Life on the Isolated British Outpost of St Helena

Between worrying about Brexit and eating curry once a week, Saint Helenians could hardly be more British.

The main difference for the island, which forms part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, is that it is set in isolation in the Atlantic Ocean, 8,000km away from the UK.

Since the opening of its first airport in 2017 the remote island has been reinventing itself as a tourism hotspot, making the most of its ties to Napoleon as well as its rich marine environment.

St Helena’s director of tourism Helena Bennett said: “Before the airport opened we only had a ship that would call once every three weeks.

“Since the airport has opened, we’ve even been getting Chinese visitors.”

Tourism numbers had been relatively low prior to the airport’s opening comprising almost exclusively of over 60s’ cruises.

The airport now means it takes far less time to reach the island attracting a younger, more adventurous demographic lured by its rich diving environment and whale sharks.

A single tour operator had 46 people on diving packages in January and February, a very healthy number for the island. Ventures like this are invigorating the local economy.

Saints, as they refer to themselves, are hoping that political turmoil in the mother country won’t derail this increasingly positive outlook.

Ms Bennet,40, said: “Everybody here is aware of Brexit, we’re conscious of it and we’re all holding our breath to see what Brexit will mean for us. We are a bit worried.”

Funding from the EU has been essential for innovation and green energy projects throughout the island and for the scientific research which brings in foreign workers and their spending money.

A conference on the impact of Brexit on British Overseas Territories, which have a combined population of around 250,000 was held in Tahiti in March. However, much like mainland Brits, Saints are waiting to see what Brexit will really mean for them.

Despite its geographic isolation, the local population have a diverse heritage stemming from all corners of the world.

First discovered in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the island was settled a century later by the English East India Company (EIC).

The EIC encouraged immigration from Britain, imported African slaves and used indentured labourers from India and East Asia.

As a result, Saints today can trace their heritage to India, Malaysia, Madagascar, Ireland, Scotland, England, and America.

“We don’t have no rules when it comes to racial mix,” added Ms Bennett.

This is reflected within their cuisine which typically includes curry, pilaf rice and the traditional British Sunday roast.

Ties to Britain are exemplified by use of the English language, albeit with a unique accent, use of the (St Helenian) Pound, and a reverence for the Queen.

“We are British, but you don’t really notice it until something goes on in the UK like the Queen’s Jubilee. Then you’ll find we all break out into having a party here,” added Ms Bennett.

St Helena however remains best known for the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte and his death on the island.

Napoleon was sent to St Helena in 1815 after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Having escaped from exile on Elba, the Allied powers were keen to send the emperor to as remote a location as possible.

Initially he stayed with the Balcombe family at Briar’s Pavilion, however he soon took up residence at Longwood House, under supervision of a specifically designated garrison of British soldiers. He died on St Helena in 1821.

The islands are preparing for international attention in 2021, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death.

Some have found St Helena’s capitalisation on Napoleon’s name as controversial, owing to his ostensible cause of multiple conflicts in Europe.

Ms Bennett commented: “They don’t like the idea that we should be celebrating Napoleon, but it is not celebrating, it is marking a significant point of time in our history.”

Celebration of the island’s history does not stop Saints from looking forward.

“In France, you’ve got everybody who knows of St Helena because of Napoleon, but when we were at the travel show there last year, they said ‘okay Napoleon was there, but what else can you do?’” added Ms Bennett.

If its tourism industry continues to grow at the rate and along the path that locals intend it to, there may soon come a day that St Helena is as synonymous with adventure holidays as it is with Napoleon Bonaparte.

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