Saint Helena, the island that never conquered Napoleon
The best-kept secret in the entire South Atlantic: cliffs 400 m high, more than 120 km² of hills, hidden valleys, inhospitable deserts, misty forests and a volcanic past. As lush as it is inaccessible. So remote in fact, that it was chosen as the place of exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, in the certainty that from such a secluded location “he would not disturb the repose of Europe”. St Helena, a small island belonging to the United Kingdom, is located in the middle of the ocean, 1,800 km from the south-east coast of Africa.
‘Ebony’ is the name given to the indigenous flora that grows on the cliffs.
A TURN AROUND THE ISLAND
Among the island’s most popular activities, a festival dedicated to walking takes place in March. In 2016, it comprised 12 routes through the island. In November, walking is replaced by running, with challenges in the hills and precipitous peaks, and marches along the coast.
Until now, getting there has been a real challenge: five days on-board the Royal Mail Ship, which departs from Cape Town. 2012 saw approval of construction of an airport, to open in 2016, with flights from London to Johannesburg, and a weekly connection to the island. Private transport is already operating, and regular lines with capacity for 120 passengers are expected to be incorporated. This will improve communications for the 4,200 inhabitants of St Helena, but will primarily increase the number of tourists, who today represent just 1,500 visitors per year. These travellers are attracted by its natural spots and the former presence of Napoleon. St Helena was discovered in 1502 by Spanish sailor João de Nova, who was serving the Portuguese crown, but it was covered up for strategic reasons—some time later, they would dock 1,000 ships a year at this location—until, in 1588, Captain Cavendish arrived, becoming the first English person to visit the island.
Every year, on 21 May, locals go to Jamestown, the capital, to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the island.
THE STAR PARK
Diana's Peak National Park, which stands 823 m above sea level, is the highest point on St Helena. It is home to indigenous species, like an endemic snail, the golden spider and the spiky yellow woodlouse.
Napoleon Bonaparte disembarked from Northumberland on 15 October 1815, four months after having been defeated by the English, at the Battle of Waterloo. “It is not a beautiful place; I would have done better to have stayed in Egypt,” the prisoner murmured when he first contemplated his tropical prison. At the start of his exile, he spent two months living at Briars Pavilion, open to visitors today. He was later moved to Longwood House, an old, damp farm, exposed to the strong island winds, and infested with mosquitoes and rats. The property is now managed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have conserved the original furniture and, through the Fondation Napoleon and more than 2,000 donations, visitors can see an exact replica of the room where the ex-emperor died, supposedly victim of stomach cancer, on 5 May 1821. Poisoning was not discarded as the cause of death.
The French government and Fondation Napoleon are promoting reconstruction of the cabin where Napoleon and his entourage were housed.
“Defeated and without glory”, Napoleon was buried in Sane Valley, in an austere tomb, set in an idyllic garden and enclosed by a small black fence. Today, it is one of the most-visited locations on St Helena. In 1840, his body was taken to Paris, where it rests at Les Invalides.
Due to its natural isolation, in 1900, the island also became the place of exile of approximately 6,000 Boers (Dutch colonists), prisoners of war from the conflict with the United Kingdom and South Africa.
St Helena is the South Atlantic ‘Galapagos’, due to its variety of plants, invertebrates and birds. These include the wirebird, one of the most endangered species in the world. There are nearly 500 specimens. You can also swim among whale sharks. Scuba diving—with underwater visibility between 15 and 25 m—is very popular. Many visitors also enjoy looking for humpback whales with their young, found there between June and October.
The combination of its military legacy and natural charm have contributed to forging the legend of this island. Illustrious figures like Darwin and Edmund Halley visited it to study its nature. Probably even Napoleon would be able to come to terms with it today.