[Today’s article comes to us from world traveler and quintessential “international man” Dr. Jack Wheeler.]
Jamestown, St. Helena, South Atlantic Ocean. If you have ever heard of this little 47 square mile island lost in a vast sea, 1,200 miles west of Africa and 1,800 miles east of Brazil, it’s because here is where the British exiled Napoleon after Waterloo, and here is where he died.
The 5.5 years of Napoleon’s exile – October 15, 1815 to his death on May 5, 1821 – dominate the island’s 500-year history. For the last 354 years, since 1659, it has been a British possession. Yet such is the grip of Napoleon that the Brits ceded the home and property of where he lived in exile on St. Helena – called Longwood House – to the government of France.
It is French territory, as is his original burial place nearby. Moreover, there is a Consul appointed by the French government, who lives in a diplomat’s mansion on the island.
Personally, I have no regard for a megalomaniac responsible for the deaths of millions of people. The Brits should have treated him as a war criminal, executed him by firing squad aboard a ship far out to sea, and dumped his body in the ocean.
But no. Instead the Brits treated this mass murderer, because he called himself “Emperor” and dressed himself in ermine robes, with the same honor and respect as if he were royalty. This has tainted St. Helena and its people ever since. You have to wonder though, after learning the island’s history, whether it has been tainted from the beginning.
This place is a paradise – or rather, it’s a place that always could have been but never was. The people of St. Helena like to call themselves “Saints.” In a number of odd and interesting ways, they are the saints who lost paradise. And it turns out those ways are very relevant and instructive for us today.
The folks who originally made it a paradise were the Portuguese. A captain named João da Nova returning from India was blown off course in 1502, and discovered an uninhabited island which he named St. Helena (the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine who converted him to Christianity) as it was her Saint’s Day (May 21).
He had meant to keep a course up Africa’s west coast, but realized the prevailing winds (the southeast trades) made it quicker and easier to sail via this island that was lush and verdant, with a perfect climate for growing anything, and that no one knew about. The Portuguese converted it into a replenishment station to resupply ships on the way back home from India, planting fruit trees (fig, lemon, orange, pomegranate), plus vegetables and herbs, and left pigs and goats to breed – all for food for ships’ crews.
They never colonized it nor built a settlement, and kept it a secret for 86 years. Then a British captain, Thomas Cavendish, found it in 1588, and soon British pirates used it to waylay Portuguese ships heavily laden with riches from the East. When the Dutch learned of St. Helena, they began fighting the Brits over it, and the Portuguese left in disgust that their peaceful paradise was spoiled.
Even though the Brits and Dutch fought over it, strangely enough neither settled there, until 1659 when the British East India Company landed the first people to ever live on St. Helena. The fruit trees were flourishing, plenty of pigs and goats to eat (not to mention swarms of fish in the sea), plenty of water, forests, fertile land – and somehow these folks, even with African slaves, managed to go hungry.
In 1672, the first of many mutinies and rebellions occurred, when the settlers seized the East India Company’s Governor of the island and shipped him back to England. Settlers and soldiers stationed by the Company mutinied and forcibly removed subsequent Governors in 1674, 1684, and 1693.
The Company insisted a large contingent of soldiers was necessary to guard the island, among whom drunkenness was a constant problem. Whenever there wasn’t enough booze (rum shipped from the Caribbean or an island-made tequila distilled from fermented prickly pear juice), they would threaten to mutiny. The biggest was the Christmas Mutiny of 1783, after which ten soldiers were hung.
All through this, the settlers and their slaves couldn’t manage to adequately feed and work for themselves. So in 1810, the Company imported hundreds of Chinese laborers. When Napoleon arrived in 1815, they built Longwood House and cultivated its gardens.
The British spent a fortune guarding Napoleon to prevent his escaping as he had previously at Elba (an island just off the west coast of Italy, easy to escape from). 2,000 more soldiers were stationed on the island, and Royal Navy ships constantly patrolled the coastline. Napoleon and his entourage dined with fine cuisine and wines every night. He had his personal library of 1,847 books, he dictated his memoirs, his entourage doted on him, he had a life of peace and leisure.
