blank Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

A Brief History

How we got to here

blank Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those who are wise and of good will.
Albert Einstein

St Helena has a recorded history spanning over 500 years and is Britain’s second oldest colony (after Bermuda). Read the highlights here.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

Early map of St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Early map of St Helena

Below: DiscoveryEarly yearsThe English take overThe Dutch InvasionThe East India Company…againNapoleon Bonaparte…and afterCrown Colony20th Century21st Century‘What the Saints did next…’Read More

Records Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Other Records{5}-based pages:

• Chronology

• On This Day

• In This Week

• Comparative History

• Titbits from the records

• Island History

Much of the earlier material below is extracted from the Records{5} or the various island histories. Later material comes from the island’ newspapers and other sources. You can search our events database in various ways on our Chronology page. To search the original Records{5} for yourself, see our Family And Friends page for contact details.

Please note: although our database contains items, ranging from to , this is not a complete history, even of all the most important events; there are some we still have not yet managed to date.

For the pre-discovery history of St Helena, see our pages Geology of St Helena and Endemic Species.

Discovery

da Nova stamp Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
da Nova
stamp
{a}

Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21st May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova, sailing at the service of Portugal. Anchoring in what is now James Bay, it is said that he named it ‘Santa Helena’ after St Helena of Constantinople, whose Saint’s Day falls on 21st May. However, as always, it isn’t quite that simple…

Some have disputed that da Nova actually discovered it, but a relatively contemporary record has recently been found - by Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government - confirming that it was indeed da Nova that discoved St Helena. Unfortunately, Falcão, does not give a date for the discovery and various theories exist. Please read our Discovery of St Helena page to learn more. (For the record, we believe the most probable date for St Helena’s discovery is actually 3rd May 1502.)

Despite this, the history taught on St Helena and generally accepted on the island is that St Helena was discovered by da Nova on 21st May 1502 and named St Helena, and hence we celebrate our National Day every year on 21st May and celebrated our Quincentenary in 2002.

Early years

The Portuguese found the island to have an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock (goats, pigs, dogs, cats and - inevitably - rats), fruit trees, and vegetables, thereby initiating the destruction of the island’s rare endemic species. They built a chapel and one or two houses, but formed no permanent settlement. They took to leaving sailors suffering from Scurvy and other ailments on the island, to fend for themselves and be taken home if they recovered by a subsequent ship. The island thereby became crucially important for the collection of food and as a rendezvous point for homebound voyages from Asia. It is sometimes claimed the Portuguese tried to keep the discovery of St Helena a secret but this is not borne out by the evidence{6}.

Fernão Lopez Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Fernão Lopez

Somewhere between 1513 and 1516, one Fernão Lopez was abandoned here as a punishment, thus becoming the first exile on St Helena and also the first inhabitant. It is sometimes reported that, after Lopez, an un-named Franciscan friar occupied the island alone for the space of fourteen years, until his death or possibly his removal by the Portuguese.

Sometime before 1557 two slaves from Mozambique, one from Java, and two women, escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island for many years; long enough for their numbers to rise to twenty. These were probably the island’s first ‘permanent’ settlers.

Linschoten print, 1596 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Linschoten print, 1596{7}

Strong circumstantial evidence{8} supports the idea that Sir Francis Drake located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580), and thus the island became known to the English. On 25th September 1582 Englishman Edward Fenton set out a plan to occupy St Helena, become its king and live by waylaying returning Dutch East Indiamen, but he never enacted his plan. Thus the first Englishman to arrive was William Barrett on 31st January 1584, describing the island as “fruitful of all things which a man can imagine”. Thomas Cavendish, who actually visited in 1588, arriving on 8th June during his first attempt to circumnavigate the world, stayed for 12 days and described the valley (initially called Chapel Valley) where Jamestown is now situated as:

A marvellous fair and pleasant valley, wherein divers handsome buildings and houses were set up, and especially one which was a church, which was tiled, and whitened on the outside very fair, and made with a porch, and within the church at the upper end was set an alter. This valley is the fairest and largest low plot in all the island, and it is marvellous sweet and pleasant, and planted in every place with fruit trees or with herbs. There are on this island thousands of goats, which the Spaniards call cabritos, which are very wild: you shall sometimes see one or two hundred of them together, and sometimes you may behold them going in a flock almost a mile long.

Portuguese map from 1601 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Portuguese map from 1601{9}

Once St Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese ships calling here. As a result, in 1592 the Portuguese ordered the annual fleet returning from Goa on no account to touch at St Helena. In developing their Far East trade, the Dutch also began to frequent the island. One of their first visits was in 1598 when an expedition of two vessels attacked a large Spanish Caravel, only to be beaten off and forced to retreat to Ascension Island for repairs. The Portuguese soon gave up regularly calling at the island because of the attacks on their shipping, but also because of desecration to their chapel and images, destruction of their livestock and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors.

On 16th June 1603 Sir James Lancaster visited St Helena on his return from his first voyage equipped by the British East India Company, and by 1610 most English and Dutch ships visited the island on their home voyage. The following is a descriptive account of the island by the Dutch officer Admiral Wittert:

5th April 1608: The fleet being 26 40S, had orders to bear for the island of St Helena. One finds there good oranges, pomegranates and lemons, enough to serve for the refreshment of the crew of five or six vessels. We saw also a quantity of parsley, purslain, senery, sorrel and camomile herbs, which eaten in soups or in salads are very good against the Scurvy.

Dutch terrirorial stone Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

The ship ‘The James’ under captain John Hatch collected 4,000 lemons from the island in June 1621.

As early as 1644 Richard Boothby, an East India Company stockholder, floated the idea of a colony on St Helena, having himself passed a “Merry Christmas” on the island, recommending it as “pleasant, healthfull, frutifull, and commodious, perfect for trading with all Nations and naturally invincible and impregnable”. While the East India Company were considering this, the Dutch Republic formally made claim to St Helena in 1645, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it, thus rendering their claim invalid (in contemporary law). A Dutch territorial stone (photo, right), undated but certainly later than 1645, is presently kept in the Museum of St Helena. By 1651, the Dutch had all but abandoned ideas of occupying the island, giving preference instead to their colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1649 the East India Company ordered all homeward-bound vessels to wait for one another at St Helena, and from 1656 the Company petitioned the government to send a man-of-war each year to convoy the fleet home from there.

The English take over

Having been granted in October 1657 Patents by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell, including rights to govern St Helena, in December 1658 the Company decided to fortify and colonise St Helena with Planters{10}. Captain John Dutton, unable to enact his assignment to colonise Pollerone (Indonesia) due to war, was chosen for the task.

Church Valley in 1658 by Johan Nieuhof Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Church Valley in 1658 by Johan Nieuhof

A fleet commanded by Captain Dutton arrived at St Helena on 5th May 1659 and took control of the island, Dutton becoming the first Governor, from 1659-1661. A fort, originally named the Castle of St. John, was completed within a month and further houses were built further up the valley.

It soon became obvious that the island could not be made self-sufficient and in early 1658 the East India Company ordered all homecoming ships to provide one ton of rice on their arrival at the island.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the fort was renamed James Fort, the town Jamestown and the valley James Valley, all in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England. The East India Company immediately sought a Royal Charter, which was issued in April 1661 and gave the Company the sole right to fortify and colonise the island “in such legal and reasonable manner the said Governor and Company should see fit”.

Great Fire 1666 stamp Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Every effort was made to induce persons in England to settle here. Advertisements were posted in the City of London and shiploads of young women were sent out, to remain a year “unless otherwise disposed of{11}. Each Planter{10} was allocated one of 130 pieces of land, and it is accepted history that additional settlers were brought here after the Great Fire of London in 1666{12}. But the Company had great difficulty attracting new immigrants, the population falling to only 66, including 18 slaves, by 1670.

