You are hereA Sojourn to St. Helena (Part I)

A Sojourn to St. Helena (Part I)

Some years ago I had the pleasure of a sojourn to the island of St. Helena, a barren rock in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. The East India Company, having been granted a charter to govern the island by Oliver Cromwell, decided in 1658 to fortify St. Helena and colonise it with planters.

It is on this basis that St Helena claims to be Britain’s second oldest colony, after Bermuda. It is also billed as the most remote inhabited island on Earth. That may explain why the island played host to Napoleon for the last six years of his life, in exile following Waterloo.

There was, and remains, but one way of reaching the island. By sea.
Picking up the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St. Helena at Cardiff, I was not to know that we had engine problems aboard. The RMS provides a crucial link with the island, transporting people and provisions to and fro. It is a compact ship, purpose built to facilitate the multi-million pound subsidy that the British Government put up for St. Helena following the collapse of the flax market, and thereby their economy, with the advent of synthetic fibres in the 1950s. Sea trials up and down Cardiff Bay were inconclusive, given the amount of smoke billowing out the back end, and regardless of the chief engineer’s continuous fiddling. The ship was on a tight schedule, so sail south we did nonetheless. Billowing smoke.

First stop Tenerife, and a few hours ashore. Not much to be said for that place at that time, other than dirty, smelly and best appreciated from offshore. Well offshore, through high-powered binoculars. Back to the ship, and heading south. Off the west coast of Africa the captain, Smith, enquired whether over that evening’s barbeque we would like to take a closer look at the city of Dakar. Smith reminded me somewhat of his namesake, the poor chap who skewered his boat on an iceberg. No icebergs in these latitudes, so why not? Moving closer in to the African Continent we could feel the dry heat and fine dust blowing off the Sahara far to the east. A quick peek at Dakar from offshore then it was back out to sea, once more heading south. That evening we experienced the “green flash” as the sun promptly disappeared over the western horizon.

Life aboard was reminiscent of a bygone age. Leisurely and gracious. The “order of the day” was slipped under the cabin door each morning. This spelled out the day’s events, the menu, seating arrangements and the dress code. I spent a fair amount of my time reading documents and in discussion with members of the crew, including two young Royal Navy officers who had been press-ganged to the ship for that particular passage. The rivalry between the Merchant and Royal Navies being such they were assigned commensurate duties aboard ship. Such as swabbing the decks and mucking out the livestock.

To my fellow passengers I must have come over as somewhat a dullard. Just the way I wanted it. Managed to get in a spot of clay pigeon shooting off the stern, in an attempt to keep my eye in. It was either the rolling of the ship, the pink gins, or both, that convinced me that shooting at sea is as much an unfathomable art as it is a science.

The crossing of the Equator ceremony was a lively affair, with Neptune and his trident in prickly attendance. Luckily no one was badly injured, given that our ship’s doctor, Donald, was over eighty years of age and spent most of his days propping up the bar. Dressed in tropical whites, of course, and vintage cricket boots with spikes removed.
Anchoring off Ascension Island the crew cast their line-and-hooks over the stern, reeling in sea creatures of every shape, size and colour. Stretching over the rail I could see a school of hammerhead sharks circling in a menacing fashion somewhat similar to my fellow passengers, in search of suitable prey to nail.

The ship’s purser-cum-entertainments officer had spent his previous life on a cruise liner. He was undeniably full of zest and ambition, though somewhat thwarted in transposing his large-scale entertainment model to our small-scale group. The karaoke evening was a mild success, although timid in parts with people teaming up to sing insipid songs such as Roxanne by The Police. Propping up the bar with Donald, it now was time for change. Fuelled by alcohol and foolishness, I decided for a solo Tom Jones number. Mentioning going solo to the purser, he moved me up the list. Dashing to pick up chunky gold chain, hairy chest number and sunglasses, I was back in time for the big entrance. Proceeding to belt out “It’s not unusual” complete with TJ’s pelvic gyrations, aimed specifically at the females in the front row, crowd support was secured. This is going well, or I so thought. Flicking the microphone cable around in gay abandon as one does as a newly discovered superstar, I had yet to realise I was about to be hoisted with my own petard. The rapturous applause at the end of the rendition preceded my falling off stage, legs hopelessly bound in cable. Scrabbling around, I managed to extricate myself, bow, and swiftly depart without waiting to collect any prize on offer.

The fancy dress evening was looming, as was the island of St. Helena. My fellow passengers and I were in pensive mood. Given that we had the French consul and some others of his ilk aboard, I decided that it would be most fitting to re-enact the great victories of my hero. Nelson. Horatio Nelson, with his Tropical Bird. At evening’s end, that man Captain Smith, who was judge and jury for the evening, voted in a Frenchman dressed as a Legionnaire, as winner. In this particular high-seas engagement Nelson came in last and, adding insult to injury, his Tropical Bird had magically disappeared. Smith deserved a damn good flogging! That said one has to be careful when it comes to sailors.
Land ho! The island was at last in sight. A solitary rock shrouded in cloud. We disembarked by lighter and, mindful of the Atlantic swell, had to carefully time our step onto the hard at Jamestown. We had arrived! Unlike a previous Governor of the island who, imperious in full whites and sola topee with plumage, mistimed his step and unceremoniously disappeared between lighter and pier, much to the bemusement of the local dignatories lined up on terra firma.

To be continued…

Text: © No Name Brand

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