Awaiting St Helena's new airport

By Andy Walker
BBC News

  • Published
A man works in front of a mural of an aircraft of St Helena Airlines

The coming of an airport presents new opportunities and challenges to one of Britain's most remote outposts, ending 350 years of isolation.

But, the BBC's Our World programme asks, what will the arrival of air access really mean for the 4,000 people living in Saint Helena?

Two-hundred years ago this October, the British warship HMS Northumberland anchored off a tiny island to disembark its most famous prize, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had recently been defeated at the battle of Waterloo.

The former emperor had thought he was to be exiled to America. Instead, the man who had once ruled vast tracts of Europe, found himself on the tiny and remote British-ruled island of St Helena.

There, in the first days of captivity - which would end with his death in 1821 - he snarled at those who had defeated him.

"How can the monarchs of Europe permit the sacred character of sovereignty to be violated in my person? Do they not see that they are, with their own hands, working their own destruction at St Helena?"

Situated in the middle of the South Atlantic, St Helena is 1,200 miles from the coast of West Africa. It is just ten miles (16km) long and six miles (10km) wide.

Discovered by Portuguese mariners in 1502, St Helena - whose inhabitants call themselves "Saints" - was originally a Dutch possession before it passed to British control - initially under the East India Company, before becoming a British colony, now called a British Overseas Territory,

Image caption,
The RMS St Helena is scheduled to make its last voyage to the island in March 2016

The Saints, now numbering around 4,000, are the descendents of sailors, settlers and slaves.

This tightly-knit community is currently linked to the outside world by a Royal Mail ship, the St Helena, which makes a five-day journey from Cape Town in South Africa, every three weeks. It carries passengers, mail and everything the island needs to survive, apart from petrol.

But all that is set to change with the building of St Helena Airport - scheduled to open in February 2016.

In November 2011, the UK government announced it was to invest around £250m in the building of an airport on the island's east coast.

British Overseas Territories

Image source, Reuters
  • 14 territories around the globe
  • total population is about 350,000 people
  • largely - but not all - self-governing, with their own constitutions, governments and local laws
  • before 2002, these were British Dependent Territories

Territories are:

  • Akrotiri and Dhekelia (Sovereign Base Areas)
  • Anguilla
  • Bermuda
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Falkland Islands
  • Gibraltar
  • Montserrat
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
  • Turks and Caicos Islands

Whitehall said this would boost St Helena's links to the outside world and increase the island's self-sufficiency, "with the ultimate aim of eliminating the island's reliance on aid".

Each year the island receives, on average, $37m (£25m) from the United Kingdom. There is full employment, but 70% of the population works for the government and wages are low - while the cost of goods is high.

Father Dale Bowers, one the island's Anglican priests, believes that history has a harsh lesson for the Saints. "The island lost all of its money from the East India Company and there was real poverty. The more educated, business-minded people all emigrated to South Africa and left behind were just the poor people - the ones who couldn't go any further."

And, even today, many young Saints leave in search of a better life overseas.

Image caption,
The island's capital, Jamestown, nestles in a valley

This growing trend in offshore employment is a major contributor to the breakdown of family life on the island, according to Fr Dale. And although he is reluctant to see the island undergo such a major overhaul, he is unsure it can carry on the way it is.

Ivy Ellick, a retired civil servant whose late husband was in charge of customs and income tax on the island, looks at the airport as not only a way for Saints to leave the island, but also facilitate their return.

"I am very pro-airport and I'm very pleased with what's going on," she said.

"This was the only development that I thought would actually quench that thirst to leave the island... and will hopefully bring our Saints back."

But not all the islanders are so optimistic. Many fear opening up to the outside world will create even more problems.

Before his death, local fisherman Trevor Thomas outlined his concerns about the airport.

"Britain is not going to put an airport here for £400m and then we live the same old way we did 20 or 30 years ago. They will want changes. It's coming."

"People feel as though they are not being listened to and it makes you angry… and then when you say something that is contrary to what is being presented to you, you are being negative."

While the British government says it does not wish to damage the island's sense of community or the environment, tourism is both a natural consequence of better transport links and a source of economic growth.

The island's lush vegetation, rare plants and the relatively untouched sea surrounding it, could prove a draw, as could the Georgian architecture of the capital, Jamestown and Napoleon's former residence Longwood House.

Image caption,
Diana's Peak: The island, visited by Darwin, is home to rare plants and animals

There is also a project in the works to build an eco-hotel on St Helena, and the aviation company Comair Limited has just been appointed as the preferred bidder to transport visitors from Johannesburg to the island in just four-and-a-half hours.

But extra traffic to and from the island will not benefit the islanders directly, argued Mr Thomas.

"They think that the airport is going to create a lot of opportunity and the young people are going to want to stay but for what? Make the beds, drive the taxis, sweep the floors? We can't all be chiefs.

"There are other people out there who also believe there is a potential here - people with big money - and we may not be able to compete," he added.

The threat to St Helena's strong sense of community is at the heart of much anxiety about the airport.

Filmmaker Dieter Deswarte, who has visited the island on a number of occasions, says a lot of people see St Helena as a special place because it is protected from the outside world.

He believes it's important for the Saints to make sure that change happens in a way they are comfortable with.

"It's really the people there who need to take it in their hands and have the confidence to set things up."

Also convinced that the Saints' own mindset has a crucial part to play in securing the future of St Helena is Ivy Ellick.

"We have to be able to be more confident and believe in ourselves," says Mrs Ellick. "Who would know what is best for St Helena other than the people themselves?"

All images courtesy of Dieter Deswarte.

The full documentary St Helena: An End to Isolation will be broadcast on the BBC World News Our World programme on Friday 20 March at 20:30 GMT, Saturday 11:30 GMT, Sunday 17:30 GMT and 22:30 GMT.

And in the UK on the BBC News Channel at 21:30 GMT on Saturday and Sunday and on the BBC iPlayer.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.