In 1671 the East India Company assigned the island its first Chaplain, William Noakes. If their aim was to calm the population, it failed: unrest began soon after and in 1672 then-Governor Coney was seized by rebellious members of the island’s council and shipped back to England.

The Dutch Invasion

Finding that the Cape of Good Hope was not the ideal harbour they originally envisaged, the Dutch East India Company launched an armed invasion of St Helena over Christmas 1672. Four Dutch ships arrived off St Helena from the Cape carrying 180 soldiers and 150 sailors. A landing party came ashore at Lemon Valley but was repelled by English Planters{10} hurling rocks from above. However, a discontented settler named William Coxe led the Dutch to a more remote and safer landing place in Swanley Valley. From there the Dutch made their way to High Peak and then Jamestown. Governor Beale was forced to abandon the island in a Company ship, sailing to Brazil where he located an East India Company flotilla and sent it to reinforce St Helena with fresh troops. The Company retook the island in May 1673 without loss of life and reinforced it with 250 troops. Read more on our Invasion! page.

The East India Company…again

Early image of St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{b}

In 1673 the Company obtained a new Charter from King Charles II which granted the island to the East India Company with free title as though it was a part of England “in the same manner as East Greenwich in the County of Kent”. Acknowledging that St Helena was a place where there was no trade, the Company was permitted to send from England any provisions free of Customs and to convey as many settlers as required.

Two ships, the European and the John & Alexander, set sail from England in December 1673, bound for St Helena with the aim of settling the island. But discontent continued and in 1674 settlers and troops seized Governor Keigwin; it was only the lucky arrival of an East India Company fleet that freed him.

Shortly thereafter it was made a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave to St Helena. Slaves were also brought from Asia by incoming shipping. Thus, most of the island’s slaves came from Madagascar and Asia rather than the African mainland. By 1679, the number of slaves had risen to about 80. Rumours of an impending uprising by slaves in 1694 led to the gruesome execution of three slaves and cruel punishment of many others. Ghost stories still told on the island relate to these executions.

French map of Jamestown, 1690s Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
French map of Jamestown, 1690s

In September 1680 women were forbidden to board visiting ships except in daylight and in the company of their husbands, this measure presumably designed to control prostitution, and in 1684 the East India Company directed that St Helena’s “principal highwayes be broadened to a width of 20 feet so that you may have large roads for droves of Cattel or loaden Oxen to meet upon with Conveniency as well as men” (More about the origins of Jamestown’s roads on our Roads.). In January 1690 several French Protestants, fleeing persecution at home, arrived and started a wine industry at Horse Pasture, but the attempt failed. One of their number, Stephen Poirier, later became Governor Poirier.

Following an edict issued by Governor Johnson that ships could not leave the port at night, to prevent escape attempts by members of the garrison, on 21st April 1693 a soldier, Lieutenant Jackson, finding conditions on the island unbearable decided to escape, taking around 50 similarly dissatisfied comrades with him. Imprisoning others who did not agree with his escape attempt in Jamestown Fort{13}, they waited till daybreak. When Governor Johnson unlocked the Fort the next morning he was seized, shot and wounded. The Fort was robbed, the guns at Mundens were spiked and the carriages were pushed into the sea. The group and some hostages then boarded the ship Francis and Mary which was at anchor in the port. Long negotiations followed with Jackson wanting supplies in return for the prisoners. It seems Jackson and most of his band made good their escape, though he did send back the hostages and three of his party - George Lock, Isaac Slaughter and Joseph Davis, who were charged with mutiny and sentenced to hanging.

Thornton ’s map of 1703 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Thornton’s map of 1703

The clearance of the indigenous forest for the distillation of spirits, tanning and agricultural development began to lead to shortage of wood by the 1680s. The numbers of rats and goats had reached plague proportions by the 1690s, leading to the destruction of food crops and young tree shoots. In 1694 it is recorded that the rats “after destroying everything else, fell to destroying each other” The wild goat population increased so much that cattle could not survive on the remaining grazing so from October 1698 hunting parties were organised every Wednesday to shoot wild goats. Neither an increase on duty on the locally produced Arrack{35} nor a duty on all firewood helped reduce the deforestation whilst attempts to reforest the island by Governor Roberts from 1708-1711 were not followed up by his immediate successors. The Great Wood, which once extended from Deadwood Plain to Prosperous Bay Plain, was reported in 1710 as not having a single tree left standing.

In February 1708 a soldier, Captain Mashborne, reported that he had found small amounts of gold among the limestone dug from Breakneck Valley after it was fired in a kiln. For a short period almost every able-bodied man was employed in prospecting for these precious metals. But the Breakneck Valley Gold Rush was short-lived; it ended with the results of an assay of the deposits in London, showing that they were simply iron pyrites (‘fool’s gold’).

“ A Prospect of James Fort on the Island of St Helena. ” London, Samuel Thornton, 1711 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
A Prospect of James Fort on the Island of St Helena.” London, Samuel Thornton, 1711
“ The Island of St Helena, belonging to the East India Company of England ”, Jan Van Ryne, 1754 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
The Island of St Helena, belonging to the East India Company of England”, Jan Van Ryne, 1754
“ An English frigate at anchor off the island of St Helena, with a view of Jamestown beyond ”, Thomas Luny 1788 {1} Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
An English frigate at anchor off the island of St Helena, with a view of Jamestown beyond”, Thomas Luny 1788{1}

In 1710 the settlers were optimistic on the future prosperity of the island:

Upon which we are now resolved to fire nine guns; to drink our honourable Master’s good health, and success to the Island; for we are well satisfied this Island will turn to account, and not be a dead charge, as it ever has been, if our honourable Masters will be pleased to encourage it, and supply these people with necessarys; and then there will be no aversion against improvements, but showers of blessings of these people will come to them.{c}{d}

Despite the above, in 1715 Governor Pyke made the serious suggestion to the Company that appreciable savings could be made by moving the entire population to Mauritius. However, with the outbreak of war with other European countries, the Company continued to subsidise the island because of its strategic location. An ordinance was passed in 1731 to preserve the woodlands through the reduction in the goat population, but despite the clear connection between deforestation and the increasing number of floods the East India Company’s Court of Directors gave little support to efforts by governors to eradicate the goat problem. Rats were observed in 1731 building nests “two feet across” in trees, a visitor in 1717 commenting that the vast number of wild cats preferred to live off young partridges than the rats. An outbreak of plague in 1743 was attributed to the release of infected rats from ships arriving from India. By 1757 soldiers were being employed in killing the wild cats.

A census in 1723 showed that the total population had risen to 1,110, 610 of which were slaves. Between 1723 and 1727 a wall was build around the Great Wood, in an unsuccessful attempt to preserve it. In 1733 Green Tipped Bourbon Coffee seeds were brought from the coffee port of Mocha in Yemen, and were planted at various locations around the Island, the plants flourishing despite general neglect. In 1741 Captain Robert Jenkins was sent from England to St Helena to investigate charges of corruption brought against the acting governor, and from May 1741 until March 1742 he served as Governor. The island’s first hospital was built in 1742, on approximately the same site as the current General Hospital.

Jamestown in 1794 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Jamestown in 1794

George Gabriel Powell became acting-Governor in July 1742, having won the approval of the directors of the East India Company by exposing fraud on the island. But according to accounts from the time, once he reached this position he began perpetrating much larger frauds himself. He may or may not have been guilty - his fraud-exposing days created him many enemies and it is possible the charges against him were fabricated. He left the island in 1748.

The first Parish Church in Jamestown had been showing signs of decay for many years, and in 1774 a new building was erected. St. James’ Church is now the oldest Anglican church south of the Equator and still retains many of its original features, though the roof has been replaced and the spire was dismantled in 1980.

