Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Britain's betrayal of St. Helena

I was deeply disappointed to learn this morning that the British government has decided not to go ahead with plans to build an airport for one of its last remaining colonies, the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. The decision was actually announced on 17th December but received no publicity here in the UK. I only found out after seeing a new article on the BBC website about life on St. Helena.

I have a particular attachment to the island of St. Helena as I visited there in September, 1999. For many years prior to that visit I had a fascination with the idea of life on remote islands, and even dreamed about going to live on such a place. A chance contact with someone living on the island - Julian Cairns-Wicks ex-ZD7CW, though it was not in fact by ham radio as I had given up ham radio at that point - led to the opportunity to visit the island for a holiday.

Access to St.Helena is only possible using the island's ship, the RMS St. Helena. The shortest and least expensive route involves securing a place on one of the Royal Air Force flights serving the Falkland Islands which stop at Ascension Island, then voyaging for two days on the ship. I was fortunate to be able to travel this route (which then was a lot less expensive than the prices given in the BBC article) because the other, more expensive route involves flying to Capetown, South Africa and then a five day sea voyage. The journey still took five days each way but I did also get the chance to explore Ascension Island, another British colony that has no civilian population except for employees of the military base which is leased to the Americans and used by them for communications as well as a refuelling stopover for the Falklands flights.

It is difficult to convey my impressions of the island except to say that it cured me of the idea that going to live on a remote island was the solution to the problems that troubled me at that time. The island is very beautiful, and the climate warm if a bit humid for my liking. But it is also very small - only a few miles from one end to another - and nothing happens there without everyone soon knowing about it, an atmosphere that I found claustrophobic.

It is also extremely poor. The BBC article says that the average wage on the island is just £70 a week (about $110 US) and I don't think it was much less than that ten years ago. Not only that but the cost of things like food, clothing and fuel are far higher than they are in Britain due to import costs, while phone and Internet access is limited and extremely expensive due to the monopoly on communications held by Cable and Wireless. It is one of the few places on the planet where ham radio could have an actual practical benefit. In fact I seem to recall that I could have got a ZD7 ham license just by going to the government office and paying a £15 fee. However, my host's transceiver was not in use due to TVI and another ham I'd got in touch with left for South Africa for medical treatment on the ship I arrived on so I didn't have the opportunity to use radio at all while I was there.

The air of poverty about the place made me feel a bit uncomfortable about the fact that I was wealthy enough to go there as a tourist. I spoke to a group of young Saints (as the inhabitants are called) and they opened my eyes to what life on a remote island really means for those who live there. "I expect you think it is a paradise", they said, "but to us it is like a prison." Ordinary Saints can't afford the fares to travel off the island, even to seek employment. Their only chance of leaving is to get a job serving the British military bases on the Falkland Islands or Ascension, where they are used as cheap labour on two year contracts that don't even allow for a trip home to see their families during that period. Although they are low-paid, they can still earn much more working for the British forces than they could staying in the island, so those who get the chance are happy to go. There is little employment on the island, since it produces nothing of any value and there is very little tourism due to the difficult access.

There had been talk of building an airport for many years, even at the time I went there. Successive British governments had commissioned a series of expensive reports from consultancy firms, which were all eventually shelved as the political will was not there to spend the money and actually build it. Every delay meant that projected costs escalated, but in the last few years it had looked as if the airport was actually going to be built. If you Google "St. Helena airport" you will still find sites claiming that the airport was expected to be finished in 2010, or more realistically 2011 or 2012. So it was quite a shock to me to discover that construction hadn't even started, and that it was now not going to be built at all.

The island's ship, the RMS St. Helena, is already very old and was scheduled to be retired this year. It is subject to increasingly frequent breakdowns, which can sometimes result in a shortage of food on the island. Axing the airport project will mean a decision will need to be made on how to maintain access to the island. Building a new ship will not be inexpensive. If access to the island is left to private companies it is likely to become even more difficult and expensive, leaving Saints feeling even more isolated than they already are.

Saints, despite being governed by Britain do not have full British passports and do not have an automatic right to come to Britain. This is because governments of all persuasions here pander to the endemic racism in British society that views with horror the prospect of a large number of dark-skinned people suddenly migrating here. In fact there are only about 5,500 Saints and it is likely that most of those who did come would only stay for a few years to make some money and then return home. St. Helena has retained values that Britain has long since lost and people who have been born and bred there won't feel at home here. When the island of Tristan da Cunha was evacuated after a volcanic eruption in 1961 and the 300 inhabitants brought to Britain the majority took the next ship back the following year.

I consider the British government's treatment of St. Helena and its inhabitants to be disgraceful. Centuries ago St. Helena was an important staging post for British shipping and a key base for the British navy. It played a major role in securing the economic and military might of the British Empire. But the opening of the Suez Canal meant that ships going to and from India and Australasia no longer called there, and the development of artificial fibres meant that the island's only export, flax (which was made into rope and British Post Office mailbags) was no longer needed.

St. Helena is now just a drain on the British economy. Though governed by Britain Saints don't have a vote that counts in the British parliament. The island government, which is elected, is effectively just a local council. The island governor is a civil service post and is decided by Britain. The governorship is probably the Foreign Office career equivalent of being sent to Siberia so is unlikely to attract those of the calibre to fight for the island's interests. Much the same could be said of the other British government appointees, a few of whom I met, who nevertheless were enjoying the life of Reilly on British civil service salaries plus overseas allowances.

St. Helena is treated by the UK government as a cash sink with no votes to be won or lost by decisions that are made. Nevertheless the amount St. Helena costs the UK - £20m a year according to the BBC article - is trivial: far less than Britain hands out in aid to countries that were never part of the Empire or Commonwealth and a pittance compared to what is squandered on the vast European Union bureaucracy or has been pledged to the hopeless task of preventing climate change.

With a bit of imagination and a bit of spending, including the commitment to build the airport and make easy access possible, St. Helena could surely become self supporting. Although the island is small, it has a great potential for tourism. It is home to the place where the French Emperor Napoleon was imprisoned until he died, which would ensure a steady stream of visiting Napoleon enthusiasts. And it has some unique flora and fauna including the St. Helena wirebird, which would make it of interest to nature tourists. It would probably be a popular destination for contest groups and others looking for "DX holidays." The economy could also be boosted by establishing the island as a free port or a tax haven.

The way this country has turned its back on this former colonial outpost makes me ashamed to be British and I shed a tear today for poor forgotten St. Helena.
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