Why Tourism Could Ruin St Helena Culture

St Helena was discovered on 21 May, 1502. The island celebrates 'St Helena Day' every year with a public holiday and a big event. In 2005 celebrations were held on Francis Plain.

St Helena was discovered on 21 May, 1502. The island celebrates ‘St Helena Day’ every year with a public holiday and a big event. In 2005 celebrations were held on Francis Plain.

DON’T FORGET THE SAINTS | Darrin Henry

For years we’ve been told, ‘the most special thing about St Helena is the people and its culture,’ and it would form the cornerstone of our new tourism based economy.

However, when it comes to marketing St Helena, experts driving the island’s tourism objective seem to be stuck on Napoleon and Jonathan the tortoise.

The popular language is still being used, but what’s lacking is an obvious strategy of how to frame this “special” feature as a tourism product.

Swimming in the sea, off the wharf landing steps is a favourite summer pastime for many of the Saints living in Jamestown, especially the children.

Swimming in the sea, off the wharf landing steps is a favourite summer pastime for many of the Saints living in Jamestown, especially the children.

What Is Saint Culture?

Against the odds we now have a certified airport, however, tourism development which should have progressed in tandem has stalled on a tortoise and the ghost of a French emperor whose remains lie in Paris. Don’t get me wrong, St Helena is fortunate to have these superb attractions. Longwood House and the French properties are world class as we’ve boasted a few times on this blog, but St Helena needs to draw inspiration from them.

Children visiting the Museum of St Helena are fascinated by a model of the old (pre 1990) RMS St Helena. For more than 500 years sea access has been the exclusive method of travel to and from the island.

Children visiting the Museum of St Helena are fascinated by a model of the old (pre 1990) RMS St Helena. For more than 500 years sea access has been the exclusive method of travel to and from the island.

The Archives, located in the basement of The Castle, in Jamestown, a real treasure trove of St Helena history.

The Archives, located in the basement of The Castle, in Jamestown, a real treasure trove of St Helena history.

So what is Saint culture? It’s a debate I’ve had quite a bit over recent months, especially with expat friends on the island. I don’t blame them for having to ask the question. Three years ago Saint candidates in the local general election listed ‘preservation of culture’ on their manifestos, but were unable to define ‘culture’ when questioned. But most Saints at the time, myself included, would have floundered for an adequate response.

Why is this?

Why We Shot The Rabbits

My own explanation: before now, (before the great economic drive), as Saints we’ve never had reason to define our culture. It was just life, an everyday existence.

Fishcakes was just dinner, a tasty dinner, yes, but not a culinary specialty. Fishing itself was survival, not something worthy of documenting; how else do you explain the ridiculous cliffs my father climbed down for the sake of a dozen mackerel. Families kept donkeys to carry spring water for household use. When there was prolonged rain, water was collected instead off asbestos roofs and stored in 45 gallon drums for daily consumption.

Fish has long been a staple of the Saint diet. On St Helena these bullseyes are a favourite fish for the dinner table.

Fish has long been a staple of the Saint diet. On St Helena these bullseyes are a favourite fish for the dinner table.

Some of these stories have been passed down to me but some I remember. Like two or three shotguns standing in the corner of the living room in my granddad’s house as being normal; these were for shooting rabbits, an important source of food.

Now it would appear these facets of our history are actually fascinating to visitors.

More Than Bread and Dance

The unique character of St Helena comes from its people, the Saints. The drive to develop a sustainable economy based on tourism needs to make the people of the island a priority in order to be a success.

The unique character of St Helena comes from its people, the Saints. The drive to develop a sustainable economy based on tourism needs to make the people of the island a priority in order to be a success.

Boat handling and ship work in virtually all sea conditions is normal for Saints. Recently I was surprised at how alarmed visiting yachties were by the heavy swells at the wharf while Sharon and I just jumped in the ferry boat with 100% trust in the operator.

Weddings at Christmas, working off-shore, building our own homes, half day Wednesdays, car rides on Sundays and the Scout band marching down Main Street is just how things are; it’s what we do.