An order by Governor Corneill in 1787, banning garrison troops and sailors from punch-taverns and only allowing them to drink at army canteens, led to a mutiny over Christmas 1787 when some 200 troops skirmished with loyal troops over a three-day period. Courts Martial condemned 99 mutineers to death. These mutineers were then subjected to the Roman Military punishment of ‘decimation’; lots were drawn, with one in every ten being executed.

‘St Helena’, by Arthur Bowes Smyth, 18th May 1789, illustrating the time signal on Ladder Hill Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
‘St Helena’, by Arthur Bowes Smyth, 18th May 1789, illustrating the time signal on Ladder Hill

The following diagram illustrates the frequency with which British ships called at St Helena from 1750 to 1800:

British ship routes 1750-1800 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

A March 1802 census counts 893 military personnel, 122 families and civil servants, 241 Planters{10}, 227 freed slaves and 1,029 slaves; a total population of 2,511.

The houses for retailing spirits were abolished by Governor Beatson with effect from 15th May 1809. The garrison at that time consisted of about one thousand two hundred and fifty men, of whom one hundred and thirty-two were sick in hospital. Four months after that abolition the patients were reduced to forty-eight.

With the importation of slaves being made illegal in 1792{34}, Governor Patton recommended the Company import Chinese labour to grow the rural workforce. The first Chinese labourers, from Canton, arrived in 1810, and the total number rose to about 650 by 1818{15}. The public library was opened on 11th October 1813 “for the dissemination of information and mass enlightenment of the people{16}. A census in 1814 showed the number of inhabitants was 3,507.

Napoleon Bonaparte…and after

James Fort, Town and Church from Read’s map of St Helena, 1817 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
James Fort, Town and Church from Read’s map of St Helena, 1817 (34.3Mb)

Sir Hudson Lowe Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Sir Hudson Lowe

In 1815 the British government selected St Helena as the place of detention for Napoleon Bonaparte{17}. He was brought to the island in October 1815 and lodged at Longwood House, where he lived until his death on 5th May 1821. During this period the island was strongly garrisoned by regular British regimental troops and by the local St Helena Regiment, with naval shipping circling the island. Agreement was reached that St Helena would remain in the East India Company’s possession, with the British government meeting additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The East India Company Governor Lowe, was appointed by and directly reported to the Secretary for War and the Colonies, in London.

Brisk business was enjoyed catering for the additional 2,000 troops and personnel on the island over the six-year period, although restrictions placed against ships landing during this period posed a challenge for local traders to import the necessary goods. The 1817 census recorded 821 white inhabitants, a garrison of 820 men, 618 Chinese indentured labourers, 500 free blacks and 1,540 slaves. The same year an earthquake was felt on the island that shook houses and caused church bells to ring.

In 1818, whilst claiming that nowhere in the world did slavery exist in a milder form than on St Helena, Governor Lowe initiated the first step in emancipating the slaves by persuading slave owners to give all slave children born after Christmas of that year their freedom once they had reached their late teens{14}.

In January 1821 a ‘Review’ was held on Deadwood Plain to mark the 1st anniversary of King George IV’s accession:

1 st anniversary of King George IV’s accession Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{18}

After Napoleon’s death the thousands of temporary visitors were soon withdrawn. The East India Company resumed full control of St Helena and life returned to the pre-1815 standards, the fall in population causing a sharp decline in the economy. Following praise of St Helena’s coffee given by Napoleon during his exile on the island, the product enjoyed a brief popularity in Paris during the years after his death.

The phased emancipation of over 800 resident slaves began in 1827, some six years before legislation to ban slavery in the colonies was passed by the British Parliament{14}. Also in 1827 the Jamestown Prison was completed - it is still in use today, the building largely unaltered. A plan set out in February 1828 to cover over part of The Run meets opposition - it is said the danger of flooding would increase.

Mynah Bird acridotheres tristis Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Mynah Bird acridotheres tristis

‘ Whale Fishery ’ share certificate, 1837 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Whale Fishery’ share certificate, 1837

Mynah Birds were introduced to the island in 1829, being seen as “much in estimation as a destroyer of insects” - today they are seen as a pest.

An abortive attempt was made to set up a whaling company in 1837; investors declined to participate (wisely, it turned out!)

Crown Colony

Crown Colony Proclamation, 1836 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Crown Colony Proclamation, 1836

The UK Parliament passed the India Act in 1833, a provision of which transferred control of St Helena from the East India Company to the Crown with effect from 2nd April 1834, at a price of £100,000{19}.

The island of St Helena, and all forts, factories, public edifices, and hereditaments whatsoever in the said island, and all stores and property thereon fit or used for the service of the government thereof, shall be vested in his Majesty, and the said island shall be governed by such orders as his Majesty in council shall from time to time issue in that behalf.

Governor Middlemore, the first governor appointed by the British government, arrived in 1836 with 91st Regiment troops.

After 1836 the Chinese labourers were no longer required but many were allowed to stay on and their descendants became integrated into the population. The surname ‘Yon’ probably dates from this, and ‘China Lane’ in upper Jamestown is so-named because it is on the site where the majority of the Chinese resided.

In February 1837 Dr. James Barry arrived at St Helena to serve as medical officer. Leaving the island within the year, Barry continued to served as a doctor until dying in 1865, whereupon it was discovered that ‘he’ was actually a woman.

In 1838 agreement was reached with Sultan of Lahej to permit a coaling station at Aden, thereby allowing the journey time to the Far East{20} to be roughly halved compared with the traditional South Atlantic route. This precursor to the effects of the Suez Canal{21}, coupled with the advent of steam shipping that was not reliant on trade winds led to a gradual reduction in the number of ships calling at St Helena and to a decline in its strategic importance to Britain and economic fortunes. The number of ships calling at the island fell from 1,100 in 1855 to 853 in 1869, 603 in 1879 and to only 288 in 1889.

You can read a description of St Helena (155.7Kb) from The Saturday Magazine (“Sold by all Booksellers and Newsvenders in the Kingdom.”) of 26th October 1839.

The British Government deployed a naval station on St Helena in 1840 to suppress the African slave trade. A Vice Admiralty Court was based at Jamestown to try the crews of the slave ships. Between 1840 and 1849, 15,076 freed slaves, known as ‘Liberated Africans’ were landed on the island at Rupert’s Bay, of which number over 5,000 were dead or died there. The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed has been estimated at over 25,000. Surviving freed slaves lived at Lemon Valley, Rupert’s and High Knoll Fort, and only when numbers became too great were many sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. About 500 remained on St Helena, where they were employed. In later years, some were sent to Sierra Leone; the rest became part of the indigenous population{14}.

(More about the island’s history from 1840-1849 can be found at www.arborealis.ca/resources/timelines/timeline-for-the-island-of.)

In 1845 St Helena coffee was sold in London at 1d per pound, making it the most expensive and exclusive in the world.

“ The ‘Rollers’ of 1846 ” Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
The ‘Rollers’ of 1846

Exceptional seas hit the island in 1846 (“The ‘Rollers’ of 1846”), causing much damage to ships anchored in James Bay. In seven hours thirteen vessels were sunk within a few yards of the shore, eleven of which were captured slavers. The crane and lower wharf with the commissariat coalyard and one of the reservoirs containing water for shipping were completely destroyed. The island had never before, and has not since, encountered such heavy seas.

The Wharf, 1850 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
The Wharf, 1850

Governor Gore Brown built a new prison at Rupert’s in 1853. This was a model prison designed by Colonel Jebb, constructed mainly of timber and sent out from England in kit form. But the Rupert’s Prison was short lived - in 1867 a military prisoner who was confined there burnt it to the ground. The prisoners were returned to the old prison.

In 1854 Rev. James Bertram came to St Helena and founded a Baptist Church{22}. The established Anglican church did not welcome him. Hudson Janisch (later Governor Janisch) became one of his congregation.

