Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Future of St Helena

Anyone who keeps in touch with St. Helena cannot fail to be concerned about the current situation.

Plan A was for the island to become self sustaining. HMG was going to build an airport, and an influx of high value tourists was going to develop the economy and ultimately eliminate dependence on the UK. There was always some scepticism on the island as to whether this strategy would work. When HMG announced a pause in plans to build the airport, and expressed doubt as to whether in the future tourism would recover/develop to the extent assumed because of the global economic crisis, it became apparent that there is no Plan B.

In the short term the island is also facing disruption of its lifeline. Both engines of the RMS St Helena are to be replaced - necessitating two periods in the dry dock in Cape Town in 2010.

Looking at it as an outsider it seems to me that some kind of air link is essential: to enable families to visit at shorter notice than is presently possible, and to enable those requiring emergency medical treatment to be moved quickly. It clearly will never be possible to have the highest standards of medical care available on an island with a population of only 4000. Whether the island needs the expensive airport previously proposed is another matter. In a rational world a low cost air link to Ascension would seem the most sensible solution, but I fear there are strong political reasons which would make that impossible.

The island also will need some way of getting freight by sea. I suspect that the most effective solution remains a dedicated ship to service the needs of this and the other islands in the South Atlantic. The replacement of the RMS engines suggests an intention that it will continue to ply between South Africa and St Helena for a number of years. At some point a replacement will be needed. Last year I read that the French were going to export wine to the UK by sailing ship. Whilst not advocating a return to sail for St Helena, I do wonder whether in the very long run a wind assisted ship might be a sensible way of reducing the costs of transport to the island. One thing the South Atlantic is not short of is wind! Probably far too visionary - but Napoleon would have loved the idea.

One final thing that visitors raise all the time is the question of growing more food. In a much earlier blog I pointed out that the allotments offered by the French Consul had few takers. It was also apparent that the land at Plantation House was not fully cultivated. I understand that there are numerous pests and diseases which frustrate vegetable growers on the island, but these problems and their solutions are surely within the realms of human knowledge - and hopefully do not need visits from expensive consultants.

On our recent trip to Cuba we found organoponicos in all the towns we visited. These are concrete raised beds which allow vegetables to be grown anywhere, regardless of the soil conditions which are usually poor. There are even such plots close to the centre of Havana. (1)

Obviously there are problems in developing similar solutions in St Helena - but they are organisational, not technical. I wonder for example how much organic waste is composted on St. Helena - or does all the compost come on the RMS?

Nobody is going to get rich growing vegetables on St Helena. Nevertheless, everything I have read indicates to me that food is not likely to get cheaper in the foreseeable future, and that a community so vulnerable to energy costs ought to replace as much of its imports as possible. Gardening is also a healthy activity, which is worth encouraging for its own sake. I imagine that a Cuban consultant would be fairly cheap, and might even bring a breath of fresh air to the island! Now I am getting really visionary -maybe entering the realms of fantasy even.

(1) These are a relatively recent development in Cuba. Gardening was looked down on in pre 1990 Cuba, and was seen as a sign of poverty and under development; but it became necessary when Cuba could no longer obtain food imports from the eastern bloc on whom it had relied for most of its foodstuffs.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Markham: The Road to St Helena - A Review

At long last I have been able to put together a few thoughts on this book.

After a long and generally uneventful voyage, the ship dropped anchor in the harbor of Jamestown, St. Helena.

On the evening of the 17th, Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, now outrageously styled General Buonaparte by the British Government set foot on his last island and walked forward to meet his ultimate destiny.

J. David Markham, The Road to St Helena (Pen and Sword, Great Britain, 2008).

It is interesting to compare this with Gilbert Martineau's Napoleon Surrenders which was completed over 40 years ago. Martineau's conclusion was somewhat more embellished :
By exiling him in the middle of the ocean, England presented him with a fresh conquest. Held prisoner on a rock for 6 years, contemplating the world, his career and his dreams with a philosopher's gaze, he succeeded in giving meaning to the hurricane he had let lose upon the old world, he transformed his thirst for adventure and conquest into a crusade for liberty, and his boundless arrogance into a European nationalism carrying all before it.