Delicious tungi fruit direct from the bush, a pot of bacon plo in the open air and ‘bread and dance’ are flavours we take for granted; it’s just food.

Only it’s not just food. It’s not just a parade. It’s more than just a means of bringing goods into the island.

Fifty years ago there were 1,600 donkeys on St Helena, they were an important asset for rural families. Since that time their numbers have steadily declined and today there are probably less than 30 on the island, the majority being at the St Helena Donkey Home. This is Stag, one of the few family donkeys still walking the roads although he enjoys life more as a pet than a working animal.

Fifty years ago there were 1,600 donkeys on St Helena, they were an important asset for rural families. Since that time their numbers have steadily declined and today there are probably less than 30 on the island, the majority being at the St Helena Donkey Home. This is Stag, one of the few family donkeys still walking the roads although he enjoys life more as a pet than a working animal.

We have only wind shear left to overcome now to join the modern age of jet travel, and suddenly this humble existence that we’ve simply called, ‘life,’ turns out to be our culture; our unique selling point. This is what makes us Saint and makes St Helena special. I know this better now.

Loyal And Dysfunctional

Tourists will be arriving by airplane soon; this culture is what they want to taste, to hear and feel. It can meet the demand of expectation for a unique experience to snap, upload and share.

Much more difficult to quantify to an outsider is the incredible depth and closeness of our community.

Some of the island characters you will meet in Sandy Bay, one of the most beautiful districts on the St Helena. The older generation can open the door to some of the most amazing stories about St Helena's recent history. It's worth having a chat!

Some of the island characters you will meet in Sandy Bay, one of the most beautiful districts on the St Helena. The older generation can open the door to some of the most amazing stories about St Helena’s recent history. It’s worth having a chat!

People from the ‘big world’ love the novelty of strangers saying “hello” on the street, but it’s more than simply being ‘friendly.’ Our community is a family. Like all families it has its ups and downs; we work, play, laugh, cry, love, fight, fall out and make up. We are as loyal and as proud as any family, and equally as dysfunctional as any family. But we are forever bound by our roots and the common grief of our family tree.

In the short walk down Main Street every face I see is a key that unlocks a deeper story. I know how this family’s rock was their mother; I recall how devoted the husband was to this elderly lady; as a boy I once climbed date trees with this child’s father; I recognise a mother’s striking features in a young child’s smile. The faces keep us forever connected with now and what’s gone before.

But the people I meet also know my story, my history, my loss. Explanations aren’t necessary. We just make time to say “hello,” and smile and perhaps chat about the weather, or the ship or the prices in the shops. From the outside we’re just being ‘friendly.’

How Do We Share Saint Culture

This one room museum by the roadside in Oscar, just north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was absolutely fascinating for the local stories it held. Preserved from the 1800s it looks out over False River. As we walked away we immediately realised a country cottage on St Helena, restored to an authentic look from our parents childhood years would be an amazing place to visit.

This one room museum by the roadside in Oscar, just north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was absolutely fascinating for the local stories it held. Preserved from the 1800s it looks out over False River. As we walked away we immediately realised a country cottage on St Helena, restored to an authentic look from our parents childhood years would be an amazing place to visit.

A typical, old style, St Helena cottage in the countryside. Restoring a house like this as an authentic museum piece would be very interesting for tourists, but even more so for a younger generation of Saints who are growing up in more modern times.

A typical, old style, St Helena cottage in the countryside. Restoring a house like this as an authentic museum piece would be very interesting for tourists, but even more so for a younger generation of Saints who are growing up in more modern times.

The house at no. 48 Hang Ngang street in Hanoi, Vietnam, where President Ho Chi Minh wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. The rooms are very simply furnished with authentic items from 1945 when Ho Chi Minh worked here. It's a fascinating and educational place to visit as everything is clearly labelled with interesting information about the period. This house was free to tour at our own leisure.