The lands forming the sites of Napoleon’s burial and of his home at Longwood House were transferred in Napoleon III and his heirs in 1858, and a French representative or consul has lived on the island ever since, the French flag now flying over these areas. The title deeds of the Briars Pavilion, where Napoleon lived during his earliest period of exile, were given to the French Government in 1959.

The Wharf in 1877 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
The Wharf in 1877
Scenes of St Helena in 1880 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Scenes of St Helena in 1880
Celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887 {2} Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887{2}

By the 1860s it had become apparent that wood sourced from some condemned slave ships from the 1840s had been infested by White Ants. Eating their way through house timbers and also documents the termites caused the collapse of a number of buildings and considerable economic damage over several decades. Extensive reconstruction made use of iron rails and termite-proof timbers. The termite problem persists to the present day.

In April 1862 a meeting in Jamestown decided to convey to Queen Victoria the islanders’ wish that St Helena be renamed ‘Prince Albert Island’ in honour of The Queen‘s recently deceased husband. Their wish never reached The Queen as objections from members of the clergy cause it to be withdrawn.

1890 Rockfall Memorial Fountain Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
1890 Rockfall Memorial Fountain

In 1871 the Royal Engineers constructed Jacob’s Ladder up the steep side of the valley from Jamestown to Ladder Hill Fort, originally with 700 steps. The same year, large floods cause several people to be made homeless and much damage to property, particularly in Sandy Bay and Jamestown where The Run has dead animals flowing along it. An experiment in 1874 to produce flax from New Zealand Flax phormium tenax failed. An attempt in 1879 by Mr Deason to breed Ostriches also failed. Jonathan, possibly the world’s oldest animal, is thought to have arrived on the island in 1882. Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1887 (photo, below) and in 1888 the streetlights of Jamestown were lit for the first time{33}. Economic decline continued and the population had fallen from its peak of 6,150 in 1817 to 3,877 by April 1891, also reporting that 219 families lived in only one room, and two such families totalled 13 persons.

On 17th April 1890 a large rock fall occurred in Jamestown. 1,500 tons of rock demolished 14 houses and killed nine. Many were injured. The place on the hillside from which the rocks fell is known as ‘Pierie’s Revenge’. A fountain was erected in 1891 in Main Street, Jamestown, to commemorate the incident.

Extraordinary weather hit the island in Spring 1897. In September 40mph winds were recorded, and then in October a thunderstorm lasted two days and produced hail stones a ½inch in diameter. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated the same year.

In December 1899 St Helena was connected to London by undersea cable, and for the first time it became possible to send telegraph messages directly to and from the UK.

Parade, Ladder Hill Fort, c.1900 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Parade, Ladder Hill Fort, c.1900

20th Century

You can read a more detailed article about 1900-1912 (770.4Kb) by Ian Bruce, originally published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{24}., September 2016{25}

Boers outside High Knoll Fort Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Boers outside High Knoll Fort

From 1900-1902 over six thousand Boer prisoners were imprisoned at Deadwood and Broadbottom. The population reached its all-time record of 9,850 in 1901. Eucalyptus trees, now out of favour because of their high water consumption, were introduced in 1900 because of their quick growth - fuel was urgently needed for the Boer prisoners. Possibly because of the Boer prisoners’ departure, in the ‘Blue Book’{23} for 1903 Governor Gallwey noted “The number of prostitutes in Jamestown appears to be on the decrease”.

On 11th January 1905 Richard and Louis Crowie were found guilty of the murder of Robert Samuel Gunnell on 2nd November 1904 at Prosperous Bay Signal Station, and were sentenced to death by hanging. The execution, the last on St Helena, took place at 7am on 2nd February 1905 in the old Power House, now the Museum of St Helena.

Twenty five Zulu Poll Tax Prisoners were exiled here from 1907-1910. The Flax Industry was re-started in 1907 (after a failed attempt in 1874), but still not entirely successfully. Lace making was encouraged as an island industry from 1890 and in 1908 a lace-making school was opened. Hand-made lace remains one of the island’s tourist attractions{26}. A fish-curing industry was started in February 1910; there followed a period of unprecedentedly small fish catches, such that it failed later the same year.

Bats were released onto the island in 1910, aiming to control pests (probably mosquitoes). Only three survived the journey from England. They were not sexed before release so could all three have been of the same gender. The introduction failed. During his term Governor Gallwey arranged the planting of many trees, to replace those cut down for fuel during the Boer prisoners stay, but most were eaten by goats.

SS Papanui on fire Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
SS Papanui on fire

The SS Papanui, en route from Britain to Australia, arrived in James Bay on 11th September 1911 on fire, and on 12th, while still moored here, burned out and sank. Its 364 passengers and crew were rescued and looked after on the island. You can read an account by one of the passengers on our Memories of St Helena page.

A census in 1911 showed the population had fallen to only 3,520 inhabitants. Some 4,800 rats tails were presented to the Government in 1913, who paid a penny per tail.

In February 1914 German super-dreadnoughts Kaiser, Koenig Albert and Strassbourg visit - 2,400 crew post 5,000 postcards. It was later thought they might have been checking out St Helena’s defences prior to the start of World War 1 (‘The Great War’), which was announced on St Helena on 5th August - Martial Law was proclaimed the same day. In the following weeks 165 St Helenians enlisted in the Volunteer Corps. On 8th December 1914 a British naval force defeated a German squadron comprising two armoured cruisers, three light cruisers and three auxiliaries in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and probably thereby saved St Helena from shelling by the Germans.

World War 1 (‘The Great War’) memorial Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
World War 1 (‘The Great War’) memorial

St Helena in World War 1

When news reached Governor Cordeaux that war had broken out, martial law was declared on St Helena. Any threat was expected by sea or from German-held Namibia. German ships had visited St Helena prior to the outbreak of war and it was thought these might have been spying, noting the island’s defences, which had been run down pre-war with the total withdrawal of the Garrison. The Volunteer Corps was re-formed as a 60-man force, though with only minimal armaments, and the Garrison was recalled, arriving on 25th August.

In fact the island was never challenged and the biggest difficulty faced by the inhabitants was in 1917. Ship calls from South Africa had dwindled, bringing fewer imports, and supplies direct from the UK were unreliable. For ten days in November 1917 the island was close to starvation, alleviated only after negotiations between the Governor and the Government of Mauritius.

A plan floated in 1916 to imprison ‘malcontents’ on the island was never progressed.

Around 46 islanders served. Those who died in service were: George Edward Scipio{27}, James Basset Graham, Henry Seale, James Edwin Nathaniel Joshua, James Robert Moyce, Cavella Gray. Later the clock tower next to the Market in Jamestown was dedicated “to the memory of those who fell” in the war.

An Ordinance of 1919 prohibited all motorised transport on St Helena. (It was repealed in October 1927 and the first car arrived soon afterwards.)

You can read a more detailed article about the Cordeaux period (1912-1920) (1.6Mb) by Ian Bruce, serialised in the St Helena Sentinel September/October 2017{25}

On 28th September 1920 the Norwegian ship Spangereid (previously known as The Fairport), a large steel-hulled three-masted sailing barque, appeared off Jamestown with a fire in her cargo of coal. Unlike the Papanui, the fire did not get out of control, but the ship was still lost. Much of her cargo and fittings were salvaged, including the Captain’s boat, which was almost completely rebuilt and served as the harbour launch until recent years. Significant quantities of coal were deposited on the shore below the wharf and provided the island with a source of cheap fuel.

Read an article about St Helena written in 1925 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Read an article about St Helena written in 1925

The first islanders left to work at Ascension Island in 1921, which was made a dependency of St Helena in October 1922. Islanders continue to work on Ascension to this day. The first car, an Austin 7, was imported into the island in 1929. A count in 1931 showed a goat population of nearly 1,500. In May 1932 The Run burst its banks, sweeping away bridges and causing widespread flooding.

