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The Emperor’s Island

The Emperor’s Island

Sep 2017

By Matthew Holt 

We watched Table Mountain dissolve into the horizon and then retired to our cabin, feeling queasy. Once we’d found our sea legs, though, we readily adapted to the rigours of life aboard ship, with deck cricket, beef tea, shuffleboard, and captain’s cocktails.

My wife Fiona and I were bound for St Helena, one of the remotest places on Earth. A small volcanic isle in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it was prized as a strategic resupply depot by the British till the advent of steamships and the Suez Canal turned it into a liability. Historically, its isolation also made it a useful spot to deposit awkward celebrity prisoners of the British Empire, such as a diminutive French emperor following his defeat at Waterloo.

After six days, we sighted land, which wasn’t an uplifting spectacle, the sheer black cliffs rising out of the heavy surf. And while, to be fair, it was a grey, sombre morning, no amount of sunshine would have made it look like Mauritius.

When Napoleon arrived here in October 1815, after a two-month journey aboard a British warship, his doctor called the island ‘repulsive’, while another of his entourage more graphically described it as something ‘the devil expelled while passing from one world to the next’.

With the island lacking a proper harbour, we disembarked the traditional way, descending a step ladder on to a floating pontoon, to be ferried ashore in small tenders. Virtually the entire population was down at the quayside to welcome home relatives or collect imported goods they expected, with the RMS St Helena representing the island’s lifeline to the outside world.

At 818m above sea level, Diana’s Peak is St Helena’s highest point.

Numbering about 4 500, the locals are a mixture of British and Portuguese settlers, African slaves, Chinese labourers and assorted visitors. While technically British, they call themselves ‘Saints’, speak ‘Saint’ (which sounds like a blend of English and Cornish, and is rather incomprehensible to the untrained ear) and spend the St Helena Pound (for which you pay a hefty commission to exchange with your hard currency and is worthless anywhere else).

Wedged in a narrow coastal ravine, the island’s main settlement, Jamestown, had a military air, with an old castle, ramparts, cannons and a dank prison (albeit the smallest in the world). The handful of pubs and restaurants felt like people’s living rooms – which most of them were – while the staple fare was tuna, served well done, with tomato sauce.

Fortunately, however, we hadn’t come on a culinary tour, but rather for hiking and diving. Despite the island’s foreboding facade, the hinterland was incredibly varied. We hiked up through dripping cloud forest to the high point, Diana’s Peak (818m), tiptoed across a knife-edge ridge to a bare volcanic bluff called the Barn, and scrambled down fixed ropes, past masked boobies, to swim in crystal-clear tidal pools at Lot’s Wife’s Ponds. The diving was also diverse, with poignant war wrecks and underwater grottos teeming with rainbow-coloured fish.

Our visit coincided with St Helena’s Festival of Running and – despite having driven around the island, rarely getting above second gear – we then injudiciously entered the marathon. We should have taken the hint when only five other entrants turned up for the start. At most, one kilometre of the course was flat, the rest a wave train of thigh-burning, knee-crunching hills. It was won by a British expat called Martin ‘The Machine’ Collins, who set a course record of 3:44. We walked most of the way and came in joint fourth – or third from last, depending how you looked at it.

Jamestown is the capital of St Helena.

Notwithstanding its pleasant hiking, enjoyable diving and torrid marathon, St Helena is best known for being where ‘Boney’ reluctantly spent his retirement. Several kilometres up the valley from Jamestown, we came upon Briars Pavilion, where Napoleon spent his first few weeks on the island while a larger residence was being refurbished. While riding past, Napoleon had been enchanted by the garden and the English owner let him occupy the summer house.

We received a less friendly welcome, however, finding the door firmly locked. ‘It’s closed,’ snapped a figure from the wings, before registering our rather puzzled looks. ‘Sorry. I forgot it’s a Wednesday,’ he softened, shuffling off to arrange access.

Actually, there wasn’t a great deal to see inside, with just a single room; it was quite a significant step down for an emperor accustomed to grand palaces. However, the garden – where Napoleon played hide-and-seek with his hosts’ teenage daughter, Betsy – retained its charm, with frangipani trees and fine views across to a waterfall.Further up the valley, on the crest, was Longwood House, a rambling converted farmhouse where Napoleon spent the subsequent five and a half years with his entourage of servants and courtiers. There are also supposedly fine views from here, though we were confronted by a curtain of drizzle. The damp weather was one of Napoleon’s constant gripes, though he had many; in fact, the only thing he praised about St Helena was its coffee. (He never sampled the island’s other beverage, Tungi, a firewater distilled from prickly cactus pears.)

St Helena is best known for being where ‘Boney’ reluctantly spent his retirement.

The Tricolour fluttered defiantly above the porch, reflecting the fact Longwood was purchased by Napoleon’s nephew in 1858; France maintains a consul on the island to look after it. Despite a hint of mildew, they’re doing a good job, with no sign of the rats that shared it with Napoleon. We were shown round by a delightful, pocket-sized guide, Ivy Yon, a retired primary school teacher.

