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Island History

The history of our island

The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
Muriel Rukeyser, in ‘The Speed of Darkness’ (1968)

This is a subset of our Island Information pages which covers items of St Helena’s history.

Napoleon said It must be recognized that the real truths of history are hard to discover. Well, we’ve done our best, but if there is something about St Helena’s history that we have not covered please contact us and we’ll try to add it in.

Below: Pages • Read More

Jamestown, by Melliss, 1857

To read more about the people behind our island’s histories, and download some of the documents mentioned, see our Historians of St Helena page.

The Pages

Random History Page:

Information Index
Start here… • This is the master index of all our island information pages

Subject Index
These are the pages you are searching for • All good books contain an index…

Terms used • Here are some terms used on St Helena or within Saint Helena Island Info that we thought might benefit from further explanation

Historic Picture Gallery
Thumbnails to expand • Enjoy a selection of historic pictures from St Helena.

Slide Show, Historic
Automated historic image show • Enjoy a selection of historic images from St Helena.

Today’s Images
Look at what we feature • Enjoy two of our images, featured today

Image Search
Find images on our site • This page provides a facility to find images on our site

Recording images of St Helena • Many artists have turned their talents to making a visual record of St Helena

Before Discovery
Why did it take until 1502? • How come Africa and South America were known before St Helena was discovered?

Betsy Balcombe
Napoleon’s Friend • Napoleon’s relationship with a young girl has led to much speculation, but what do we really know?

The ‘Blue Book’
The Annual Colonial Report • The ‘Blue Book’s are a valuable reference for the history of St Helena, 1845-1973

Boer Prisoners (1900-1902)
Home-from-home? Not really… • From 1900 to 1902 St Helena became the first overseas prisoner-of-war camp.

The Briars Pavilion
Napoleon’s Other House • Before Longwood House was ready, Napoleon stayed at the Briars Pavilion

A Brief History
How we got to here • A lot has happened on St Helena in its !-year history. Here are the highlights.

Building St Helena Airport
Built and operating • Building St Helena Airport may have been the biggest single construction project in the island’s history

The Castle
The most important of the Public Buildings • The seat of Government for ! years.

Characters of St Helena
Eccentric? Colourful? Mad? You decide… • Some of the island’s residents have been a little outside the normal…

Search our events database • This page provides a selectable subset of the island’s chronology, dating back to the discovery of St Helena

Churches of St Helena
And other religious buildings • St Helena has historic and more modern churches to investigate.

Let’s go to a movie • What could be better than a night out at the cinema?

Comparative History
Here and there • This is where we set our earlier history into context (from 1500-1899)

Dark Tourism
Visiting the darker parts of our history. • Like everywhere else, our history has its darker parts.

Deliberately Sunken Ships
Sent to the bottom • We have no marine scrapyard so unwanted ships are re-purposed as an artificial reef

Diplomatic Wireless Station
Or was it spying? • St Helena used to host a Diplomatic Wireless Station, but what did it actually do?

Discovery of St Helena
It’s not that simple • ‘Everybody knows’ that St Helena was discovered on 21st May 1502…but actually it wasn’t

Duke of Edinburgh Playground
For Kids; For Everyone • An important recreational space in the heart of Jamestown

The Early Years
Before colonisation • St Helena was discovered 157 years before the English colonised it. What happened in that time?

The East India Company
John, to its friends • The East India Company administered St Helena until 1834

The Three ‘R’s • Unusually, St Helena was quite advanced in its attitude to education

The ones that got away • Nowadays people want to get here, but that wasn’t always the case

Not all our visitors wanted to be here! • St Helena has had some visitors who were not at all pleased to be here…

Family And Friends
How to find people on St Helena • If you want to trace long lost relatives or friends on St Helena, or just find a pen-pal, here are some tips.

Famous Visitors
Let’s drop a few names • Over the years St Helena has had many famous visitors . You can read about some of them here.

The First Battle For St Helena?
Well, maybe… • The English settled ‘uninhabited’ St Helena in 1659, but about 35 years before did they actually fight to conquer it?

Fish Processing
Exploiting our only natural resource • For more than a century St Helena has been trying to earn money from the sea

The Flax Industry
phormium tenax, economic lifeline or ecological disaster? • From 1907 until 1966 St Helena’s flax industry was the engine of its economy. Now there is nothing left.

Forts and Batteries
Defensive military installations • St Helena was always defended, ever since the Dutch invaded the island in the 17th century

The Missing Fountain Mystery
Where did it go? • A monument to a great disaster, which disappeared mysteriously in the 1940s.

The Friendly Societies
Lending a hand • Before Social Security there were the Friendly Societies

Geology of St Helena
Upon this rock… • St Helena was created not just by one but by two volcanoes.

Ghost Stories of St Helena
Don’t look round, but… • St Helena has more than its share of ghost stories.

For the people, by the people? • St Helena is now almost completely a democracy…

The Governor of St Helena
The Crown’s official representative • The Governor of St Helena is the representative of the British monarch.

