THE JAMESTOWN TOUR | Sharon Henry
Did you know, in her heyday St Helena welcomed over 1,000 visiting ships in a year? Or, that the ‘picture’ above the Arch is the Coat of Arms of the English East India Company who colonised and governed the island from 1659 – 1834? These tasty trivia morsels are dispensed to 19 attentive passengers, fresh off the cruise ship MV Voyager that is visiting for the day. Basil George of Magma Way Tours is the guide on the historic Jamestown walk.
Shading under wide brimmed hats the tour party troop behind Basil on the wharf, sea flat and glossy in the background. “You know, I’m the first face of St Helena that you see,” says Basil after introducing me to the party. “So anybody coming behind can only be an improvement!” Such is Basil’s humour. His happy nature is infectious and everyone soon joins in with the banter.
Basil is a self made historian and a fountain of island knowledge. Donned casually in jeans, utility vest and cap, his bright blue eyes twinkle as we move onto his favourite segment of the tour.
Jacob’s Ladder a concrete stairway rising 600ft up the steep valley side has 699 steps. It was built in 1829 by Governor Charles Dallas as a funicular to connect Jamestown with the country.
“We used to slide down the ladder after school,” says Basil of his younger years. “I’ll give a little demonstration, although I’m a little geriatric!”
He runs spritely up 20 steps and spreads himself across the top of the handrails. “So you take all the weight on your back, and use your hand and foot as brakes.” Much to his audience’s delight, he smoothly slides to the base, hands squeaking from friction. On touchdown he’s treated to a round of applause. I should mention, Basil is 79 years old!
We move on and I get chatting to a lady. “When this cruise was advertised it was sold out within weeks,” she tells me, “and it was taken out of the brochure because there was a waiting list. We’ve had to fight for a cabin, it’s been that popular.”
The Court House is the next stop. “In 1673 King Charles II gave a Charter to St Helena,” says Basil, “it gave our ancestors full English citizenship as if they’ve been living in East Greenwich in perpetuity.” This was revoked in 1983 through the British Nationality Act 1981. After some strong campaigning and lobbying, full citizenship was restored to St Helena in 2002 coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the island’s discovery.
A request was made for Basil to speak in ‘Saint’ dialect. “I’ve got a neighbour and his chainsaw wasn’t working see,” launches Basil. “We say ‘pa’ as an endearment. So I said, ‘Hey Gordon pa wha gorn wrone wit you chainsaw?’ ‘Oh,’ he say, ‘it be fut pa!'”
This draws a hesitant trickle of laughs as the tour party try to decipher the dialect. “We say ‘gorn’ for gone and ‘wrone’ for wrong,” Basil explains. “When you analyse it; ‘it be’ is using old English, and ‘phut’ is a good English word [meaning to break down]. But I don’t want to be talking to you like that!”
We move on to the cobbled-stone courtyard of the Castle, home to St Helena Government. Basil shouts to be heard over squawking mynah birds. “We have very good Archives here going back to 1673. Going to our racial origins, my wife traced my family tree back to some of the early settlers. My grandmother’s family has a military background and she married a Boer prisoner. Another branch goes back to one of the Chinese who stayed here, and there are three branches of slaves. That’s the mix – pot luck however you come out!” he laughs.
“That’s a good gene pool,” quips a lady.
I trail behind the pack with a gentleman, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he tells me. “I’m now 76 and must see this before I pack up! I used to be involved with setting up television services in the Commonwealth and we always looked at St Helena and say when are they going to have a television service! But it never happened! This was back in the 50s and 60s. Being here is better than what I was expecting. No commercialism anywhere, everybody’s natural and seemingly happy and content. Perhaps you’re not underneath but it comes over as if you are all quite calm and enjoying life!”
We amble up through Main Street and cameras work overtime on the Georgian building facades.
One of the tour party is Brigadier Hugh Willing, a lecturer onboard the Voyager, covering military and colonial history. “I’m not paid,” he tells me, “but they cover all my expenses on the ship. I do one lecture a day.”
Hugh tells me he served with the Gurkahs during his military career. He also reveals he took command of the Falklands garrison in the early 90s. “I’ve been all over the world and I find St Helena one of the very most interesting places,” he tells me. “There’s so much history and it’s so beautifully preserved. This is definitely one of the highlights for all of our passengers.”
The tour finishes with refreshing coffee and cake at the Consulate Hotel.
Additional reference: Philip Gosse, St Helena 1502-1938