Sunday, 20 November 2016


Marianne “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and Napoleon, “C'est moi!”, responding to the Mona Lisa

Aleksandr Sukov's Franconia provides an absorbing, meandering study of the history of the Louvre from its origins as a chateau up to the addition of François Mitterand's pyramid. At a deeper level the film is an exploration of the relationship between art, museums and power and of war and peace. There are frequent appearances by Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, and of Napoleon, whose wars were instrumental in creating the Louvre's great collections. At one point Napoleon suggests that that was the reason for the wars!

The film is centred on the relationship between the Louvre's war time director, Jacques Jaujard, and his German superior in occupied France, Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich. An art historian and a great admirer of French culture, Wolff-Metternich was quietly determined to safeguard the Louvre's collections from being plundered by his Nazi superiors.

After the war Jaujard helped Wolff-Metternich clear his name. Thoroughly rehabilitated in the Federal Republic of Germany, he received the Légion d'honneur from General De Gaulle himself in 1952.

German Officers in a Louvre shorn of most of its art

At a time when European civilization is in crisis, and mankind itself seems on the edge of an unknown and rather frightening future, the film's portrayal of the relationship between Jaujard and Wolf-Metternich symbolizes that between France and Germany that grew out of the ruins of 1945 and has been the cornerstone of Western Europe's seventy years of prosperity and peace.

As befits a Russian director, the film contrasts the Nazi determination to preserve French art with the total lack of respect for Slavic cultural artefacts, which were ruthlessly destroyed as the German armies moved east. As well as the clips of Hitler visiting a deserted Paris in 1940, there are numerous references to Sukov's native Russia: clips of Stalin, of Chekov and of Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, on his death bed.

The ghost of Napoleon looking at the painting of his coronation.

Throughout the film the director is engaged on an internet webcam link with the captain of a container ship carrying works of art. Periodically the link between ship and land is lost, and the ship is clearly in danger of losing its cargo and perhaps sinking. As Sean Nam points out, this is not a difficult metaphor to unpack.

.. the insinuation here is one of grim uncertainty about the prospect of a unified European culture today. Indeed, for all its congratulatory spirit, Francofonia has the persistent feeling of an elegy bidding adieu to a bygone time, when art and civilization were perhaps more closely intertwined and could similarly be thought of on more continuous terms.

In this post-Brexit, Trumpian centred world, it is noticeable that apart from a film clip of De Gaulle with General Eisenhower, there is no reference throughout the film to the Anglo-American world, which has from time to time intervened and then retreated from the European heartland.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Napoleon and the Weather: An Early Chaos Theorist?

Satellite image showing cloud formations over St. Helena.

There is a lot of weather on St Helena, and nowhere more perhaps than at Longwood, where Napoleon had plenty of time to dwell on it.

In the century before Napoleon's arrival there was much interest in meteorology, and there were "weather watchers" at a number of places in the British Empire, including St. Helena. (1)

Longwood in inclement weather

Some time ago I came across this interesting comment which Napoleon made to his doctor only a couple of weeks before he died:

in nature everything is linked together. The wind of today will, in a hundred years' time, cause a ship to founder off the coast of China. By this I mean to say that those who would know what the weather will be like through analysing what it has been in the past are mistaken. There is no such thing as a periodical return, and it is useless to seek to regularize the weather.(2)

This example of holistic thinking seems to me to be unusual in the Newtonian world in which scientists believed in providence and a clockwork universe of natural laws which it was their job to discover.

