Re: [TdC] Simon Winchester on British territories and rocks
- The Saint Helena flax industry which produced the wonderfully hairy string used by the Royal Mail ceased in 1966 because the subsidy was withdrawn. Only after that did the Royal Mail adopt boring unhairy synthetics.Winchester, having written Outposts is now out of date and should redo his research.Charles Frater28.5.2010
On 27 May 2010 10:50, bobconrich <bob@...> wrote:
To put it kindly, this article, posted under "News" in Mail Online, is somewhat lacking in accuracy.
Thursday, May 27 2010
Little Britains: Hundreds of our far-flung island outposts which foreigners keep trying to conquer
By Simon Winchester
Last updated at 12:06 AM on 27th May 2010
The news that a hitherto obscure body called the Western Isles Council is going to allow a Yorkshireman named Andy Strangeway to place another brass plaque on the summit of the Atlantic island of Rockall â€" if he can brave the slippery weed, the guano, the dive-bombing gannets and the terribly sheer cliffs â€" serves to remind us of one curious truth about post-Imperial Britain.
And that is there are still a lot of very obscure places dotted around the world where, in one form or another, Her Majestyâ€™s writ still runs.
So many, in fact, that not so long ago, we entirely forgot we had one of them. Of which more later.
Ignored: Fewer than 20 people have visited this remote British rock - called Rockall - that a Yorkshireman is to climb
Ignored: Fewer than 20 people have visited this remote British rock - called Rockall - that a Yorkshireman is to climb
Every ocean has a British island in it still. Some have more than others: the Atlantic has hundreds of them, places that take to mewing like angry kittens if the motherland ignores them, which she chooses to do rather more often than they like.
The Pacific has a scant four British islands, of which three â€" Henderson, Ducie and Oeno â€" are utterly forgotten.
The fourth, Pitcairn, is notorious, and for reasons generally associated with criminal behaviour, from mutiny in the 18th century (the Bounty mutineers took refuge there after snatching the ship) to pederasty in the 20th, when several high-profile islanders were convicted of rape.
And the Indian Ocean has a fair share of scattered Imperial relics, too.
As with the Pacific, few ever impinge on the collective conscience, except for one: Diego Garcia, home now to what is unarguably the most important American air and naval base in the world, and a place of which our dealings â€" in handing the island over to U.S. control â€" were so shabby and dishonest that we should still hang our heads in shame.
However, more on that later also.
For now, let us embark on a whirlwind tour, a 21st century Cookâ€™s Colonial.
Before embarking, one point: the vast scale and complexity of our post-Imperial possessions was made clear to me once in home waters in Scotland.
I had long fancied that the most northerly of our British Isles was Shetlandâ€™s charmingly-named Muckle Flugga, and contrived to go there to see the lighthouse.
I remarked to the keeper, smugly, that I believed I was at the most northerly point of the realm.
â€˜Not quite,â€™ he replied, and gestured to a low white patch of rage rising over the sea-swells a mile to our north. â€˜Out Stack,â€™ he said. â€˜Thatâ€™s as far as we go.â€™
Mr Strangeway has been to Out Stack, of course. He has spent years girdling all of Scotland, from Soay to Galloway, and that is why he now wants to visit Rockall.
Britain has officially claimed Rockall as part of what was Inverness-shire since 1972 â€" there is an act of Parliament â€" and she wants it still.
Although the Danes, the Faroese and Iceland want it too, so they can carry away the cod in the waters near it, and drill for oil if there is as much as a sniff of it in the neighbouring deeps.
Otherwise, Rockall is a rather unimpressive place. The sheer-sided plug of an ancient volcano, it is barely 100ft at its widest, and rises just 70ft out of the waves.
Fewer than 20 people have ever set foot on the islet, and its only permanent inhabitants are periwinkles and other molluscs, although the odd gannet, fulmar or guillemot will stop and rest awhile in the summer months.
Indeed, whether we will ever press our claim with a gunboat is doubtful, though having a brass plaque screwed to the summit of the rock would be nice.
(Sailors from HMS Vidal put one up back in 1955, though some wandering maritime vandal later clambered up and unscrewed it, which impressed as much as annoyed Whitehall when they found out.)
Elsewhere in the Atlantic, there are islands big and small, populated by people rather than seabirds, and there are on them pockets of tea-drinking, cricket-loving, cardigan wearing cosiness which visitors find endearing and odd, by turns.
There is Bermuda, quiet and rich â€" but which gets itself noticed quite dramatically from time to time.
The first time I went was in the Seventies, when the Governor was assassinated by a gang of Jamaican drug lords.
And last year there was a fuss when the elected local government gave asylum to four Uighur desperadoes from Guantanamo, without bothering to ask the present Governor for his say-so.
Much mewing went on then. The five colonies in the Caribbean â€" the Virgins, the Caymans, Turks & Caicos, Anguilla and Montserrat used to chug along fairly harmlessly, but not any more.
Montserrat is still devastated by its volcano and asks London to keep a frigate on station nearby in case it blows up again.
Britain threw out the government on Grand Turk last summer because it was immoderately corrupt, and there the Governor really does run the place, unlike up in Bermuda, where he just looks on.
There is also much corruption on both the Caymans and the British Virgin Islands, as one might expect of places where offshore banking took over from the old industries of coconut oil, sugar and bananas.
(The Caymans wonâ€™t like me saying this; but they donâ€™t like me anyway, once getting a calypso group called the Tradewinds to write a very rude song about me that got near the top of the Caymanian hit parade.)
Then there is dear old St Helena, Napoleonâ€™s exile-home, a delightful and ever-loyal place with its endless troubles of impoverishment and gloom.
Some reckon it to be the most aided place in the world, per capita, and its one industry, making string, was devastated when the Post Office went over to nylon twine.
It has two dependencies: Tristan, which produced crayfish until its cannery burned down last year, and now does little of anything; and Ascension, a mid-ocean pile of clinker with a military airstrip, and a weekly flight between Brize Norton and the most infamous of the British Atlantic rockpiles, the Falkland Islands.
Of which little need be said other than that Her Majestyâ€™s writ runs down there more firmly and well-defended than even, I suspect, on Out Stack, and all sheep and all men are safe from everyone except one another.
A couple of hundred miles away from the tip of the Falklands there is, however, a clutch of remote, sea-washed guano- stained granite peaks which in many ways are similar to Rockall â€" and could serve to remind Londoners why Rockall should be more than just symbolically important to us.
These are the Shag Rocks â€" named for the birds, lest some think otherwise â€" which rise from the sub-Antarctic waters like lonely sentinels, to be avoided at all costs by speeding ships.
But the Shags are of vital importance legally: Britainâ€™s claim to them allows our trawlers and longliners to fish their waters with impunity, or else licence others to do the same â€" our pathetic fishermen often canâ€™t be bothered to trek all that way.
If you dine on Chilean sea-bass in your local poissoniÃ¨re, it has more than likely come from the cold waters off the Shag Rocks, where it is actually called Patagonian toothfish.
Beyond, and still in the Atlantic, are a host of lesser islands â€" South Georgia most famously, others far less so â€" islets, skerries and rocks where we have bases and flags and caches of food, and on which naval vessels check from time to time.
Hundreds of scatterings of little Britains, if you bother to count every one.
Around the bend of Africa, up in the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean, the great beacons of Diego Garcia burn eternally, bringing in the bombers and the warships to help Mr Obama fight his war in Afghanistan.
â€˜The Footprint Of Freedomâ€™, they call the atoll, since it looks like a childâ€™s foot from on high.
Britainâ€™s shame derives from the way it leased the island, back in the Seventies â€" promising the American government that no colonial citizens lived there, while knowing all too well that 2,000 did, and had for decades.
They were thrown off â€" and their pets killed and incinerated on the beach â€" and they have lived a thousand miles away in Mauritius, as impoverished and miserable aliens, ever since.
All manner of British politicians who are still around were involved in the affair, and they comment little.
And finally, in the middle of the Pacific there is Pitcairn â€" together with the aforementioned Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands â€" where Fletcher Christian, his mutineers and a clutch of burly Tahitian girls settled in 1789.
Their descendants live there still, though many of the menfolk languish now in a newly-built prison, a disapproving British court having been sent there for what the convicted wailed was the simple Polynesian custom of sleeping with their own 12-year-old children.
They would have been put in jail in New Zealand, which is where Pitcairnâ€™s colonial governor prefers to reside: but if they had been taken off the island to serve time, no one could have manned the islandâ€™s longboats, which are vital for keeping the place supplied.
And so they live today pinioned in their local lock-up, and each time a cargo ship anchors off the island, they are let out and, under the watchful eye of a constable, row out to collect the islandâ€™s victuals. So yes, Rockall has company.
Scores of islands long overlooked still exist under the British flag: there are, among others, two Dogs, a Swan, a Hen, a Parrot, an Eagle a Bosun Bird, a Sealion, a Rabbit, a Nightingale, a Carcass and a Rat.
There are three Brothers, a Necker, a Virgin, one Lively, one Barren, and one Danger.
There is Inaccessible, Shelter and Astrolabe. And down, down in the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, close to Antarctica, there are Montagu, Bristol, Cook â€" and the one that the clerks in Whitehall just happened to once forget: Southern Thule.
Poor James Callaghan found it difficult to explain to the Commons back in 1976, when a passing British warship, sailing through these chilly southern waters, spotted from its bridge an Argentine flag flying on what the maps said was a tiny British outpost.
On closer inspection, the sailors spotted a helicopter landing pad, a barracks block, a tiny meteorological office and a small clutch of people, Argentines presumably.
The Prime Minister spluttered and dissembled â€" was this really one of ours? â€" and then allowed the intruders to remain there, for a further eight years.
Only the Falklands War persuaded them to leave â€" we retook this tiny Rockall- of- the- south, only to discover on the Navyâ€™s next visit that the Argentine soldiers had come back yet again, had taken down the Union Jack and, with commendable tidiness, folded it up and placed it under a stone.
There was a prompt sense of humour deficit in Whitehall, and back came the Marines, who this time blew everything up with demolition charges and promised to keep the place under constant surveillance. And have they?
Does the writ still run? Is Southern Thule still ours, just like Rockall seems to be?
It is all William Hagueâ€™s problem now, since he is the technical boss of our remaining Empire.
My humble suggestion is that he and Andy Strangeway, after all both Yorkshiremen, should take a trip down south together and have a look-see, and determine whether our flag still flies on the island.
If not, they should summon a warship. But if it does, they should stand side by side, ramrod straight and stiff of lip, and remind themselves of the oldest of all British Imperial mantras â€" even if one honoured nowadays much more in the breach than the observance â€" that what we have, we hold.
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
Part of the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday & Metro Media Group
Â© Associated Newspapers Ltd
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