The house at no. 48 Hang Ngang street in Hanoi, Vietnam, where President Ho Chi Minh wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. The rooms are very simply furnished with authentic items from 1945 when Ho Chi Minh worked here. It’s a fascinating and educational place to visit as everything is clearly labelled with interesting information about the period. This house was free to tour at our own leisure.

So we have a culture. It’s as simple as it is complex, but I’m beginning to realise how special it is.

But it is also fragile. We are only 4,000 in number on island. If people aren’t made a priority in today’s tourism plan then tomorrow is bleak for the Saint identity.

This raises the question, is it possible to frame and share our hesitant, small island culture with tourists?

Of course it is. Other places already have it sussed, as Sharon and I discovered last year whilst blogging our way through seven countries around the world. To my untrained eye I would suggest it’s done in two stages: education and engagement.

Mass graves in Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields are marked by these simple thatched frames. This most simple of constructions delivers a chilling story as we read the information board that told us of the horror that unfolded here in the late 70s.

Mass graves in Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields are marked by these simple thatched frames. This most simple of constructions delivers a chilling story as we read the information board that told us of the horror that unfolded here in the late 70s.

In November, 2006, while testing soil samples in Ruperts Valley as part of the airport haul road planning, the excavator uncovered graves of slaves who had been freed on the island in the mid 19th century. During that time it is estimated as many as 26,000 slaves were brought to St Helena as the Royal Navy worked to suppress the trans-atlantic slave trade. After the discovery a team of archaeologists were brought in to investigate and uncovered some 325 bodies. The Saint identity is a mixture of diff erent ethnicities merged together and slaves are a key part of that mix.

In November, 2006, while testing soil samples in Ruperts Valley as part of the airport haul road planning, the excavator uncovered graves of slaves who had been freed on the island in the mid 19th century. During that time it is estimated as many as 26,000 slaves were brought to St Helena as the Royal Navy worked to suppress the trans-atlantic slave trade. After the discovery a team of archaeologists were brought in to investigate and uncovered some 325 bodies. The Saint identity is a mixture of different ethnicities merged together and slaves are a key part of that mix.

Exhibitions don't always need a dedicated gallery. This exhibition about the slave trade and how it impacted St Louis, Missouri, was on display in the corridors of the city's Old Court House. Very powerful.

Exhibitions don’t always need a dedicated gallery. This exhibition about the slave trade and how it impacted St Louis, Missouri, was on display in the corridors of the city’s Old Court House. Very powerful.

Education comes by designing interesting interfaces that allow tourists to discover local stories, history and traditions at their own pace. Museums of all types are key – we saw how a simple one room house by the side of a country road can be a fascinating museum. Food festivals, walking tours, interactive street art, plaques, information boards and themed public parks. Working government buildings open to the public with optional free tours. Who knew observing legislature in session could be so interesting? There are many ideas. Best of all, we enjoyed the photography exhibitions; educational, entertaining and sometimes harrowing, but always effective.

These interfaces, if done properly, then encourage informed engagement.

We visited this information centre on the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. It's cleverly done in that the centre is always open, there is no attendant, so visitors are free to spend as long as they like learning about the mountain. A good example of a tourist information centre that has low running costs.

We visited this information centre on the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. It’s cleverly done in that the centre is always open, there is no attendant, so visitors are free to spend as long as they like learning about the mountain. A good example of a tourist information centre that has low running costs.

The US state capital buildings are open to the public and free. The public galleries allow visitors to sit in and observe when the legislature is in session. This is us inside the Tennessee state capital gallery, on a day not in session. In the capital buildings we visited where the legislature or senate were in session we were not allowed to take photographs. I think visitors and locals alike on St Helena would really appreciate a guided tour around The Castle, in Jamestown. Once a week perhaps? Now there's an idea!

The US state capital buildings are open to the public and free. The public galleries allow visitors to sit in and observe when the legislature is in session. This is us inside the Tennessee state capital gallery, on a day not in session. In the capital buildings we visited where the legislature or senate were in session we were not allowed to take photographs. I think visitors and locals alike on St Helena would really appreciate a guided tour around The Castle, in Jamestown. Once a week perhaps? Now there’s an idea!

