Will the Saints Come Marching Home?

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The royal-blue barred gate of her majesty's prison is appropriately next to St. James' Church on the island where even the sinners call themselves Saints. St. Helena's Jamestown jail currently holds three detainees a full house for a community that doesn't need to lock its doors and doesn't know vandalism or graffiti. The police activity report published each Friday lists a few petty thefts and other misdemeanours and a lot of "verbal warnings'' for offenses such as stone-throwing or making too much noise. It always ends with a cheery "Have a nice weekend.''

Crime is the least of the problems on the island where Napoleon was exiled and died. Of more concern to the Saints of St. Helena these days is their isolation. History may have put them on the map but that has not been able to change the fact that they are locked into life on one of the most remote landfalls in the world. No amount of globalization can persuade the lonely folk of St. Helena that they are not becoming an endangered species, in common with the island's endemic wirebird, a ground-nesting recluse which, like the dodo, might one day forget how to fly.

First visited by Portuguese navigators almost 500 years ago, St. Helena has been a British possession since 1834. A signpost in Jamestown, St. Helena's only town, points wistfully to London 5,600 miles to the north. 1,950 km west of Angola, St. Helena's nearest neighbor is Ascension Island, 1,125 km to the northwest. "We sit here in the middle of the Atlantic and wonder where we go from here," says Jamestown resident Julian Cairn-Wicks, writing in the weekly St. Helena News.

Right now, nowhere is the answer for St. Helena's 5,000 Saints. But that may change. The island is still awaiting a British Government decision that would give its natives unconditional citizenship, with the right to enter Britain and live there permanently. The worry for most of the local blend of Asian, Chinese, African and European races is a mixture of good news and bad. If and when the British concession comes through, the island could be hit by a serious drain of skilled and professional people those who could afford to head for a British home. Left behind, in even greater isolation, would be the humble fisherfolk and laborers, many of them descendants of slaves of 200 years ago.

Whoever leaves the island or arrives at it, for whatever purpose, has only one way in or out by sea to a James Bay anchorage, and by ship's boat to a single set of granite steps at the end of the Jamestown quay. St. Helena's main lifeline is the British Royal Mail Ship, St. Helena, which sails from Britain to the island four times a year and in between operates an Atlantic shuttle service between Cape Town, St. Helena, as well as Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha both dependencies of St. Helena. Last year the island faced a crisis when the R.M.S. St. Helena broke down before Christmas and was out of service for several months. Locals still talk about the Christmas not just without the ingredients to make traditional puddings but, worse still, without cigarettes.

A few cruise liners anchor off St. Helena as part of their Atlantic schedules. Once a year the QE2 stands offshore, like a giant floating city, as her passengers are disembarked to double the population of Jamestown. For one exciting day the Saints can meet people from the real world. Retired brokers from New York and grocers from Yorkshire wheeze up the 699 steps of the stairway known as Jacob's Ladder to the residential hillside above the harbor with its view of historic Georgian fortifications, colonial government buildings and Napoleon's now empty tomb he died on the island in 1821 and his body was exhumed and returned to France in 1840. Taxis and buses take the visitors on organized tours inland, a short journey across the green valleys in the center of the 122-sq-km island. The post office does a roaring trade in postage stamps after fishing, probably the island's only regular source of income.

But all too soon Ship Day comes and goes and St. Helena is left high, dry and depressingly alone again, a historic cocoon in the backwaters of the Atlantic. Recent years have seen some modern advances, including the introduction of local and satellite TV and e-mail. And last year, in the ultimate concession to the modern age, credit cards came into use. But St. Helena still measures its potatoes by the gallon (that's historically about seven pounds in weight), and the community choir sings sea chanteys that hearken back to Elizabethan days. "Some people loathe it here, some love it," says Johnny Drummond, editor of the St. Helena News. "Some could never leave, some might soon want to come back."

Many islanders hold on to a hope that one day the British government will build a runway on the high ground of St. Helena and open the island to international air travel and end its isolation. But there are plenty of cynics among them who say that although Britain has now agreed to finance a study, the needs of the island are simply not worth the cost to Britain of building an airport. Nor do they believe the island people will gain their birthright. For all its promises, they say, Britain doesn't want the Saints to go marching in.