What Napoleon called a mistaken idea lasted for 130 years after his death. In the 1950's scientists still believed that it was posible to find regular weather patterns as with other natural systems such as tides and phases of the moon. (3)

Edward Lorenz was attempting to do this using computer models when he came to the realisation that the weather is inherently unpredictable. The father of chaos theory, Lorenz coined the term butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could determine the occurrence of a tornado in Texas.(4)

Napoleon's belief in the impossibility of finding laws governing the weather was not a St. Helena epiphany. In 1809 the famous French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck presented to him a book on Natural History at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences. Napoleon thought it was a book about Lamark's classification of clouds, of which Napoleon disapproved, and he treated him very unkindly:

"Do something in Natural History and I should receive your productions with pleasure. As to this volume, I only take it in consideration of your white hairs."(5)

Apparently Lamarck tried to explain, but he was brushed aside. Not surprisingly he never forgave Napoleon for that treatment

Napoleon of course was a brilliant mathematician and was fascinated by science. He had taken scientists with him on his Egyptian campagn, and gave much attention to the promotion of science during his period in power. Had he been allowed to proceed to the United States after Waterloo it was his intention to pursue a scientific career. At Malmaison as the Prussians approached Napoleon was apparently reading Humboldt's Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent . He wrote to Gaspard Monge, a member of the Academy of Sciences

For me idleness would be the cruelest torture. Without armies or an empire, I see only science as influencing my spirit. But learning of the achievements of others is not sufficient. I want to embark on a new career, to leave worthy undertakings and discoveries behind me. I need someone who can speedily bring me up to date on the present situation of the sciences. After this, we shall travel through the New World from Canada to Cape Horn and, in the course of this long journey, we shall examine all the phenomena of physics and of the globe.(6)

1. John D Cox Storm Watchers, The Turbulent History of Weather Prediction from Franklin's Kite to El Niño (New Jersey 2002), Charles W.J Withers Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago 2007), Jan Golinski British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment (Chicago & London 2007)
2. This comment was made to Dr Arnott, the British doctor who attended him in his final weeks, in response to the latter's assertion that enemas have no effect on the upper regions of the body.Memoirs of General Bertrand, Grand Marshall of the Palace, January to May 1821 (Cassel & Company, 1953) p. 180
3. John Higgs Stranger than We Can Imagine, Making Sense of the Twentieth Century (Weidenfield & Nicolson 2015) p 235
4. Higgs pp 235-7.
5.A.E.E. Mackenzie The Major Achievements of Science: Volume 1 (Cambridge 1960) p 158
6.Ines Murat Napoleon and the American Dream(English Edition, Baton Rouge & London, 1981) pp 17-18

Friday, 28 October 2016

St Helena Exhibition at Les Invalides: The Most Popular Ever at the Museum

In what seems like another age, before we realised that there were serious problems with St.Helena's new airport, I blogged about my visit to the exhibition at Les Invalides in Paris.

The exhibition of course had been planned to coincide with the airport opening, and was designed to promote tourism to the island! As part of this project the retiring Governor of St. Helena visited Ajaccio and Les Invalides and was received at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Anyway the good news is that 90,000 people visited the exhibition over a period of a little more than 100 days, and it brought the island to the attention of many who had barely any knowledge of it. This attendance far exceeded expectations.

Congratulations to all concerned, and let us hope that 2017 brings better news about the airport, and some hope for those who have invested heavily in tourism on the island, which of course includes the French Properties.

Friday, 21 October 2016

St. Helena Airport: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The St Helena Independent, October 21st 2016

Sometime this afternoon an Avro RJ100 is scheduled to land on St Helena. It will be using the shorter 02 runway, which avoids the major windshear problems which have caused the postponement of commercial flights. This involves landing with a tailwind, which apparently the Avro RJ100 is highly suitable for.

The Avro RJ100 is capable of carrying up to 98 passengers, though this afternoon's flight will have only 15 on board. The plane is being organised by Atlantic Star Airlines, who have long been involved in planning commercial flights from Europe to St. Helena. They have secured the services of two experienced Faroe Islands pilots. The flight should provide valuable information about wind conditions on St. Helena, and it at last offers some prospect of a resolution to the problem.

The flight began in Zurich, and made technical stops in the United Arab Emirates, Senegal and Ascension. Tomorrow it is scheduled to fly to Brazil, then Uruguay and finally to Chile. In the long run maybe it will be possible to make a combined a trip to St. Helena and Latin America. I certainly hope so.

I am keeping my fingers crossed. The Saints have had enough disappointments this year to last several lifetimes.