Our day out in Oxford, UK, the city of dreaming spires, included climbing the 99 steps of Carfax Tower. On the landing, half way up the tower, these information boards provide everything you need to know about the tower and the views. Very educational for visitors who want to learn more.

Our day out in Oxford, UK, the city of dreaming spires, included climbing the 99 steps of Carfax Tower. On the landing, half way up the tower, these information boards provide everything you need to know about the tower and the views. Very educational for visitors who want to learn more.

Tourist information boards around the world help people to quickly gain an understanding of the place. It's a very effective way to communicating the features of a town, village or scenic view. This is a typical information board we found useful in the town of Wallingford, in Oxfordshire, UK. A few have been set up on St Helena but really a lot more are needed.

Tourist information boards around the world help people to quickly gain an understanding of the place. It’s a very effective way to communicating the features of a town, village or scenic view. This is a typical information board we found useful in the town of Wallingford, in Oxfordshire, UK. A few have been set up on St Helena but really a lot more are needed.

This was a great idea for a tourism exhibit, which we saw in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the US. Instead of reconstructing this historical house, a large frame was built instead and tiles laid on the ground with inscriptions about what took place in this part of the building. We found ourselves walking from name plate to name plate, imagining the scene. Simple, but very effective.

This was a great idea for a tourism exhibit, which we saw in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the US. Instead of reconstructing this historical house, a large frame was built instead and tiles laid on the ground with inscriptions about what took place in this part of the building. We found ourselves walking from name plate to name plate, imagining the scene. Simple, but very effective.

Labour Take-On Time

Earlier this month Sharon and I held a photographic exhibition on St Helena, inspired by what we’d seen abroad. ‘Labour Take-On Time’ was our tribute to the men who do the most amazing job of unloading ships here. People and cargo on boats and barges has been a vital part of our culture for more than 500 years; during the days of sail over 1,000 ships called every year.

A primary school class enjoying a visit to 'Labour Take-On Time' at the Museum of St Helena. These children will grow up in the new age of air travel for St Helena.

A local primary school class enjoying a visit to ‘Labour Take-On Time’ at the Museum of St Helena. These children will grow up in the new age of air travel for St Helena.

‘Pride’ was the emotion many Saints expressed after viewing the exhibition plus ‘surprise’ at the realisation that ‘working ship’ (as we call it) is indeed a cultural phenomenon.

‘Appreciation’ was the sentiment conveyed by expats and tourists. The insight into this aspect of Saint life gave them a valuable and fresh perspective of the island people; an appreciation.

This is what good tourism products should do for St Helena. A meeting of pride and appreciation fosters mutual respect and paves the way for engagement; conversation.

As Saints, we have never been good at recognising or framing the uniqueness of our culture; we are going to need help.

But I know now there are people out there who are really good at this sort of thing. I’ve seen it around the world.

How great it would be to see it here too?

Fishing was previously a vital source of food on St Helena. In recent years as living standards have improved it has remained just as a popular but is now more done for recreation than necessity.

Fishing was previously a vital source of food on St Helena. In recent years as living standards have improved it has remained just as a popular but is now more done for recreation than necessity.

30 thoughts on “Why Tourism Could Ruin St Helena Culture

  1. Don’t ever lose your identity or culture. Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains we have been fighting for years to save ours. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great piece of writing encapsulating tourism in this century! This is the reason why people travel – to immerse themselves in other cultures, to engage with PEOPLE not objects, and then to have their own stories to tell back home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly that Cathy, it’s ‘people’ who make the place and will determine the quality of visit experience. Quite scary how that doesn’t appear to be a priority in development of St Helena at the moment. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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  3. Very interesting Darrin. As you highlight in your blog, often simple is better to capture the culture and charm. Having spent the last three and a half years on the island, the appeal to a tourist is its culture, people and the beauty of the island itself. I am not sure the current tourism strategy is quite capturing any of these elements quite right just yet…..

