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Discovery of St Helena

It’s not that simple

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The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
Marcel Proust

‘Everybody knows’ that St Helena was discovered on 21st May 1502…but maybe it wasn’t

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

Discovery of St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Discovery of St Helena]

Go to: The official versionThe feast day of Saint HelenaSo where did the date of 21st May come from?Maybe da Nova didn’t discover St Helena?Maybe it was 18th August after all?What about another date?And the answer is…Read More

Much of the information provided on this page is sourced from an article by Ian Bruce, to whom we are indebted for help in preparing this page. Information also comes from the article ‘Ships at St Helena, 1502-1613’ by Beau W. Rowlands, printed in Wirebird Magazine #28, Spring 2004{1}.

The official version

João da Nova [Saint Helena Island Info:Discovery of St Helena]
João da Nova

João da Nova’s Seal [Saint Helena Island Info:Discovery of St Helena]
João da Nova’s Seal

Most written accounts state that the Island of St Helena 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 Saints Day falls on 21st May. But there are a number of problems with this account.

First, and foremost, is the fact that João da Nova was almost certainly a Roman Catholic and Roman Catholics don’t celebrate the feast day of Helena of Constantinople on 21st May; they celebrate it on 18th August. So if he discovered our island on 21st May, why would he name it after Saint Helena?

Read on as the mystery deepens!

To avoid confusion in the following, we have used ‘St Helena’ to refer to the island, and ‘Saint Helena’ to refer to the Saint.

The feast day of Saint Helena

Saint Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Discovery of St Helena]

Saint Helena or Saint Helen (in Latin Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta), c.250 - c.330ad, was the wife of the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus and the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great.

According to tradition she made a pilgrimage to Syria Palaestina, during which she discovered the True Cross of Jesus’s crucifixion. As a result she is revered as a saint by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the Lutheran churches.

But these churches do not celebrate her Saint’s Day on the same day:

This gives us the problem stated above with the official account of when our island was discovered. João da Nova would almost certainly have been a Roman Catholic, so if he discovered our island on 21st May, it is not immediately obvious why he would have named it St Helena. Yes, she is the Patron Saint of new discoveries, but in that case just about everywhere would have been named St Helena.

So where did the date of 21st May come from?

It can be said with reasonable certaintly that no contemporary records exist giving the date of da Nova’s discovery of St Helena{2}. We do know that he definitely discovered it - Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government, records the fact. However, tantalisingly, Falcão fails to record the date. He does, however, record that all four ships of da Nova’s fleet returned to Lisbon on 11th September 1502. This return date is material, as can be seen below.

Jan Huygen van Linschoten [Saint Helena Island Info:Discovery of St Helena]
Jan Huygen van Linschoten

One of the earliest records of our island’s discovery that gives it a date was written by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, a Dutch traveller who visited St Helena in 1589. Recording his visit in 1596{3}, he wrote:

The island of Saint Helena is so named because the Portingales{4} discovered it uppon Saint Helens day which is the twentie one of May.[…]The 21 May, being St Helens day, and Whitsunday, after we had taken in all our fresh water, and other necessaries, we set sayle altogether in companie, and directed our course to Portingall{5}, leaving about fifteen men in the island, and some slaves that ran out of the ships.

21st May 1589 was indeed Whitsunday, supporting the accuracy of his account.

It should be noted that Linschoten, although born a Catholic, had by then become a Protestant. All Protestant groups extant at that time celebrated the feast of St Helena on 21st May. Could it be that, not knowing the actual date but hearing St Helena was named after Saint Helena because of its date of discovery, Linschoten simply inferred that the discovery date was 21st May; St Helena’s day in his religion?

If so, this is an understandable simple error, and nothing more. Linschoten should, perhaps, have realised that da Nova was a Roman Catholic, and hence would have celebrated the Feast of Saint Helena on a different day{6}.

In the absence of any other record of the exact date of our island’s discovery, this date seems to have been accepted by all subsequent historians.

But if this date is wrong, what is the correct date? Various theories exist.

Maybe da Nova didn’t discover St Helena?

Tristan da Cunha [Saint Helena Island Info:Discovery of St Helena]
Tristan da Cunha{a}

One theory has it that the island found by da Nova was actually Tristan da Cunha and that St Helena was discovered by some of the ships attached to the squadron of Estêvão da Gama’s expedition on 30th July 1503.

However Falcão’s account, independently supported by other contemporary historians João de Barros, Gaspar Correa, Jerónimo Osório de Fonseça, Damião de Góis and Damião Peres, confirms da Nova as our discoverer and hence we reject this theory. According to Falcão, Estêvão da Gama did visit St Helena on 30th July 1503, but the island was already known at this time.

Maybe it was 18th August after all?

18th August 1502, the (Catholic) Saint’s Day for Saint Helena in that year, would seem at first to be an obvious solution. But there is a problem with this date too.

Falcão’s account shows that da Nova returned to Lisbon on 11th September 1502, and if he was discovering St Helena on 18th August, he couldn’t possibly have been back in Lisbon by 11th September. Ships in the 1500s did not travel around 8,000Km in under a month, so this date also seems improbable.

What about another date?

The date that seems, to us, to have the best support is 3rd May 1502. A Portuguese slaver visited St Helena in 1578 and a book published in 1591 by in Italian, Filippo Pigafetta records that St Helena:

…is so called from having been first discovered by the Portuguese on the 3rd of May 1502, the Feast of St Helena.

Of course, 3rd May 1502 isn’t the Feast Day of St Helena in any extant religion, but it is the Feast of the True Cross, which Saint Helena herself is said to have discovered.

Is it just that da Nova discovered our island on 3rd May 1502, and named it St Helena because of this connection? Of course, he could have named it ‘True Cross Island’, but that name had already been applied in April 1500 to what we now know as the coastline of Brazil (Vera Cruz = True Cross), so he would have sought a new name. Or maybe ‘St Helena Island’ was just a more attractive name than ‘True Cross Island’!

And the answer is…

Currently, nobody really knows. The most that can be reliably said is that St Helena was discovered by João da Nova, probably some time in May 1502. Choose whichever theory you prefer!

For the record, we believe the most probable date for St Helena’s discovery is 3rd May 1502.

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 hence we celebrate our National Day every year on 21st May and celebrated our quincentenary in 2002.

Whatever historians may subsequently discover, it seems unlikely that our National Day will now change.

Read More

Article: “St Helena Day

By Ian Bruce, originally published in the Wirebird Magazine, September 2015{1}

Download this article as a .pdf file (818.1Kb).

Much of the material presented above is sourced from this article.

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{a} Hadoram Shirihai, via Twitter®


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

{2} Contemporary sources that have been examined, without success, are listed in the Article.

{3} In “Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huygen Van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, inhoudende een corte beschryvinghe der selver landen ende zee-custen… waer by ghevoecht zijn niet alleen die conterfeytsels van de habyten, drachten ende wesen, so van de Portugesen aldaer residerende als van de ingeboornen Indianen.” - English translation in 1598: “John Huighen Van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into Ye Easte [and] West Indies: Divided Into Foure Bookes”.

{4} A contemporary name for the Portuguese.

{5} Portugal.

{6} It should be noted that Protestantism didn’t even exist in 1502.


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