Postscript : The plane landed at 3.50 this afternoon.

Avro RJ100 arriving at St Helena Airport, 21st October 2016

According to the Governor's post on Facebook the plane took off again and landed into the wind with no problems. Hats off to Atlantic Star Airlines for their perseverance and commitment to the island.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

St Helen Airport - Napoleon's Revenge?

A first for St. Helena Airport: two planes side by side

The sight of two planes on the tarmac at the island's £290 million pound airport might seem encouraging. Alas one was hired by the airport contractors, and the other was removing someone for medical treatment.

It is nice to know that the airport is usable, although unfortunately not by the commercial aircraft it was designed for. Small planes can land, but the cost for tourists and certainly island residents would be prohibitive.

The economic cost to the island is tremendous. Its whole future was predicated on an expansion of tourism to remove its dependence on subsidy by the British Government.

The Legislative Council has discussed setting up an enquiry to find out who was responsible for this catastrophic decision. Whether it will ever happen is another matter. It would be tremendously costly, would probably not come to a clear conclusion, and would not in any way help to solve St. Helena's problems. It would simply confirm the prejudices of those who live on the island about the incompetence of the "white ants" i.e. expatriates, who are sent to govern them on what seem inflated salaries.

The problem, as most readers of this blog will know is windshear, which the Prime Minister was warned about at the time the decision to build the airport was made. The Guardian has published a useful diagram.

At some point the Government will have to make a decision: invest a lot of money to try and find a technical solution or build a new Royal Mail ship. The favourite technical solution seems to be take the top off one or maybe two nearby mountains! I have a horrible feeling that that might not end well!

Meanwhile the press in the UK and France has started to give the story some publicity. I would be surprised if there are not a few smiles on the continent post the Brexit referendum about another highly embarrassing British cock-up. Some on social media have described it as Napoleon's revenge, which seems a bit hard on the long suffering Saints.

The Daily Mail has published an image which is I guess worth a thousand words.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Queen Victoria's Visit to Napoleon's Tomb

Queen Victoria at the Tomb of Napoleon, 24 August 1855, by Edward Matthew Ward

Queen Victoria's official visit to France during the reign of Napoleon III was the first by an English/British monarch since 1520, and indeed Britain's claims to the throne of France had only been given up as recently as 1801.

During her stay in Paris she visited the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides. This little known painting from the Royal Collection was commissioned by Queen Victoria and completed in 1860. With the Queen on this occasion were Prince Albert, the Princess Royal and the young Prince of Wales. They were accompanied by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie.

The Queen apparently put her hand on the young prince's shoulder and told him to kneel down before the tomb of the "Great Napoleon." At that moment there was a huge clap of thunder and a deluge of rain, and the organist struck up the national anthem. "Strange and wonderful indeed!" was the Queen's comment!

In her diary she recorded

It seems as if in this tribute of respect to a departed and great foe, old enmities and rivalries were wiped out, and the seal of heaven placed upon that bond of amity which is now happily established between two great Nations! May heaven bless and prosper it. (1)

It is a fact that since that time France and the United Kingdom have never come to blows, although frequently there has been little love lost. The young Prince of Wales became a great francophile, and as King had some influence over the development of the Entente Cordiale of 1904.

1. Quoted in, David Baldwin,Royal Prayer: A Surprising History (London 2009) pp 55-56.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Airport Debacle: "How ever did they win [the war]?"

St Helena Independent, July 21st 2016

I don't keep up with what goes on in Parliament, but the St. Helena Independent has confirmed the conclusions I came to in my most recent post on the St. Helena airport: the extended period of test flights to prove the viability of the design never took place, or to be more precise, they were condensed into a single day in 2006. Also the flights recommended after the completion of the airport were not considered necessary because, according to Baroness Anelay, the new DfD Minister, the runway had been extended by 150 metres. Neither the Independent nor I can figure out how this was supposed to remove the problems of windshear.