    Best wishes Trevor

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment Trevor. Absolutely agree, ‘simple is better’ after all, our story is not that complicated.
      Whatever the current tourism strategy is I have yet to see anything to give me confidence it is appropriate for St Helena.
      Good luck to you and Sarah in whatever you do next. I know my dad always talks about the hard work and dedicated voluntary service Sarah did for NASAS.
      Cheers 🙂

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  4. Guys, love this. I had a conversation with Chris Pickard about this very subject some months ago in the context of how St Helena can reclaim the unhelpful international press narrative which focuses on airport issues and international development funding. As a (born overseas) returning Saint, it floors me how much of a sanctuary for hope and peace this island is in the context of geo-political turmoil, social decay and violence which characterises so many societies in the world right now. Symbolically, St Helena is a spec of light in the darkness of the world. And this piece made it a little brighter. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment Stewart.
      Unfortunately in Dec 2015 Tourism here adopted a policy not to share our blog posts claiming local articles promoting St Helena would be interpreted as too biased. They decided to share only international press as this would be seen as more trustworthy for potential tourists making up their minds to visit.
      In your words, ‘it floors me’ how this is allowed to happen from within the island.
      Clearly the ‘unhelpful international press’ shapes the narrative when our own voice is suppressed.
      I agree the island is a ‘spec of light’ – always feels so peaceful and safe returning after a trip away.
      Thanks again for the comment 🙂

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      • Please let me have any blogs you wish to share with the world about beautiful St Helena and her people … I will be delighted to help advertise the island from the perspective of the Saints. In my journalistic experience ‘insider’ opinion is always the best, a view reinforced by your own superb articles about the island. Keep them coming Sharon and Darrin, always a joy!

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  5. I am Australian, married to a saint for 39 years this year. My children had their first trip to St Helena in 2005, and it gave them an understanding of who they are – what their “other culture” is. Perhaps I can give you my impression of the positives of St Helenian culture and what I think will give people who visit a special holiday.
    We loved the 5 day “cruise to St Helena from South Africa”. It gave us a chance to meet Saints and experience some wonderful food and that special Saint hospitality. I know, with the Airport being built, this will change, but I think that if you continue with the welcome you receive when you first arrive by boat and transfer it to the Airport – it will be a major wow factor in flying to St Helena.
    The change in flora & fauna from Jamestown to the top of the island is amazing. Our family took us on drives and showed us some amazing country. We went walking. We were spoilt with boat trips around the island and water skiing – all of these are part of your island life – even just jumping off the wharf – as mentioned above – is a great experience and one that should be experienced. Swimming in your beautiful harbour is an amazing experience – to see the fish swimming underneath you – to be so buoyant because of the saltiness and freshness of the water – the amazing underwater delights that are nowhere else in the world – and have been fiercely protected by a few very special Saints.
    There are other specials – Jacobs Ladder – WOW. The St Helenian love of fun – wow. Your history is pretty special too – it is more than a very famous french despot who spent the end of his life on this special place and an amazing Jonothan the tortoise. The world war and its consequences, the ruins in various areas on the island – they are amazing and show a special past (even the talk of Ghosts….I am sure that has lasted a few generations). The wildlife in your seas – the amazing tiny roadways – but mostly the joy that people great you with when you are obviously different – but family!!
    Jamestown – its wonderful buildings that have not been knocked down to make way for modern glass and brick – they have been lovingly updated with their originality intact. I will never forget the excitement on my husbands face when he walked into the house he lived in as a little boy – on the main street of Jamestown – and how amazed he was that it had been kept so well!
    Make sure you keep your culture – it has been forged over 100s of years. Like Australia, St Helena has grown with a mixture of nationalities and you have blended those nationalities to become a special and amazing people – you can keep that culture, even though many of you move to different parts of the world – as my husband – any many more of you have done.
    I am very proud to be part of the Saint family – and I know my children feel even more proud to be a part of the Saint culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely feedback Veronica, thank you. The Saint identity is indeed spread around the world but how lovely it is for the new members of the Saint families to discover their roots with a visit here and feel proud of that heritage. I love in particular your observation of the changing landscape from Jamestown to the top of the island – I think when the airport is up and running the landscape ‘introduction’ from Prosperous Bay and in to the central island is also going to be quite special.
      Thanks again and best wishes to you all. Cheers 🙂

