“Questa piedra maladetta — this cursed rock”
May 22, 2016 1:58 AM   Subscribe

The remote south Atlantic island of St. Helena has largely lived apart from the world. For decades travel to the tiny (roughly 10 x 5 miles) island and British territory of 4000 has been entirely dependent upon a monthly visit from the Royal Mail Ship - a week-long voyage from Cape Town that has kept the island on the margins of the global travel market. You have to be a very determined traveller to see where Napoleon died and have a visit with a the oldest living land animal - a 184 year old giant tortoise named Jonathan. That is until last week when the first commerical airplane flight landed at the island's brand new airport. After five years of construction, hundreds of millions of pounds, and 450,000 truckloads of dirt and rock, Saint Helena Airport (airport code: HLE) is open for business, but how will St. Helena (now branded "The Secret Of The South Atlantic") adjust to the end of its isolation? Will the island's culture itself survive? posted by quartzcity (31 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is it strategically important? I.e. will the UK and US be flying big military planes through there? It seems a lot to spend for 'integration'.
posted by biffa at 4:04 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I.e. will the UK and US be flying big military planes through there?

It is well situated to survive a nuclear apocalypse.
posted by Mezentian at 4:27 AM on May 22, 2016


If it were strategically important the would have built the strip 60 years ago.
posted by JPD at 5:10 AM on May 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


NB: Ascension Island 800 miles away had had an RAF base since WWII
posted by JPD at 5:13 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I recently had a workmate whose grandparents came from St Helena, and he was reasonably excited at the prospect of being able to visit his family on the island for the first time. So that's good.

Is it strategically important? I.e. will the UK and US be flying big military planes through there? It seems a lot to spend for 'integration'.

It's about economic and social development. The long run goal is (I hope) that the UK in the future will be able to shed a few more of the remaining bits of empire.
posted by Emma May Smith at 5:22 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


It is well situated to survive a nuclear apocalypse

take a minute and think about what you just said.
posted by 7segment at 5:50 AM on May 22, 2016


That is a really nice airport, especially for one that gets only a couple flights a week. The mailship must have been expensive too though.

I thought I remembered a 'previously' but it was about another isolated South Atlantic island.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:20 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


The UK operated Vulcan bombers from Ascension island in the Falklands war. This is much closer to the Falklands where oil and gas fields have been discovered in the last few years.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:25 AM on May 22, 2016


The couple running that What the Saints did next blog seem to have very sensible ideas about what is possible in terms of small scale tourism for Saint Helena. I hope their efforts are successful.

I was interested to see how important the history of slavery was to the island. According to Saint Helena Island Info, after 150 years of slavery, the island then became a base for Royal Navy efforts to suppress the slave trade.
posted by Azara at 6:54 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


The UK operated Vulcan bombers from Ascension island in the Falklands war. This is much closer to the Falklands where oil and gas fields have been discovered in the last few years.

The Falkland Islands were barely garrisoned in 1982, which gave the Argentine dictatorship an easy victory and meant that the initial stages of the war had to be fought at immense distance. The islands are well enough defended now (though the force is far from substantial) that Argentine leaders only use Las Malvinas son Argentinas to deflect from domestic politics and not as a serious military consideration. Sadly their sabre-rattling makes it impossible for the Falklands to exercise their right to self-determination, as even with newfound mineral wealth, there's no way for a sovereign country of a few thousands people to defend themselves from a bully thousands of times bigger.
posted by Emma May Smith at 7:11 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]




Questa piedra maladetta — this cursed rock

I thought I said to hire the guys who did "Come back to Jamaica"
posted by thelonius at 7:40 AM on May 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


The What the Saints Did Next blog is charming and very informative. Some other highlights from the blog:

First Airplane Ever Lands on St Helena Island


Jet Planes and Goat Meat Curry on St Helena (first jet plane lands)


Saint Helena Remembers Napoleon Bonaparte: 200 Years On (amongst the celebrations: Ships from the British Royal Navy and the French Navy visit. The sailors sing each others' national anthems. A local actor plays Napoleon in a reenactment.)
posted by Bwithh at 7:51 AM on May 22, 2016


take a minute and think about what you just said.

