Saint Helena

The Rock

End of an isolation

St. Helena: a little more than a rock that stands in the middle of the South Atlantic, rising from a depth of almost five thousand meters, halfway between the coasts of Africa and those of South America. Four thousand people live on the island: the descendants of the first English settlers, of the Chinese laborers who came from the Maldives, of the liberated slaves from Madagascar and the Gulf of Guinea. In their own way, four thousand exiles who ignored the use of cell phones until two years ago, and somehow live in a society frozen in time and share the same fate of Napoleon, who was deported to the island in 1815, and spent here as a prisoner the last six years of his life.

In a way, it was easier to get to St. Helena two centuries ago than it is today: back then, the island was a natural port of call for the many vessels crossing the Atlantic from the Cape of Good Hope to the Americas. Today, there is only one way to get to St. Helena, or to leave: the Saturday flight from Johannesburg, a service which started in late 2017, when the island’s airport was finally opened after a disastrous and lenghty test process.

And even before that, the island’s only connection to the world was the RMS St Helena, the last mail ship on Her Majesty’s service, which run from Cape Town and anchored off the impervious cliffs – since there is not a port – roughly once a month. The ship used to bring goods, food, letters from distant relatives, the abundant alcohol that is consumed in the island’s three pubs, the hope of salvation for those who were ill and had to be evacuated, the bodies of those who hadn’t made it and were taken back to their prison island to be buried. The ship was decommissioned in 2018, and now her task is performed by the airplane.

Some have called Saint Helena the last paradise lost. But (plane or ship) the majority of its inhabitants seem to agree more with Napoleon, who of his stay here wrote, “it is a daily death”.