St Helena in World War 2

Some six islanders were killed in military service during World War 2; none of them on St Helena: Richard Charles Lawrence, Joseph Nathaniel Maggott, Michael Walker Henry, Sydney Samuel Leo, Mervyn Mainwaring and Bertram Charles Benjamin. The Nazi plan for Britain following a successful invasion envisaged that, once Britain had been subdued, King George VI and Winston Churchill would be removed from power and exiled to St Helena.

RFA Darkdale, October 1941 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
RFA Darkdale, October 1941

In August 1941 St Helena time was made the same as Greenwich Mean Time; previously the clocks were set 20 minutes earlier than GMT. The British oil tanker Darkdale was torpedoed off James Bay in October 1941 by U-Boat U-86, which also sank the SS City of Cairo 770Km south of St Helena the following year.

America built Wideawake airport on Ascension Island in 1942, employing many Saints and with the side effect of introducing Country Music to St Helena.

As in the previous war, the island enjoyed increased revenues through the sale of flax for rope.

In June 1946 the St Helena Coast Battery was disbanded and the breech mechanisms of the guns and other spare parts were dumped in deep water off Jamestown. The British personnel of the battery then returned to Britain for demobilization and for the first time in 300 years there were no longer any British troops stationed on St Helena.

The October 1946 census (7.1Mb) recorded 2,181 males and 2,567 females, 4,748 in total. 20 people were recorded as “having no religion but following the Sect known as the Jehova’s Witnesses”. 21 were “Inmates of the Poor House”, 8 were in the Asylum and 4 in the Leper Hospital. There were 177 male flax mill workers and 77 female.

100 Men DVD Cover Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
100 Men DVD Cover

Jamestown in 1949 (postcard) Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Jamestown in 1949 (postcard)
Protesting for democracy, 1950s(?) Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Protesting for democracy, 1950s(?)

In 1949 the SS Umtali left St Helena with 136 passengers bound for the port of Dover in England. The passengers included 100 men, economic migrants who were contracted to work as agricultural labourers in Britain. The story of the ‘100 Men’ and their experience of rural England is told in a 2007 DVD film (available from the moonbeamsforall.com: Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab Saint Helena Island Info Brief HistoryMoonbeams Shop).

Flax prices continued to rise after the war, rising to their zenith in 1951; the only year in the history of St Helena where the value of exports exceeded that of imports. However this industry soon fell into decline because of competition from synthetic fibres and also because the delivered price of the island’s flax was substantially higher than world prices. The decision by a major buyer, the British Post Office, to use synthetic fibres for their mailbags was a major blow, all of which contributed in the closure of the island’s flax mills in 1965, resulting in considerable unemployment and also leaving the island covered with flax plants that were no longer useful. They remain an environmental issue to this day. More on our page The Flax Industry.

The General Hospital was rebuilt, opening again in June 1956. The first known radio broadcast occurred in 1958 when Percy Teale made a one-time broadcast of a public meeting. Following protests (image, right) the 1966 constitution introduced democracy for the first time on St Helena; an elected Legislative Council{28} was put in place. The island’s first (and, for 38 years, only) radio station, Radio St Helena launched on Christmas Day 1967.

From 1958 the Union Castle Line{29} gradually reduced their shipping calls to the island, ceasing calls entirely in 1977. The island’s only communications link became the first RMS St Helena.

The Tercentenary (from the East India Company’s first settlement) celebrations were held on 3rd November 1959, including an exhibition at the recently-built Canister building in Jamestown (now home of the Tourist Office) and a Donkey Derby on Francis Plain.

Jamestown, c.1960s Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Jamestown, c.1960s

Grocery Shop, 1970s {3} Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Grocery Shop, 1970s{3}

Top of Main St., 1974 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Top of Main St., 1974

Greenlands supermarket, 1974 {4} Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Greenlands supermarket, 1974{4}

 

Citizenship

hmg Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

The 1981 British Nationality Act (enacted 1st January 1983) reclassified St Helena and the other crown colonies as British Dependent Territories. Islanders lost their status as ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ and hence were stripped of their right to live and work in Britain. Thus only low-paid work with the island government was available for most, the alternative being employment overseas on Ascension Island or, later, the Falkland Islands. The Bishop’s Commission on Citizenship was established in 1992 with the aim of restoring full citizenship to the islanders, and especially their right of abode in the UK. This aim was reached in 1997 when the British government published a review of the Dependent Territories which included a commitment to restore the pre-1981 status for citizenship; effected by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, which restored full passports to the islanders, and renamed the Dependent Territories the British Overseas Territories.

News Review 24 July 1981 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

The wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer was celebrated with sports on Francis Plain and the St Helena News Review colour-printed the front page of its 24th July 1981 edition.

The British Nationality Act 1981 denied Saints the right to live and work in the UK. The same year the road between Jamestown and Rupert’s via Munden’s Point was closed due to undercutting by the sea (and has never been repaired).

St Helena notes and coins began circulation on 3rd January 1984 and on 31st January St Helena’s flag and Coat of Arms became official, by Royal Warrant. In April the same year celebrations marking the 150th Anniversary of the Crown taking on responsibility for St Helena (photos, below) were accompanied by a visit from Prince Andrew.

Crown 150th anniversary Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{g}

Crown 150th anniversary Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{g}

The first islanders set off to work on the Falklands in April 1986. An expedition from London Zoo arrived on 29th March 1988 to search for the Giant Earwig; they failed to find it. On 31st October 1989 the new RMS St Helena was launched in Aberdeen by Prince Andrew.

In October 1990 the first ever Shortwave broadcast to the world was made by Radio St Helena - inaugurating ‘Radio St Helena Day’. On Christmas Eve the same year Dutch Captain Willem Merk arrived at St Helena in his yacht ‘Frontier’, which was discovered to contain more than £10m-worth of Cannabis{30}. Merk was arrested and sentenced to nine years imprisonment in July 1991; his three Dutch companions each got two years; his yacht was scuttled just off Lemon Valley. But Merk was not content to serve his sentence. On 4th April 1994, using soap to make copies of the prison keys, which the guards reportedly left lying around while they went to the toilet, and leaving an audiotape of himself snoring in his cell, Merk escaped to a wooden boat, which it’s said he’d paid an islander to make. He went by this boat to a waiting yacht and thence via Brazil back to Holland where he was declared a free man. He even sent a message of greetings to the people of St Helena, which was published in the St Helena News on 9th February 2001.

The crab-fishing vessel Oman Sea One sank off St Helena on 31st August 1991 with the loss of four. A time capsule was buried at the Wharf on St Helena’s Day 1993, to be opened 200 years later - a plaque, currently in the Museum of St Helena, records this{31}. The photo (below) shows the burial ceremony (the Governor in the hat is Governor Hoole, 1991-1995).

Time capsule ceremony 1993 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Time capsule ceremony 1993

Television was introduced to the island in 1995. Three channels were available, sourced from Southern Africa by means of a satellite receiver with local re-transmission. The first Governor’s Cup Yacht Race took place in 1996, from Cape Town to St Helena.

21st Century

Millennium celebrations Saint Helena Island Info Brief HistoryMillennium celebrations programme Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

The Millennium was celebrated on St Helena with a 24-hour party that began at 12:00h on 31st December on the Grand Parade. A parade and march past was followed by a church service. In the afternoon there were races in the Grand Parade, Tug-o-War and water sports at the swimming pool, boat rides and other events. Exhibitions were organised at the Court House and St. James’ church. There was, of course, a Street Carnival and a procession of floats accompanied with dancing. A fireworks display took place at the Sea Front with Procession of Light, followed by live music and a disco until midnight. In the (late) morning there was a Big Breakfast. Governor Hollamby read the Queen’s speech and at noon the bells of St. James’ rung in celebration and thousands of balloons were released.

