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Dark Tourism

Visiting the darker parts of our history.

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Some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who genuinely think they’re doing it for the best - especially when there’s some god involved.
Terry Pratchett

Like everywhere else, our history has its darker parts.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Place, Island People, Island Activity, Island Structures, Island Detail

Dark Tourism [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]

Below: What is ‘Dark Tourism’?The darker aspects of St Helena’s history.Tips for Exploring

What is ‘Dark Tourism’?

Dark Tourism is defined{a} as an interest in the ‘darker’ aspects of a destination’s history. If you might visit the museum at Aushwitz, or the 9/11 Memorial in New York, or the catacombs of Paris or even the remnants of the Berlin Wall, then you might consider yourself to be a Dark Tourist, at least in part. And you will not be alone; around 5 million people each year visit the 9/11 Memorial…

If any of these things might interest you, then you will find plenty to fascinate you in St Helena, as indicated below.

Dark Tourism is not the same as Dark Sky Tourism. For the latter see our Astronomy page.

The darker aspects of St Helena’s history.

Here are some of the more notable ones:

Below: SlaveryThe MilitaryThe Last ExecutionGhosts of events pastBattle SitesShip DisastersChurchyards…and then there’s Napoleon and the other exilesOn Paper


Slaves for sale [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]
Slave Quarters [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]
Slave Quarters

From the first settlement of St Helena in 1659, right up to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834, most manual labour on St Helena was performed by slaves, in numbers ranging up to 1,500 in 1817 (a little under ¼ of the population). Slaves were not treated as human beings - an early reference to donkeys as ‘ass-negroes’ gives a clue to how they were viewed. Minor offences were punished with flogging; having sex with a ‘Planter’ (i.e. a white person) resulted in castration; and any form of even trivial violence towards a master resulted in cruel execution. The few slave revolts were bloodily suppressed. This is all described on our page Slaves and slavery.

‘The Trees’ [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]
‘The Trees’

And what of this can you see today, years later? Well, for a start you can see ‘the trees’ under which slave auctions took place. They are at the top of Main Street, on the junction with Napoleon Street{1}, and as far as we know the trees growing today are the original trees from so many years before. Today you can sit in the shade of the trees and watch the shoppers…

Then stroll along Main Street and the lower reaches of Napoleon Street{1} and Market Street and note that most properties have basements, well below street level and with small, barred windows. In many of these (then) dark, dank cellars the slaves were held while waiting to be sold. Finally look down at Jamestown from the top of Ladder Hill or Mundens Hill and, at the back of the fine Georgian houses, squashed up against the hillsides, you will see the remains of small buildings, set apart from the main house. These would have been the slave quarters, and they were evidently very basic structures with no amenities whatsoever.

In the early 19th Century everything changed. Local slaves were emancipated and from 1840 to the 1860s the Royal Navy used St Helena as a base for intercepting slave ships bound for the Americas, liberating the slaves initially to St Helena before transportation back to Africa or to other destinations. This too is described on our page Slaves and slavery. Around 500 remained and, together with the emancipated local slaves, joined the general population of St Helena, contributing to the Saints mixed-race appearance and also to our distinct cuisine.

The Military

The Regiment [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]

Also from the first settlement of St Helena in 1659 the island had to be defended (unsuccessfully, it seems, at one point!) A garrison was present from the early days, remaining right up to 1906 (with temporary re-mobilisations during World War 1 (‘The Great War’) and World War 2.) In the early days military discipline can be most optimistically described as ‘harsh’. A favourite punishment in the early 18th Century was Riding the Wooden Horse - a somewhat scaled-down but still extreme variant of a medieval torture. For example, from the Records{2} for 6th November 1716:

Sentence is passed against Huff, a soldier, for having a child by one of the Company’s slave women. “That he be sett this evening publicly on the Wooden Horse with his face blacked over and that henceforth he be looked upon as no other than a Black.

Mutineers were hanged, initially from a gallows positioned above the town approximately where now is the top of Jacob’s Ladder, so positioned such that the body could clearly be seen from the town, swinging in the wind.