In one of my favourite episodes of Fawlty Towers a group of German tourists visits Basil Fawlty's shambolic hotel in Torquay, and at the end of the visit one of them asks how on earth the UK won the war? Following the Brexit fiasco, no plan if the country voted to leave, the Chilcot report on Iraq, no post-invasion plan whatsoever, and now the St. Helena Airport fiasco, I am despairing of the amateurism which seems to encapsulate the way the UK and its dependencies are governed. I can understand why the U.S. Secretary of State found it hard to keep a straight face at the joint press conference held with our new Foreign Secretary.

Legion d'honneur: Award for Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

First Legion d'Honneur Investiture, 1804 - painting by Jean Baptist Debret (1812)

The Legion of Honour, first instituted by Napoleon in 1802 is the pre-eminent merit award in France. It was from the beginning a secular award, and unlike pre-revolutionary titles and awards, open to all ranks of society.

It is very pleasing to hear that on July 14th, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau was awarded the rank of chevalier (Knight) to add to his previous award, Chevalier Ordre national du Mérite in 2011.

This is a fitting recognition of Michel's work on St. Helena, culminating in the successful exhibition in Paris this year.

Michel's adoptive father Gilbert Martineau, who preceded Michel on St. Helena, was awarded and O.B.E by the British Government, as well as a number of French awards, including Commander in the national Order of Merit and Officer in the National order of the Legion of Honor.

I have long felt that the British Government should have given Michel some recognition of the contribution he has made to the island, above and beyond his work with the French national properties, over the past 25 years. The list that I know of includes the following: work with the National Trust, particularly safeguarding the area around the heart shaped waterfall; animal welfare; teaching French in St. Andrews School; provision of allotments to Saints at the Briars; a major contribution to employment and training on the island. I could have added having to suffer impoliteness and too often sheer rudeness from a number of British tourists!

I don't think many Saints fully appreciate how lucky they have been to have him there.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

St Helena Airport: The First Tourists Arrive!

Three Belgian philatelists arrive by private jet - only 9997 more to go

The St Helena Government has announced the resumption of the R.M.S. St Helena until July 2017, over a year after the airport was meant to be up and running. Clearly no solution is in sight for the windshear problems which have caused the cancellation of commercial flights.

I have for some time had my worries about the St. Helena airport project, and my recurring nightmare is that the real future of the island will be as a haven for wealthy people who can afford private jets.

I have recently come across extracts from the 2005 report by Atkins Management Consultants which noted that

The nature of the weather (recording of local variations – wind direction and strength, visibility, temperature and cloudbase – only started in mid-2004) on Prosperous Bay Plain has not been assessed in detail for long time enough. Currently weather readings are being gathered but at least one year’s and preferably three years’ recordings will be needed.

The report later went on to express its concerns about the local weather conditions, and to recommend a series of flights over Prosperous Bay Plain to assess the design before the project commenced.

There are doubts concerning local weather conditions, in particular, there are doubts about the amount of turbulence that could be expected on the approaches (due to the elevated location of the surroundings bluffs). Il is therefore recommended that, regardless of which aerodrome option is chosen and before the runway designed is finalized, a charter aircraft should fly test the approaches to and departures from the intended runway. This would ensure confidence in the final design and may be regarded as part of the design process applicable to St Helena’s circumstances. The most suitable aircraft for this would be the four-engines L 100 Hercules: this could route via Ascension Island for refueling and crew rest stops.

I wonder if these test flights ever took place. I have a strong suspicion that they didn't, but will be happy to be proved wrong.

The future of the island has been predicated on self funding though the expansion of tourism, which it has been hoped would build up to around 10,000 a year by 2020. This is now looking like a very sick joke, with no alternative plan in sight.

Were it not for other more pressing matters engulfing the UK's political class at the moment I think this would have been treated as a major political scandal. Not only has it been a waste of taxpayer's money, but more importantly it is a very real tragedy for the residents of St. Helena, and particularly for those who have invested in tourist related projects.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

St Helena Airport: A Serious embarrassment for the Government?

