Yes, we have no Bahamas. But ...

Britain still has a handful of tiny dependencies, the last outposts of a once great empire, to muck up. Paul Vallely looks at the latest upheavals in St Helena, once home to Napoleon
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The Independent Online
Type the words "empire" and "last days of" into our library database and it comes up with the obituary of Larry Grayson, the pursed posturer who apparently appeared "at the Finsbury Park and Chiswick Empires during the last days of Variety". Thus it ends, that glorious enterprise on which the sun was never to set. Either there or in the Ruritanian flummery of the British dependent territories with their plume-helmeted governors and their pounds 6,000 ceremonial uniforms.

One such is St Helena, perhaps the most isolated of Britain's colonial remnants. It stands in the South Atlantic more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa - halfway between Angola and Brazil - a dark island "rising like an enormous black wart from the face of the deep," in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte. But then he was biased. This was his final place of exile for the six years until the defeated French emperor died in 1821.

St Helena is in the news, and in a way it has not been since Prince Andrew visited the island in 1984 and the Governor fell into the sea in full ceremonial dress as he tried to greet him. There has been what is said to pass for a riot among its 6,000 inhabitants. An angry crowd is reported to have set fire to the island's only police van. There have been demonstrations over cuts in the subsidy from London. Two of the five members of the island's executive council have resigned in protest, complaining of the "dictatorial" approach of the career-diplomat Governor, David Smallwood, who has fled the island by boat from which he pronounced by ship-to-shore fax: "There is no crisis on St Helena, constitutional or otherwise."

All jolly good stuff. Until you telephone the island and find your inquiries are greeted with a weary sigh and the inquiry: "Is the British general election so boring that you have nothing else to write about?" The facts, you are told, are these, and they are unrelated:

A man is in the island's 165-year-old blockhouse - recently inspected by Her Majesty's former chief inspector of prisons, Stephen Tumim - on remand after starting a number of blazes in a row with his girlfriend.

The island's subsidy has been cut from pounds 3.7m to pounds 3.2 m after a tough round of negotiations with the Overseas Development Administration. Two councillors have resigned in protest and the Governor has agreed to the councillors' request for an early general election, to be held on July 9.

The Governor has gone on a long-planned holiday to the UK.

There is more to it than that, of course. For a start there was the refusal of the Governor to endorse the election of one Bobby Robertson to fill one of the two vacant posts. Mr Smallwood objected to him on the grounds that almost exactly a year ago a mob, fuelled by Mr Robertson, burst into the Governor's office in The Castle at Jamestown and seized Mr Smallwood by the gubernatorial tie. They then proceeded to occupy the place for more than three hours, protesting at the low rate of unemployment benefits on the island. "They grabbed my tie and pulled me by the throat," the Governor protested at the time. Tie-pulling is a heavy duty business on an island where people would not dream of passing in the street without saying hello.

But there is a grimmer reality. It was comparatively simple after the Second World War when the burdens of empire began to outweigh the benefits to grant independence to Britain's larger colonies, in the belief that they might be economically viable (had they not been, in most cases, left with such inherently imbalanced post-colonial economic structures). But with the smaller dependencies it was not so simple, which is why we still have 14 - until, that is, the Black Watch bugler plays the Last Post at midnight on 30 June at the New Convention Centre in Hong Kong.

After getting shot of the Bahamas and other dependencies, the remnant of empire today consists in Bermuda, Gibraltar and five Caribbean territories - Anguilla, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands. There are also four South Atlantic dependencies - the British Antarctic (population: 300 scientists), the Falklands Islands, the whaling stations South Georgia and South Sandwich and St Helena and Dependencies (which include Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha). In addition there are - in the Pacific - Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno islands (total population: 50; chief income: postage stamps). And there is the British Indian Ocean Territory (population: 0 since all the inhabitants were evicted to make way for the US military base on Diego Garcia). True, Spain and Argentina want Gibraltar and the Malvinas back, but the rest of it summons a residuum of schoolboy pride for the tiny spots of pink which still sprinkle the global map. Despite their former enormous strategic importance, they now seem too quaint to be seriously politically incorrect.