Sadly{3} nothing of this remains, though you could, if the mood takes you, stand at the viewing platform at the top of the Ladder and imagine yourself a sentenced mutineer, about to meet your fate.

The Last Execution

Nooses [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]

Although executions continued in Britain right up to the 1960s, the last execution on St Helena took place on 2nd February 1905 in the old Power House, now the Museum of St Helena. Richard and Louis Crowie had been found guilty of the murder of Robert Samuel Gunnell on 2nd November 1904 at the Prosperous Bay Signal Station. The full story is told on our Other Military Sites page. In the Museum of St Helena you can see photographs of the two being led out for execution and the actual nooses used to hang them.

Ghosts of events past

If you are into these, check out our ghost stories page, many of which are based on historical events. Camp at the base of Lot and watch for the Ghost of The Runaway Slave. Meet the current owner amd maybe spend a night watching for the Phantoms of West Lodge. Walk in the early hours outside Pilling School and see if you meet Free Molly, or any of the other Ghosts of Pilling School. Maybe our Governor will allow you to spend a night seeking the Ghosts of Plantation House (few Saints will willingly be there after dark). You will be spoilt for choice!

Battle Sites

Invasion and recapture [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]
Invasion and recapture

Sadly{3} very few battles were ever fought on St Helena. Possibly the most prominent was the one that took place in Blue Hill between the English defenders and the Dutch invaders in 1672 after the latter had landed in Old Woman Valley. But you will have trouble finding the place because it isn’t marked. Tour Guides will point to a hedge-enclosed area of hillside below High Peak as the battle’s site, but the hedge was planted in the 19th Century to enclose a plantation (one of our many failed Industries) so whether or not the battle was actually fought at this spot is unknown. Even The Castle, where the English made their last stand before fleeing to the sea, has been re-built since 1672 and none of the original structure remains.

Nevertheless, you could walk up Lemon Valley, as the Dutch initially tried, and imagine the rocks raining down on you, dislodged with crowbars by the English defenders. Or if you are very determined you could climb up from the sea onto Prosperous Bay Plain, as the re-capturing English did; but bring serious rock-climbing gear - this is not a climb for amateurs!

Ship Disasters

Recovered Papanui items [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]
Recovered Papanui items

These are detailed on our Lost Ships page. Many can be dived and materials salvaged can be seen in the Museum of St Helena.


St. Paul’s Cathedral has an extensive graveyard with many interesting tombstones. The Roman Catholic Cemetary is next door, to the south. Other churches have graveyards, but not St. James’ in Jamestown - it and the two other Jamestown cemeteries have been built over and the tombstones relocated. In Jamestown only the Baptist Church has tombstones.

…and then there’s Napoleon and the other exiles

Longwood House, where Napoleon died will open by arrangement for parties. Was he poisoned by the British or was it really stomach cancer that killed him? What are sometimes described as the world’s first ‘Concentration Camps’ were used to house the Boer Prisoners from 1900-1902 but only wooden signs remain the mark the locations. Munden’s Fort, home of the Bahraini Prisoners (1957-1961) is however accessible, as are the houses of other exiles, though they are mostly in private hands and can be visited only by special arrangement.

On Paper

You can visit The Archives and access the Records{2} for yourself. See our Family And Friends page for contact details.

And, of course, a visit to the Museum of St Helena is a must!

Tips for Exploring

You will find our Tourist Office helpful in providing information and arranging tours, though you may find the tour guide’s knowledge of some of the more obscure parts of our history somewhat limited. So we recommend that you download to your mobile the relevant pages from Saint Helena Island Info and then you can have detailed information at your fingertips wherever you go! But note that we said ‘download’; St Helena’s mobile network is not reliable in all parts of the island so if you look for Saint Helena Island Info online at the actual site you are very likely to get NO SIGNAL.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]

Laugh at funny darktourism humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]




{1} We understand that prior to Napoleon’s exile Napoleon Street was known as Cock Street. We do not know exactly when it was renamed. The Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:Dark Tourism]Moonbeams Shop is in Napoleon Street.

{2} 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.

{3} Purely from a Dark Tourism point-of-view, of course.


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