Jamestown, Saint Helena
15° 56' S 5° 43' W
Jul 31, 2009 22:48
Distance 2260km

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Last full day at sea

Some rather interesting local statistics were published in the St Helena Independent back in February. 

“Revised SHG estimates for 2008-09 show totalexpenditure at £18.78m with £11m [59%] of this being DfID subsidy. 

Government income coming from direct taxes, duties and fees raised on St Helena is £4.5m. This gives anaverage tax bill of £1,117 for every man, woman and child on the Island. 

988 people are employed by the government. Based on the recent census figures this is almost one quarter of the Island’s population. 

Government employee costs [including about £850k for pensions] are estimated at £6.5m for the current year.  Government employee costs take 85% of the total £7.7m government revenue which is raised locally from taxes, charges, revenue from government services and sales.”

The St Helena Independent – 27th February 2009  

These figures clearly show that the economy of St Helena is in poor shape and has been for many years, long before the current credit crunch.   

The author, Johannes Willms, who wrote an excellent account of Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, has some interesting thoughts on how the population became dependent upon state aid.  He relates how the islanders were originally largely self sufficient and had a thriving horticultural economy.  However with the increase in shipping around the last quarter of the 18th century, islanders moved off the land and congregated in Jamestown.  Most islanders lived by bartering goods with passing vessels.   

“When Governor Beatson took up his post in July 1808, he found himself obliged to state in a report to the East India Company that only some 90 acres were being used for growing potatoes and garden produce.  The yeilds obtained from that area were far from sufficient even to meet the requirements of visiting ships, which were having to pay exorbitant prices for fresh fruit.  The island’s 3,600 inhabitants lived almost exclusively on the Company’s stores, but the prices they paid for those foodstuffs, mainly rice and salt beef, amounted to only one third, at most, of their production costs.  The consequence of such management was that the value of imports required solely to sustain the population had risen from £51,030 in 1800 to £114,961 in 1808.” 

The arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in October 1815 led to a economic boom, based upon state spending, which I will touch upon later when we get a chance to visit Longwood House.  However once Napoleon was dead and the British Garrison much reduced, steady decline resulted.   

I suppose we could blame St Helena’s problems on the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez (Suez Canal Company), who constructed the famous waterway between 1859 and 1869.  It is interesting to note that this was a French company, however it would be a leap of faith to believe that they would construct this canel just to ruin St Helena and get even for the imprisonment of Bonaparte !   

St Helena did benefit from events such as the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) when thousands of POW’s were imprisoned on the island.  The military establishment was also increased during WW1 and WW2.  However since 1945 the picture has been one of general decline.  Johannes Willms noted that in the year 1845, 1458 vessels anchored in the roads off Jamestown, St Helena ; whereas in 1948, only 31 vessels did so.  A rather dramatic seachange. 

The islanders appear to be reduced to selling trinkets and tours to passing cruise ship passengers, however without a jetty even this is doubtful.  On the 22nd January 2009 the MS Aurora couldn’t disembark any of its 1741 passengers due to heavy seas.  It is estimated that the SHG lost over £20,000 in landing fees and islanders lost over £30,000 in trade and tours.  This illustrates the precarious position of St Helena and its population.  It’s time HMG either built the airfield or constructed a proper harbour.  The time for indolent procrastination is over ! 

The St Helena Development Agency website also paints a depressing picture, although it still pins its hopes on regeneration via an air link to the outside world. 

“The collapse of the flax industry in the late 1960s and the withdrawal of the Union Castle Shipping Line in the 1970s heralded a new era for St Helena, typified by reductions in private sector employment and export activity, rising out-migration and a population decline. The current economy is characterised by a high cost environment as a consequence of its isolation, small local market and long distances from its suppliers. 

St Helena's economy is dominated by the public sector and aid flows. Government expenditure is largely funded by various forms of UK financial assistance in the form of budgetary aid, development and technical co-operation funds. The public sector dominates the economy accounting for about half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Remittances in kind and in cash provide an important supplement to personal incomes on St Helena.” 