Quincentenary stamp Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
Quincentenary stamp issue

St Helena celebrated its Quincentenery on 21st May 2002 and on the same day full British citizenship was restored to islanders, leading to a double celebration. Church bells rang out, and a Salvation Army brass band and the bugles and drums of the local Scouts played as Governor Hollamby represented The Queen at a march past. Also on this day the Museum of St Helena was officially opened by Governor Hollamby.

Anne, Princess Royal Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Anne, The Princess Royal, visited on 16th November 2002. Amongst other engagements she unveiled the dedication plaque for the island’s ‘Princess Royal Community Care Complex’ (CCC), a residential home for the elderly in Half Tree Hollow. The CCC opened on 6th September 2008.

The St Helena Olive nesiota elliptica was declared extinct in March 2003, described at the time as a “tragic loss to St Helena and the world.Governor Hollamby’s departure in September 2004 was boycotted by most of Legislative Council{28}.

Saint FM 2004 to 2012 logo Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Saint FM, St Helena’s first independent radio station, which started test transmissions on 27th September 2004, oficially launched on 3rd January 2005. Its sister newspaper, the St Helena Independent launched in November the same year.

In April 2005 the British Government announced plans to construct an airport on St Helena to bolster the Island’s economy, and reduce the dependence on ships to supply the Island, the airport to open in 2012. However in December 2008 the UK announced that “there will be a pause in negotiations over the St Helena airport contract”. The pause ended on 22nd July 2010 and contracts for construction of the airport were signed with Basil Read Pty on 3rd November 2011. The airport has been constructed and the RMS St Helena will cease operations early in 2018.

In June 2008 archaeological digs started in Rupert’s Valley, excavating the slave graves discovered there during airport preparatory works. St Helena’ current Constitution came into force on 1st September 2009, reference S.I. 2009 No.1751 (UK).

2011 protest Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
2011 protest

There was a massed protest in April 2011 over tax reforms and increases in charges for services, including electricity and water.

In 2012 both Saint FM and the St Helena Independent closed down due to pressure from Government; the St Helena Independent was restarted after just four weeks; Saint FM relaunched as Saint FM Community Radio in March 2013. The St Helena Sentinel launched in March 2012. Radio St Helena also closed down on Christmas Day 2012, 45 years after it was opened, and was replaced some weeks later by S.A.M.S. Radio 1.

In February 2013 water supplies dwindled to perilously low levels after months of hot sun and little rain. A hosepipe ban was imposed. It did not rain until August. In December that year, after years of pollution from the wreck of the RFA Darkdale in James Bay, Britain finally agreed to remove the remaining oil from the ship. The work took place in August 2015.

On 27th March 2015 it was announced that Comair would provide the scheduled commercial air service to the new Airport, on contract to the Government of St Helena. Flights would run to Johannesburg. There would be no service to the UK and initially none to Ascension Island, though after protests a monthly link was later added. And on 15th September 2015 the first plane ever to land on St Helena touched down at the (then) partly-completed St Helena Airport, to test the airport calibration. The tests failed and were re-run, successfully, in December. Also in September Mobile Phones were introduced on St Helena.

Daily Mail child-abuse story Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{h}

In July 2014 the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper had published a story claiming that child sexual abuse was ‘endemic’ on St Helena, citing claims made by two former social workers. Shortly afterwards the UK Government set up an Inquiry, under QC Sasha Wass, to investigate these claims. The Wass Report was published in December 2015. It concluded that, while there were instances of child sexual abuse on St Helena, the claims published by the Daily Mail were exaggerated. The report did, however, severly criticise Governor Capes for his hands-off management of the island, Attorney General Nicola Moore for interfering with the Wass team’s investigations, and also the recruitment polices of the Government of St Helena which had allowed the former social workers who raised the allegations to be employed despite making false claims of their skills and experience in their applications. Governor Capes’ term was cut short and Attorney General Nicola Moore resigned. Ginny Ferson arrived in February 2016, appointed by the FCO to take charge of implementing the Wass Inquiry recommendations.

Details of the new shipping service, to replace the RMS St Helena when she is retired, were announced in February 2016, the first service being scheduled for July 2016.

Airport Logo Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Governor Phillips took the oath on 25th April 2016, promising a new era of openness and transparency. Good to her word, she immediately began regular publications of government business on Facebook™ and Twitter™, and opened Plantation House for a variety of island events.

Airport Logo Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

On 26th April 2016 the Government of St Helena announced an indefinite postponement to the start of the scheduled commercial air service. It had been discovered that wind shear on the runway made it too dangerous for full-size commercial airliners to land. The airport was opened for small aircraft but not for the scheduled commercial air service. The RMS St Helena was retained in service until the scheduled commercial air service could commence. An investigation commenced on how the wind shear might be addressed, and also into why this problem had not beed identified before the airport was built (the answer was that it had, but the study had been ignored).

In Mid-October 2016 an Avro RJ100 operated by Atlantic Star successfully landed (in both directions) at St Helena Airport, giving hope that a scheduled commercial air service could soon be established. At the end of the same month a Thunderstorm passed over the island - a rare event, there having been only two in the preceding 100 years.

Lack of winter rain caused severe water restrictions to be imposed from 14th November 2016. Water was to be used for drinking, cooking and ‘personal washing’ only. The same day…it rained (!) but there was no other significant rain until February 2017. The restrictions were lifted on 27th February.

Wirebird Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{i}

In December 2016 it was announced that the Wirebird had been downgraded in the IUCN’s annual Redlist of Species-at-risk, from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable. This followed a doubling of Wirebird numbers since 2006; a victory for the conservation work undertaken since then. It is announced in February 2017 that the 2017 wirebird census has recorded 572 birds - a record.

On 10th March 2017 South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (S.A.M.S.) announced that, due to an unfavourable outcome of the Media Review undertaken by Government of St Helena, the terms of which were said to be non-negotiable, all its operations{32} would close on 31st March. On 24th March, after negotiation with Government of St Helena, the closedown was called off, but S.A.M.S. Pure Gold and the TV News service ‘Newsbyte’ had to close down on 25th April.

At the end of February 2017 the RMS St Helena reported an engine problem. This was later found to be serious and two scheduled voyages were disrupted. The problems were resolved and the ship came out of dry-dock and started her next journey to St Helena on 5th May. Various ships brought some stranded passengers to St Helena during the gap, and the MV St Helena delivered essential supplies. A plane was chartered to bring some people home.

Details of the scheduled commercial air service for St Helena were announced by the Government of St Helena on 21st July 2017. A ‘proving flight’, using the Embraer E190-100IGW aircraft planned for the air service, landed successfully on 21st August 2017, despite relatively windy conditions. The scheduled commercial air service itself started on 14th October 2017.

On 27th October 2017 the Government of St Helena announced that it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with South Atlantic Express to provide a branching spur to St Helena from the SAEx transatlantic cable. Connection to the cable will replace the current satellite system providing far greater Internet capacity at a fraction of the cost, and also improve telephone communications.

‘What the Saints did next…’

The history of St Helena and its people is continuing. This website can’t provide up-to-the-minute news, and there is no need for us to do so because reliable sources of St Helena news are readily available on the Internet:

Sentinel Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

S.A.M.S. Radio 1 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Independent Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Saint FM Community Radio Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Got a news story? Call (+290) 22727 or email news@sams.sh.

Read More

Below: SourcesImportant VisitorsVisit Our MuseumArticle: “A Descriptive Sketch of The Island of St Helena”Did the first flight increase world interest in St Helena?

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Sources

A number of pages on this site deal with aspects of St Helena’s history, in more detail than is covered above. These are indexed on our Island History page.

To read more about the people behind our island’s histories, and download some of the documents, see our Historians of St Helena page.

