It could be worse: St. Helena islanders face dry Millennium celebration : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) Preparation Forum : One Thread

Today's Electronic Telegraph

Marooned islanders face dry New Year By Philip Jacobson

THE isolated colonial outpost of St Helena faces a miserable end to the Millennium after the ship that provides its only link with the outside world broke down.

Unless a replacement can be chartered at short notice, the 5,000 islanders will go without their Christmas puddings, mince pies and presents, not to mention drinks to ring in the 21st century. The 93 passengers aboard the Royal Mail Ship St Helena - whose starboard crankshaft failed in the Bay of Biscay just over a week ago - could also miss out on the celebrations in one of the most remote remnants of the British Empire.

Among those stranded is Belinda Stopforth, who had booked her passage in order to be married at home over New Year. Her wedding plans are now on hold. There is no airfield on the volcanic outcrop, leaving the tiny community reliant on the St Helena ferry for everything from cars and cooking oil to South African lager. Panic buying began as soon as news that the St Helena was stuck in the French port of Brest reached the 10-mile-long island - a dot on the map of the South Atlantic where Napoleon died in exile.

Anxious shoppers raided the shelves of the three supermarkets in Jamestown, the tiny capital, for margarine, flour and other staples. There have already been complaints of hoarding. The Governor, David Hollamby, believes that existing food supplies could last until next month, but he admitted that shortages were inevitable. Mr Hollamby said that the loss of the ferry, which normally calls about every two months on its regular shuttle between Cardiff and Cape Town, has increased the sense of remoteness and vulnerability of the people who nickname themselves Saints.

To most locals, the knowledge that their lifeline is likely to be laid up for at least 10 weeks is another unwelcome reminder of just how cut off they are from the rest of the world. Less than a month ago, as the St Helena was steaming back to Britain, a six-year-old girl required urgent treatment for leukaemia. An emergency distress call relayed by coastguards in Cornwall reached a container ship battling through heavy weather about 350 miles away.

After 18 hours, Danni Clifford and her brother and sister - who may be required as bone marrow donors - were picked up and taken to hospital in Cape Town, 1,500 miles away. She has now received her first chemotherapy treatment and her condition is said to be satisfactory. But for the close-knit community of Saints, it was a desperately close-run thing.

Thirty years have passed since there was first talk of squeezing an airport on to the rugged terrain. Nothing has yet come of this, though a team from Britain's Department for International Development is due to arrive on the St Helena next month for discussions about the communications problem and other issues. The editor of the Saint Helena Times, John Drummond, said that outsiders were unable to appreciate how oppressive it was to await the next call of the ship that brings food, drink, mail, medical supplies and even matches.

Many Saints must go abroad to find work and the long separations that brings only increases the feeling of isolation, he said. The Clifford family's ordeal underlined the need for faster and more reliable communications. Danni's parents were working in the Falklands when they heard that she was dangerously ill. They took an immediate military flight to the US airbase on Ascension Island, 700 miles from St Helena. From there they had to fly to London and then on to Cape Town: a journey that took several days. "If they want to get home to visit relatives, God knows how long they'll have to wait for a ship," said Mr Drummond.

At the Standard pub in Jamestown, regulars were putting on a brave face over the threat to their supplies of Christmas drink. "All our beer comes in from Cape Town and believe me, with temperatures in December hitting 25-30 degrees, you really feel like a few cold ones at the end of the day," said Martin Henry. The dreaded matter of rationing has not yet been mentioned, he said, adding: "But I can tell you we're keeping our fingers crossed here for that replacement charter."

Under new legislation announced this year, Britain's remaining former colonies are to be renamed Overseas Territories. But unlike its Caribbean counterparts, isolated St Helena has no hope of offering the sort of financial facilities - offshore banking, anonymous front companies and a relaxed attitude to legal controls - that attract money from around the world.

Its fragile, rural economy depends on concrete, building materials and animal feed being shipped in from South Africa and without an airport, there is precious little scope for tourism. There is a promising export trade in the excellent, local coffee, which at #25 per half pound is probably the most expensive in the world. (Napoleon observed bitterly: "The only good thing about St Helena is the coffee"). But like almost everything else on the island, it relies on the sturdy ferry which served during the Falklands war and it being able to maintain its punishing schedule throughout the year.

The island's history dates back to Portuguese explorers who discovered it in the early 16th century, but Britain claimed it in 1513 when it became a watering stop for ships. Since then, slaves from Africa and the Indian Ocean, Chinese and Malay labourers and British settlers have combined to produce an intriguing ethnic blend. The local accent has been described as a cross between American Deep South and pre-Victorian cockney, with a tendency to transpose Vs and Ws in speech.

Although the Saints were offered full British nationality, including the right of abode in Britain, in proposed legislation announced by Robin Cook in March this year, an undercurrent of resentment persists, particularly among young people. Memories of the 1981 British Nationality Act that removed their cherished citizenship, die hard. During one bout of unrest, the only police van was set on fire, the governor of the day was booed in the streets and someone even pulled his tie.

-- Old Git (, November 21, 1999


People I know,who live on Grand Cayman Island,fly to the U.S. to shop for alot of things.I had sent them a package of things they wanted from California,but couldn't get there.The prices of food and milk are really high.They are lucky to have an small airport.I just hope they will be able to get enough supplies after the first of the year.The people on this Island are in a better position then the above post.

-- Maggie (, November 21, 1999.

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