St. Helena

A tall man with an aquiline nose, Nicholas Thorpe takes huge strides in his sandaled feet as I follow him out of the mists that engulf the Blue Hill area, down a narrow road that winds through emerald fields of flax. Our destination is a holiday picnic to the south of us.

The three Thorpe children scamper barefoot down the steep hillside. One wrong move could bring disaster, but you get the feeling that nothing bad could ever happen on St. Helena. Here on one of the remotest islands on earth, well below the equator in the South Atlantic, there is an air of peace about the place. There are no snakes, people don't lock their doors at night, and life is good.

Other than the fact that Napoleon died in exile here, what I knew about St. Helena before I arrived was as vague as a cheap world map, many of which don't even bother to include the tiny island. The nearest landmass is Africa (1,200 miles away), but St. Helena's closest neighbors in spirit are the other islands of the South Atlantic: Ascension to the north, Tristan da Cunha to the southwest and, far to the west, the Falklands. They form a kind of quartet, a small circle of competitive friends bound together by isolation - not to mention an almost slavish obedience to Britain.

As we walk, I discover that Nicholas, on whose farm I've rented a cottage for a week, is a mine of information about St. Helena's history. He is, after all, half St. Helenian or, as the islanders are more popularly called, a Saint. Nicholas's great-great-grandfather came to this island from Britain in about 1840, maybe as a soldier (Nicholas is not sure), married a local woman, and then made this his home.

The first people to see this place, however, didn't choose to stay. Talking over his shoulder as we walk, Nicholas says St. Helena has been a maritime pit stop since 1502, when Portuguese explorer Jo¿o da Nova Castella discovered it and named it after a feast day. After that the Portuguese kept the island's location secret for almost nine decades.

In 1659 the East India Company established the island's first settlement as a provisioning base for its trading fleet, and it wasn't until 1834 that St. Helena came under the direct government of the British Crown. When Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in 1815, thousands of British troops were sent to guard him until his death in 1821. And St. Helena has remained a piece of Albion ever since.

"For most people here," Nicholas points out, "the island could really be in the English Channel."

This day, a Monday, the island has two reasons to celebrate. First, the only transport connecting islanders with the outside world, the RMS St. Helena, has arrived, carrying a dozen or so visitors like myself, as well as other Saints coming home after months or years abroad. Second, it's a bank holiday - a British tradition the island follows religiously, even though it's not a religious holiday, and though the island doesn't have a single bank of its own.

We stop for a moment at Old Luffkins. What used to be a cottage is now just a pile of stones with a nickname. It's perched all alone on the hillside, weeds growing through the dilapidated walls. The only sign of life is a cow grazing in the remains of an English garden. Below us stretches a valley and then the Atlantic.

Both Old Luffkins and Whites, the old homestead we're heading to, were owned by a woman who left the island 40 years earlier to look for work elsewhere. The houses were left intact - lock, stock, and lacework - but no one else ever moved in.

Throughout the last century Saints have had a knack for emigrating, Nicholas tells me, driven away by the high price of land and the scarcity of work, as well as the remoteness. His grandfather was one of ten children (and had ten children of his own), but of all Nicholas's relatives, only his mother, a brother, and a few cousins still live on the island. "Dare no place loik Sint Helena," is a comment, uttered in the curious Saint accent, that I heard countless times during the voyage to the island. But Saints often love it from afar.

The next ridge brings Nicholas and me to Whites itself.

"I came in here as a child, and found an old Georgian coin on top of a broken bookshelf," Nicholas recalls.

Though the house is a ruin, there is still a lawn with arum lilies and fruit trees. And the view is spectacular. In one direction the stark rocky outcrops known as Lot and Lot's Wife dominate the terrain. In another, we can see across to Horse Ridge, where the descendants of animals left by early sailors have grazed the hills into a virtual moonscape. And barely a mile behind us, where we started hiking an hour earlier, lie the luxuriant flax fields of Blue Hill.

I'm amazed at how dramatically and quickly the terrain changes. There are so many landscapes and microclimates, in fact, it's hard to believe that St. Helena measures a mere ten miles by six. But I'm reminded how small the place is by the other families arriving to picnic here. We meet the acting governor and the headmaster's wife. They talk about mutual friends, island activities, the weather. It's like a small town in England.

I first got the idea of going to St. Helena from a travel agency in London. I wanted to do a sea voyage, somewhere, anywhere. Not a cruise, you understand, but a sea trip without the frills. The Fleet Street agency produced a brochure of all the world's noncruise voyages, including one lasting 96 days and with only two passengers.

Another, more to my liking (and endurance), was on the RMS St. Helena, called the RMS for short. Six times a year it sails with 100 or so passengers from England to St. Helena, 14 days away, and goes on to Cape Town, where it begins the reverse voyage. It was really about the only way to go to St. Helena.