Yet he deteriorated rapidly. There are many contemporary drawings of him at Longwood, showing him getting fatter, older, and more depressed with each year. By 1820, he looked like an aged old man. When he died of stomach cancer the next year, he was 51 years old.
The Brits withdrew their guarding soldiers and patrolling ships, and the islanders slid back into their usual poverty. In 1832, the East India Company turned control of the island to the Crown. St. Helena became a British Crown Colony and slavery was abolished, with 2,200 African slaves (one third of the population) liberated. The Colony was instructed to become self-sufficient – which, after an almost unbroken string of failed attempts, it has proved unable to do so to this day.
From the 1840s through the 1870s, every attempt to establish the island as a whaling center failed. In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, so ships had no need to go around Africa (and stop at the island) to get to and from the Orient. More isolated than ever, the islanders turned to flax.
Seedlings were imported from New Zealand, and grew like weeds. Flax mills were built to convert flax into fiber for rope and twine. Flax, however, is a plantation plant harvested with mechanization. On the mountainous slopes of the island, it could only be harvested by hand. Excepting a few rare interludes over the next 90 years, the flax industry could only be supported by government subsidy, and collapsed immediately after the subsidy was finally withdrawn in 1966.
An attempt at establishing a lace-making industry failed in 1907, followed by the failure of a fish-canning factory in 1909. The islanders, it seems, just weren’t very good at catching fish. They never have been, accounting for the failure of another fish cannery in 1957.
Another thing Saints have never been any good at is growing food. Valleys once full of groves of fruit trees left by the Portuguese became dead and stony due to neglect. Land cleared for pasture was allowed to erode away. The islanders were as bad at farming and husbandry as they were at fishing. They’ve been like that since the 1660s and are now. Most fruit, such as lemons and oranges, are imported today.
It’s the same with most meat and vegetables, imported from South Africa. Tristan’s 262 people can feed themselves in a far harsher environment, but St. Helena, with some 3,000 people and thousands of acres of far more fertile land, cannot.
What could account for centuries of incompetence and failure on this lush, beautiful island? What happened last week, before we got here, might help explain. A large cruise ship arrived, enroute to Cape Town, carrying 900 passengers. Not one of them was able to step ashore.
Jamestown, the only place to make a landing, has no harbor – not even an itsy-bitsy one like Tristan with an itsy-bitsy breakwater. The Jamestown Wharf has no dock, no breakwater, nothing’s enclosed, the swell just slams into these concrete steps straight on. Last week, the swell was so large that it wasn’t safe for the ship’s tenders to offload passengers – so the ship finally sailed away, with 900 very angry and frustrated people aboard.
Tristan can’t expand its micro-harbor as the water’s so deep. But Jamestown’s anchorage is shallow, making it far easier to construct a safe harbor – yet the Saints never bothered. Last week, they just shrugged their shoulders at the loss of business from 900 customers.
I’m on a small expedition ship. There’s only 54 of us, and we use Zodiac inflatables to make landings. The swell is down a bit this week, so we all got ashore. We found most stores closed. It’s a Saint tradition that everything shuts down on Wednesday afternoons – and it just doesn’t matter if there are visitors in town willing to spend money.
So I went off to climb Jacob’s Ladder. Jamestown is in a narrow valley open to the sea, two blocks wide and a mile long. In 1829, the Brits built what is still the world’s longest continuous stairway, 699 10-inch steps, at a gradient of 39° to 44°, to a fort at the top of the hill above the town. Going up Jacob’s Ladder wasn’t so bad – it was coming down fast that blew out my quadriceps.
So I retired to the locals’ main watering hole, the bar at the Consulate Hotel, for a cold beer. There, old-timer Saints like Trevor and Geoff were happy to tell me how St. Helena was Paradise Lost.
“I’d say the Saints’ problem has always been lack of enterprise,” Trevor let me know. “You say you’ve been to Tristan, right? They really know how to fish there, how to work hard, how to raise their sheep and grow potatoes. Here, folks don’t know and don’t want to know, they don’t care. They’d rather be poor and hungry than work hard. Been that way for centuries, why everything here always fails.”