Important Visitors

Over the years St Helena has hosted a number of important visitors, some of which are mentioned briefly above. You can read more about them on our Famous Visitors page. Then there are those who came here against their will…, also mentioned briefly above. Read more about them on our Exiles page.

Visit Our Museum

The Museum of St Helena is in Jamestown, at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder as you walk through to the Grand Parade. For more information see the museum’s website.

Top Twenty things to do Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Visiting our museum is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Top Twenty things to do Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

The island’s Museum of St Helena, in Jamestown Saint Helena Island Info Brief History
The island’s Museum of St Helena, in Jamestown

Article: “A Descriptive Sketch of The Island of St Helena”

By J. and E. Wallis, published 8th August 1815{25}

Wallis description, 1815 Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

THIS Island is situated in 15deg. 55min. south latitude, and 5deg. 49min. west longitude, from Greenwich. Its length is ten miles and a half; breadth, six miles and three quarters; and its circumference about twenty-eight miles. It lies within the limit of the south-east trade wind, and is distant four hundred leagues from the coast of Africa, six hundred from that of South America, and twelve hundred from Cape St. Vincent in Portugal, the nearest point of Europe. The voyage from this country is usually performed in ten weeks.

It consists of one vast rock, perpendicular on every side, like a castle, in the middle of the Ocean, whose natural walls are too high to be attempted by scaling ladders; nor is there the smallest beach except at the Bay, called Chapel Valley Bay, which is fortified with a strong battery of large cannon planted even with the water, and farther defended by the perpetual dashing of prodigious waves against the shore, which, without further resistance, makes the landing difficult.

On rounding what is called Munden’s Point, the eye is suddenly relieved by a view of James-town, seated in a narrow valley between two lofty mountains; and the interspersion of trees among the white houses, has an effect picturesque and pleasing in a high degree. This valley, known by the name of James’s Valley, is on the N. W. and leeward side of the Island, in which situation there is a good anchorage from eight to twenty-five fathoms; and fresh water is conveyed in leaden pipes to the wharf from a spring two miles distant, which affords a plentiful supply. The surf, at times, is tremendous, particularly about Christmas, and many lives were lost in approaching and leaving the shore, until a new wharf and landing place were constructed by Governor Brooke.

Upon landing and passing the drawbridge, the way leads between a line of heavy guns and a double row of trees, of a lively green, generally in full leaf. The town is entered by an arched gateway, under a rampart, or terrace, forming one side of a parade about one hundred feet square. On the left side are the Government House and main guard-room; the former is enclosed with a wall, having the semblance of embrazures, and is called the Castle; it contains the Governor’s habitation, and the offices of government. The church, fronting the gateway, is a neat, and not inelegant edifice. The principal street commences between it and a pallisade inclosing the Company’s garden it consists of twenty-eight houses, most of them neat and well constructed, and divides into two other streets; one on the east, leading to that side of the country; the other proceeding to the upper part of the valley, where are situated the barracks, the new garden, and the hospital. In this street are a number of shops, well stored with European and Indian commodities; but the houses in general are far inferior to those in the lower part of the town, where the principal inhabitants reside. The two hills, between which the town is situated, are Rupert’s on the east, and Ladder Hill on the west. The roads by which access is gained into the interior, are formed on the sides of these hills, and the ascent is so easy and safe, that carts and oxen pass along without danger or difficulty. For the first mile or two, the traveller observes little else than nakedness and sterility, but his curiosity is soon gratified by the sudden prospect of verdure, woody heights, neat dwellings, and cultivated plantations.

The island is unequally divided by a lofty chain, or ridge of hills, running nearly east and west. From this chain alternate ridges and valleys branch off in various directions. Diana’s Peak, towards the east end of this chain, is the highest point of the island, and rises nearly two thousand seven hundred feet above the level of the sea. From the summit of this peak, no point intercepts the horizon; the whole island is beneath the scope of vision; the ridges and hollows diverging from the chain, are traced to the sea. Houses and plantations diversify the prospect, and the contrast of verdant and naked mountains, renders the scene at once novel, picturesque, and majestic.

Thunder, lightning, or storms, rarely disturb the serenity of this mild atmosphere. The rain is divided more after the manner of our temperate climates than of the tropical ones; every month has its share, but July, August, and September, seem to be the most stormy. The luxuriance of vegetation increases in proportion to distance and height from the sea; and upon the very summits of the interior hills, oxen are to be seen up to their knees in grass. Fruits, particularly vines, figs, oranges, and lemons, ripen best in the valleys near the sea. From a garden more interior, but finely watered and sheltered, of no greater extent than three acres of ground, twenty-four thousand dozen apples of a large size, were gathered in one season, besides peaches, guavas, grapes, and figs, in abundance. The hopes of the farmer are frequently disappointed in the cultivation of wheat, barley, and oats, either from drought, or from the depredation of rats, which are frequently so numerous, as to destroy the most promising crop. Potatoes, cabbages, peas, beans, and other vegetables, are raised in great plenty.

The breed of cattle and sheep on the island, is originally English; the beef is of an excellent quality; but in consequence of the great demand from the Company’s shipping for fresh provisions, a bullock is seldom allowed to attain the age of four years. Rabbits abound in some situations; pheasants and partridges are become numerous, since the Government has given them protection; and every garden is enlivened by the notes of the Canary bird.

Of fish, it has been computed that seventy-six species frequent the coast. Those most commonly taken and used are mackarel, albecore, cavalloes, jacks, congers, soldiers, old wives, and bulls-eyes; and of shell fish, long-legs and stumps; these two last resemble the lobster in taste and colour, and have the same kind of tail. Upon an average of five years, from 1801 to 1805 inclusive, one hundred and sixty-five ships touch annually at St Helena; and in war time, the long detention for convoy experienced by large fleets (the crews and passengers of which are frequently equal to the whole population of the island) occasions such an extra consumption of stock and refreshments, that the mere productions of the island itself could never be adequate to such exigencies, were it not supplied with ample quantities of salt meat fromEngland and of rice from Bengal. These articles, as they are cheaper than fresh provisions, constitute the principal food of the inhabitants and garrison. Salt meat is issued to them from the Company’s stores under prime cost, and every other article, at only ten per cent. advance, including freight. Beef is sold at 6½d. per pound alive, having been raised to that price since 1808, and as it is principally destined for the King’s, or the Company’s shipping, no person can kill even his own ox without permission from the Governor, a rule which has existed since the year 1752.

By the registered returns of the year 1805, the population of the island is stated at five hundred and four white inhabitants, one thousand five hundred and sixty blacks, of whom three hundred and twenty-nine were free; making a total of two thousand and sixty-four, exclusive of the garrison and civil establishment of the Company.

The island comprises only one parish; but, for the more regular performance of the county and parish officers’ duties, it is divided into three districts, viz. the east, the west, and the south, or Sandy Bay division. There are two churches, one in the town, and another in the country. Strangers, whilst they, remain at the island, are accommodated in private houses, at the rate off one guinea per day each, for which an excellent table, good wines, and comfortable lodgings, are provided.

By repeated charters from the Crown of Great Britain, the possession of St Helena is assigned in perpetual property to the East India Company, as Lords Proprietors, with powers of sovereignty and legislation. The supreme and executive authority within the island, is vested in the Governor, and a Council composed of the Lieutenant Governor, and senior civil servant, but sometimes a fourth member is added, as the Court of Directors judge proper. They are the representatives of the Lords Proprietors, and the superintending agents of all their concerns at the island. They are also Justices of the Peace, and Commissioners of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery, and they exercise the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Court, in granting letters of administration, and proving wills, &c.