Inaccessibility is at once the island's most charming asset and its biggest drawback. An airstrip was first surveyed here more than 50 years ago, and almost anyone you ask can pinpoint the place at Prosperous Bay where it's meant to go. But Britain argues that an airstrip would cost too much for such an out-of-the way place.

Islanders respond that St. Helena wouldn't be out of the way if planes could land there. These Saints talk hopefully about the airstrip because it would help develop the island's tourism potential. St. Helena is just waiting to be hiked and cycled, its safe blue waters snorkeled and dived, its seas sailed and fished. But each arrival of the RMS brings only about a dozen visitors, totaling less than several hundred a year. The airstrip, in the meantime, has become the island's Godot.

As one islander puts it: "You go to any Thomas Cook in UK and you can book a flight to the Falklands, but to St. Helena? People keep saying, ¿Look at the Falklands. Now there's a success for you.' What are they trying to say, that we're a failure?"

Cynics suggest that Britain, which annually pumps about $13.5 million into the island (making St. Helena's 5,500 inhabitants some of the highest per capita recipients of aid in the world), has developed a mindset about St. Helena: Ever since Napoleon, the place has made an ideal prison. Why not just keep it that way?

It's true that Napoleon, though the best known prisoner, wasn't the last. After him came a South African Zulu chief, Dinizulu, whose incarceration lasted seven years. (A polygamist, Dinizulu created a dilemma for the British, who would allow him to bring only one wife, although she was accompanied by several "female attendants.") Then, at the turn of this century, during the Boer War, some 6,000 Afrikaners were interned on Deadwood Plain and at Broadbottom Camp. And in the 1950s three Bahraini political dissidents were held at Munden's.

The most recent foreign prisoner, jailed in 1990, was the first one Britain didn't fob off onto the island. A Dutchman sailing a trawler packed with cannabis from Bombay to the Virgin Islands made the mistake of calling in James Bay. For a time he was locked away in the prison on the main square. Escape, history dictated, seemed unlikely - but in June 1994, to the embarrassment of authorities, he did just that.

I contemplate all these prisoners early one morning as I set out on foot for Longwood Estate, where Napoleon lived for all but two months of his nearly six years on the island. The Little Emperor was originally buried here on St. Helena, but in 1840 his body was disinterred and shipped back to Paris, where it now lies in Les Invalides.

Longwood House still belongs to France. Situated in the eastern part of the island not far from Deadwood Plain, it's maintained as a museum. The shrine pulls its share of pilgrims, including one of my fellow passengers on the RMS, a banker from Lyon who is the president of a French Napoleonic society. He had been to all Napoleon's battlefields and to Elba. St. Helena, quite fittingly, was to be his last stop. The morning we anchored in James Bay, in preparation for our landing, he dressed up in a grenadier's outfit. With his stout frame and cropped hair, he looked not unlike his hero. For a while an international incident threatened, because the acting governor wouldn't let him wear his ceremonial sword ashore. But in the end, the banker agreed to leave his sword in his cabin, and a crisis was averted.

On this day the air in the hills is cool but refreshing, and the fields of lilies are covered in dew. The road, like most roads on the island, snakes so wildly that you can't see a car till it's virtually upon you. I don't really worry about this, since cars honk at every bend, and there aren't many cars anyway. In an hour, I see two. Both drivers honk, then wave. If I wanted a lift, I could have asked. I prefer to walk.

Along the way I meet two children - a boy, 12, and his sister, 14, who seem to epitomize the words "wholesome" and "old-fashioned." They both smile and call me "sir." I mention my name. They still call me "sir."

The French consul, who lives in a house next to Napoleon's and pretty much keeps to himself, has written so many books about the emperor and Josephine that he's regarded as a world expert. He's lived on St. Helena for more than 30 years, but now that he's retired, his son has taken over the post.

This day I'm the first and only visitor. The gardener finds me near the crescent-shaped pond in the garden, and I feel as if I've intruded on his personal sanctuary. He has to open the house for me, then he follows me closely around the billiards room, Napoleon's study. He watches my every move, as if each item I look at - his camp bed and his truncated iron bath - is the most fragile on earth. Though an islander and a Briton, he clearly has the highest regard for the general whose house he guards.

In the billiards room he points out the holes in the shutters through which Napoleon watched British troops march back and forth on Deadwood Plain. He explains that the garden paths were specially sunk so that the general could wander around his domain unhindered by the gaze of curious onlookers. I walk through the gardens and then, outside the property once again, peer over the wall to see what onlookers could have seen. Behind the dahlias, lavender, and hydrangeas, a small man could quite easily have walked in peace.