The Governor’s Hat
If you want to get ahead… • Until recently, for all ceremonial occasions our Governor’s uniform included a hat.

The Great Wood Wall
Too little, too late • The ‘Great Wood Wall’ was an early, but sadly unsuccessful, attempt at conservation.

Old and older • With all the military history of St Helena it’s no surprise that the island has lots of old guns.

The Historic Environment Record
A catalogue… • The Historic Environment Record is a database of anything old and important on the island.

High Knoll Fort
Important, in the past and today • As the largest military installation on the island High Knoll Fort is certainly important; and it’s also interesting…

Historians of St Helena
Recording our past • Over the years various people have taken it upon themselves to document the history of our island. Here we introduce some of them.

Historic Buildings
A standing reminder • St Helena has an abundance of interesting historic buildings to explore.

Historic Buildings In Brief - Country
A sample • St Helena has many historic buildings. The ones here are only introduced - to learn more, just explore them!

Historic Buildings In Brief - Jamestown
A sample • St Helena has many historic buildings. The ones here are only introduced - to learn more, just explore them!

Important People
They made their mark • Several people really made their mark in the lives of the people of St Helena. Some are featured below…

It’s the economy, stupid • St Helena has never been economically self-sufficient; but it wasn’t for the want of trying.

In This Week
This Week, in history • Events that happened in St Helena’s history on dates related to this week

The only time St Helena has been captured • St Helena has only ever been successfully invaded once. This is the story.

Lace Making
Over 100 years of history • Lace making started in St Helena at the end of the 19th Century and continues today.

Lost and almost-lost Buildings
‘In need of some work…’ • Conservation and heritage are relatively new concepts on St Helena…

Lost Ships
Our seabed is littered with wrecks • Here we tell the story of some of the ships lost at or near St Helena.

Maldivia Gardens
Fruit, flowers and much more…formerly • The Maldivia Gardens were formerly one of the island’s more productive plantations

Maps of St Helena
Finding your way around • St Helena has been mapped, accurately and not so accurately, for five hundred years.

Memories of St Helena
‘Well, back in the day…’ • This page contains short stories written by people who visited St Helena long ago, recalling their visits.

Myths Debunked!
Everybody knows that… • While researching for this website we were told many things that ‘everybody knows’, many of which proved to be untrue. We detail them here.

With some things you maybe don’t know about him • Napoleon Bonaparte may have made St Helena famous but how much do you actually know about him?

Napoleonic Bicentenary
A reason to celebrate… • Napoleon Bonaparte lived on St Helena from October 1815 to May 1821.

Napoleon’s Tomb
But not his final resting place • Set in Sane Valley it is a peaceful spot for quiet contemplation of the life of Napoleon.

Monitoring and measuring • Because of its location St Helena was chosen for many scientific observations

On This Day
Today, in history • Events that happened in St Helena’s history on dates related to today.

Other Military Sites
…and related places • St Helena has many other military-related structures that are not forts…

The Castle of Otranto
A puzzling name • A 19th Century map shows ‘The Castle of Otranto’. Where is it and why is it so named?

Postcards of St Helena
Old…and older • St Helena has never had a large tourist industry, but it has always had plenty of postcards.

Quincentenary of St Helena
‘Looking Up - Looking Forward’ • We celebrated the Quincentenary (500 years) of our discovery on 21st May 2002.

Radio on St Helena
A surprisingly large number of stations • With three current stations and several amateur operators St Helena’s radio waves are truly buzzing.

Radio St Helena
The voice of the island for 45 years • Radio St Helena broadcast to St Helena and the world for 45 years.

Our (Other) Railway
Useful; not quite as famous • Everyone knows about the ‘Inclined Plane’ that became Jacob’s Ladder, but that was not St Helena’s only railway…

The St Helena Regiment
‘The Old Saints’ • For well over twenty years St Helena was garrisoned by its own infantry regiment, Her Majesty’s St Helena Regiment of Foot; the most popular corps to serve the Island during colonial times.

RMS St Helena
Two remarkable ships: 1978-2018 • From October 1978 until February 2018 St Helena was served by two remarkable ships.

Take me home… • Roads may not sound exciting, but many of our roads have a fascinating history.

Rough Seas • Mostly the sea around St Helena is calm, but just now and again… These are the ‘Rollers’.

Kings and Queens • Here we set our history into the context of the monarchs reigning in England/Britain

SaintFM (2004-2012)
The Heartbeat of St Helena • Although only launched in 2005, SaintFM quickly became part of island life, and was sorely missed when it closed.

Saint Helena
She gave our island her name • St Helena Island is named after Saint Helena, a Christian saint. But who was she? What did she do? And why does our island bear her name ? If you like mysteries, read on…

Maybe it’s a state of mind? • Saints are renowned for their warm, friendly and welcoming attitude to visitors, but what are we like to live amongst?

Saved Buildings
Almost lost; now restored • Some of our historic buildings were thought lost, but have now been restored.

The St Helena Secret
A complete failure! • The Portuguese tried to keep their discovery of St Helena a secret. They failed!

