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St Helena: the island on the edge of the world

One of the most isolated islands in the world, 1,200 miles (1,931 km) from the nearest major landmass, Angola, and 1,800 miles (2,897 km) from Brazil

"I always took full advantage of the Captain’s cocktail party"

By Peter Holthusen


One evening in 1984, there had appeared on the news a report about a visit by HRH Prince Andrew to the remote South Atlantic dependency of St Helena. With the usual perversity of the times the story centred not on the island or its people, or even particularly on its distinguished Royal visitor, but on the misfortune of the Governor, Sir John Massingham, who, while leaping ashore from his launch, misjudged his timing on a wet and slippery quay.


All this would hardly have mattered had not His Excellency been so resplendent in a white uniform, and, thus attired, arrived spreadeagled, expeditiously and unceremoniously before the assembled gathering of island dignitaries. It was of course, an incident beloved of the media and brought St Helena briefly, if inappropriately, to the world’s attention. Never at a loss for hyperbole, the commentators of the day hailed it as the most significant event in the island’s history since Napoleon had been exiled there early in the 19th century.

In a quiet way, I suppose I shall remain eternally grateful to Sir John Massingham for his involuntary step into history. In the film report there had appeared a fleeting glimpse of Jamestown, the tiny capital of St Helena, with its steep main street flanked by quintessentially Georgian houses, running down to the old fort and harbour. It made an alluring scene, this precipitous, green island set in the tropical South Atlantic, 1,200 miles from the coast of Africa. This news report rekindled a lifelong ambition to visit the island that was recently my good fortune to fulfil.

St Helena lies 15˚56’ south and 5˚45’ west, and is one of the most isolated islands in the world. It is 1,200 miles (1,931 km) from the nearest major landmass, Angola, and 1,800 miles (2,897 km) from Brazil. At 47 square miles (122 km), it is also one of the smallest permanently inhabited islands in the world, with a population of only 4,255. The island is of volcanic origin and is little more than 10.5 miles (16.8 km) in length and 6.5 miles (10.5km) wide, consisting of steep, sub-tropical , rocky terrain.

The interior of the island is covered by forest, of which some has been replanted, including the beautiful Millennium Forest, a project which began in 2000 to replant tracts of the lost ‘Great Wood’, and is now managed by the Saint Helena National Trust. The highland areas contain most of the island’s endemic flora, fauna, insects and birds, including the national bird of St Helena, the endangered St Helena Plover, known locally as the Wirebird.

The only scheduled transport service to the island is on the ‘RMS St Helena’ – a spectacular 6 day voyage from Cape Town which in itself is an experience to behold. She is now the only ocean-going vessel in the world to still carry the venerable title “Royal Mail Ship”, held in the past by so many famous British passenger liners including the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary.

In addition to carrying up to 130 passengers in comfortable, well-appointed cabins, she is a lifeline for the residents of St Helena as she carries all their goods and supplies. From wind turbines to automotive components; sheep, goats, and Christmas turkeys to furniture, food and paint, everything has to be carried by sea to the island. When you sail on the ‘RMS St Helena’, you are following in the wake of the generations of travellers and explorers who crossed the world’s oceans in the days of discovery long before air travel.

The ‘RMS St Helena’ was built in 1989 by the last of the great Aberdeen shipbuilders, Hall, Russell & Co. Ltd for the specific purpose of supplying the island of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory deep in the South Atlantic. She is British registered, 6,767 gross tonnes and has berths for a maximum of 128 passengers plus 56 officers and crew. She has all the most modern facilities: stabilisers, air-conditioning and for those who worry about being too detached from their normal humdrum existence, fax, telephone and email by satellite communication systems, which is always reassuring when one is on an overseas assignment in these latitudes.

Embarkation usually takes place between 12h00 and 13h00, so after a hearty breakfast on the waterfront terrace of the Cape Grace, I was summoned to the lobby where the hotel’s chauffeur-driven car was waiting to transport me to E berth in Cape Town harbour. As we passed The Mission to Seafarers building in Duncan Road, there was an air excitement in the car, for ahead we could already see the gleaming yellow funnel of the ‘RMS St Helena’, the ship that would be my home for the next 6 days.

