Friday, 12 June 2015

The Very Posh RMS St Helena

The RMS St Helena is supposedly one of two remaining Royal Mail Ships, but in practical terms according to all of the crew and passengers that I spoke to, it's the only one that's truly accessible or truly close to the original experience of sailing on a Royal Mail Ship.  There's a second one, so I'm told, servicing a chain of small islands off a coast somewhere.  No one could tell me where.


Like a scaled down version of the Titanic, or some other last-century ocean liner

The smoke that comes from the central stack is diesel smoke and not coal smoke, but aside from that it could easily be a snapshot of a method of travel that's unknown in the modern era.  The crew all have Queen's English accents and wear snappy uniforms, the ship is owned more or less directly by the British Crown, and British naval terms creep into the lexicon and casual conversation of anyone wearing a white, well-pressed RMS uniform.

Saint Helena was discovered by the Portuguese and held as an incredibly important trading post by the East India Trading Company in the 17 and 1800s.  It was one of the scarce stopping points where sailing ships could restock with food and fresh water before continuing on to the far East.  It has a history steeped in the war of maritime nations, the creation and abolition of slavery, and the overseas power of the British government over the centuries.  The RMS is the only publicly available vessel that goes back and forth to the island, and has been for at least the last 70 years.  The residents of the island set their calendars by the arrival and departure of the RMS.  It's the only way to get the critically ill to a hospital, the only way to access any kind of tourism dollars, and is the origin of 90+% of the goods imported to an island that very literally has no economy of its own.

The RMS St Helena is a remnant of colonialism, and is a direct reflection of (and the lifeline to) the very isolated island of St Helena.  When we first sat down to lunch I couldn't help but notice an array of dishes and cutlery that I don't see in most fine dining restaurants.

See below for walkthrough...

The plate on the left for a bread roll, with the butter knife intended just for the bread roll.  The main plate, with the salad fork, main fork, main knife, butter knife and soup spoon.  The tablespoon, dessert spoon and dessert fork arranged above the main plate.  The upside-down water glass on the right, next to the empty wine glass.

In the era of my grandparents, knowing which fork was used for which course and being able to set a table like this was a symbol of upper class status.  You were one of the well-heeled and posh if you could set a table, or interact with a relatively dizzying array of utensils properly.  It's an obscure set of rules that exists almost exclusively as a way for people with the economic clout to own a thousand purposeless dishes (and re-wash them all after every meal) to demonstrate that they had the energy to waste on this symbol of upper class.

One of my shipmates commented "You're really impressed by this colonial etiquette," and I mentioned that impressed wasn't exactly the word that I would use.  It's a curious place to layer on so much etiquette.  The RMS is a functional vessel - most of the passengers that I'm sharing space with are employees of a construction company active on the island, businesspeople trying to find St Helena ahead of the tourism curve the new airport will undoubtedly bring, but only a dozen of the 100 people I'm sharing the ship with are going to St Helena for tourism.  None of us are on this ship exclusively for the ship itself.  There's a weird incongruence between the jeans and T-shirts and visible tattoos, the clearly visible absence of expectations of poshness and ponce from the passengers, and the very significant efforts of the crew to make the experience feel intensively "upper-class."

This is the last of the Royal Mail Ships for all intents and purposes.  Next year it will be decommissioned shortly after the first flights of the airport in St Helena - it will have a final sailing across the Atlantic and up the Thames and once it arrives in London it will be stripped down and sold for 4 million USD, give or take.  The vast majority of passengers here have no expectation of posh catered dinners or waiters with a white towel over their arms and yet the ship does it anyway.  This is a symbol of an empire, a colonial power that projected its stiff upper lip and class-structured mentality across the better part of the world.  The sun still never sets on the Empire that spawned this ship (currently thanks to the Pitcairn islands), and it seems at first glance like the upper-class posh naval feeling so carefully created on the RMS is more a projection of the remnants of an oceanic empire than it is for the benefit of the passengers.

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