Mentioned on these pages • An index of ships and other vessels mentioned on these pages

Slaves and slavery
Part of what makes us what we are • Although St Helena is best known for the liberation of slaves, its earlier history is rather darker. Read about both below, and also about the impact of slavery on St Helena today.

Exploring Space
To the stars and beyond • What could St Helena possibly have to do with space exploration?

St. James’ Church
The oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere • Built in 1774 St. James’ Church is the oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere

St. Paul’s Cathedral
Important, but with humble beginnings • Originally just the ‘Country Church’, St. Paul’s now has Cathedral status.

Origins of island surnames
How islanders got their family names • The surnames on St Helena are as curious as the ancestry of its people.

All the world’s a stage • Currently St Helena doesn’t have a working theatre; but we used to…

Everything starts 20 minutes late • Ever wondered why everything on St Helena starts 20 minutes late? Read on…

Titbits from the records
To amuse and inform • We quote elsewhere extensively from the Records, and here are some items that are interesting but didn’t fit in anywhere else.

Two St Helenas?
Our mythical sister island • For at least sixty years it was widely believed that there were two St Helenas…

Unrest and Rebellion
We’re not gonna take it! • St Helena today is peaceful, welcoming and friendly, but it wasn’t always considered so.

A Very Brief History
The most important bits • The shortest accurate history possible without missing anything important

Have a drink! • St Helena’s supply of fresh water was always an important resource

‘Thar she blows!’ • Whaling is one of the many aspects of world history in which St Helena played a part.

White Ants
A pest by any other name… • More than just slaves were liberated from the intercepted slave ships.

Anything that didn’t fit in elsewhere • A collection of items that, while about or related to St Helena, did not justify a page of their own or fit into any of our other pages.

If what you’re looking for isn’t in this index, please consult our Information Index page (the master index) or use the Page Search facility (below). We have some more advice on our About This Site page.

For the historically minded few places can have quite such an attraction as this small Island.
Geoffrey Kitching

Sunset over James Bay
Sunset over James Bay

Read More

Article: Napoleon skewered in new British exhibition

Published on The Local (FR) 5th February 2015{1}

A colourful new exhibition about French emperor Napoleon is opening in London on Thursday, showing how artists and cartoonists shaped the way the British perceived ‘The Little Corporal’.

‘The Corsican spider in his web’ by Thomas Rowlandson, 1808

Published in 1808, ‘The Corsican spider in his web’ by Thomas Rowlandson is one of dozens of drawings, posters and other prints on display at London’s British Museum until August 16th.

The exhibition, ‘Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon’ charts the rise of the young general, ending with the downfall of the Emperor who once had Europe at his feet.

Napoleon, who lived from 1769 to 1821, was a charismatic enemy with a reputation as a short, angry man: an irresistible subject for caricatures, according to historian Tim Clayton, a Napoleon expert.

He had the misfortune to come along at exactly the wrong moment, Clayton said.

I don’t suppose anybody in history had been vilified and ridiculed in the way that Napoleon was vilified and ridiculed ever before.

Flattering portraits and memorabilia collected by British admirers in the 1790s gives way to mockery, as Napoleon becomes more of a threat to Britain.

‘The Corsican pest or Beelzebub going to supper’ by James Gillray, 1803

By the time the two countries are at war in 1803, British cartoonist James Gillray portrays Napoleon being roasted over a fire by the devil in ‘The Corsican pest or Beelzebub going to supper’.

Mocking Napoleon as ‘Little Boney’ and perpetuating the idea he was small in stature helped diminish the feeling of threat.

Because you were frightened of him, you had to belittle him, make him seem not so frightening, said curator Sheila O’Connell.

So you made him a little tiny person. And that is how he’s remained in the British consciousness ever since.

- Propaganda tool -

‘Little Boney’ appears again in 1812 as Napoleon’s Russian campaign turns into a disaster.

‘General Frost shaving Little Boney’ by William Elmes, 1812

A cartoon by William Elmes called ‘General Frost shaving Little Boney’ shows the cold as a monster crushing the French armies and trapping Napoleon’s feet in ice.

Sold for an average of between 1 and 4 shillings each, the drawings were particularly popular in shops frequented by the London elite.

Used as a propaganda tool and sometimes controlled by the government, the satires helped forge a sense of British unity and shaped the way Napoleon was perceived through generations.

They do have an influence on shaping people image of Napoleon. The idea that Napoleon is a little, angry chap sticks, Clayton said.

The fact that he was actually of average height seems to have escaped everybody’s attention.

Cartoonists are kinder when Napoleon is less of a threat, and at times some Britons displayed admiration for the emperor.

One example is a bronze bust of Napoleon, carved in the style of a Roman emperor with idealised features, and installed in 1818 in a British aristocrat’s garden.

Featured at the entrance to the exhibition, the bust has a call for the emperor to return from exile in Saint Helena engraved at its base.

Laugh at funny Island History humour - LOL

{a} From ‘Views of St Helena’, by G.W. Melliss{2}, published in 1857

{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{2} Father of John Melliss.

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