Lord Ashcroft has apparently had to abandon his plans to fly to St Helena in his private jet because his pilot thinks it would be too risky to do so. He has written an extensive article for Conservative Home which makes for far from happy reading. In it he reveals that he has had access to the reports of the pilots who have so far landed on the island, and clearly they make him wonder whether the airport will ever be serviceable.

Although aviation experts are working hard to try to find a solution to the windshear problems, there is a real danger that the airport could become a hugely expensive “white elephant” and a terrible embarrassment to the British Government.

If his fears are correct, this will be absolutely devastating for the island, and even if it is not and an eventual solution is found, it will in the meantime cause very serious hardship for many on the island, particularly those who invested heavily in the expectation of a massive increase in tourism.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

St. Helena Airport: Category C Awaits.

St. Helena Airport

The picture of the runway on Prosperous Bay Plain, towering some 1000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, does not particularly inspire me with a wish to fly to St. Helena.

There seems to me to be little margin for error, and the nearest alternative landing place is a mere 700 miles away.

Funchal Madeira - a Category C Airport

Clearly any pilot flying in will need to be well prepared to deal with the potential challenges. The regulations require that the pilot in command of any route must have adequate training for the route and take off and landing at the airports on the route, including alternatives that would be used in emergency. This includes knowledge of terrain, minimum safe altitudes, meteorological conditions and communication facilities.

Funchal: 2000 extension partly over the sea to lengthen runway

Airports are classified into categories A, B and C. Those in category B have issues regarding approach, weather, unusual characteristics and performance limitations. Category C airports pose additional problems in approach/take off/ landing. It is clear to me that the best St. Helena can hope for is a category C. Among those in that category in Europe are Funchal, London City, Innsbruck and Gibraltar.

Clearly once the meteorological parameters are better understood, special procedures will have to be put in place and appropriate training given to those pilots who are allowed to fly in and out of the airport. It strikes me that it will take some time for all that to happen, so it is probably unnecessary to say goodbye to the R.M.S. St. Helena just yet.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène: La conquête de la mémoire (6 April to 24 July 2016)

A Hat that Napoleon Wore on St Helena

The current exhibition at Les Invalides is the climax of several years' work and planning by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Honorary French Consul and Curator of the French Properties on St. Helena.

Napoleon's Uniform

Michel has had the unstinting support of the Fondation Napoléon, and has worked in collaboration with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the National Museums of Malmaison and Bois-Préau, the Musée de l'Armée and the St. Helena Government.

Wash bowl used during the captivity on St. Helena

The recent visit of the former Governor of St Helena to Paris and Corsica is a symbol of unprecedented collaboration between the French Properties and the St. Helena Government, designed to promote tourism as the island prepares for the opening of the new airport.

Napoleon's bath without the wooden case that remains on St. Helena

As we went round the exhibition we became quite emotional seeing videos of present day St. Helena, a place from which like Napoleon we haven't really been able to escape.

It soon became apparent though that this is a once in many lifetimes exhibition. Here are items familiar from visits to Longwood, here too are unfamiliar and often grander ones from other museums, a totality unlikely ever again to be assembled in one place.

Here are clothes Napoleon wore, fine china on which he dined, a fine washbowl and ewer, a chess set on which he sometimes played, not that well,

to while away the endless hours of boredom,

the bed in which he died, and much else besides.

Here are pieces of furniture from Longwood, beautifully restored, that will eventually be shipped back to St. Helena.

Amongst the paintings on display is the now familiar one by James Sant, produced for Lord Rosebery around the turn of the twentieth century, and another painted around the same time by the little known Austrian painter, Oscar/Oskar Rex.

Oscar Rex, "C'est fini: Napoléon Ier à Sainte-Hélène"

This painting has been loaned from Malmaison, which we also visited on this trip.

The Exhibition has justifiably received great critical acclaim by UK as well as French journalists. Here for example is the one from the Guardian , which rightly gives a big tribute to the painstaking work done by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau over many years. It cannot though escape the English obsession with Napoleon's alleged smallness, here we find references to the "little corporal" and his "small feet." Thankfully we are spared mention of more private parts!

