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The First Battle For St Helena?

Well, maybe…

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

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The English settled ‘uninhabited’ St Helena in 1659, but about 35 years before did they actually fight to conquer it?

This page is in indexes: Island History Saint Helena Island Info First Battle For St Helena?Island History, Island People Saint Helena Island Info First Battle For St Helena?Island People, Island Detail Saint Helena Island Info First Battle For St Helena?Island Detail

The First Battle For St Helena? Saint Helena Island Info

Below: Well known historyThe storySo is the story genuine?

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 precidely what this account reports!

The story below is based on a document discovered by Trevor Hearl and published by him in November 1975 in a paper entitled ‘Island of Saint Helena, 1625, The battle for Chapel Valley’. The paper includes the original document, apparently a contemporary account by a sailor aboard one of the English ships, with a translation from the contemporary English credited to Trevor’s sister, Mrs Julie Margaret Gill.

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 slaves, 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 contunually 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 sigificant 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.

So is the story genuine? 

We have no idea! Trever Hearl was one of the island’s most respected historians and it seems unlikely that he would have published it if he did not believe it was verified. The publication was not dated 1st April!

And yet the timeline seems all wrong. If it had been dated in the late 1500s, before the Dutch first got interested in St Helena, it might have fitted rather better. In 1625 the Portuguese were long gone and the Dutch were already using St Helena so for them to be attacking an established Portuguese fortification at this time does not make sense. Added to which it is commonly understood that the Portuguese used St Helena but did not fortify it.

To put it into context, in 1625 the Eighty Years’ War had just resumed so Portugal, which was then effectively annexed by Spain, was at war with Holland. But it should be noted that the initial period of the war was from 1566-1609 which is perhaps better for Portuguese fortification of St Helena.

If the story had been of an English and Portuguese fleet attacking Dutch defences in 1625 that might have been more believable. And yet we come back to Trevor Hearl’s reputation and the fact that he published the story with no caveats.

If you have any thoughts on this story, please contact us.

Closing No Humour Saint Helena Island Info First Battle For St Helena?

There is no funny image on this page. There is nothing funny about war & conflict. Enjoy instead our slideshow of ‘peace’ images.

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Footnotes:

{1} The image is Portuguese, dated to 1601.



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