Sailing day is always busy onboard and today was no exception. Final stores had to be loaded, baggage brought onboard, Safety Muster to take place, sludge to be discharged, GPO and diplomatic mail to be loaded, and of course the crew taking passengers to their accommodation. So it was with some relief that, within an hour of boarding we cast off our last line and headed out of Cape Town harbour with three long blasts from the ship’s whistle.

As we head northwest toward St Helena in moderate seas and making good speed, I took time to reflect on the past 24 hours in Cape Town and the anticipation of reaching our final destination.

Compared with today’s giant cruise liners the ‘RMS St Helena’ is a small ship. There are no theatres, no casinos, no golf ranges, wave machines or ghastly climbing walls. The emphasis is on relaxation and adventure. Nothing was too much trouble for Captain Rodney Young and his officers and staff who were always on call to ensure we had the best possible voyage and experience.

There are of course, all the traditional oceangoing pastimes of beef tea, the sun deck and swimming pool, traditional deck games, and the occasional cricket match, but I would spend the majority of my time in the well-stocked library, the dining saloon, or patrolling the deck in search of a solitary Wandering albatross that I observed circling the ship shortly after we reached its ocean realm. They are extraordinary, almost mythical creatures, with their enormous wingspan, great longevity and remarkable powers of ocean navigation and travel, almost transcending the very concept of what it means to be a bird.

Naturally, I always took full advantage of the Captain’s cocktail party, one of the delights of shipboard life and rarely missed Afternoon tea or the six-course dinner served in the attractively appointed dining saloon, but the vision of St Helena looming on the horizon on the morning of our sixth day at sea was unquestionably, the highlight of my voyage.

Uninhabited at the time of its discovery in 1502 by the Galician explorer João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, the island was named “Santa Helena” after the Empress Helena of Constantinople, who is traditionally credited with finding the relics of the True Cross, with which she is invariably represented in Christian iconography.

The Portuguese found the island had an abundance of trees and fresh water. They soon imported livestock, fruit trees and vegetables, and built a chapel and one or two houses. Though they formed no permanent settlement, the island was an important rendezvous point and source of food for ships travelling from Asia to Europe.

Sir Francis Drake probably located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580). Further visits by other English explorers followed, and, once Santa Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home.

The Dutch also began to frequent the island and formally made claim to Santa Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonized or fortified the place. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favour of their colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1657, Oliver Cromwell granted the East India Company a charter to govern Santa Helena and the following year the company decided to fortify the island and colonize it with planters. The first Governor, Captain John Dutton, arrived in 1659, and from that date ‘Saint Helena’ was Britain’s second oldest colony (after Bermuda). A fort and houses were built, and after the ‘Restoration’ of the English monarchy in 1660, the East India Company received a Royal Charter giving it the sole right to fortify and colonize the island. The fort was renamed James Fort and the tiny settlement Jamestown, in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England.

Among the first settlers had been some of those who had lost everything in the Great Fire of London in 1666, who were soon joined by indented labour from India and South Africa. The company held the island under Royal Charter until 1833, when, under the provisions of the Government of India Act, control of St Helena was passed from the East India Company to the British Crown.

This isolated outpost in the middle of the South Atlantic would have probably remained as anonymous as it is distant from any mainland were it not for its most celebrated resident captive. In 1815 the British Government selected St Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte.

He was brought to the island in October 1815 and in his first two months there, lived in a pavilion on the Briars estate, which belonged to a William Balcombe. Napoleon became friendly with his family, especially his younger daughter Lucia Elizabeth who later wrote “Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon”. This friendship ended in 1818 when the British authorities became suspicious that Balcombe had acted as an intermediary between Napoleon and Paris and dismissed him from the island.

Napoleon moved to Longwood House in December 1815, where he spent the last six years of his life writing his memoirs in relative confinement before he died of stomach cancer on 5 May 1821. He was initially buried on St Helena in the peaceful Sane Valley, but in 1840, Louis Philippe I obtained permission from the British to exhume Napoleon’s body and return his remains to France, where they were entombed in a porphyry sarcophagus in the crypt under the dome at Les Invalides in Paris.

However, his original tomb can still be seen on St Helena and Longwood House, with its ocean views and veranda of filigree balustrades is now arguably the finest Napoleonic museum in the world.