The statistics on the St Helena Development website are several years out of date.  It does state that approximately 200 small businesses employ around 900 workers on St Helena.  The largest business is Solomon & Company (St Helena) Plc, which employs 200 workers.  However it must be pointed out that this organisation is 63% owned by the Government.  The population of St Helena appear to be even more dependent on the public sector than Northern Ireland, a rather depressing thought. 

It is a literal truth that the RMS St Helena is the island’s only ‘reliable’ lifeline, which keeps starvation at bay.  It is interesting that Governor Beatson reported an insufficient acreage of potatoes back in 1808.  The St Helena Independent recently carried the following story: 

“On Monday unconfirmed reports reaching the Island raise fears that St Helena will have to brace itself for a potato famine.  The reports suggested that 2,000 bags of potatoes had been left on the dock-side at Cape Town. The reason is said to be the required certification was not available in time for loading on the RMS. 

The timing for the RMS missing vital cargo could not be worse. The UK call of the RMS means it will be more than two and a half months before there is another opportunity for South African potatoes to be in the Island’s shops and Island potatoes have become an endangered species.”

The St Helena Independent – 27th February 2009 

The island of St Helena may have made little progress in 200 years from a horticultural perspective, but we are keener than ever to set foot on this island.  We can’t wait until tomorrow ! 

But what of the events of today ?  I suffered from a bout of cramp in my leg in the middle of the night.  Fine if you are in a proper bed but not in an upper bunk in a darkened cabin on the high seas !  I was lucky I didn’t fall out of bed.  When I did eventually get up at 0730hrs I found that I was hobbling on one leg as a direct result of the cramp attack.  I felt rather like Long John Silver in Treasure Island. 

After breakfast it was time to consider landing administration for tomorrow.  First of all luggage had to be packed and left outside the cabin for collection at 1630hrs (main luggage), even though we do not arrive at St Helena until 0900hrs tomorrow.  Then we had to fill in immigration and customs forms in preparation for tomorrow.  I let Ruth handle the luggage whilst I concentrated on forms.  I took Erin & Ailsa up to the swimming pool and supervised their swim whilst filling in forms and writing postcards at the same time.  This kept me going until around 1045hrs when Ruth appeared on deck with mugs of Beef Tea. 

The whole family entered the Deck Quoits Tournament at 1100hrs but were all knocked out in the first round.  After lunch we all watched the movie ‘Mamma Mia’ in the main lounge.  This was especially appreciated by Ailsa who seems taken by ABBA music. 

We had just settled down to afternoon tea when I was called to the Information Desk.  The ship’s doctor wanted to see Ailsa and me regarding our Swine Flu questionnaire.  I had my temperature taken, questions were asked regarding my current health and my throat examined.  Ailsa got the same treatment.  Fortunately we both passed our physical with flying colours.  I informed the doctor that I would have visited before but was put off by the consultation fee – my Scottish nature!  Tomorrow we will have our temperature taken by a medical official from the St Helena Government. 

At 1700hrs we had a talk on landing administration tomorrow, followed by the showing of a recent documentary on St Helena.  We had Sundowner drinks in the Main Lounge with our compatriots from Northern Ireland and had a good moan about the governance of the Province and the excesses of public administration in general.  It certainly passed the time and the craic was good as they say! 

Dinner tonight consisted of an open air BBQ on the Sun Deck.  Perhaps it was a little chilly and windy outside but I have no complaints regarding the food.  We naturally congregated with our Northern Irish & Welsh friends during dinner. 

After dinner prizes were awarded by the Captain for the winners of all the sporting events held during the week.  I received an RMS Baseball Cap and fridge magnet for winning the Shuttle Board competition.  I donated the cap to Erin (for being runner up) and gave the fridge magnet to Ailsa. After dinner and the prize giving I retired to our cabin and left Erin & Ailsa in the Children’s Play Room with the Play Station.  I still have beer to finish in the fridge!  Clocks go back an hour at midnight so the early start tomorrow will not seem so bad.

Photos / videos of "Last full day at sea":

Deck Quoits Competition, RMS St Helena. Deck Quoits Competition, RMS St Helena. Deck Quoits Competition, RMS St Helena. Erin Burnett at the RMS St Helena playstation. Erin Burnett at the RMS St Helena playstation. Time to pack before lunch. Deck Quoits Competition.