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The First Battle For St Helena?

…it seems

A victorious army seeks its victories before seeking battle. An army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.{a}

The English settled ‘uninhabited’ St Helena in 1659, but about 35 years before it seems they fought to conquer it

{1}The First Battle For St Helena?

Well known history

According to commonly known history, St Helena was uninhabited when on 5th May 1659 Governor Dutton and his contingent of English settlers arrived. It is also known that the Portuguese discovered St Helena in 1502, but it is said they did not occupy or defend it. It is further widely known that the Dutch also took an interest in St Helena, from the late 1590s onwards, but later abandoned it long before the English settled it.

So it may be surprising to hear of a battle being fought in 1625 between English and Dutch ships and Portuguese entrenched defenders. Yet that is precisely what this account reports!


The story below is based on a document discovered by Daphne Gifford{2} in the 1970s. It was published by the University of Natal and again on St Helena by Nick Thorpe in the late1970s.

The original document discovered by Daphne was, apparently, a contemporary account by a sailor aboard one of the English ships, with a translation from the contemporary English credited to Percy Teale’s sister, Mrs Julie Margaret Gill.

The book ‘St Helena 1502-1659’ by Percy Teale (November 1976) repeats an abbreviated version of the story on page 141, dating the events to November 1625, and includes the comment Copies of the document have been published by the writer under the title ‘The Battle for Chapel Valley’. Copies are available if required from W.A. Thorpe, Saint Helena.

The story

A joint English and Dutch fleet (four ships from each nation), returning from India, called at St Helena seeking water, arriving on 20th November 1625.

The following morning emissaries from the fleet landed to request from the Portuguese, then in possession of the island, the necessary supplies of water, hoping also while on land to spy out the island’s fortifications. The Portuguese refused to allow the emissaries to land, but promised to send their own representative to the fleet to discuss the request. Upon arrival onboard the representative announced that while the English were welcome to water, the Dutch were not and should leave immediately.

The English and Dutch conferred and decided that instead of agreeing to the Portuguese terms (the English could easily have accepted more water than they needed and later shared it with the Dutch after leaving St Helena), they would rather fight the Portuguese and take whatever water and other supplies they desired. Their calculation seems to have been based on the circumstance that might result if future Dutch fleets were to call in, particularly in distress.

They estimated the strength of the Portuguese defences at about 150 men, with approximately the same number of enslaved, and a total of 16 guns in two fortifications. Eight moderately armed ships could, it was argued, easily overwhelm such defences.

Early in the morning of 23rd November 130 men, English and Dutch, set out in boats to lie just offshore pending a signal to land. Initially they set off for Lemon Valley (named as ‘Lime Valley’ in the account but clearly Lemon Valley from the details given), but later reverted to James Bay because of its closer proximity to the core of the Portuguese defences.

At around dawn the English and Dutch ships began firing on the Portuguese defences. The latter responded by returning fire, the battle continuing until noon. The Anglo-Dutch attackers discovered that it was hard to bring their guns to bear on the defences because their ships were continually rolling in the swell, giving the Portuguese a distinct advantage. They also found the Portuguese defences to be much more resilient than expected, so those shots that did hit their target did less damage than had been expected.

The attackers were suffering significant damage from the defensive fire and at midday the attack was abandoned and the ships withdrew. Two of the attackers died with 16 injured, one of whom died of his injuries in the following days. One of the landing-party boats was damaged while retreating but none were lost. Portuguese casualties are not known.

A similar story

This is told in ‘St Helena 500’, by Robin Gill & Percy Teale, published in 1997 and also in ‘St Helena 1502-1659’ by Percy Teale (November 1976) ...

A Spanish or Portuguese carrack (between the years 1580 and 1640 they were one and the same) way lying at anchor off Chapel Valley when a large Dutch ship hove in sight, approaching the anchorage. Immediately the captain of the carrack ordered his ship to be warped close in and her stern made fast to a hawser from the shore. Some of her guns were quickly landed and placed so as to cover the position the ship occupied. At first the Dutch commander, Bontekou, thought the carrack would prove an easy prize and that all he had to do was to cut the cable and tow her out.

He was soon to learn his mistake. First of all, sudden gusts of wind blowing down the valley made it difficult for him to work his ship within musket shot of the carrack, and when he did get dose up doubts began to enter his mind, and discreetly he sent a civil message to the Portuguese asking for permission to water. This civility did not have the effect he wished for the Spaniards answered abusively Anda perro, anda canalla, Go away dogs, go away riff-raff. But the Dutch were in desperate need of fresh water, so Captain Bontekou decided to fight for it, and a sharp action commenced in which considerable damage was sustained on both sides. The guns on shore were so well aimed that the Dutch had to beat an ignominious retreat and anchor under the point (Mundens) which covered them from the fire of the battery. There the ship lay all night while a council was held to decide whether to renew the fight or to retreat and continue their voyage on a reduced allowance of water. They decided on the latter course, but when, at dawn, a boat was proceeding to weight their kedge anchor, a party of Spaniards appeared at the waterside and, opening fire with their muskets, drove off the Dutch who escaped, with several casulaties but no water. The carrack, however, had suffered so severely in the action that she sank at her moorings. A considerable part of the wreck was saved, including most of the guns, and these were soon mounted in a breastwork and so formed the first permanent fortification on the island, and proved its value very shortly afterwards when the Portuguese succeeded in beating off a Dutch fleet of six sail which, as in the case of Captain Bontekou, had to sail away without water.

With all the wood saved from the wreck of the carrack which was not used for the fort, the shipwrecked sailers built themselves temporary dwellings.

So is the ‘commonly known history’ wrong?

We think not. From the reading of the accounts it looks like the ‘occupation’ made by the Portuguese in 1625 was only temporary. They probably remained here only until the next Portuguese ship arrived to carry them home. There is no indication of there being any active Portuguese settlement when the Dutch claimed the island in April 1633, let alone 26 years later when Dutton and his settlers arrived in 1659 to claim the uninhabited island in the name of The East India Company.

{a} Sun Tzu


{1} The image is Portuguese, dated to 1601.{2} Principal Assistant Keeper in the Repository and Technical Services Section of the Public Record Office in London. She made her first visit to St Helena in 1962 to advise Governor John Field on the storage and classification of the records, and retained an interest in the island until her death in 1990.