In 1890 the British also used the island as a place of exile for Chief Dinizulu, the son of Cetewayo, King of the Zulu Kingdom and their leader during the Anglo-Zulu War (1879), and from 1900 to 1902, more than 5,000 Boer prisoners of war were camped on Deadwood Plain and Broad Bottom.

Napoleon’s Tomb and Longwood House are just a few of the attractions well worth a visit during your stay and are among a group of sites widely promoted as the ‘7 Wonders of St Helena’. The remainder are Diana’s Peak, the highest point on St Helena at 823m above sea level, which was proclaimed a National Park in 1996, the spectacular cascades of the Heart-Shaped Waterfall, named for the falls that cascade through the centre of a heart-shaped cliff face, High Knoll Fort, which was built in 1894 as a redoubt for the islanders in the event of an invasion, St James’ Church, a prominent feature in Jamestown which boasts a fascinating history and is reputed to be the oldest surviving Anglican Church in the Southern Hemisphere, which dates from 1774, and of course, the famous steps of Jacob’s Ladder.

The capital Jamestown, lies cradled at the bottom of a steep sided valley and has the atmosphere of a small English country village. It has a tightly packed row of colourfully-painted houses on both sides of Grand Parade and Main Street. The view of the island’s capital and James Bay from the top of Jacob’s Ladder are simply breathtaking.

Built in 1829 it was originally an ‘inclined plane’, with tracks on either side of the steps which were used to haul manure up from the town and send goods down. The ladder is an iconic landmark in Jamestown with its 699 steps, stretching 600ft high. Located at the foot of the ladder you will find the Museum of St Helena, which has an impressive collection of artefacts, portraying the island’s geological origins, history, culture, unique flora and fauna and its people.

St Helena is also reputed to be home to the world’s oldest living animal. At 180 years-old, Jonathan the giant tortoise was brought to the island from the Seychelles in 1882, along with three other tortoises. He was named in the 1930’s by Governor Sir Spencer Davis. He continues to live in the grounds of the official residence of the Governor, at Plantation House, and is very popular with the tourists.

A full island tour which usually lasts about 4-5 hours is a great way to view the entire island; and see the varying contrasts in geology, flora and fauna, architecture and historical attractions. All of the tours are very well planned and can be booked through your hotel or the Tourist Office in Jamestown. One can easily explore St Helena by walking, hiring a car, using a taxi or public bus.

However, the very isolation of the island that so often appeals to the discerning traveller is soon set to change forever. In 2011, the British government announced it would be investing £200m in the development of an airport on the island, which they claim would benefit our economy in the long term, as the £26m annual aid they give St Helena would no longer be required.

On 11th April 2016, St Helena Line announced that it is to withdraw the ‘RMS St Helena’ from service in July 2016 and has appointed London shipbroker C.W. Kellock & Co. Ltd to handle her sale. Her withdrawal is set to follow shortly after the opening of the new airport on St Helena, due to officially open on 21st May 2016, before making a farewell voyage north to the UK where she will visit the Port of London and be moored alongside ‘HMS Belfast’ off Tower Pier from 7th to 10th June 2016.

It is expected the airport will be up and running by the late summer, with direct flights to and from South Africa with Comair – the long-established South African airline which is partly owned and operated by British Airways. Initial flights to the island will be weekly departing on a Saturday from Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport at 08.20 and landing on St Helena at 11.30, with return flights departing at 12.30 and scheduled to land back in Johannesburg at 18.30. These flights will connect in Johannesburg with British Airways’ services to and from London Heathrow, as well as other carriers.

Lawrence Durrell once wrote: “Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication”. If like me, you share a lifelong ambition to visit some distant island such as St Helena before they change forever, you’ll be well rewarded for charting a course to her shores.


St Helena Tourism


RMS St Helena

A 22-day package to St Helena costs from £2,521 per person. The Explorer Tour package includes two nights’ accommodation in Cape Town (pre and post voyage), passage to the island onboard the RMS St Helena in a T2H Cabin on A Deck and eight nights in St Helena. International flights to Cape Town are not included.



There is plenty of accommodation on St Helena to suit your style and budget. The majority of the larger hotels are based in Jamestown, but there are some splendid guest houses in the countryside offering a variety of bed & breakfast and self-catering packages.


The climate of St Helena is mild year-round and there are no drastic weather patterns. The hottest months, and the best time to visit, are between January and March.


- Peter Holthusen


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