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  6. Hi Darren and Sharon, this is an AWESOME piece! It made me stop and think about how fragile our culture/identity can be, and if we don’t preserve or document it, it can quickly get swept away by change and development. I am also in agreement with the post by “projectfishblog” this is your best post ever! I found it very powerful and moving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In Hanoi, Vietnam, on the street we went up to a noticeboard like the old government noticeboards that used to be all around St Helena. In it they had pictures of Vietnamese sporting heroes from international competitions and little descriptions of who they were, what they achieved for their country.
      Very interesting.
      Just one tiny example of a very low cost method of sharing culture with tourists.
      We don’t make it easy for visitors to St Helena to learn about Saint sporting achievements of which we have a few to be proud of. All this has to be part of our tourism product.
      Thanks for the comment Simon 🙂

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  7. Brilliant post ! Hope it will locally open a constructive and wide debate.
    As a foreigner living and observing this island for the last 31 years, I cannot agree more with the facts you are mentioning. I already witnessed so many aspects of the St. Helena culture disappearance; these vanishings should be used as a trigger to protect the remains of the richness of St. Helena’s intangible cultural Heritage.
    If many of these traditions, like the Boat handling and ship work in mostly all sea conditions, are not in a immediate danger of disappearance, I regret to say: the list of the intangible cultural Heritage on the island is very rich and is desperately in need of urgent safeguarding.
    I seriously hope Darrin and Sharon’s item will help blowing the whistle.

    And this is without even mentioning the linguistic richness of the the various districts of the island.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michel, thanks so much for your comment. Your own incredible work on the island is already such an inspiration for us so your considered feedback means a lot. On an island so small these things should be easier to identify and achieve than they are sometimes – but we must persevere. Cheers 🙂

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  8. Darren and Sharon, I have said it before and I will say it again, you guys are awesome, I enjoyed reading every bit of this, if the government of St Helena is not supporting you in anyway mainly financial, I hope they can and would because you both do a awesome job, and your work, has so much meaning to it, and judging from reading your stuff, this takes money and time, but I hope you both can keep this up because it’s very beautiful, love Kimmie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Kimmie, thanks for your kind feedback, always appreciated. What The Saints Did Next is just the two of us, no SHG funding, but to be fair it’s not something we’ve ever asked them for. We’re open to sponsorship offers though 😀 Yes, it does take time and money – time is usually midnight to 6am to get internet access 🙂 But it’s a passion as other photographers will also tell you and we’ve been producing material in various formats about St Helena for over 20 years now! Scary 🙂

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  9. To a large degree Saints will recognise the uniqueness and value of their culture when they are more exposed to the alternative cultures that will now mix more freely on the island. Things which, as you say, were “just life” before will take on a new complexion as essential parts of the very special melange that is saint culture. The real challenge will be to then solidify those things into an eternal and discrete cultural identity before they are diluted away by the forces of internationalism and multiculturalism. The key to that will be, as you also mention, pride. Australia went through a slightly more drawn out version of this process, federalising as a nation in 1901 but not really shedding the yolk of imperial rule until after WW1. Australia’s unique cultural identity was barely baked in the subsequent 50 years before US cultural imperialism became the dominant shaping force. It will take concerted and deliberate (organised) effort from all saints, but especially community leaders, to identify, codify and preserve what it means to be Saint, AND TO PASS IT ON, because it must be an inter-generational process. I for one, wish all the St Helena people the very best during this incredibly exciting time; its been a privilege to witness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alistair, appreciate your thoughful comment. We really do have an opportunity to get it right and learn the lessons from other places. Cheers 🙂

      Like

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