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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.

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