Friday, 20 May 2016

Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène: La conquête de la mémoire (6 April to 24 July 2016)

A Hat that Napoleon Wore on St Helena

The current exhibition at Les Invalides is the climax of several years' work and planning by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Honorary French Consul and Curator of the French Properties on St. Helena.

Napoleon's Uniform

Michel has had the unstinting support of the Fondation Napoléon, and has worked in collaboration with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the National Museums of Malmaison and Bois-Préau, the Musée de l'Armée and the St. Helena Government.

Wash bowl used during the captivity on St. Helena

The recent visit of the former Governor of St Helena to Paris and Corsica is a symbol of unprecedented collaboration between the French Properties and the St. Helena Government, designed to promote tourism as the island prepares for the opening of the new airport.

Napoleon's bath without the wooden case that remains on St. Helena

As we went round the exhibition we became quite emotional seeing videos of present day St. Helena, a place from which like Napoleon we haven't really been able to escape.

It soon became apparent though that this is a once in many lifetimes exhibition. Here are items familiar from visits to Longwood, here too are unfamiliar and often grander ones from other museums, a totality unlikely ever again to be assembled in one place.

Here are clothes Napoleon wore, fine china on which he dined, a fine washbowl and ewer, a chess set on which he sometimes played, not that well,

to while away the endless hours of boredom,

the bed in which he died, and much else besides.

Here are pieces of furniture from Longwood, beautifully restored, that will eventually be shipped back to St. Helena.

Amongst the paintings on display is the now familiar one by James Sant, produced for Lord Rosebery around the turn of the twentieth century, and another painted around the same time by the little known Austrian painter, Oscar/Oskar Rex.

Oscar Rex, "C'est fini: Napoléon Ier à Sainte-Hélène"

This painting has been loaned from Malmaison, which we also visited on this trip.

The Exhibition has justifiably received great critical acclaim by UK as well as French journalists. Here for example is the one from the Guardian , which rightly gives a big tribute to the painstaking work done by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau over many years. It cannot though escape the English obsession with Napoleon's alleged smallness, here we find references to the "little corporal" and his "small feet." Thankfully we are spared mention of more private parts!

As we were walking round Napoleon's tomb after the Exhibition, we got a very pleasant surprise.

With Michel Martineau at Napoleon's Tomb

Here quite appropriately was Napoleon's representative on earth, showing a party of English speaking journalists around Les Invalides prior to a guided tour of the Exhibition.

Our meetings with Michel capped a great visit to Paris. My only regret is that I did not go round the exhibition a second time. It would surely have been well worth it.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

St Helena Airport: To Be or Not To Be? That still seems to be the question.

St Helena Independent 13th May 2016

Another confusing week goes by and still we are no clearer as to when/if commercial aircraft will be able to use the new airport than at the time of my previous posting on the subject. The St Helena Independent on its front page has a photo which perhaps suggests a solution!

First the good news. The airport has received certification

Another major milestone for St Helena Airport was achieved yesterday afternoon, Tuesday 10 May 2016, when Air Safety Support International (ASSI) issued an Aerodrome Certificate to St Helena Airport - having been satisfied that the Airport infrastructure, aviation security measures and air traffic control service complies with international aviation safety.

So far so good. Then we are informed that this certification is valid only until November 9th 2016, at which point it will need to be re-certified. This apparently has nothing to do with the wind problem, and one rightly asks what will happen if commercial flights have not even begun by that date? 

The official update dated 9th May is worth studying for clues:

Work is now underway to gather and analyse data and put in place mitigation measures to deal with turbulence and wind shear at St Helena Airport - to ensure the safe operation of regular passenger flights. The safety of aircraft and passengers is, of course, paramount.

At present there are no plans to extend the service of R.M.S. St Helena which will shortly be on its way to London, but SHG

will ensure passenger and freight access to St Helena & Ascension. The Governor is chairing high level meetings twice a week to work on access to the islands.

