October 23, 1999

Six times a year a ship leaves Cardiff, Wales, headed into the South Atlantic, making stops at the islands of Tenerife and Ascension, then heading eastward for the isolated remains of a long-extinct volcano. This trip to the island of St. Helena takes close to 13 days, and those who disembark will spend the next three weeks there, until the ship returns.

It's a rugged, steep-cliffed mass, thrust up out of the surrounding Atlantic, small temptation for tourists seeking the soft life of pool-side cabana and five-star restaurant. There is a golf course, however. The stranger arriving here, even voluntarily, can find it all too easy to experience the day after day loneliness of the exile. Napoleon Bonaparte had no choice. He lived here from 1815 to his death in 1821, special guest of the British government. Others have found exile here, exile both temporary and permanent.

One such was Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, who was sent here by the Royal Society to observe the passage of Venus across the sun, on June 6th of 1761. Frustrated when the island's hostile weather blanked out his view, he stayed on for another ten months, keeping tidal records and experimenting with a clock in an attempt to solve the problem of establishing longitude. He was joined there for a brief time by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, returning from observing Venus in South Africa. (This was before they drew the line in America). In Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason and Dixon, the author describes the eerie atmosphere that surrounds the astronomers; how they, "Hear the Ocean everywhere, no Wall thick, nor Valley remote enough to lose it. It shakes the Ground and traverses the Boot soles of the Watch, high in the ravines. The floorboards of the Taverns register its rhythmick Blows...The Wind, brutal and pure, is there for its own reasons, and human life, any life, counts for close to nought."

Maskelyne eventually left the island. One other visitor did not. In the years after the British victory in the Zulu War of 1878 and 1879, civil war broke out among the various Zulu tribes. With the aid of Boer mercenaries, Dinizulu of the Usutu tribe gained the throne. The Boers demanded territory in return, but Britain stepped in, annexing Zululand. A year later Dinizulu rebelled against his new British masters. A military force lead by future Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell lead a column into the hills and soon had Dinizulu surrounded. The warrior slipped out of the trap but surrendered a few days later. Tried by a British court in 1889 and convicted of treason, Dinizulu, like his more famous warrior-king predecessor, was sent into exile and spent the rest of his life listening to the brutal, pure wind of St. Helena.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte