As far as you can go- the Napoleon Connection

So it was the minutiae of the city that intrigued me, but, as tourism often demands,  I had to see the big sights of the island too.  There was no escaping St Helena’s elephant in the room.  On my first visit, the National Trust arranged a day where I could visit the locations connected to Napoleon.  If there is one thing everyone knows about St Helena, it is that Napoleon was imprisoned here.  They know that even if they cannot identify St Helena on the map, or have any idea of what St Helena looks like or how its history continued before and after the years Napoleon was on island.  Maybe the perception is of a harsh cruel environment with Napoleon banging rocks in a quarry like Nelson Mandela.  The truth is somewhat different but it was probably the period of most inward investment into the island so that it was a fortress able to hold the public enemy number 1 of the British people in 1815.  And sure the first sight of St Helena for Napoleon must have been forbidding  – the huge cliffs and cloudy uplands would scare the bravest.  The British invested a lot in building up the defences of the island in this period, less with the idea that Napoleon would want to escape, but that others might try to rescue him.  A small number of weak points existed in the natural fortress obtained from the local topography.  Where river valleys came down to the sea, walls were put across and sentry points set up.  Various signalling locations were established around the island and forts were set up.  Much of this was put in place before Napoleon arrived to protect this vital watering point for the British Commerce to southern Africa and Asia.  But as that had begun to decline, St Helena had become less important.  Holding prisoners like Napoleon was a way to bolster up the defences and attract money to the island.

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Was this Napoleon’s first sight of the island ?

Napoleon himself was kept in two locations.  Given that there were no telecommunications in these days, the Governor of St Helena only got the message that Napoleon was being placed in his care by a fast ship just a few days ahead of the boat carrying Bonaparte himself.  It was decided to renovate a house on the far side of the island but it would not be ready when the prisoner arrived.  So while his permanent accommodation was being made ready, he was housed in a small lodge on the Briars land just behind Jamestown.  I drove up the back streets of Jamestown and was greeted by Michel, the French Consul and his little dog.

One of the peculiarities of this little island is it is not under one sovereignty but two.  While the UK government control most of the island through their Overseas Territory of St Helena and its Dependencies, three pieces of land connected to Napoleon are counted as French Territory – the so called French Domains of St Helena.  The Briars is the smallest of these, not much more than a small garden raised above the road and a little pavilion – like a summer house, where Napoleon opted to live when under the residence of the Balcombe family who owned the main house.

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The French Consul and his dog

As far as you can go – Eddy Duff

The National Trust were the primary agency looking after the conservation of the Wirebird.  There were programmes to maintain the habitats as best as possible, stop the encroachment of non-grassy vegetation in or restrict development or the wrong types of agriculture.  They also had a breeding and monitoring programme.  The guy who ran this programme was one of the characters of St Helena.  Gavin Ellick was his real name but nobody every called him that and he laughed every time I said the name Gavin.  Eddy Duff was his nom du guerre.  He was the only Rasta on island.  He wore huge dreadlocks and talked in a mixture of the St Helena dialect and Jamaican terminology.  He lived his life outside the norms and was seen by many as a rebel.  But over time I detected a keen intellect and wide reading.  He introduced Edsel and me to some of his wirebirds one day.  We drove deep into the woods in the south west of the island and emerged at Broadbottom.  This area was famous for being the location of a second prison camp during the Boer War.  During the war from 1900-02, St Helena was used to house up to 6000 prisoners.  The first camp had actually been on Deadwood Plain, but with heightened friction between those Boers from Transvaal and those from the Orange Free State, the latter were moved to Broadbottom.

Eddy had such a strong bond with the wirebirds, they trusted him so perfectly.  It was a huge privilege to stalk across Broadbottom just a couple steps behind him.  Positioning ourselves so we were slightly obscured by Eddy’s tall gangly body he was able to get us within a few steps of a wirebird on her nest.  When so close the differences from other lapwings was obvious; the wirebird was thinner and longer legged, and its colorations more speckled.

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Eddie playing deck cricket on the RMS

Eddy was a tough nut to crack with our own work as he was more keen on being in the field than chained to a computer, but we managed to make some progress over the visits.  He just needed a simple database to monitor the number of pairs of birds, the eggs and chicks, and a map showing all the potential habitats.  We did see the odd wirebird in unfamiliar locations where there was tree cover or in settlements, but the grassy plains were essential for the breeding programme.