The question of medical access is also being examined: presumably medical flights will involve smaller planes which will not run into the same problems as larger commercial aircraft?

Then we come to the real issue:

Specific steps are being taken to address turbulence and wind shear at the Airport, involving analysis of all available and new data, including weather data, plus formal reports from pilots of all aircraft that have landed at St Helena Airport. Reports on the strength of wind conditions will be maintained and regularly updated and consideration will be given to installing specialised wind measuring equipment Computer modelling is also being developed to test different scenarios, and some wind tunnel work may also be carried out.

I wonder how many planes have so far landed on the new airport, and therefore how extensive is the date set on which modelling is to be based?

The statement ends with an assurance that all parties are working flat out to commence commercial flights at St Helena Airport at the earliest possible opportunity and that the public will be kept fully informed.

I can't help feel a little sorry for the new Governor who must have expected a Royal Visitor at Plantation House for the grand ceremonial opening of the new airport, but is instead faced with a host of problems which neither she nor anybody else in the St. Helena or Westminster Governments expected, because nobody would listen to Brian Heywood the retired airline pilot who warned the Prime Minister back in 2010. I am even more sorry for those who have invested time and money in preparation for the expected influx of tourists.

I am also a little surprised that the press in the UK has largely ignored this problem. But things closer to home are perhaps not quite going according to plan either.

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Disturbing Story of St. Helena Airport: No Happy Ending Yet in Sight

St Helena Independent 29th April 2016

You really could not make it up: £250 million spent on building an airport; plans made for a member of the Royal Family to fly in for the official opening; critics silenced and an air of expectation as the first plane flies in from South Africa on a calibration run. On its first approach it makes an aborted landing but on the second attempt lands successfully; celebrations all round. Then a few days later the bombshell: the St. Helena Government announces that the airport opening has been delayed because of [unanticipated?!!] windshear problems.

On my first visit to St Helena in 2008 I met a retired British Airways pilot on the R.M.S. St. Helena. He poured cold water on the idea of building an airport on Prosperous Bay Plain. The wind conditions will be too hazardous he told me, no reputable airport will fly in, and he said that he personally would not fly there.

I have often thought about my conversation with him, and wondered whether SHG had really understood the problems that he had raised. Today the St. Helena Independent has published a letter from the same man.

It reiterates what he told me 8 years ago:

The operational problem at St Helena Airport is of no surprise, I’ve been waiting for this to surface since the construction started. There is nothing anybody can do about wind shear, it is a meteorological phenomenon, the airport authority can discuss it for evermore, but nothing will change the local topography.

It appears that the letter writer lives in David Cameron's constituency, and made his concerns known to the Prime Minister:

If an airport is built on the edge of a near vertical 1000 foot cliff the prevailing wind is bound to cause problems. I predicted this to The Independent, to the consultants, and to my MP who is David Cameron. At the time Andrew Mitchell was in charge at DFID and his reply was that the airport would only be “challenging”. To grumble about wind shear at St Helena airport is a bit like grumbling about the heat in a newly built Sahara airfield in the summer, it is entirely predictable.

Our retired British Airways pilot speculates that Comair, the South African airline that was given the contract to fly to St. Helena may simply refuse to do so.

Letter by retired B.A. Pilot to St. Helena Independent

The St. Helena Independent, suggests that in its current state the airport may only be serviceable for small planes, including private jets, that can delay ascent until they are over land and do not need such a long runway.

The decision to build the airport was taken by the new coalition Government in 2010, and at the time was widely credited as being compensation to Lord Ashcroft, a strong proponent of the airport, who had bankrolled the Conservative Party only to see David Cameron fail to win a majority. I blogged about this in July 2010, shortly after the decision was announced, and on April Fool's day in 2012:

April Fools Day 2012

I have long had a nightmare that the result of the airport project will be to provide a landing place for executive jets. It would be the height of irony if Lord Ashcroft was one of the few people on the globe able to fly there.