Geoff stepped in. “That may all be true – the government is always complaining about the Saints’ ‘lack of motivated labor,’ as they put it. But the government has always been the problem here, all the rules and very little private property, first of the Company and then the Crown ever since. All these ‘civil servants’ sent from London to run our lives – we call them ‘inky fingers.’ Their fingers used to be stained from handling the carbon copies of their forms in triplicate.”
Geoff asked, “Are people in America leaving or staying? It won’t be as bad as here until lots of people leave and won’t stay. Then it keeps getting bad. For three centuries here, people with gumption left the island to work elsewheres like South Africa or England. Those with no gumption stayed. You say you’ve been to the Falklands – bet you met a lot of Saints working hard there, right?”
I nodded. I thought of Carl, who managed the Malvina House Hotel in Stanley so well, and other smart, capable Saints I knew there.
A fellow named Bob joined us. With a smile, he said, “Well, you might use these two as examples. Both are from old Saint families, born and raised on the island, then Geoff here joined the British Merchant Marine and sailed the world, while Trevor went to the UK and became a London cabbie. Do you know how smart you have to be with an encyclopedia in your head to be one of them?”
I certainly did and said so. Trevor acknowledged the compliment. “Yes, for 37 years I was, and now we’re retired – Bob here was with the RAF (British Royal Air Force) – so we’ve come back home to live, where our pensions can easily carry us. Look around town, you’ll see many of us, and youngsters, but fewer of working age. They’ve left, and the remits (remittances) they send back to their families are what keep this economy afloat.”
Bob added, “That and all the government paychecks everyone gets, for unemployment or a make-work government job.”
I asked them, with almost no crime at all on the island, why did I see uniformed police walking in ones and twos all over town?
“More make-work with government money,” came the answer. “Most of them are nice, but it’s still more government control, and more rules to enforce that are made up by the inky fingers.”
Government control really is the universal social poison. Combine it with a flawed culture, and you get failure every time. The Saints were given a paradise, but they were never given freedom, not by the East India Company nor the British Crown. They never developed a work ethic, a determination to thrive, as did the people of Tristan. Those that did have it expressed it by leaving.
The future of St. Helena may not be good, at least for the Saints. An international airport is being built on the island, by a South African company at British government expense. A “tourist boom” is expected, but just how and for whom is not clear. St. Helena is a beautiful place, but there are no beaches, there’s little wildlife, its history can be experienced in a morning’s tour of Longwood House and an afternoon walk in Jamestown.
The airport should be completed by 2016 and the island is utterly unready. Not a single airline has committed to flying here. There’s no tourist infrastructure nor people trained in the tourist industry, and given the Saints’ work ethic, it’s unlikely there will be. Which means there’s going to be a huge influx of foreign labor to build the hotels and staff them and various tourist services. If the tourists come, on airlines willing to bring them.
The whole thing may be the biggest St. Helena Failure of all. It may succeed, but those succeeding will be the foreign workers, managers, and business owners. Most Saints will remain on government paychecks, while Trevor, Geoff, and Bob will be at the Consulate Bar gently laughing about it all over a cold beer.
The first Americans – settlers from England in the 1600s like the Saints – were given a paradise. And they were given their freedom. They put them together to develop a determination to thrive like no other people on earth. Yet freedom-destroying government control and subsidies can sap that determination out of any culture, and can cause the loss of any paradise.
Ronald Reagan called America “the last, best hope of mankind.” The loss of a paradise on a volcanic speck in the South Atlantic Ocean means nothing, save to the tiny number of people who live there. The loss of the American Paradise of Freedom and Prosperity would be an incalculable loss for all of humanity.
We haven’t lost it yet, but we’re losing more of it day by day, inch by inch. We’re losing what the Saints never had, a culture of freedom, self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, the determination to thrive, a culture not controlled by inky fingers.
The Saints never had this, so it’s hard for them to acquire it. But we did have it, and we still have enough of a residue to get it back. We’re not Saints, we’re Americans. It’s time to shake off control of Zero’s inky fingers.
[Editor’s Note: Once called “Indiana Jones of the Right” by The Washington Post, Dr. Jack Wheeler is the founder of To The Point, a website that serves as “The Oasis for Rational Conservatives”. Learn more at www.tothepointnews.com.]