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.
What Is St Helena 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.
So what is St Helena Culture, or 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 is this: 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.
Some of these stories have been passed down to me but some I remember from my own experiences. 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. Little snippets of St Helena Culture.
More Than Bread and Dance
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.
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 St Helena Culture; our unique selling point.
This is what makes us Saint and makes St Helena special. I know this better now.
St Helena Culture – Loyal And Dysfunctional
Tourists will be arriving by aeroplane 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.
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 St Helena Culture
So we have a culture. It’s as simple as it is complex, but I’m beginning to realise how special St Helena culture 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.
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.
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.
‘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 St Helena 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?
I am an Australian directly related to William Carrol a former consul to various countries on St Helene. I emailed three people who have the surname Bagley in the email phonebook currently on St Helena who may well be related to me. But not withstanding the glowing reports of friendly Saints I received absolutely no response even though I provided a complete geneological history of how I am related to WIlliam Carrol via the Bagley family . I said I was planning a trip to Africa and wanted to to visit St Helena but this total lack of contact meant I have abandoned the idea. Even if these people don’t believe they are related to me a simple reply would have been nice instead of simply simply ignoring my query. It seems that not every body on St Helena interested in tourism..
Solicitor & Public Notary Victoria Australia firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for your comment Mal, sorry no one replied to your email. If you want to message us privately we don’t mind reaching out to see if they received your messages.
On another note, a St Helena Ancestor database was published recently on the Friends of St Helena website that may or may not be of interest to you.
The database, digitised like this, is a major first for St Helena and draws on a wealth of information which includes, all Anglican baptisms and marriages to 1920, all Anglican burials to 1988, all gravestones and memorials to 1996, those on the St Helena Regiment register, the 1827-1839 Fox Slave Lists and the 1841-1911 UK Censuses marked with St Helena as the birthplace.
The work to create the database was carried out by Dr Chris and Sheila Hillman and took over five years to complete. Chris is a former St Helena National Trust Director.
I’m not sure how I missed this one first time around, but I was linked to it from your latest posts, it was an interesting read, I wonder how you feel now you have tourists tramping all over the island, perhaps this needs a follow up article?
I can’t say that I’ve ever read an article, penned by our own family of Saints, so poignant – factual, thought provoking and delicately yet deeply intensive as this one; and so perceptive. I must read all of your postings. Your chosen career path in life (both of you) has brought a greater wealth to Saint Helena than anyone could have imagined. Long may you continue. Thank you.
Thank you Joanna for this lovely comment. It’s home and home always stirs up the emotions. Yes, please check out the other posts, hopefully plenty to evoke warm memories for you. Thanks again. Cheers 🙂
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.
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.
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 🙂
Great post, great feedback; you thoroughly deserve it…….onwards and upwards guys 🙂
Cheers Barbara, always good to know other people share similar views. 🙂 There’s hope yet!
Brilliant piece of reading!
Thanks Julie 🙂
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
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.
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!
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 🙂
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!
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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 🙂
Insightful and poignant. …Moving
Thanks Di 🙂
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.
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 🙂
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
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 🙂
You had me with your title because I couldn’t agree more. In my opinion, this is your best post ever. There is a lot of wisdom here!
Reblogged this on scumezza and commented:
Brilliant story guys! 😀
Thanks Andrea 🙂
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.
Thanks Alistair, appreciate your thoughful comment. We really do have an opportunity to get it right and learn the lessons from other places. Cheers 🙂
Great blog post, thought provoking! Thank you Darrin and Sharon 🙂
Thanks Lally, always appreciate your support. Cheers 🙂