I have to say that I have got absolutely no pleasure in writing this blog, it is heartbreaking for so many people, and I hope the fears expressed prove unfounded. There is no Plan B.

I have often joked ironically that nothing can possibly go wrong on St Helena, e.g. my post on Atlantic Star Airline last year. I no longer find it funny.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

What the Governor Did Next: From St. Helena to Paris and Ajaccio

Governor Mark Capes leaving St. Helena

I don't think the Governorship of St. Helena has ever been an easy job, and Governor Capes has probably had a rougher ride than most. He has now made way for a new governor, Lisa Phillips, the first woman to hold the post.

The Governor and his wife waving goodbye to St Helena

His leaving coincides not only with the completion of the airport, but with the opening of a major exhibition in Paris, to commemorate Napoleon's final years in captivity on St. Helena.

Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène

This exhibition, which it is hoped will promote tourism to the island, has for sometime been planned, in association with the Fondation Napoléon, by the indefatigable Honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.

As long ago as 2013 much of the furniture at Longwood, including the famous billiard table and bath, were packed and shipped off to France for restoration in preparation for the exhibition.

Governor Capes at La Maison Bonaparte in Ajaccio

On leaving St. Helena the Governor and his wife made their way to Napoleon's birthplace, Ajaccio in Corsica, to promote the forthcoming Exhibition and the island of St. Helena.

Governor and Mrs Capes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the right a beaming Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

From Corsica they travelled to Paris for the opening of the Exhibition, and attended an official reception at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Governor at Napoleon's Tomb

The most symbolic event in this tour was the visit to Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides, where the Governor was photographed inside the crypt.

A wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the roof of Les Invalides

No previous St. Helena Governor has made an official visit there, and I know of no official British Government representative that has done so since Queen Victoria visited in 1855 and bade the Prince of Wales kneel down before the Great Napoleon - an event that has tended to be overlooked in the mainstream historical narrative!

The Governor in lighter mood: Sir Hudson Lowe and those of his ilk would not be amused

Michel Martineau is to be congratulated on the success of this project, which he sees as a triumph for l'Entente cordiale, a cause very dear to the heart of his predecessor and adoptive father Gilbert Martineau, who in more enlightened times was even awarded an O.B.E.!

Mention should also be made of the contribution of the Fondation Napoléon, without whose support neither the restoration of the Generals Quarters at Longwood nor the current exhibition would have been possible.

The Exhibition, which I can highly recommend, runs until July. It has received much critical acclaim in France and beyond. I will say more about it in a later post.


I have been informed by Mrs Capes, see messages, that they actually went to Corsica after Paris. I have left the blog as originally posted to do otherwise would involve quite a rewrite, but I always try to maintain accuracy. There is enough misinformation and disinformation on the internet without me adding to it.

Monday, 18 April 2016

St. Helena Airport Update

Flight departure board, O.R. Tambo International Airport Johannesburg

Today for the first time St. Helena's name appeared on an airline departure board. A British Airways Boeing 737-800 registration ZS-ZWG, operated by Comair, the actual plane that will be used when commercial flights begin, left Johannesburg and arrived at St Helena this morning.

The Boeing 737-800 making its first landing on St. Helena

This is indeed an historic day for St. Helena, but for my part one tinged with a little sadness.

I feel very privileged to have been able to visit (twice) on the RMS St. Helena before the obliteration of the island's historic isolation.

I do not relish the thought of hen parties and stag nights at Longwood, though I appreciate the importance to the islanders of having quicker access to the medical facilities that South Africa has always provided.

As to the supposed aim of the project, to make the island financially independent from the UK Government, I remain a sceptic.

I am also fearful of the impact of commercial development on the people of St. Helena and fear that it will in time lead to an exodus of many of its poorer inhabitants, unable to compete for already over-priced housing with incomers in private jets with very deep pockets. I know though that St. Helena had no future as a remote and rarely visited museum, and I hope that my worst fears for the future of its inhabitants prove unfounded.