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.

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