Wednesday, 24 July 2013

E.M. Forster, the British Association and St Helena

E. M. Forster, photographed in 1930's

In the list of famous visitors to St Helena, the scientific community is well represented by Halley, Maskelyne and Darwin, but other than a childhood visit by William Thackeray, no leading figures of the literary world, as far as I was aware, has had any association with the island. I was therefore surprised to find that E.M. Forster, one of England's greatest novelists, visited the island in 1929, and was enchanted by it.

Forster's visit occurred on a cruise to South Africa organised by the British Association. Unenthusiastic about accompanying some 500 scientists on a long sea voyage, Forster generally did not enjoy the experience, but St Helena was according to his biographer an exception: an intense experience, "an island of gentle birds and gentle people". (1) To a friend Forster wrote

Views over crags of lava and the soft radiant sea, and birds of fairy-white called "love terns" nest in the crevices .. Have seldom seen such a touching island, all the volcanic sternness and the live things perched about in it, longing for kindness and company. Some day we will go and give it to them."

Unfortunately he never returned, probably to St Helena's loss, for who knows what inspiration the author of A Passage to India might have gained from a more intimate acquaintance.

By contrast Forster was generally unimpressed by South Africa

.. beneath and beyond both English and Dutch are these millions of blacks whom one never speaks to and whose existence one assumes as one does electric bells! That was why I nearly cried at Pretoria. It is Valhalla, and the dwarfs haven't been paid. (2)

On his return home he sold his African mining shares.

SS Landovery Castle, which transported members of British Association to South Africa

Henry Balfour and St Helena

A very differet perspective on the visit was given by the archeologist Henry Balfour (1863-1939), President of the Anthropology Section of the B.A.A.S. (British Association for the Advancement of Science). Balfour was taken ashore on the launch of the Chief Secretary(Colonel Salier), stayed with the Governor and was accompanied by him on a tour of the Napoleonic sites: looking down on the Briars from the road above; visiting Napoleon's tomb "in a secluded ravine"; to Longwood where the rooms were bare with "only one bust in the room in which he died"; the hole in the shutters from which Napoleon could look out on the British Camp; New Longwood, "the fine, large house built for Napoleon, but never occupied by him." (3)

At this time Plantation House was being refurbished after devastation by white ants, so Balfour stayed in the Governor's temporary accommodation, but the next day, "after breakfast with local-grown coffee", he visited Plantation House and "interviewed the huge Mauritian tortoise, said to be over 200 years old + pre-Napoleonic, quite a nice friendly beast " (4) In his diary he listed the birds he had seen: Tropic birds (Ph aetherius), Noddies (A. stolid us), "Love terns" (Leucanus albus, Cygis alba or craw fords), Mynahs, Avadavats, Bishop Birds (weaver finches) Java Sparrows, some Pipit-like birds and small doves.[Wirebirds?]

Finally he recorded his impressions of the vegetation and terrain:

Vegetation, largely imported, is fine on the W. side of the island. Arancarcias, Eucalyptus, Daturas, Budleias, Arum lilies, Bougainvilleas etc. do very well. Phormicum tenax (New Zealand flax) is cultivated + the fibre exported in some quantity. Coffee also does well + small bananas. Scenery very hilly, volcanic, rugged + beautiful.(5)

A man of many parts and some energy, that evening on board the Llandovery Castle,

I gave a lecture on the natives of South Africa to the passengers in the third class, + had a very appreciative audience who asked me to come + talk to them again. (6)

Having read Balfour's detailed diary I couldn't help but recall Forsters apprehension about joining such a trip: they would, he feared, "be shown everything and see nothing." (7)


1.P.N Furbank, EM Forstr A Life (1879-1970), (Two volume edition published London 1979), Vol 2 p. 160

2. Furbank p 161.

3. July 11th 1929 Diaries of Henry Balfour

4. July 12th 1929

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. Furbank p 159.