Whereas Martineau devoted a number of chapters to the period on board the Bellerophon and the Northumberland , Markham's book concentrates almost totally on the period leading up to the surrender. Perhaps there is a sequel still to come?

His focus is on French politics in the chaotic post Waterloo period, in particular on the machinations of Fouché, Napoleon's treacherous Minister of Police, who not only ensured that the allies knew all about Napoleon's plans for Waterloo, but delayed issuing passports for Napoleon's party to go to America, and left the allies in no doubt as to Napoleon's location.

There is also comprehensive coverage of the debate and indecision among Napoleon's entourage at Rochefort and the Isle of Aix, which ultimately left Napoleon with little choice but to surrender to the British. As always it is impossible to know what was going on in Napoleon's own mind - only hostile historians seem to be able to do that! As I read it I kept thinking of Johannes Willms who expressed the view that Napoleon never had any intention of going to America! (1) Among the useful appendixes is an account written by one of his party, Baron Lallemand, albeit with the benefit of hindsight: the Emperor became much too indifferent as to his personal consideration and left everything up to the men who were with him to take care of the situation. He could not have left this in more loyal hands, but guided by less clear-sightedness.

Among the things I noted was the extent to which Napoleon's plans for Waterloo had been compromised before the battle, first by Fouché, and then by General Louis Bourmont and other officers who defected. The book also reports from a little known source that Napoleon may have taken poison on 21st June, and then have taken an antidote.(2) Another interesting if rather trivial piece of information is the revelation that Napoleon's mistress, Mademoiselle George, later offered to join him on St. Helena. Presumably this would have prevented her serving in a similar role to the Duke of Wellington while he was in Paris. Fact is often stranger than fiction.

The book has a number of illustrations, including photos taken by the author of Napoleon's last home on the Isle of Aix and a commemorative plaque later erected by Baron Gourgaud on the beach from which Napoleon left the mainland for the last time.

Among the illustrations is one of Captain Maitland which has the following annotation: Captain Frederick Maitland received Napoleon aboard his ship and gave the Emperor his last decent treatment by the British. I don't think there can be a great deal of argument about that - although much depends on one's understanding of the word decent ! (3)

I enjoyed this book. It has an index, footnotes and a bibliography, and makes good use of a great deal of contemporary materials. There is not too much doubt which side Markham is on. He would have liked the Emperor to overcome his enemies in France and at Waterloo, or at least to have made his escape to America and to have avoided falling into the hands of perfidious Albion, but his sympathies do not stand in the way of a scholarly treatment of the subject.

(1) See my blog of January 11th 2009.

(2) Markham p.83, his source is The Memoirs of Baron Thiébault (Late Lieutenant-General in the French Army) New York 1896. The druggist Cadet Gassicourt apparently feared that the poison may have hastened Napoleon's death on St Helena.

(3) "Napoleon was an emperor defeated, yet still regarded as emperor by his followers, treated by them as such, and accustomed to the servility due to one. To check his pretensions, reduce him to submission and control his conduct - all without losing his co-operation - demanded a confidence amounting to an insurmountable sense of superiority from the first .. " This extract from a British naval historian gives a useful insight into how the British establishment saw their task. Morris, "Mastering the General"

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

St Helena's Daisies

Getting emails from people all over the world is one of the nicest things about blogging.

Some time ago I received an interesting one from Warren Sheather in Australia. Warren is involved in a very worthwhile project on the cultivation of native Australian plants, and research on their dissemination around the world.

Having seen my entry of April 3rd 2008 on Lady Holland and the Everlastings of St. Helena, Warren emailed me to see if I could help him find out if the species on St Helena were in fact Australian. Unfortunately I was unable to help. Happily though he contacted somebody more knowledgeable, and is now able to confirm that the daisies of St. Helena, which apparently were sent by Lady Holland during the captivity of Napoleon, are indeed Australian.

Daisies of St Helena

Warren is located at Armidale on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. For those who might be interested, I am very pleased to give a link to his web site:Yallaroo