As we were walking round Napoleon's tomb after the Exhibition, we got a very pleasant surprise.

With Michel Martineau at Napoleon's Tomb

Here quite appropriately was Napoleon's representative on earth, showing a party of English speaking journalists around Les Invalides prior to a guided tour of the Exhibition.

Our meetings with Michel capped a great visit to Paris. My only regret is that I did not go round the exhibition a second time. It would surely have been well worth it.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

St Helena Airport: To Be or Not To Be? That still seems to be the question.

St Helena Independent 13th May 2016

Another confusing week goes by and still we are no clearer as to when/if commercial aircraft will be able to use the new airport than at the time of my previous posting on the subject. The St Helena Independent on its front page has a photo which perhaps suggests a solution!

First the good news. The airport has received certification

Another major milestone for St Helena Airport was achieved yesterday afternoon, Tuesday 10 May 2016, when Air Safety Support International (ASSI) issued an Aerodrome Certificate to St Helena Airport - having been satisfied that the Airport infrastructure, aviation security measures and air traffic control service complies with international aviation safety.

So far so good. Then we are informed that this certification is valid only until November 9th 2016, at which point it will need to be re-certified. This apparently has nothing to do with the wind problem, and one rightly asks what will happen if commercial flights have not even begun by that date? 

The official update dated 9th May is worth studying for clues:

Work is now underway to gather and analyse data and put in place mitigation measures to deal with turbulence and wind shear at St Helena Airport - to ensure the safe operation of regular passenger flights. The safety of aircraft and passengers is, of course, paramount.

At present there are no plans to extend the service of R.M.S. St Helena which will shortly be on its way to London, but SHG

will ensure passenger and freight access to St Helena & Ascension. The Governor is chairing high level meetings twice a week to work on access to the islands.

The question of medical access is also being examined: presumably medical flights will involve smaller planes which will not run into the same problems as larger commercial aircraft?

Then we come to the real issue:

Specific steps are being taken to address turbulence and wind shear at the Airport, involving analysis of all available and new data, including weather data, plus formal reports from pilots of all aircraft that have landed at St Helena Airport. Reports on the strength of wind conditions will be maintained and regularly updated and consideration will be given to installing specialised wind measuring equipment Computer modelling is also being developed to test different scenarios, and some wind tunnel work may also be carried out.

I wonder how many planes have so far landed on the new airport, and therefore how extensive is the date set on which modelling is to be based?

The statement ends with an assurance that all parties are working flat out to commence commercial flights at St Helena Airport at the earliest possible opportunity and that the public will be kept fully informed.

I can't help feel a little sorry for the new Governor who must have expected a Royal Visitor at Plantation House for the grand ceremonial opening of the new airport, but is instead faced with a host of problems which neither she nor anybody else in the St. Helena or Westminster Governments expected, because nobody would listen to Brian Heywood the retired airline pilot who warned the Prime Minister back in 2010. I am even more sorry for those who have invested time and money in preparation for the expected influx of tourists.

I am also a little surprised that the press in the UK has largely ignored this problem. But things closer to home are perhaps not quite going according to plan either.

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Disturbing Story of St. Helena Airport: No Happy Ending Yet in Sight

St Helena Independent 29th April 2016

You really could not make it up: £285 million spent on building an airport; plans made for a member of the Royal Family to fly in for the official opening; critics silenced and an air of expectation as the first plane flies in from South Africa on a calibration run. On its first approach it makes an aborted landing but on the second attempt lands successfully; celebrations all round. Then a few days later the bombshell: the St. Helena Government announces that the airport opening has been delayed because of [unanticipated?!!] windshear problems.

On my first visit to St Helena in 2008 I met a retired British Airways pilot on the R.M.S. St. Helena. He poured cold water on the idea of building an airport on Prosperous Bay Plain. The wind conditions will be too hazardous he told me, no reputable airport will fly in, and he said that he personally would not fly there.

