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Notes from a South Seas Island

Peter Dahlsen has spent the last month working in the Attorney-General's office of St Helena, so here are the musings of our Island Correspondent:

Dear Reader,

So here I am, on one of the most remote islands on the planet, roughly halfway between Brazil and Namibia. St Helena was born out of a volcano, which erupted in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean some 7 million years ago (the volcano is now extinct, thankfully). The resultant island is 10 miles x 5 miles and has a population of roughly 4,500 people. The island is rugged, harsh and incredibly beautiful. The people are warm, down-to-earth and genuinely welcoming. Everyone says hello as I walk down the street, some introducing themselves and asking why I am on the island; not at all out of rudeness or nosiness, but from a sense of natural curiosity. Nobody is in a hurry and everyone smiles. It is a joy to be here.

There is no fresh milk on the island; the only milk is UHT, imported from South Africa, as are most provisions here (including perfectly acceptable South African wine!). There is a ship called the RMS St Helena that travels between Cape Town and the island on a regular basis, bringing with it provisions, mail and until very recently almost all travellers. However, the UK government has invested a serious amount of money over the past few years in the construction of an airport for the island and the first regular commercial passenger flight arrived in October last year, just four months ago. There is now a weekly flight, every Saturday, between the island and Johannesburg, stopping off in Windhoek, Namibia en route for refuelling purposes (the flight takes 6 hours, but that sure beats the ship, which takes 5 days to get here).

My work here has been extremely interesting and pleasingly challenging. I have enjoyed it very much indeed. The Attorney-General's department on the island is staffed by committed and dedicated lawyers from various parts of the world. For example, the current A-G hails from Uruguay, however, he retires from the post at the end of January for greener pastures and his replacement was, until recently, the Senior Crown Prosecutor on Jersey; others come from the UK, Ireland and locally bred lawyers and trainee lawyers also serve (and there is, of course, one Aussie bloke, at least for another week or so).

The Supreme Court trials on the island (St Helena equivalent of the UK Crown Courts) can be difficult with respect to jury selection - the population is so small that, potentially, everyone knows everyone else, including the defendant(s) and the complainant(s). As a result, Supreme Court trials are conducted with a jury of nine jurors, (rather than, as we are accustomed to in the UK, a jury of 12). Furthermore, pre-emptive challenges are possible; each side being allowed up to 7 challenges without cause and further challenges with cause, if required.

St Helena also boasts ‘Jonathan’, of whom the locals are very proud indeed. Jonathan is allegedly the world's oldest tortoise and he lives in the grounds of the governor's residence. I am reliably informed that Jonathan is 185 years old (yes, even older than me); although how it has been established he is the oldest tortoise on the planet beats me … Still, who am I to question local wisdom and knowledge? Nobody, you reply, and you would of course be right.

And so, dear reader, I must sign off for now (and I haven’t even mentioned Napoleon yet). Nonetheless, it is a balmy Saturday afternoon on this stunning, sub-tropical island and I might just go for a swim, or at least a walk down to the bay for a quiet, yet refreshing beer (I am feeling a little thirsty). I understand the weather in Blighty is not quite so balmy at the moment …

Your island correspondent,



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