with hot water to relieve terrible stomach pains caused by his stomach cancer – the disease that finally killed him in 1821.
Napoleon was buried on St Helena in a modest grave. But in 1840 France was allowed to send a big military delegation to unearth his body and take it back to Paris for reburial in Les Invalides. In 1858 Napoleon III purchased Longwood House and also the site of the grave, both of which are now French territory and are the responsibility of a French consul on the small island.
For most people, Napoleon is the only reason they have heard of St Helena. But the island, isolated from Africa for millions of years, also contains one of the biggest variety of unique and endangered plants, birds and insects in the world. It was visited by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, and today contains 30 per cent of the biodiversity in Britain and all its small overseas territories. A big effort is being made to replant unique trees and plants that were ravaged by wild goats after the Portuguese first discovered the island in 1502 on the feast of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.
Britain occupied the island in 1658, making it the second oldest British colony after Bermuda. For years it was a vital staging post for sailing ships returning from India, at a time when the Dutch still occupied South Africa. Two centuries ago a thousand ships – three a day – would call in at the island to change crews and take on vital water and fresh fruit. But since the advent of steam vessels and the opening of the Suez canal it has become more and more inaccessible. In the past 40 years, it has been regularly visited by only one government-funded supply ship, which shuttled between St Helena and Cape Town every 10 days and brought in all visitors as well as everything needed to sustain life on the island.
It was not only Napoleon who was exiled on this remote territory. During the Boer war, when Britain fought against insurgent Dutch settlers in South Africa from 1899-1902, more than 9,000 Boer prisoners of war were sent to St Helena. Many died, and there are more than 100 Boer graves in a large cemetery on the island. In later years, Britain also sent an exiled Zulu chieftan and three Bahraini insurgents as recently as the 1960s into exile there.
The fiasco over the huge cost of the airport, however, has once again put St Helena in the spotlight. The issue is whether former empires such as France, Britain and Portugal can indefinitely support small territories not viable as independent states. Paris has decided to make these territories part of metropolitan France, so that even the most populous, such as Reunion, with a population of around 885,000, are entitled to French social benefits and substantial European Union regional grants. The total population of all Britain’s overseas territories amounts to only around 250,000, however, and they all have local self-government. Since they do not send parliamentarians to London, they are not regarded as part of Britain and receive smaller grants from Brussels. But even these will cease as soon as Britain leaves the EU.
Britain’s overseas territories control a huge sea area – with rich fishing around some territories, especially the Falklands and the creation of marine protection zones. The territories also comprise 90 per cent of all the biodiversity on land controlled by Britain. But they cost London a lot. Responsible for their defence and foreign relations, Britain maintains a large and expensive base in the Falklands to stop Argentina enforcing its territorial claim by military means. And when natural disasters occur, such as the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, Britain has had to spend millions of dollars to repair the damage on Anguila and the British Virgin Islands. A volcano that erupted on Montserrat, also a Caribbean Island, and buried two thirds of the island under ash in 2010, has cost London so far an estimated $500 million.
British officials now hope that with a new airport St Helena, the poorest of all the territories with an average annual income of only $10,000, will be able to earn income from tourism. There is hardly any other industry or employment on the remote island. But will tourists ruin the charm of a country where time has seemed to stand still since Napoleon’s death? And will St Helena, where mobile telephones arrived only two years ago, now be able to sustain itself as Britain starts slowly to cut back its enormous annual budget subsidy at a time when London is facing a huge economic challenge with Brexit? The Saints, as the islanders are known, are still hoping that they will remain blessed.