National Geographic : 1950 Aug
St. Helena: the Forgotten Island By QUENTIN KEYNES With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author EVER SINCE I first read an impelling sentence about St. Helena which my great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, had written in The Voyage of H.M.S. "Beagle" after a week's visit in 1836, I had dreamed of going to that remote island. "St. Helena," he wrote, "situated so remote from any continent, in the midst of a great ocean, and possessing a unique Flora, excites our curiosity." My boyish curiosity was whetted further by collecting stamps and by reading about the last days of Napoleon in textbooks. After diligent study of a map, I found the mysterious island-a spot no larger than a pinprick, stuck in the immense blue wastes of the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles south of the Equator. It was underlined in pink to denote a British possession (map, page 271). Consulting the reference sources, I dis covered that the pinprick is 10 miles long by 6 wide, has an area of 47 square miles, and is fully 2,000 miles from the nearest point on the South American coast. Though the West African mainland seems, from the map, to be comparatively close, it is 1,200 miles to the eastward. Cape Town, nearest cosmopolitan center, is just short of 2,000 miles southeast. As for Washington, D. C., it is at least 6,000 miles away! In effect, the only point of land under a thousand miles distant is the even smaller pinprick called Ascension, 800 miles north west, a dependency of the larger island (279). A Letter from St. Helena, South Atlantic With the help of a stamp collectors' maga zine I got into correspondence in 1937 with a retired Englishman who had retreated to St. Helena to escape the madding crowd. He didn't appear to mind writing long, informa tive letters to a teen-age schoolboy full of Darwin's "curiosity." On old-fashioned lined note paper headed "Island of St. Helena, South Atlantic," he wrote: "There is no place in the world I like better than St. Helena; everything is quiet and beautiful, no noise and bustle; conditions are somewhat similar to those existing in any remote English village a hundred years ago. I have rather a passion for islands. . ." Last year I realized my fondest and most romantic dream. I went on a 30,000-mile trip with three friends from New York through Africa, Cairo-to-Cape Town, and back to New York-via St. Helena. From the Sudan I wrote to Dr. Philip Gosse, author of the only book about St. Helena published in recent years, and asked him for a letter of introduction to one of the islanders, just in case I ever succeeded in getting there. A month later I found a reply awaiting me in Nairobi, capital of Kenya Colony. Dr. Gosse had written to Mr. Humphrey W. Solo mon, senior member of the oldest English family on the island (whose great-grandfather, Saul, had sold macaroni to Napoleon), asking him to show me around when and if I arrived. When I finally reached Cape Town, I hastened to the offices of the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company, Ltd., the only line in the world maintaining regular service with St. Helena and Ascension. TomyjoyI learned that a ship would be leaving for these points within two weeks. I talked a com panion into coming with me. Ships Call Seldom; Airplanes Never Luck was with us, as the company's ships call at the islands only every five or six weeks, on their way to England, and no airplane has ever landed on St. Helena. My excitement knew no bounds as we made our way, through the Cape rollers, to our destination. At dawn on the fifth day out I was awakened by a cabin mate to hear that the steep cliffs of St. Helena were about two miles away, enshrouded in mist. With a leap I was dressed and up on deck. There in the distance was a sight I hope never to forget: the sheer, massive crags of the forbidding island which I had come such a long way to see, rising, just as Charles Darwin had promised, "abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean." The sun was trying to peep through the clouds which hung low over Sugarloaf Hill, and I shivered, more from nervous exhilaration than from the dank cold. It was indeed an awe-inspiring sight, and I could well imagine Napoleon's feelings as he saw these towering cliffs for the first time, in 1815, from the decks of H.M.S. Northumberland. Although he had approached from the northwest, the prospect must have been equally overwhelming. His recorded remark, however, which was made to an aide, Gen. Gaspard Gourgaud, seems rather to understate his inner emotions.