At a dinner party given by Nicholas Thorpe and his wife, Gail, our hostess moves around the kitchen (she's cooked three main courses, six vegetables, and five desserts) like a dancer, nimble - and barefoot. Meanwhile in an unconscious and refreshing mix of styles, the guests arrive in evening dress or jeans.

The party also includes the head of forestry and his wife; the island's chief accountant and his wife; and Marian Jeremiah, then editor of the St. Helena News, and her husband, who's the attorney-general. If the governor were here, the room would hold practically the entire island government. Nicholas is the only Saint. Gail's from Bath, and everyone else has come on three-year contracts.

As Tina Turner echoes in the background, the conversation turns to termites (which have plagued the island ever since they arrived in the timbers of a slave ship from Brazil in the 1840s) and, finally, to the RAF.

The Royal Air Force, it appears, sometimes flies nonmilitary passengers between Ascension, where it has bases, and Britain, cutting at least ten days off a sea voyage from St. Helena to the mother country. The only trouble is that, due to either a shortage of space or to an excess of bureaucracy, most people can't get on the plane.

"The RAF's so stingy with their seats," someone sighs into the candlelight. Mothers worry about the logistics of sending their kids to school in Britain. First of all, they have to acquire a seat with the RAF, and then they have to worry about the plane's departure coinciding with the RMS's arrival at Ascension.

On an upcoming trip, passengers in transit will have to wait five days in mess accommodations, since Ascension has no hotels.

"Imagine putting two teenage girls on Ascension with all those single men for five days with nothing to do," says one mother, whose solution is to accompany her daughter as a chaperone.

Rendered speechless by the five desserts as much as the thought of difficult logistics, no one ventures a reply.

Jamestown, St. Helena's capital and only town, is quiet. Stone cottages spill onto the narrow lane that lines the cul-de-sac of James Valley. Like any country English village, the half-dozen bars have names like The White Horse and The Standard.

I head for coffee with Marian Jeremiah, who's just finished putting together the latest edition of the St. Helena News. Anne's Place is a frugal eatery next to the public garden, its walls and roof decorated with flags and ship ensigns. It has gained a certain renown among transatlantic yachtspeople, who have made it their unofficial clubhouse. Anne has six albums of photographs of "members," most of whom stopped while sailing between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.

"Phone fuh Tat!" says the young waitress helping Anne. "Phone fuh Tat!"

I conclude, correctly, that Tat must be me, because Marian and I are the only customers. On the other end of the phone is Michael Hone, the acting governor, who wants me to join him after work for a walk near Pipe Ridge.

It's a welcome invitation, as it means I can end my stay on the island the same way I started it - with a walk. What I can't figure out is how the acting governor knew to find me and what my itinerary would be.

Marian shakes her head. "News travels fast," she says.

Later that afternoon the governor's official car, a spotless Jaguar, circa 1970s, picks me up in the town square, and we race up Side Path, one of two steep roads out of James Valley and into the hills.

As the miniature Union Jack flaps madly from the car's hood, the islanders stop to watch us pass. Their curious looks suggest they can't understand why we bother to speed. On St. Helena you don't have to run. At most, you amble.

The car turns off before Longwood House, drives through some cattle gates and over muddy grasslands until we're a quarter of the way across Deadwood Plain. As soon as we get out, we are struck by a ferocious wind.

"They must have been sadists to put the Boers up here," says Michael.

It was here that many of the POWs from South Africa were interned in 1900. The Boers tried to make the best of their circumstances: They opened little stores, gave the streets names from home, started a newspaper, even planted trees. But the wind hits the island with such violence at this point that the few remaining trees, all cedars, have grown parallel to the ground.

Michael and I slide down Pipe Ridge. Its slopes are made up, in equal parts, of shale and aloes, thousands of which have been planted in the hope that the aloes will bind the soil and hold the moisture for other plants to grow in between. When we get to the bottom (rather sore from the descent), we follow the pebbled shore of the bay to Munden's, where the Bahrainis were incarcerated. Barbed wire still bears testament to their time on the island, even though more than 40 years have passed. Few people know why they were here or even who exactly they were.

Other artifacts also litter the landscape. Below us are rusty cannons from Napoleon's days, and protruding from the rockface are long iron pipes planted during World War II. They were meant to look like guns to an enemy ship.

At one point it strikes me that our walk this day has retraced the history of St. Helena - from Napoleon, through the Boers, to Bahrainis. Surrounded by centuries-old guns, battlements, and jails, I can't help but remember that St. Helena has been for most of its populated existence a fort, a place of exile, a prison, an island of sadness. Yet my stay has left me exhilarated, fascinated, happy, perplexed, maybe a bit bored. The next day, like so many Saints, I sail away on the RMS St. Helena, leaving the island - and its isolation - behind.