Dot in ocean faces its future


St. Helena: The occupants of the Atlantic island consider whether the profit from an airport and resort are worth the possible loss of their special character.

August 06, 2002|By Judy van der Walt | Judy van der Walt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ST. HELENA - For centuries this strategic toehold of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean had a front-row seat in the theater of world power. Long ago, when vast swathes of the world were unexplored, St. Helena Island was one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate in the battle for control of the planet.

The island - west from southern Africa - was an important way station almost halfway between Africa and South America. It was a vital cog in the slave trade and a fortified castle in the sea that helped the British empire rise to dominance.

Now it's a forgotten corner of the world. And 5,000 Saints - as the islanders call themselves - are locked in a battle for survival. Proudly and unmistakably British, Saints do not want political independence but self-determination. They want greater control of their own affairs.

A handover of power, however, remains unlikely as long as St. Helena is tied to Britain's purse strings - the United Kingdom provides the islanders annual aid of more than $15 million.

The key to the future is Prosperous Bay Plain, a rare stretch of flat land about 6 by 10 1/2 miles.

Plans are afoot to build an international airport there that, it is hoped, would attract tourists and help St. Helena gain economic independence. Now, on a typical morning, the only movement on the plain is the tiny white and gray wirebird that runs along the scrubland and occasionally flutters into the air.

In the capital, Jamestown, with its Georgian facades, country-and-western songs waft on the smoke-filled air of the taverns. Inside, overflowing beer glasses are shoved over smooth wooden counters, and the airport is a hot topic.

Although 72 percent of Saints have voted in favor of an airport, they remain divided about the effect the improved access would bring. Certainly, it would alter the unique character of this remote landfall. With only 36 births registered on the island last year and 40 percent of its working population employed offshore, residents understand the peril.

"Things gotta change around here," says one tavern-going Saint, who introduces himself as Saw from Blue Hill.

Huge changes are in the cards. The government has entered into negotiations with a British consortium, Shelco/Arup, for a $150 million project that includes the airport, a golf course, a five-star hotel and luxury villas. Shelco's heavyweight partner is global construction group Ove-Arup, responsible for extensions at JFK in New York and new airports in Toronto and Hong Kong.

Air access should boost the fishing industry and create opportunities for small, clean industries such as microbrewing, flour milling and international telephone call centers, but the big earner will be tourism.

The resort alone is expected to provide 200 jobs, while new business opportunities will open up for residents, offering tourist services such as fishing, diving, trail riding and bistros.

The climate is tourist-friendly - mild, with temperatures between 68 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and 59 and 78 degrees in winter. In central, higher areas, it is usually about 20 degrees cooler.

"St. Helena will be absolutely a niche market," says St. Helena Chief Secretary John Styles. "We will attract the wealthy tourist who wants to stay in a superb golf estate on a far-flung island or a more adventurous kind of tourist who enjoys visiting remote places."

About 800 tourists now visit the island per year, and occupancy of the handful of hotels and B & Bs averages about 15 percent.

Now, there are few ways to travel here. Visitors sail by private yacht or fly, expensively, from Britain to Ascension Island and then make a two-day voyage to St. Helena.

Or they go aboard the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which leaves from Cardiff in Wales for the 15-day voyage. A more popular option is to fly to Cape Town and board the St. Helena for a five-day voyage to the island.

The fact that Napoleon Bonaparte spent the last six years of his life on St. Helena Island has been the big draw. Banished here by the British after being crushed in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon can be experienced here as he can in few other places.

At Longwood House, where the defeated emperor spent the last years of his life, his presence - powerful and tragic, pathetic and brave - infuses the space like the permanent twilight contained by the shuttered windows.

He can be easily imagined at the billiard table or with maps spread out, dictating to three people at once, recording the maneuvers and mechanisms of his campaigns that had dramatically altered Europe.

"L'Empereur NapolM-ion I. Est mort ici le 5 Mai 1821." A brass plaque indicates the place where Napoleon - shrunken, losing touch with reality, racked by pain - succumbed at last to stomach cancer, his battlefield cot veiled by heavy green silk curtains.

His gray stallion led the procession to the tomb in Geranium Valley. "I feel the infinite in myself," he had said.

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