Location map:
Location Map casons

Donkeys

The former backbone of island transport

Observe the ass, for instance: his character is about perfect, he is the choicest spirit among all the humbler animals, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.
Mark Twain

For many years before the arrival of the motor car donkeys equus africanus asinus were the mainstay of St Helena transport

Group of donkeys in the field at Casons

Below: History • Present Day • Donkey Facts • Donkey Home • Meet a donkey! • New Beginning? • ‘You have donkeys; why not horses?’ • World Donkey Day • Read More

History

From the Records:

17th November 1709: Governor John Roberts reports that ‘ass negroes’ (i.e. Donkeys) are to be brought to St Helena for carrying goods; the first record of their use on St Helena.

Prior to this goods were, presumably, carried by slaves). The Records for November 1715 report the presence of ‘12 Asses’.

Donkeys were also used to power the Ladder Hill Railway. 119 are known to have been imported in 1901, to provide extra load-carrying capacity because of the need to supply the Boer PoW camps.

Nobody knows exactly how many there were in their heyday (or should that be ‘hay day’?). The Records for December 1851 give a number of 400, and for April 1881 as 922. By April 1901 it was down to 774 but in April 1911 it was up to 1,149 and to 1,161 in September 1955, declining thereafter.

Donkeys at work in Jamestown, in the 1950s
Donkeys at work in Jamestown, in the 1950s{a}

Donkeys show up in many of the earliest pictures of the island and continue to appear well into the 1970s. They were extensively used in the Flax Industry.

Donkeys in Market Street, Jamestown, c.1900 (and a horse!)
Donkeys in Market Street, Jamestown, c.1900 (and a horse!)

Donkeys did, however, cause a problem early in the 20th Century. Apparently the number of free-roaming stallions was causing a problem (particularly to the owners of mares!) and it was also felt that the breed could be improved by selecting only the best stallions and castrating the rest. The result was the ‘Stallion Donkeys Ordinance’ of 1904, requiring castration of any Stallion not selected for breeding by a Board of Inspectors. Around 250 Stallions were castrated with only 12 being certified for breeding. In The ‘Blue Book’ for 1905 Governor Gallwey reported that The ill feeling, which was so prevalent formerly, caused by neighbours’ stallion donkeys fighting and killing each other, no longer exists and mare donkeys, which were formerly chased by stallions all over the hill sides, now have the quiet time.

In The ‘Blue Book’ for 1927 we read Donkeys will never be displaced in any economic scheme in St Helena.

One feature of donkeys that has still not quite been perfected with motor vehicles is self-driving. Once a donkey knew its route people used to pack it up at home with goods for sale in town, despatch it in the morning unaccompanied with a shopping list, and some kind soul in town would unload it, sell the produce, buy the purchases and set it off back to home to arrive in the evening. Try doing that with a van!

Undated {1}
Undated{1}

In use, undated
In use, undated

1939
1939{b}

Donkeys in Narra Backs, 1943
Donkeys in Narra Backs, 1943{c}

Jamestown, 1943
Jamestown, 1943{c}

Jamestown, 1947 {2}
Jamestown, 1947{2}{d}

Heavily laden, 1940s?
Heavily laden, 1940s?

‘Gollie’ & family
‘Gollie’ & family{e}

Market Street, 1962
Market Street, 1962{e}

Barnes Road, 1962
Barnes Road, 1962{e}

Lower Shy Road, 1963
Lower Shy Road, 1963

Transport {1}
Transport{1}

Donkey keepers, 1968
Donkey keepers, 1968

June 1970
June 1970

 

The Present Day

Donkey with burden, present day
{f}

Donkey with burden, present day

There are still a few who prefer donkeys as their means of goods transport, and in country areas it is not yet unknown to meet someone leading a donkey laden with freshly cut vegetation on its way home{4}.

Those donkeys that no longer work a mostly kept in the  Casons  area, though some feral donkeys have elected to live in the almost appropriate area of Horse Pasture. The donkeys are generally friendly and approachable.

Statistics issued in August 2015 show that the island’s donkey population had fallen from 415 in 1994 to just 37.

Donkeys are not supposed to wander around unmanaged, but…

unexpected road hazard
{g}

Donkey Facts

A pair exchange greetings

Enjoying the early morning sunshine
Enjoying the early morning sunshine

Donkey Sanctuary Logo

More donkey information at The Donkey Sanctuary.

Three donkeys

St Helena Donkey Home

St Helena Donkey Home

The St Helena Donkey Home manages the donkeys up at Casons, including providing feed and organising veterinary care. It can be found on Facebook™ at www.facebook.com/SaintHelenaDonkeyHome.

Meet a donkey!

Meeting a donkey is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

St Helena Donkey Home

The donkeys are kept in a field at Casons, on the road to Blue Hill village. You can easily stop by the roadside and if you get out of your car one or more of the donkeys will probably wander up, just in case you have food. You can pet them through the fence, but please don’t feed them or attempt to climb into the field with them, as the wrong diet upsets them and unfamiliar company disturbs them. They wouldn’t intend to hurt you but accidents can happen.

A New Beginning?

In January 2011 the St Helena National Trust announced that nine of the island’s donkeys will now be employed in ‘the old fashioned way’, carrying endemic plants and other equipment up to High Peak and Blue Point as part of the Darwin Project.

Jodie Mills, Darwin Project Manager, said:

For thousands of years donkeys have been the ‘helping hooves’ of humankind and Donkeys have been used on St Helena for centuries to carry wood, flax and feed and it will be great to see them being used for work again and perhaps even for the tourist industry to take picnics on walks.

The Darwin Project’s aims include conserving some of the most precious habitats on the island and establishing a new conservation apprenticeship scheme, running for three years from October 2010.