Paintings on the walls told of all Napoleon’s roller-coaster adventures: brazenly leading the French Army across the Alps to seize Italy; crowning himself Emperor in 1804; defeating the Austrian and Russian coalition at Austerlitz to consolidate control of mainland Europe; the desperate retreat from Moscow in 1812, when the Grande Armée was devastated by the Russian winter; his impertinent return from exile in Elba to raise another army; and his final defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, in what British commander Wellington called a ‘damn close-run thing.’ 

There are also portraits of Napoleon’s two wives: Josephine, his Creole cougar, whom he divorced for failing to bear Boney an heir; and her successor, Marie-Louise, who produced a son, but then eloped with her escort en route to visit him on Elba. Ivy did her best to skirt gracefully around Napoleon’s jumbled love life, which included an affair on St Helena with the wife of one of his aides.

Proceeding through the warren of rooms, we came upon a billiard table, upon which Napoleon would spread out maps while dictating his memoirs; small holes drilled in the window shutters, through which he spied on British sentries patrolling the house; his cavernous bath, in which he’d soak for several hours daily; and his small iron campaign bed, positioned where he died in May 1821, aged 51.

Briskly dismissing conspiracy theories that he’d been poisoned by the British or his cuckolded aide, Ivy maintained (and science agrees) he’d simply died of stomach cancer, just like his father. He was buried nearby in Geranium Valley, inside four coffins in a three metre-deep pit, beside which a sentry was posted. Even in death, the British were taking no chances. Set in a lush clearing, it was a quiet, peaceful spot, though the poignancy was somewhat diminished for knowing the tomb was empty. In 1840, the British allowed his body to be taken to Paris for a state funeral.

The final stop on our Napoleonic journey was the elegantly colonial Plantation House, traditionally the residence of the British governor. The long lawn is home to the island’s oldest resident, Jonathan, a giant tortoise estimated to be about 180 years old, making him too young to have met Napoleon in person, though he might have seen his body depart. Inside were portraits of past governors, including Sir Hudson Lowe, who had the unenviable task of making sure that Napoleon didn’t escape – and infuriated the egotistical ex-emperor by addressing him as ‘General’, applying quite a strict curfew and deploying scores of sentries around Longwood House.

Napoleon had been charmed by the garden and the English owner let him occupy the summer house. 

While the current governor – the first woman to hold the post – doesn’t have exiled emperors to deal with, she does have her own elephant on the island, the new airport. Driving out to the eastern seaboard, we marvelled at the lengthy concrete runway ending abruptly above a vertiginous cliff. And when we got out to inspect the spanking new terminal, we were almost swept off our feet by the wind. Taking more than 10 years and £285 million to build, St Helena’s first airport opened to great fanfare in April 2016, only for the first commercial flight to almost be blown right off the runway. All further flights have been cancelled pending studies of wind shear, a factor noted here by Charles Darwin in 1836.

A few days after the marathon, the Festival of Running resumed with a race up Jacob’s Ladder. Built in 1829, these 699 stone steps climb at a one-in-one gradient for 281m, linking Jamestown to a hilltop fort. Illuminated at night like a stairway to heaven, in the harsh lighting of race day they appeared somewhat different. Nonetheless, the event was popular – at least compared to the marathon – attracting about 29 entrants, who started one-by-one, a few minutes apart.

Second off, I set out sprinting as fast as I could, arms and knees pumping, taking two steps at a time. After 10 steps, however, my pace faltered and I was hauling myself up by the handrails. When I finally reached the summit, my thighs were bursting, my lungs had imploded and it was more than 10 minutes before I could talk. By that time, the event had been won by The Machine, who took five and a half minutes.

After we’d been on the island a week, the RMS St Helena appeared in the bay for our return journey to Cape Town. Virtually the entire population came to the quayside to see the ship off, and by now we recognised most people and could almost understand them.

As the ship pulled away, St Helena receded to the horizon with a white cloud hovering over it like a halo. Though the island was still encircled by barren black cliffs, it didn’t look as repulsive now. Then again, Napoleon never got to enjoy it from this perspective. 

Briars Pavilion is where Napolean spent his first few weeks on the island.

Good to know   

Getting there

Pending new scheduled flights, the only regular service is offered by the RMS St Helena, which sails from Cape Town approximately once a month. The voyage takes five days each way. Prices vary, depending on cabin. Visas are not required by South Africans. Contact Andrew Weir Shipping, Cape Town, 021 425 1165,   

When to go

Any time; the tropical climate defies traditional seasons, though July and August are supposedly wetter and cooler.   

What to take

A rain jacket, warm clothes, swimming trunks and sunscreen.   

Useful tip

Take cash. Few places accept credit cards and there are no ATMs on the island. You can withdraw cash on a credit card at the sole bank in Jamestown.   


St Helena Tourism can assist you with arranging accommodation.

Source: AA Traveller

AA Traveller