St Helena has its share of quaintness. Its population of 6,000 from mixed British and Indian descent, has virtually no natural resources and no airport. The Colonial Prisoners Removal Act 1884 has never been repealed, giving the Crown the power to exile troublesome subjects to St Helena. But visitors report a splendid old-fashioned friendliness to the "Hillman- driving, pound-spending, royalty-loving, pet-owning citizenry" who are so well-adjusted that when television was introduced last year instead of becoming sullen, couch potatoes infatuated by drugs, promiscuous sex and violence researchers discovered that St Helena's already well- behaved children had become more social, more amicable, more helpful.

But there is a worm at the heart of the apple. The latest figures show the island imported goods worth pounds 4,692,000, but its exports earned it only pounds 145,000. Once the island had a single cash crop - flax - from which its people used to make string, but the British Post Office, the island's biggest customer, went over to nylon twine in the Sixties. The economy has never recovered. It has some exports in canned and frozen fish but 70 per cent of islanders work directly or indirectly for the government. As the Whitehall subsidy has been reduced unemployment has risen; over the past two years it has gone from 9 to 18 per cent. And a baby boom will place an extra 300 in the work-force by 2005.

Anxieties over unemployment are what lie behind the disagreement between St Helena councillors and the Governor. The island receives more than pounds 9m a year, the highest amount per head of British aid anywhere. But British aid has been slowly whittled away. Unemployment benefit can be as low as pounds 12 a week. Which is why ties can be strained.

It is not a problem peculiar to St Helena. A British initiative aimed at tightening control over its Caribbean dependencies last year brought an angry response from Anguilla, where the Prime Minister accused the Government of trying to force the five remaining Caribbean dependencies into independence.

To Britain the arithmetic is simple. It costs pounds 9.5m to run St Helena and local revenue - from taxes, excise duties and fishing licences - is only pounds 6m. In addition to the resulting pounds 3.5m subsidy Whitehall also provides the pounds 3.2m development aid package from the ODA. That includes money for capital projects, technical assistance and subsidy for the Royal Mail Ship St Helena which costs pounds 1m a year to run.

Foreign Office officials believe the subsidy can be reduced by a two- fold strategy. They want to "grow the private sector" and find employment opportunities off-shore. Only last month the Foreign Office launched a series of conferences to win new business for the remote territory.

Tourism is one possibility among the 12 miles of green fields and wooded hills in which Napoleon was once at liberty to ride with his 52-strong entourage. (His grave is not there, for the British allowed his coffin to be disinterred 20 years after his death, but the houses where he lived are well-preserved.) And tourism received a boost recently with the replacement of the hazardous landing stage with steps. Passengers used to have to grab a rope and leap to the seaweed-covered dock as their boat rose as much as eight feet in the swell. When it was too rough islanders had to watch in dismay as liners like the Canberra turned away without putting a single passenger ashore. Today passengers can simply step ashore, holding an iron railing.

But the task of finding work off the island so that locals can take short- term contracts and send money home - as they did in the past - has been scuppered by the 1981 Immigration Act. This legislation, in an attempt to avert any flood of Hong Kong Chinese, bans the residents of all the dependencies from settling in Britain. After the Act was passed the Falkland Islanders and the Gibraltarians were exempted but the only places where residents of St Helena can now seek work is on the military base on Ascension and in the Falkland Islands, to which emigration has increased by 30 per cent in recent years.

Empire for the British was a curious cocktail of exploitation and benevolence, cruelty and paternalism, ignominy and glory. Certainly it lacked the ruthlessness of the Spaniards in Latin America, Belgians in the Congo or French in Algeria and Indo-China. Nor was its end for the British and their subjects accompanied by the appalling bloodshed with which some others came to a close, which is perhaps why the Commonwealth is still a valued and indeed a growing organisation. But its last gasp is not without its pain. For all the small-town Punch-and-Judy politics. For all the feathery flummery.