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No man is an island

  • 15 May 2020
This time last year I was smuggling contraband into one of the world’s most inaccessible places of exile. 

It had taken me days to reach St Helena Island, a volcanic nugget lodged somewhere in the vast South Atlantic Ocean. I’d endured long flights from my home in Sydney, stopping along the way first in Perth, then Johannesburg and finally in Walvis Bay on Namibia’s arid coast, where we refuelled so that our Embraer aircraft would make it back to the African mainland should conditions on St Helena prove too unfavourable for landing.

I’d stared down nervously as we descended onto the island’s lofty runway — a strip of ribbon ending abruptly high above the sea. Built just four years ago, this runway spelled disaster for larger aircraft, since wind-shear was wont to throw them off their path.

From my window seat I could see those jagged cliffs coming into view, could feel the updraught trammelling the plane’s undercarriage. The pilot had warned us we might feel some turbulence as we came in to land; it’s not easy, arriving at this British Overseas Territory, a far-flung, mythical place known mostly as an end-of-the-world outpost where Napoleon was exiled and where he eventually died.

But turbulence was the least of my worries (and in any event, the landing was near-perfect). In the tiny, shiny new airport my suitcase was x-rayed and opened by a suspicious customs official. Inside, she discovered my illegal stash of Tim Tams, a gift for my host. I was charged a sugar tax of £3.25, issued with a receipt and sent on my merry way. This place of castaways and presumed privation wasn’t going hungry, it transpired; indeed, the sugar tax was introduced in May 2014 as part of a suite of measures to tackle the high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes on the island.

This surprising censure of an item that’s become far too readily available — lacing everyday items like cocaine, some would day — demonstrated that isolation doesn’t always preclude contamination (or benevolent influence, for that matter). Indeed, in Napoleon’s last place of residence, Longwood House — a charming house set in a flourishing garden on a hill in the island’s east — he would sip wine shipped in from the Cape almost 2,000km away. His coffee was farmed from bourbon Arabica coffee beans brought to the island from Yemen in 1732. The beans still flourish here in