The Governor is exclusively entrusted with the powers of the Secret Committee of the Court of Directors. When the Council are not assembled, the authority of the whole Board concentrates in him; and, by charter from the Crown, when there is occasion, he may exercise the powers of captain-general. He is allowed a town and country residence, and a liberal table at the Company’s expence, with servants, horses, &c. The Lieutenant-Governor has likewise the privilege of a town and country house, some land, servants, and a few horses. The other member or members of Council are each allowed a town residence there are houses also for the engineer, chaplain, and head surgeon.

The military force of the island in 1808, was composed of a corps of artillery, commanded by a lieutenant-colonel, a regiment of infantry, and five companies of white and black militia, who were on the footing of volunteers; but this force has been lately augmented by forty of the royal artillery, commanded by a captain and two lieutenants, and the 53d regiment of foot, five hundred strong.

The civil establishment consists of an accountant, paymaster, storekeeper, and the Secretary to Government, with their assistants.

St Helena is gifted with considerable attractions and advantages, both local and natural : the temperature and salubrity of the climate are not exceeded in any part of the world; the variations of heat and cold are moderate, and generally fluctuate near the point most congenial to animal existence; it is fanned by a constant and equable wind, surrounded by plenty and variety of fish, and refreshed by numerous springs of excellent water; the seclusion of its inhabitants is relieved by the frequent arrival of visitants and this intercourse chequers and corrects their uniformity of life, and tends to improve both the manners and the mind. The climate seems to be peculiarly adapted to the constitution of Europeans, of whom many have resided here for a long series of years, without suffering any malady.

The only endemic disorders to which the natives are subject, are of the catarrhal kind : these, as they belong to the inflammatory class, may in some measure account (notwithstanding their general robust health) for the few instances among the islanders, of longevity.

The anchorage in the road is safe and sheltered; and though the vessels riding there sometimes drive to sea, this is owing rather to the steep declivity of the bank, than to the force or impression of the wind. The surf is occasionally high and dangerous; but the ocean beyond it is never ruffled by those hurricanes, which in other climates occasion so much distress. The approach from the south-east is smooth and commodious; and on departing for Europe, the ship glides away before a gentle and steady breeze.

Did the first flight increase world interest in St Helena?

To help answer this we present the monthly statistics report for October 2017 for sainthelenaisland.info (the flight landed on 14th October):

Statistics for http://sainthelenaisland.info/ Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Closing Humour Image Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

Laugh at funny briefhistory humour - LOL Saint Helena Island Info Brief History


Credits:

{a} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (SHATPS)

{b} G H Bellassis, 1815

{c} Extract from the Proceedings of the Governor and Council of St Helena, 15th August 1710{25}

{d} From ‘A HANDBOOK AND GAZETTEER OF THE ISLAND OF St HelenA’ by G. C. Kitching, 1939

{e} John Kerr

{f} St Helena National Trust

{g} Andrew/Peter Neaum

{h} Mail Online

{i} Tourist Office



Footnotes:

{1} Thought to be the first painting with an accurate description of the coastline of St Helena. Presented in January 2017 to the Museum of St Helena by Mr Edward Baldwin.

{2} It has been suggested that this photo is the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 or even the ending of World War 1 (‘The Great War’). However, the Rockfall Memorial Fountain, erected in 1891 and not removed until 1944/5, cannot be seen, which dates it as prior to 1891.

{3} Owned by the Thorpe Family and now a modern supermarket.

{4} On the Bridge in Jamestown, owned by Solomon’s. The supermarket was extended, which involved demolishing the 18th Century building to the north, and was later closed. It was used for many years as a warehouse and is currently being refurbished.

{5} The St Helena Records is a collection of documents dating back to the earliest days of St Helena, held in the Government of St Helena Archives. The Archives can be accessed in person or via email - see our Family And Friends page for more. From the records and other sources we have compiled an events database, which drives our events-based pages e.g. On This Day page. You can search our events database in various ways on our Chronology page.

{6} For other debunked myths see our Myths Debunked! page.

{7} It should be noted that Linschoten was also probably the origin of the claim that St Helena was discovered on 21st May 1502.

{8} How else would Edward Fenton have known about it?

{9} Clearly based on the Linschoten print of 1596.

{10} The original term for the Settlers, from 1659 onwards and still in use in the 19th Century. When slaveswere emancipated they we given the status of Planters (but no financial means to acquire any land to plant).

{11} Which, we assume, meant married off…!

{12} But this is disputed by Alexander Schulenburg, who believes no such voyage occurred. Read his article in The Wirebird Summer 1999.

{13} Now, The Castle.

{14} Read more on our Slaves and slavery page.

 

Extract from John Kerr’s 1819 painting of Plantation House Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{e}

{15} John Kerr’s 1819 painting of Plantation House shows two people in chinese dress in the middle-foreground (see right):

{16} According to Percy Teale it is the oldest Public Library in the Southern Hemisphere.

{17} To read more about the events marking the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena check out our Napoleonic Bicentenary page for details.

{18} Note also the people in Chinese dress (bottom right) - presumably some of the Chinese labourers here in the early 19th Century.

{19} 

{20} Travelling via the Mediterranean, then Alexandria to Cairo, overland crossing and the Red Sea.

 

Suez Canal illustrated Saint Helena Island Info Brief History{f}

{21} When the Suez Canal opened in 1869 it cut the distance between London and Mumbai (“Bombay”) from 19,800Km to 11,600Km - about 40%, and also avoided the stormy seas around the Cape of Good Hope. The disadvantage for St Helena was that ships no longer stopped here en route from India.

{22} From his memoirs: “The Island of St Helena, though hitherto unoccupied by any missionary society, presents a most interesting field for missionary labor. The population of the island amounts to between five and six thousand, of whom about two thirds are people of color. A large proportion of this latter class is scattered over the island, and left too destitute of religious instruction; while many who are within reach of the means of grace are living in a state of irreligion and immorality, and need the labors of a zealous missionary to stir them up to a due concern for the salvation of their souls.”.

{23} Formally the ‘Colonial Annual Report’ - a document setting out the island’s income, expenditure and other administrative matters for the year. Signed by the Governor or acting Governor usually in April-June of the year following.

{24} There are three ‘Wirebird’ publications that should not be confused: The Government Newspaper (1955-1966), the Tourist Office Blog (current) and the Magazine of Friends of St Helena (current).

{25} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{26} It can be bought, inter alia, at the moonbeamsforall.com: Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab Saint Helena Island Info Brief HistoryMoonbeams Shop.

{27} Who was killed on 20th August 1917 aged 27. More at www.cwgc.org.

{28} Effectively the island’s parliament. More on our Government page.

 

Union Castle poster Saint Helena Island Info Brief History

{29} Amusingly, the Union Castle Line ships were painted with black and red funnels and a lavender-coloured hull, as a consequence of which the company was affectionately known as the ‘Lavender Hull Mob’.

{30} Cannabis was then, and still is, treated as a ‘hard’ drug on St Helena, even though it grows wild around the island.

{31} To know where the time capsule is located: take a line from the centre of the main door of the Canister, through the centre of the Arch to the edge of the sea wall. It’s buried two metres in from the sea wall. But please don’t dig it up before 2193!

{32} S.A.M.S. Radio 1, S.A.M.S. Radio 2, S.A.M.S. Pure Gold, The St Helena Sentinel and Newsbyte TV.

{33} Though not well, it seems. In the 1899 ‘Blue Book’{23} Governor Sterndale proposed the lights be replaced by electric ones “worked by windmills” because “Lighting by kerosine oil is not only faulty but expensive, and Jamestown is almost in the dark, the lamps are so poor”.

{34} Though existing slaves were not freed{14}.

{35} A locally-brewed spirit distilled from potatoes that is mentioned often in the Records{5}. Its origins are in South and Southeast Asia, where it is made from either the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain or fruit, depending upon the country of origin. Since it became economic to import spirits from overseas its production seems to have been discontinued.



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