I have often thought about my conversation with him, and wondered whether SHG had really understood the problems that he had raised. Today the St. Helena Independent has published a letter from the same man.

It reiterates what he told me 8 years ago:

The operational problem at St Helena Airport is of no surprise, I’ve been waiting for this to surface since the construction started. There is nothing anybody can do about wind shear, it is a meteorological phenomenon, the airport authority can discuss it for evermore, but nothing will change the local topography.

It appears that the letter writer lives in David Cameron's constituency, and made his concerns known to the Prime Minister:

If an airport is built on the edge of a near vertical 1000 foot cliff the prevailing wind is bound to cause problems. I predicted this to The Independent, to the consultants, and to my MP who is David Cameron. At the time Andrew Mitchell was in charge at DFID and his reply was that the airport would only be “challenging”. To grumble about wind shear at St Helena airport is a bit like grumbling about the heat in a newly built Sahara airfield in the summer, it is entirely predictable.

Our retired British Airways pilot speculates that Comair, the South African airline that was given the contract to fly to St. Helena may simply refuse to do so.

Letter by retired B.A. Pilot to St. Helena Independent

The St. Helena Independent, suggests that in its current state the airport may only be serviceable for small planes, including private jets, that can delay ascent until they are over land and do not need such a long runway.

The decision to build the airport was taken by the new coalition Government in 2010, and at the time was widely credited as being compensation to Lord Ashcroft, a strong proponent of the airport, who had bankrolled the Conservative Party only to see David Cameron fail to win a majority. I blogged about this in July 2010, shortly after the decision was announced, and on April Fool's day in 2012:

April Fools Day 2012

I have long had a nightmare that the result of the airport project will be to provide a landing place for executive jets. It would be the height of irony if Lord Ashcroft was one of the few people on the globe able to fly there.

I have to say that I have got absolutely no pleasure in writing this blog, it is heartbreaking for so many people, and I hope the fears expressed prove unfounded. There is no Plan B.

I have often joked ironically that nothing can possibly go wrong on St Helena, e.g. my post on Atlantic Star Airline last year. I no longer find it funny.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

What the Governor Did Next: From St. Helena to Paris and Ajaccio

Governor Mark Capes leaving St. Helena

I don't think the Governorship of St. Helena has ever been an easy job, and Governor Capes has probably had a rougher ride than most. He has now made way for a new governor, Lisa Phillips, the first woman to hold the post.

The Governor and his wife waving goodbye to St Helena

His leaving coincides not only with the completion of the airport, but with the opening of a major exhibition in Paris, to commemorate Napoleon's final years in captivity on St. Helena.

Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène

This exhibition, which it is hoped will promote tourism to the island, has for sometime been planned, in association with the Fondation Napoléon, by the indefatigable Honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.

As long ago as 2013 much of the furniture at Longwood, including the famous billiard table and bath, were packed and shipped off to France for restoration in preparation for the exhibition.

Governor Capes at La Maison Bonaparte in Ajaccio

On leaving St. Helena the Governor and his wife made their way to Napoleon's birthplace, Ajaccio in Corsica, to promote the forthcoming Exhibition and the island of St. Helena.

Governor and Mrs Capes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the right a beaming Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

From Corsica they travelled to Paris for the opening of the Exhibition, and attended an official reception at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Governor at Napoleon's Tomb

The most symbolic event in this tour was the visit to Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides, where the Governor was photographed inside the crypt.

A wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the roof of Les Invalides

No previous St. Helena Governor has made an official visit there, and I know of no official British Government representative that has done so since Queen Victoria visited in 1855 and bade the Prince of Wales kneel down before the Great Napoleon - an event that has tended to be overlooked in the mainstream historical narrative!

The Governor in lighter mood: Sir Hudson Lowe and those of his ilk would not be amused

Michel Martineau is to be congratulated on the success of this project, which he sees as a triumph for l'Entente cordiale, a cause very dear to the heart of his predecessor and adoptive father Gilbert Martineau, who in more enlightened times was even awarded an O.B.E.!

