I have been desperate to go to the little island of St Helena since I first spotted it on a map of the world as a little kid. A tiny crumb of land, set by itself in a vast empty expanse of the South Atlantic.
It is famous today as the place selected by the British government to send the French Emperor Napoleon, a man so dangerous that his presence in Europe could destabilise the existing order, enthuse armies of Frenchmen with a revolutionary zeal and make king’s, bishops, dukes and princes shift nervously on their throne. They found the one place on earth where they could guarantee that they could keep him caged.
But St Helena has a much wider history which I was thrilled to learn about on a recent visit. In early 2020 I headed out there and fell in love with the landscape, the people and the story of this fragment of empire. I came up with a list of some of the highlights.
1. Longwood House
Napoleon’s last empire. Remote, even by St Helena’s standards, on the eastern tip of the island is the house where Napoleon was sent by the British government following his eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The victorious allies were not going to allow him to escape from exile again, as he had from Elba – off the coast of Italy – in early 1815. This time he would essentially be a prisoner. On one of the world’s most isolated landmasses. St Helena is 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa, 2,000 from Brazil. The nearest speck of land in Ascencion, around 800 miles away, and even that would have a sizeable garrison on it to guard the world’s most dangerous inmate.
At Longwood House Napoleon would spend the last few years of his life. Obsessed with his writing, his legacy, assigning blame for his failures, and the court politics of his little, isolated clique.
Today the house has been restored and visitors get a powerful sense of how one of history’s most remarkable men spent his days, dreaming of a return to the main stage. But it was not to be. He died in the house 200 years ago on 5 May 2021.
2. Jacob’s Ladder
Today St Helena feels remote. In the early 19th Century, before aircraft or the Suez Canal it was central to the global economy. St Helena sat astride the greatest trade route in the world, the one that connected Asia with Europe, Canada and the USA.
It comes as no surprise therefore that cutting edge technology was employed on the island earlier than in many other parts of the world that you might assume were more technologically advanced. The best example of this is the nearly 1,000 foot long railway that was built in 1829 to carry cargo from the main settlement Jamestown, up to the fort, perched high above.
The gradient it climbed was as steep as any that you will find in an alpine resort. Wagons were pulled up by an iron chain wrapped around a capstan at the top turned by three donkeys.
Today the wagons and rails are gone, but 699 steps remain. It is the challenge taken by every inhabitant and tourist, including me. The record is apparently just over five minutes. I simply don’t believe it.
3. Plantation House
The Governor of St Helena lives in a beautiful house, high on the hills above Jamestown. It’s cooler and greener and the house hums with history. Pictures of celebrated or infamous visitors clutter the walls, and the whole thing feels like a strange reminder of a time when a quarter of the earth’s surface was governed by representatives of the British government in distant Whitehall.
In the grounds there is a very exciting resident, Jonathan – a giant Seychelles tortoise. He might be the oldest tortoise in the world, scientists think he was born no later than 1832. He is at least 189 years old!
4. Napoleon’s Tomb
Napoleon was buried in a beautiful spot on St Helena when he died 200 years ago. But even his corpse had power. The British government agreed to a request from the French in 1840 that he be returned to France. The tomb was opened up, the corpse exhumed and with great ceremony transported back to France where he was given a state funeral.
The site of the grave now is one of the most peaceful glades on the island, a must see, even though the grave at its heart lies completely empty!
5. Rupert’s Valley
In a barren, treeless valley to the east of Jamestown a long line of white pebbles mark out a mass grave. It’s a forgotten and recently rediscovered part of Saint Helena’s history and it’s truly remarkable.
During a construction project a few years ago human remains were found. Archaeologists were called in and a huge pit of 19th century skeletons was uncovered.
This was the final resting place of hundreds of Africans, liberated from slave ships by the Royal Navy but not taken back to Africa. Brought here to St Helena where the British ships were refitted and revictualled. The Africans were sent to, essentially, a camp where they did their best to make a living.
Conditions were dire. Some bowed to necessity and travelled to the New World to work on the plantations, others settled on the island. We have no evidence of any making their way home to West Africa.
Some of the burials had objects laid to rest with the corpses, these can be seen in the museum in town. Bead necklaces and headdresses, all of which would have been smuggled aboard the slave ships and protected from the crews.
It is a hugely moving spot, and the only archaeological evidence we have for the so-called Middle Passage, the journey millions of enslaved people took between Africa and the Americas.
St Helena was a valuable imperial possession. Taken from the Portuguese by the English, briefly snatched by the Dutch. When Napoleon was sent there the fortifications were upgraded to prevent a rescue.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century the British kept spending money to keep this useful island safe from imperial rivals. The result is some magnificent fortifications.
Towering over Jamestown is the squat, brutal silhouette of High Knoll Fort. It covers a huge area and instead of acting as a final redoubt in the event of an invasion that never came, it has housed Boer Prisoners of War, quarantining livestock and a NASA team monitoring space activity.
The capital of St Helena is like a Cornish seaside village jammed into a cavernous ravine in the tropics. By the end of the week you know everyone well enough to wave hello, and the mix of Georgian, 19th Century and more modern buildings becomes pleasingly familiar.
You walk past the house in which Sir Arthur Wellesley stayed on his way back from India, part way through a career that would take him to the field of Waterloo. It is the same house in which Napoleon, years later, after his defeat at Waterloo would stay the night he landed on the island.
The museum in Jamestown is a beauty. Lovingly curated it tells the story of this island, from its discovery by the Portuguese only 500 years ago to the modern day.
It’s a dramatic tale of war, migration, environmental collapse and rebuilding. You need to start here and it will give you the context you need to check out the rest of the island.
9. The Landscape
The natural landscape is stupendous on Saint Helena, and it is history because every part of the island has been transformed since humans came here and brought invasive species in their wake. It was once dripping down to the waterline in greenery but now all the lower slopes are bald, grazed by rabbits and goats brought by sailors until the topsoil fell into the sea. A lush tropical island now looks barren. Apart from the middle…
10. Diana’s Peak
The very highest peak is still a world unto itself. Bursting with flora and fauna, much of it unique to this island. A hike to the very top is essential, as is a few ridge walks along narrow tracks with sheer drops on all sides. Terrifying but worth it for the views.