No man is an island

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

St Helena Island (Photo by Catherine Marshall)

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 the highland plantations; they sell in Harrods of London for around AU$700 a kilo.

 

'Everything seems to have made its way to St Helena — apart from, apparently, the very thing crippling the world that crowds those far, almost unreachable horizons: COVID-19.'

 

The island loses its sense of loneliness and desertion when you’re upon it, looking outwards. For remote as it is, St Helena has absorbed much of the wider world’s influence over the centuries, sitting as it does at the crossroads of erstwhile trade routes: products brought here by the East India Company and latterly the Royal Mail Ship, the only recent means of reaching the island before the airport was built; slaves rescued by British garrisons as they were being shipped illegally to the Americas after the abolition of slavery; thousands of Boer POWs from South Africa’s Anglo-Boer War, who set up camp in which to see out their internment; German-made Holstein spirit distilling equipment, used today to distil liquor made from local prickly pears in the world’s most remote distillery; the New Zealand flax that cloaks the mountainsides like some unstoppable plague; and language and accent — gathered in dribs and drabs from everyone who has passed by and everyone who has stayed — and wrought into a delightful brogue unlike anything I’ve heard anywhere else in the world.

Everything seems to have made its way to St Helena — apart from, apparently, the very thing crippling the world that crowds those far, almost unreachable horizons: COVID-19. While the local government keeps a watchful eye on its 4,500 inhabitants, it’s yet to report a single infection. Where sugar has evaded detection (excepting my Tim Tams), COVID-19 has so far been deflected. 

Such a clean bill of health can be sullied in the blink of an eye, of course; if coronavirus were to find its way onto St Helena Island, self-isolation would feel like a bitter irony for those already dealing with such geographical fate. But for now, as the locals enjoy good health (sugar-induced malaise notwithstanding), their seclusion has become their greatest advantage. In times of contagion, it seems, a place of exile can be transformed into a one of blessings and longevity.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: St Helena Island (Photo by Catherine Marshall)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, COVID-19, St Helen Island, travel, isolation, remote

 

 

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Existing comments

Hi Katherine what a delightful piece on Saint Helen Island and I don’t know well from our history lessons of modern European history at Cbc East St Kilda in the 1950s Having having read your piece I’ve decided at aged 87 to put a visit there on my bucket list with Mally my beloved. I enjoy your writing and look forward to your autobiography or maybe have already completed it best of best wishes Mike Parer
Michael Parer | 15 May 2020


I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your article, Catherine - humour is just the therapy we need in the time of COVID-19! Was intrigued to discover what you would make of Donne’s meditation, and not disappointed (quite the contrary) from first word to last. Thanks again, Catherine. PS: Retirement at St Helena, dining on caviar and sipping champagne in a villa with harbour views, doesn’t sound too bad a way to pass your last days - no wonder its most famous resident never tried a second prison escape!
Lorella D'Cruz | 15 May 2020


One more proof that 'No man is an island. But everyone has to be a little continent.'
Michael D. Breen | 15 May 2020


Thank you for a delightful article on an island I had o ly associated with its most famous isolate! Now I need to do some research. Like M. Parer I (84) did not Karnataka about this outpost of empire. Some research us equiped.
Margaret Lamb | 15 May 2020


I wish I could write like that. A multifaceted 'polished jewel' of a piece!
Michael FURTADO | 17 May 2020


I visited St. Helena in November of 2019 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I don’t know if a second trip could top the first; but I’d like to try [if and] when planes are flying in from England.
Vince Ciricola | 18 May 2020


It must help with a local’s good night’s sleep to know that every morning s/he awakens to full belonging to and right of abode in the United Kingdom, a feeling shared alike but to different free jurisdictions by risers in Guam and the Cocos Keeling islands. One man’s colonial poison might be another’s meat. And we do know that St Paul was proud to be a Roman citizen.
roy chen yee | 18 May 2020


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