Mention should also be made of the contribution of the Fondation Napoléon, without whose support neither the restoration of the Generals Quarters at Longwood nor the current exhibition would have been possible.

The Exhibition, which I can highly recommend, runs until July. It has received much critical acclaim in France and beyond. I will say more about it in a later post.


I have been informed by Mrs Capes, see messages, that they actually went to Corsica after Paris. I have left the blog as originally posted to do otherwise would involve quite a rewrite, but I always try to maintain accuracy. There is enough misinformation and disinformation on the internet without me adding to it.

Monday, 18 April 2016

St. Helena Airport Update

Flight departure board, O.R. Tambo International Airport Johannesburg

Today for the first time St. Helena's name appeared on an airline departure board. A British Airways Boeing 737-800 registration ZS-ZWG, operated by Comair, the actual plane that will be used when commercial flights begin, left Johannesburg and arrived at St Helena this morning.

The Boeing 737-800 making its first landing on St. Helena

This is indeed an historic day for St. Helena, but for my part one tinged with a little sadness.

I feel very privileged to have been able to visit (twice) on the RMS St. Helena before the obliteration of the island's historic isolation.

I do not relish the thought of hen parties and stag nights at Longwood, though I appreciate the importance to the islanders of having quicker access to the medical facilities that South Africa has always provided.

As to the supposed aim of the project, to make the island financially independent from the UK Government, I remain a sceptic.

I am also fearful of the impact of commercial development on the people of St. Helena and fear that it will in time lead to an exodus of many of its poorer inhabitants, unable to compete for already over-priced housing with incomers in private jets with very deep pockets. I know though that St. Helena had no future as a remote and rarely visited museum, and I hope that my worst fears for the future of its inhabitants prove unfounded.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

St. Helena 1821: The Malingering Ex-Emperor

Mme Betrand visiting Napoleon, from Inside Longwood

Reading the introduction to Thomas Keneally's excellent novel Napoleon's Last Island, reminded me how Sir Hudson Lowe, Sir Thomas Reade and Government supporters in England refused to believe that Napoleon was ill. They were convinced that it was a plot to try and engineer his return to Europe, and that he would be miraculously cured once he were put on a ship away from the island.

On March 30th Lowe called at Longwood and said that Napoleon had not been seen for 12 days.

"If it should be necessary the door of his room will be battered down and an entry made by force."

When it was pointed out that this would kill Napoleon, Lowe answered, "No matter, I would have it done." (1) Shortly after Napoleon agreed to see Dr Arnott, the British physician, and even he claimed, surely influenced by Plantation House, that Napoleon's problems were largely psychological. By mid-April though Arnott was coming round to the view that Napoleon was dangerously ill, and he himself began to lose the trust of Lowe. (2)

The Morning Post, in an article published 25 days after Napoleon's death, provides an insight into the mindset of the Government and its supporters:

The information respecting BONAPARTE's dangerous illness is deemed extremely doubtful in those quarters to which we should be most most inclined to look for correct intelligence. Several modes of obtaining the release of the EX-EMPEROR have in vain been tried; and a rumour that he is likely to expire would afford topics for a new brief in the hands of his interested and mischievous agents. Already do we see his name chalked on many of the walls of the metropolis; and we should not much wonder if endeavours were used to instigate public meetings upon the subject of his great merits and distresses! - At all events, we are quite sure, from what we already witness, that if this rumour continues in circulation, there will be a great deal of insidious writing upon the subject." (3)

Perhaps the most surprising passage is the section I have put in bold: further evidence of the support for Napoleon so often overlooked by historians. Apparently when the news of Napoleon's death finally reached England in July, placards appeared in the streets urging people to go into mourning.(4)
1. Napoleon at St. Helena, Memoirs of General Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace (Cassell 1953) p. 134
2. Bertrand p. 161
3. Morning Post, 30th May 1821
4. Cobbett's Political Register, July 14th 1821. Apparently a "discredited" report of Napoleon's death reached England by mid June. Leicester Chronicle, 16th June 1821