Ceri Sansom explores the heart of St Helena’s history
As we attach to the rope in the bay with our harvest of freshly caught tuna and barracuda (wahoo) the children leap into the water and swim for shore. Meanwhile the less exuberant among us bundle with the bags into the RIB and head for the delicate negotiation of landing at the swimming platform. The weather is set fair, the BBQ is primed and the children have already been lost to the rockpools and fishing lines. This is the ritual of Lemon Valley, one of the most pleasurable ways – and there are many to choose from – of passing a day with friends on St Helena.
St Helena is an exposed little fragment of volcanic rock in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.It is one of the remotest inhabited places on the planet, with a single ship visiting the 4,000 people in its 47 square miles once every few weeks. We’ve had the privilege to call it home for the last 18 months. But for such a very small and remote place it has the most panoramic back story. Its creation as a seamount by two volcanoes has resulted in an iceburg of an island that rises on some of the highest sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere. It has the richest marine and terrestrial biodiversity in all of the UK (including its territories).In fact it is so rich it has a third of the UK's endemic species.It also has onion skin layers of history, reflecting the ebb and flow of the British Empire. Lemon Valley is an exemplar of how these layers of history overlie one another and also point to the future of this beautiful island.
This little rock was first encountered by what I can only imagine was a delighted Portuguese fleet under the command of Juan da Nova Castella. It became a secret port of call for Portuguese ships from India, where they would resupply on the goats they introduced to this densely wooded island, fresh water, vegetables planted in what is now the capital, Jamestown, and lemons, planted amongst other places at Lemon Valley.
In 1588 the English took up residency and continued to use it as a staging post, formalising the arrangement with English East India Company Charter from King Charles II to ‘settle, fortify and plant’ the island. Lemon Valley played its role in this with the fruit taken to re-provision the passing ships, until very soon there were none. With this re-provisioning came a slave tax; each ship was required to leave behind a slave, giving rise to the Chinese, Indian and Madagascan cultures of the island
The fortunes of St Helena rose and fell between rebellion and affluence, largely based on the leadership and prisoners of the times. However, one consistent feature was the demolition of the endemic forests for fuel and by the wild goats and boars. The once forested and green island became denuded with the cliffs letting go of their precious topsoil by the tonne, leaving the bleakly beautiful volcanic landscape we see today – a fighting challenge to any terrestrial conservationist. A trawl through the agricultural library demonstrated that Lemon Valley was particularly prone to this, with regular soil loss and rock falls through the centuries. (Although at one point Lemon Valley’s loose rocks did help repel one of the several Dutch attempts on the island.)
The next milestone in the island’s story was the arrival of Napoleon, probably the island’s most affluent and infamous phase (1815-1821). The fortifications were strengthened, to the point where any horizontal ledge on a cliff-face is now home to a slowly rusting cannon. Lemon Valley is no exception, with a beautiful if precipitous walk to the overlooking battery.
For me however, the most notable phase of Lemon Valley’s history is as a short lived home to liberated slaves. Shortly after the abolition of slave trafficking in 1840 the UK Vice Admiralty set up a fleet to intercept illegal slave ships between St Helena and West Africa. The task was immense, with the numbers of ships recorded on St Helena rising from 500 to 1,000 a year. Conditions the captives experienced were so appalling that words can do no justice to them.
To begin with these ships unloaded their weak and dying cargo at Lemon Valley, a valley so isolated from the rest of the island as to be, to all intents and purposes, not part of the island at all. Those liberated slaves were treated in the quarantine station and an outlying community developed. The separation of slaves and islanders was maintained, as much as practical, with recovering former slaves being transported to hardships as indentured servants overseas. Those who died – some eight thousand in total – were buried in the island’s thin rocky soils.
As the scale of the problem became apparent it was necessary to move the quarantine station to Rupert’s Bay, now the industrial centre of the island, but a gentle inhabited valley at that time. Some twenty five thousand people reached St Helena in the years 1840 to 1870. Seventeen thousand passed onwards. A few hundred managed to stay and bring an African influence to the island. This leaves its mark on the valley, away from the jolliness of the sea.
And so what now of Lemon Valley? It is all in the process of changing again. With the construction of an airport that will bring a weekly service to the island, Lemon Valley is being given a polish up. Since we arrived here the sea area has been cobbled and a swimming/ landing platform has been built. The Quarantine House has been refurbished to make a bunk house and the camping foreshore cleared. More archaeological work is being carried out by the St Helena National Trust to provide at least a hint at the depth of history that lies behind the BBQs, prime snorkelling area and rockpools. These are all simple and sympathetic improvements to a little valley that I have grown to love and is in a continual cycle of laying down layers of history that make this tiny scrap of land so very extraordinary.
Ceri Sansom has been living on St Helena with her family for the last 18 months.She is an environmental consultant and is currently Climate Change and Pollution Officer. She has delighted in her time on the island, which has reminded her that she enjoys walking and photography and enabled her to discover a love of diving and blogging. To find more about her time in St Helena visit www.the5gigabytediet.com.