And?
posted by Mezentian at 7:53 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


The British really, really, really wanted to make sure that Napoleon never made it back to the mainland.
posted by octothorpe at 8:22 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


He had already returned once, after all, and it took yet another war to depose him the second time. They didn't want to do it a third time.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:22 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


The whole island shares about 40Mbps of satellite bandwidth, which is a bit of a sore point. Following a lot of lobbying, a planned South Atlantic cable will now land at the island, but it hasn't been laid yet.
posted by Devonian at 11:58 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


40Mbps. Getting an optical cable would be like farmers on the prairie getting radios in 1925. No more newspapers by mail.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:04 PM on May 22, 2016


> 40Mbps

In a previous life, I did the streaming (from the UK end) for the local community radio station on St Helena and the station manager there told me it was 4Mbps. Sometimes the connection would get too saturated for the 32kbps audio to reach us. Traceroutes to try and diagnose any problems with the stream were always amusing - you'd get to a certain point and the ping would jump to about 500-800ms as it hit the satellite link. I've heard more than one local say that they're looking forward to the benefits of the cable more than the airport.
posted by winterhill at 2:05 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's amazing that I lived through internet not being a thing through it being an essential service. This is what it must have been like to be born in 1870 and live through horses and steam locomotives being replaced by cars and diesel and the development of airplanes. EG: my first modem was 300 baud; barely faster than Morse Code.
posted by Mitheral at 2:50 PM on May 25, 2016


Acoustic coupler or GTFO.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:31 PM on May 25, 2016


Green Mountain (terraforming on the island)
posted by bukvich at 6:59 AM on May 29, 2016


Oops mistake. The Green Mountain terraforming is on Ascension Island, the next isolated rock west of St Helena.
posted by bukvich at 11:02 AM on May 29, 2016


Aaaand ... it's closed - permanently? - because wind shear risks mean that planes can't land there.
posted by carter at 4:55 PM on June 8, 2016


Oh word, this is the worst news. St Helena is never going to get that money spent again. They either get this airport working somehow or there's never going to be an airport there.
posted by Emma May Smith at 5:41 PM on June 8, 2016


£285 million divided between 4,000 inhabitants would have been around £71,000 per capita.

The British colony in Saint Helena is an expensive anachronism, and the sentimental reasons for maintaining the status quo are outweighed by the financial, environmental, and personal cost of suffering it to continue. I think the UK would do well to offer the islanders a ticket to anywhere in Britain plus a large sum of money in settlement, and close the colony down.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:32 PM on June 8, 2016


The article is really confusing saying the airport has been mothballed but also saying it serviced a medivac flight last Monday. I wish it had delved into the unagreed upon remediation options. Specifically I wonder if the shear is less of a factor at specific times of the day. EG: It'll suck if all flights have land/take off at 3AM or if can only be used for six months out of the year but the airport would still be usable.
posted by Mitheral at 11:19 PM on June 8, 2016


It's 800 km from Ascension Island IIRC, it might be a bit of a problem if they had to divert.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:32 PM on June 8, 2016


The British colony in Saint Helena is an expensive anachronism, and the sentimental reasons for maintaining the status quo are outweighed by the financial, environmental, and personal cost of suffering it to continue. I think the UK would do well to offer the islanders a ticket to anywhere in Britain plus a large sum of money in settlement, and close the colony down.

The status quo isn't being maintained. This airport is part of the plan to develop St Helena so it can move toward greater autonomy. The airport's failure would mean that it is more likely to keep as a territory for decades to come.

(And no, you can just forcibly deport people and shut things down. The UK did that so the US could have an airbase in the Chagos Islands, and it was criminal.)
posted by Emma May Smith at 12:29 AM on June 9, 2016


I had the Chagos Islands in mind when I wrote that comment, actually. The cases are very different: the Chagos Islands were administratively part of Mauritius, and were excised from that territory immediately prior to its independence in order to provide a base for US forces. The UK could very well have left things as they were and the islanders would have been very happy. Instead their land was sold to strangers and they were bundled off to make things more convenient for their colonial masters.

Saint Helena, in contrast, is a bit of UK territory that is pretty much unsustainable. I don't really think it could become anything like self-sustaining and the reason for transferring its population would be humanitarian, not avaricious. They're UK citizens (unlike the Chagos Islanders) and it's no more unjust than seizing any other property via eminent domain. It would be somewhat sad for the islanders, but fiscal and other forms of compensation would be a reasonable compromise.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:47 AM on June 9, 2016


I don't see why Saint Helen should be unsustainable. Were the airport to work successfully the issues over transport and economics would be much better.

Without the airport, I don't know. Maybe they could let Saints settle on Ascension?
posted by Emma May Smith at 4:38 AM on June 9, 2016


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