What Language do they Speak on St. Helena - French?
Since my return I have been asked a number of questions about St. Helena. I will now try to put my answers together. Hopefully if I make any mistakes somebody will correct me.
1. What Language do they Speak ?
It is English - in fact it is the oldest variant of English south of the Equator. St Helena was settled in the early days of the Empire, before Australia, New Zealand and the Cape. The form of English spoken is therefore a product of early settlement and interaction with later settlers from other cultures - Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Asia.
2. How many people live there, and where do they come from?
It was settled from England in the seventeenth century - before the union with Scotland. By the nineteenth century there were some 1600 Whites (including about 800 soldiers), 600 Chinese, 500 free blacks and 1500 slaves. A large number of Chinese left by the 1830's, a large number of whites left after 1836 when it became a Crown Colony, and in the period 1870-1875 some 2000 islanders left for the Cape. The island has lost population in recent years following the restoration of the right of Saints to work in the UK. There are now some 3900 living on the island, but many thousands more living overseas. There appears to have been some small scale inward immigration from the 1800's right up to the present day. I would guess that few if any families could trace their origins back to the original settlers.
3. What kind of economy does it have?
It doesn't really have one. It is highly dependent on Government expenditure and remittances from Saints working overseas. For those who are interested in such things, academics now use the following taxonomy when talking about small island economies:
MIRAB : Migration, Remittance, Aid, Bureaucracy - sums St. Helena up to a T.
SITE : Small Island Tourism Economies (Antigua, Bali, Barbados)
Clearly the aim is to try to move St. Helena into the SITE category, principally by building an airport and developing tourism.
4. When will the airport be built?
Now who was it who said that a fool can ask more questions in ten minutes than a wise man can answer in a life-time? The airport has an entry on Wikipedia, which is I suppose some kind of a start St. Helena Airport. Seriously though, it is hoped that it will be ready by 2012 - but there are some concerns that HMG will baulk at the cost estimates (£200,000,000 and rising). Some will be pleased if they do - but it has to be said that nobody has come up with any alternative for development of the island.
5. What currency is used?
St Helena sterling - it has parity with UK sterling. There are no ATM's on the island, and just one bank. Travellers cheques seem the most sensible option.
6. What is public transport like - can I manage without a car?
It is a small island, but very hilly, and it is better to hire a car. There is little public transport, and taxis are expensive. Fuel is more expensive than home, and you will use more, because the mountainous roads mean that you will spend most time using lower gears.
7. What is the cost of living like?
Accommodation is reasonable, but generally things cost more than at home - remember that they mostly come on the same boat as you, and rising oil prices are an added problem.
8. How can you communicate with home ?
Phones are relatively easy to find, and not prohitively expensive unless you insist on long calls. I could find only one computer available for public use; it is possible to take a laptop and get it connected to the internet using dial-up. Broadband is very expensive and not worth paying for a stay of a few days. Don't even think about trying to use a mobile phone.
9. What are the attractions of the island to tourists?
Remoteness, relative peace, spectacular views, friendly people, and, when it is clear, the most spectacular night sky you will ever see. Quite simply it is a unique place, and provides an unforgettable experience.
10. Won't an airport destroy the very things you like about the island?
That is a danger, but it is not the intention to develop mass tourism, and the cost of getting there will hopefully be a disincentive for stag nights and hen parties for all except the rich, and for them there are more suitable places to party! In any case I feel this is a decision for the people who live on the island, not for me.
11. What is the island like for beaches, shopping, fine dining, and night life?
If that is what you want I suggest you try somewhere else.
12. Are there any world class tourist sites on the island?
The three Napoleonic sites fit the bill. In the days when literally hundreds of ships a year visited St. Helena they were a great attraction. More books have been written about Napoleon than anyone else except Jesus, and the interest shows no sign of abating. Longwood and the Briars have now been carefully restored. The Valley of the Tomb is a very special place. Without wishing to make St. Helena a Napoleonic theme park, there are also other sites such as Bertrand's cottage which could also be marketed. If it is serious about tourism, St. Helena would be very foolish not to take advantage of these major assets.
13. What about medical facilities?
There is a hospital on the island. Clearly for certain conditions people need to get to South Africa for treatment - and there is only one way to do that at present. Visitors must have proof of medical insurance.