Monday, 15 July 2013

St Helena Britannica - new publication by the Friends of St Helena

The Friends of St Helena have recently published this collection of short pieces by the late Trevor W. Hearl(1924-2007) with an excellent preface by Alexander Schulenburg. The author's long association with St Helena began in July 1969 when he stepped ashore on the island "just thirty hours before the first Moon landing" and continued until his death. The current work is both a tribute and a substitute for the one that Mr Hearl was planning to write.

The book reflects the author's determination to rescue St Helena's history from historians of the captivity of Napoleon, its most famous inhabitant. As he reminds us, St Helena has not only been a "prison and fortress", but a vital part of British overseas expansion for 200 years, a natural treasury and scientific observatory, a seaport and whaling centre, a base in the fight against slavery and "a mecca for enterprising tourists, philatelists, naturalists, yachtsmen and game fishermen."

Among the pieces printed is the rather sad story of one of St Helena's first surgeons, Francis Moore whose premature death along with that of his wife left their children somehow to be cared for out of whatever proceeds could be gleaned from their property. Here too are chapters on the forgotten French Huguenots and St Helena's forlorn attempt to start a wine industry, on the East Indiamen that made St Helena a vital port for the British Empire before the opening of the Suez Canal, on the Southern Whale Fishery, on Consuls and Consular Agents, on scientific interest in St Helena, nicluding a short chapater on Charles Darwin which recalls the deep impression the island made on him and concludes

Today in the popular mind Darwin's name is tied to the Galapagos Islands, but if he could be asked which island he would like to explore again, I wonder what his choice would be? St Helena?

Perhaps most revealing were a couple of chapters on St Helena's "Social Revolution",the loss of power and influence of the country gentlemen at the top of the social pyramid in the days of the East India Company. From the 1830's they faced inadequate pensions, collapsing property prices and restricted opportunity for their children in a world in which the formerly despised trades people of Jamestown were now in the ascendancy. The book sheds a little more light on one of these, Charles Hodson, nicknamed "Hercules" by Napoleon after he visited him at Maldivia in 1815. Here we find him retired to England, St Helena still on his mind, concerned among other things about the introduction of Roman Catholic and dissenting places of worship, a reminder to us of the total dominance and social and political importance of the Anglican Church in the days of the East India Company.

Despite the author's non-Napoleonic orientation there are still five or six chapters spanning the period 1815-1821. These include one on the problem of supplying the islands with food stuffs and other essentials which the author claims gave Hudson Lowe more headaches than his relations with the inhabitants of Longwood. Another is on the races at Deadwood which began during the captivity of Napoleon and continued for a century thereafter. Here too is an excellent chapter on one of St Helena's most important inhabitants, Saul Solomon, a Jew who converted to Anglicanism, founded the Company that still bears his name, and was regarded with great suspicion by Hudson Lowe for his perceived sympathy and business relationship with the occupants of Longwood House, from which he derived great financial benefit. Solomon died many years later while on holiday in England, and his daughter brought his body back in a trunk, in fear that it would be discovered and consigned to the deep. There are though no secrets on St Helena, the body's arrival was greeetd with acclaim, and a suitably grand funeral soon followed.

The preface alone is worth consulting by anyone interested in the history of St Helena for its scholarly survey of the relatively little work that has been produced by professional historians. It correctly situates Hearl's contribution, his roots as a journalist and educator rather than a historian, his constant admission of the provisionality of his knowledge and expressions of hope that others would carry on from where he left off.

As a friend of mine said, it is a bit like a blog. You can dip into it and read whatever takes your fancy at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Produced by the Friends of St Helena, it may not be easily available from the usual places. I would recommend contacting Ian Mathieson at Miles Apart for this and any other books on St Helena that are otherwise difficult to obtain.


1. Trevor W. Hearl, St Helena Britannica studies oin South Atlantic island history edited by A.H. Schulenbu rg, Society of Friends of St Helena, London 2013, pp 8-9