"I will marry the man who takes me to St Helena to meet Jonathan"


20 Dec 2018 by Emma Weaver, SAMS
For most of us, Jonathan the tortoise is just 'the world's oldest living land animal' – just a slow-moving, wrinkly reptile that happens to have made headlines for his age, his sexuality and his remote island home.

But for American Erica Munkwitz, Jonathan is the reason she is now engaged.

"I will marry the man who takes me to St Helena to meet Jonathan."

This was one of the first things Erica said to James Swanson when the couple met two years ago in Washington D.C.

And after hearing that statement, James didn't run for the hills. Instead, James planned a trip to one of the remotest islands on earth – braving one of the most notorious airports on earth – all in order to see the oldest land animal on earth.

"I thought, if that's all I have to do to get her, I'm planning the trip! That sounds like a great deal for me," James said.

Erica has been obsessed with Jonathan since 2012 – and last Wednesday, she and James arrived at St Helena Island, in the middle of the South Atlantic, to finally meet the tortoise that signified the possibility of marriage for the couple.


Jonathan spends his life quietly munching on grass in the paddock of St Helena's Plantation House (the residence of the Governor of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) – to island residents, the tortoise doesn't seem like much to marvel over.

So how did the American born-and-bred Erica become so fascinated with the creature, that she hinged her entire marriage on meeting this south-Atlantic reptile?

"As a historian – in America we don't have anything that's old," said Erica, a professor of British history at American University in Washington D.C. "You know, 30 years old and it's considered ancient.

"And to know that there was a living, breathing animal that's almost two centuries old – and to imagine all the things that Jonathan has seen, or that have happened while he's been alive – everything that has made our modern world and the world we live in... He is a living monument. That just fascinated me; absolutely stunned me."

"And to think that Jonathan was here when the liberated Africans were here, and when the Boer War prisoners were here; when the Queen of England was here," James added. "It's just fascinating that there's a living creature on the island who's been here when all those things happened."

So last Wednesday, Erica finally got to feed and spend time with Jonathan.

"The skin, and the texture – and his beautiful head and his eyes... Just to touch him. Just to sit there and to watch him walk and to watch him move and just 'be'... It was more than I ever could have imagined," Erica said.

And after meeting the creature she had spent the past six years dreaming of – Erica got engaged to the man that took her to St Helena to meet him.

James got down on one knee, with Jonathan at his side, and asked Erica to marry him.

"And I said – to Jonathan, should we accept?

"And I believe Jonathan said yes, and so I of course said yes, I will marry you," Erica said.