Isle of St. Helena

The Edinburgh’s departure for Tristan da Cunha was delayed nine days so I had a lot of free time in Cape Town. Unlike four years ago, when I went book shopping after I returned from Tristan, I decided to use this time to shop before I left for the island. That meant that I would have to lug my suitcase full of books to Tristan and then back again. In the way that things turned out, I’m glad I did this, as I had plenty of books to preoccupy my time while on the island and during the ship journey back to Cape Town. I plan to book a flight home once I arrive in South Africa and since our estimated time of arrival is in the morning of October 26, there is a chance that I might even fly home that same day. I would not have had any time to spend poking around bookstores.

Four years ago while on Tristan I didn’t do any reading. I brought books only to read on the Agulhas trips there and back, and on the flight home. This time though I was in a depressed state of mind after I learned of the Edinburgh’s furthered delayed departure for Cape Town on Thursday, October 19. I slipped into a two-day depression where I never even left the Greens’ house. I was upset about the likely cancellation of Mark’s and my trip to Australia and New Zealand and possible termination of our relationship. I wanted to crawl under a rock and stay there. This feeling has not lifted, yet in my state of self-seclusion I decided I would do nothing but read indoors for two days. On Monday, October 16 I decided to start a new book, one that I had bought in Cape Town at Clarke’s BookshopIsle of St. Helena by Oswell Blakeston. It was written in 1957 and is the author’s travelogue about planning for a trip to St. Helena, the ship journey there and ultimately his adventures and experiences of his month on the island.

I found Isle to be a satiric travelogue (at least for one published in Great Britain in the 1950’s), in that Blakeston was not afraid to write about every over- or undersexed passenger on board and the personal lives of those he met. My gaydar is hopelessly dim yet rang out a cacophonous racket when Blakeston chose to travel to St. Helena with companion Max Chapman. Chapman joined Blakeston ostensibly to paint the scenery of the island yet in his whole month there, he never took out his brush and paints. I encountered a similar style of closeted gay British interaction in the nonfiction works of Christopher Isherwood. A stereotype it may be, but Blakeston’s immediate rapport with artistic and bohemian women passengers–they would never reveal such confessional intimacies to a heterosexual man–smacks of the appeal gay men seem to have. Thus I read Isle with this closeted gay male subtext which for me was evident from page one, even before Chapman was introduced.

Blakeston had a rich capacity for description and painted the island in words that I enjoyed rereading. A good simile or mental image always deserves another read. For example, I liked his introductory statements about the island:

“Everyone has heard of St. Helena, but not so many people know that the name stands for a volcanic drama with all Nature’s discouragement piled up into a massive coastline that is hard to circumnavigate.”

and when he boards the ship that takes him there (a ship which he never names):

“Our ship at first glance was ramshackled, the paint-work clearly needing attention; but this was the sort of ship that would call at St. Helena! The faster ships did not stop at the rock ‘slashed as it were into pieces by the great hatchet of Nature’.”

St. Helena at one time was overflowing in fruit orchards, but now most fruit has to be imported. Not so with mangoes, which are “…so full of luscious juice one has to eat them in a bath…”. If you have ever eaten a fruit such as a peach where every bite releases a torrent of sticky juice running down your sleeve, you will know what Blakeston means about St. Helena’s mangoes.

One description I liked, which I chuckle at even after reading it multiple times, was from Stella, an artist friend of Max, whom they were surprised to see on board. She was going to Cape Town for an exhibition. She remarked about the ship’s master-at-arms : “‘He’s a sweet old thing,’ Stella declared, ‘like a fungus with a nose.'”

I loved Stella and her hippie values. It was sad when Blakeston and Chapman arrived at St. Helena because that meant they would have to part, leaving Stella on her way to continue to Cape Town. Before arriving at St. Helena however the ship made a stop at Ascension. The passengers were not allowed to disembark, but glimpsed the island through a particular lens:

“‘We must go to have a drink in the bar,’ [Stella] said. ‘I can’t tell you how spooky it is to look up at the windows and see a framed Salvador Dali instead of the wide, wide sea. You haven’t seen Ascension unless you’ve seen it through a bar-room window.'”

The author and Max were invited on a nature walk with George, a local gardener. He gave an amusing description for a certain kind of bush:

“George pointed out a cotton bush with white tufts, which looked like a series of shaving accidents.”

Unlike Philip Gosse’s book St Helena 1502-1938, which I had read just prior to leaving for this trip, Blakeston made many references to The Ladder, or Jacob’s Ladder, the 699 steps up the steep valley of Jamestown, St. Helena’s capital. He even climbed it. Blakeston also mentioned some frightening insects he found or learned about which inhabited the island, yet not the terrifying gigantic St. Helena earwig, which did not go extinct until after his visit. Both authors kept the Napoleon content to a minimum, stating that the Emperor’s years of exile were only a footnote in the island’s history, written about at length elsewhere. One amusing point that both authors covered is the series of clergymen who were stationed on the island, the behaviour of whom could be said to be anything but churchly:

“In 1672, there was the first of the island’s many rebellions; and settlers seized the Governor and placed him on a ship bound for England and invited the chaplain to sit ‘on the throne’. And from that time onwards, drunken, debauched and ‘difficult’ clergymen were to enliven the story of St. Helena. It is quixotic that the Company, with its paternal desire to protect the morals of its servants, persisted in shipping such dubious clerics to the colony, even picking on a Minister of the Gospel with the alarming name of Swindle.”

St. Helena has no native population and thus all islanders are immigrants. Europeans, Africans and Chinese have all settled and intermixed. Sixty years ago it would not give a British author pause to refer to the Chinese and African communities by terms that we would now consider inflammatory or downright racist. For example, I cringed every time Blakeston casually referred to a man of Chinese descent as “Chinaman”. (He did this often.) The African community derived from the slave trade and his terms for these people were no less…descriptive.

Blakeston included a map and many black-and-white photos with lengthy captions. Sometimes the photo insertions preceded the text which would later explain them in context, but it was easy to play catch-up and flip back to see what he was writing about.

Prior to his visit to St. Helena, Blakeston travelled with Chapman to Portugal and wrote a book about their experiences entitled Portuguese Panorama. I would like to find this book via my library’s interloans service.

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