Sadly the ‘new beginning’ turned out to be a false dawn - the project ended when Jodie left.

Donkeys being walked by the National Trust
{h}

‘You have donkeys; why not horses?’

There used to be horses on St Helena. In 1757 The East India Company wrote: Horses are of infinite value and contribute much to the ease of the Inhabitants in this hilly place as well as for the convenience of the gentlemen that call here in shipping. They were the primary means of transport for the upper classes, until they were replaced by motor cars in the 1930s (the first car arrived in 1927). There were even horse races held on Deadwood Plain, starting in the 19th Century and continuing intermittently until the 1920s.

Horse racing on Deadwood Plain, 1821 {3}
Horse racing on Deadwood Plain, 1821{3}

Horses are expensive to buy and maintain. There was even a ‘horse tax’ - in 1913 10s(£0.50). So the transport for ordinary people was the donkey.

There were twenty horses recorded in a 1970s animal census, but none remained by 1992. It has been suggested that horses might be restored to St Helena to provide pony trekking for tourists.

World Donkey Day

World Donkey Day, on 8th May, is not celebrated on St Helena, but if you do want to celebrate it, go visit our donkeys!

Read More

Article: St Helena through the eyes of…a Donkey Home

From The St Helena Wirebird 29th May 2014{6}

Today we have interviewed Jodie Mills who runs the St Helena Donkey Home; an important conservation effort caring for the donkeys across the island.

Donkeys in their shelter

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you lived on St Helena for and what is your role at the Donkey home?

I have lived on St Helena for ‘Donkey’s Years’ - well actually no, only three and half years but I couldn’t resist squeezing a donkey pun in somewhere! When I arrived on the Island in my new conservation job my new boss took me on tour and we drove past some donkeys in a field. He said it was such a shame that no one looked after them or used them for work anymore. This got me thinking; I had always wanted a horse when I was younger, now this was my chance to have 13 donkeys instead! So I went to see the government’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department who were over the moon that someone wanted to look after the donkeys and the St Helena Donkey Home was born!

Donkey walking

Q: What is the purpose of the Donkey Home?

The purpose of the Donkey Home is to:

We do this by:

Q: Do you offer any activities for tourists visiting St Helena?

Yes, we have a regular donkey walk every Saturday morning which are very popular with locals and tourists alike and we also offer an eco tour with the donkeys around one of the most scenic areas of the island with tree planting and a picnic carried by the donkeys (and most often shared with the donkeys) thrown in too.

Donkeys waiting by the roadside

Q: How many donkeys do you now have? Are you expecting any new additions this year?

We currently have 14 donkeys and have just gained two new donkeys, one of which was in a terrible state that had been attacked by biting flies and Mynah Birds to the point where there was no hair left on her legs. She is now recovering well. The other new addition is a lovely old boy called Prince, probably the oldest donkey on the island - around 40 years old! He struggled a little walking up the hill to his new home but when on the flat he was off like a rocket! We also have two pregnant mares who will be expecting later on in the year. Donkeys are pregnant for a whole year (I have recently had a baby and nine months was enough!) so a long time to wait for new arrivals…

Q: What is the history of donkeys on St Helena?

In the past donkeys were an essential part of Island life; offering loyal service throughout many generations of our history. As ‘helping hooves’ to the islanders, donkeys transported goods and people all around the Island for centuries. They serviced visitors and locals alike, forming the backbone to the successful flax industry of St Helena. After all, a donkey is stronger than a horse of the same size!

However, with the introduction of electricity, cars and the collapse of the flax industry, Donkeys found themselves out of work. Many people no longer wanted or could no longer care for their donkeys and the population plummeted from 1650 at the height of flax industry in the 1960s to just 38 today.

Donkey close-up

Q: What is your passion behind caring for donkeys?

I have always loved donkeys and horses and spent many a summer holiday on Scarborough beach nagging my mum for another 50p for a donkey ride. To now have the opportunity to care for 14 donkeys is a real treat for me - I love it.

Q: Is the airport development having an effect on the Donkey Home?

In May 2012 the donkeys on St Helena were in desperate need of a shelter as their paddock often gets very wet in the winter and all the donkeys suffer from seedy toe and thrush in their hooves. That month we happened to have a male donkey in and I named him Basil after the airport contractors Basil Reed. I arranged a meeting with the CEO and said, We’ve had a baby donkey and named him Basil - would you like to build him a shelter?…and they did!!! They did such an amazing job and now all the donkeys can enjoy a cosy night’s sleep undercover. I’m just hoping Basil will get an invite to the opening of the airport…

Q: Is the Donkey Home currently fundraising for a cause? How can people get involved with the home from overseas? Can we adopt a donkey?!

The Donkey Home relies on donations, grants and the sale of merchandise. Here’s how you can get involved:

Laugh at funny Donkeys humour - LOL

Credits:
{a} Photograph courtesy of Nick Thorpe{b} Philip Gosse in St Helena 1502-1938{c} Robert Stephen, a World War 2 serviceman stationed here, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’{9}{d} Tim Cattley{8}{e} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{6}{f} Tourist Office{g} Green Renaissance{h} St Helena National Trust

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Footnotes:
{1} Note that adults riding on donkeys is no longer considered advisable, as it can cause spine damage.{2} Also shows the old Standard building. The building on the far right is now the Bank of St Helena.{3} Note also the people in Chinese dress (bottom right) - presumably some of the Chinese labourers here in the early 19th Century.{4} Keeping a donkey in Jamestown, or bringing one into Town, is these days prohibited by Ordinance.{5} We do not, however, recommend any of these ‘cures’!{6} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{7} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{8} Proud to have been ‘island born’ while his father was working here for Cable & Wireless..{9} Reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{7} #46, 2017{6}.

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