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Myths Debunked!

Everybody knows that…

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Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.
Richard Dawkins

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

This page is in indexes: Island Structures, Island Place, Island History, Island People, Island Detail

Myths Debunked! [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]{a}

Below: Wellington House and the Duke of WellingtonThe Castle Gardens FountainNaming of ‘The Consulate Hotel’The Ladder Hill GunsThe Portuguese ChapelThe St Helena SecretThe ‘Monkcat’Napoleon MythsSt Helena ‘la Nouvelle’St Helena’s Discovery DateMyths we can’t debunkRead More

If you have a story or ‘fact’ about St Helena you’d like us to investigate, please contact us.

You may also be interested in our Ghost Stories of St Helena page.

 

Wellington House and the Duke of Wellington

Wellington House [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Here’s an enduring myth. It’s a popular belief that Wellington House is so-named because Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington stayed there during his visit in 1805. But actually he didn’t. In Jamestown he stayed at (Old) Porteous House, just across the road from Wellington House, which was destroyed by fire in 1862 and recently re-built. He also stayed at The Briars. Wellington House is named in his honour - that’s all.

The Castle Gardens Fountain

Castle Gardens Fountain [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Memorial Fountain [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

It is sometimes said that the fountain in Castle Gardens (left) is the centre part of the Rockfall Memorial Fountain that once stood in Main Street, Jamestown (right). Even though they don’t even look similar, let’s explode this myth.

The Memorial Fountain was erected in 1891, in memory of those killied in the 1890 rockfall. It remained in Main Street until it was removed in c.1944/5. The Castle Gardens Fountain was installed in 1897, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, at the command of Governor Robert Armitage Sterndale and remains today. So unless the centre of the Memorial Fountain was capable of being in two places at once for around 50 years, the story must be untrue.

Naming of ‘The Consulate Hotel’

Consulate Hotel [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

It is sometimes said that ‘The Consulate Hotel’ is so-named because the owner, Saul Solomon, was the American Consul and operated the American Consulate from there. It’s a plausible story, but it isn’t true.

In the 19th Century Saul Solomon was indeed Consul for many nations, including France, Holland, Spain, Belgium, the Brazils, Hamburgh, Lubeck, Bremen, Austria, Portugal and the Algarves, and Oldenburg{b}. But not America. America appointed its own Consuls from the opening of their consulate in 1831 until its closure in 1908, and it was not located at the hotel - it was at the northern end of Main Street next to (old) Porteous House.

When the Solomon family business took over the Royal Hotel, probably in or around 1910, it was renamed The Consulate, but in honour of Saul Solomon’s many other consular appointments, not the American one.

The Ladder Hill Guns

Elswick Mark VIIs [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

It is a commonly held belief that the large ‘modern’ guns at Ladder Hill, to the west of the fort, originally came from HMS Hood. This is not true.

Firstly, they are not the same type as were fitted to HMS Hood, which carried 2 x 2 BL 13.5-inch guns; 10 x 1 QF 6-inch guns; 10 x 1 QF 6-pounder guns; 12 x 1 QF 3 pounder Hotchkiss guns; and 7 x 18-inch Torpedo tubes. The Ladder Hill guns are Elswick Mark VII wire breech loaders with a six inch calibre; maximum range with full charge and 30° elevation: 25,000 yards; standard naval and coastal defence guns for 50 years.

Secondly, the Ladder Hill guns were ordered in 1902 (manufactured, 1903) to help guard the Boer prisoners, though they did not arrive until after the prisoners had left. HMS Hood was still in service until 2nd April 1911 and not disposed of until 4th November 1914, sometime after the Ladder Hill guns arrived.

But we think we may know how the myth arose. In 1905 the 3-pounders on the forward superstructure of HMS Hood were removed, and the 3-pounders in the lower fighting tops were also removed while the ship was in reserve from 1907-09. It may be that it was mis-reported that these had been sent to St Helena. But our guns are not 3-pounders…

The Portuguese Chapel

The Portuguese Chapel [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

It is known that the early Portuguese discoverers of St Helena built a chapel near their landing place in what is now Jamestown, thus giving the valley its original name ‘Chapel Valley’. It is sometimes said that João da Nova himself built the original chapel, using timber from a wrecked ship of his fleet. ‘A History of the Island of St Helena, 2nd Edition’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824{1} has that the discovery by da Nova was “accompanied with the loss of one of the fleet, a large carrack; but whether from having accidentally run aground, or intentionally broken up as unseaworthy, seems uncertain. The mariners, it is said drew on shore her weather-beaten sides, and all the armory and tackling; building with the timber a chappell in this valley, from thence called Chappell Valley”.

However, this has been disproved. Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government, reports that all four of da Nova’s fleet returned intact to Lisbon on 11th September 1502. A more reliable date for the Chapel’s construction is c.1570.

The St Helena Secret

da Nova stamp [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Many of the island histories claim that, after da Nova discovered St Helena in 1502 the Portuguese kept its location a secret. ‘A History of the Island of St Helena, 2nd Edition’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824{1} reports that “The Portuguese are supposed to have been anxious to conceal the situation of St Helena from the knowledge of other nations, and are said to have succeeded in keeping the secret until it was visited by Cavendish” (in 1588). But Brook himself admits that other non-Portuguese visited before Cavendish, including Japanese ambassadors and some slaves of unknown origin. Philip Gosse’s ‘St Helena 1502-1938’ also has “For many years the island and its whereabouts remained a secret known only to its discoverers”.

However, ‘Ships at St Helena, 1502-1613’, an article by Beau W. Rowlands, printed in Wirebird Magazine #28, Spring 2004{2} refers to documents compiled by one Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government, who writing in 1607 used records not only of the Portuguese but also the Spanish to compile a list of shipping movements in the South Atlantic from 1497 to the early 1600s. He records not only that one of da Nova’s fleet was captained by a Florentine, one Fernão Virnet, but also that in a subsequent call, in July 1503 by a fleet led by Estevão da Gama, one of these ships was captained by João de Bueno, an Italian. So at least two non-Portuguese knew of St Helena’s existence within a year of its discovery.

Given its strategic importance as a watering station in the middle of the South Atlantic, it is unimaginable that neither of these ‘foreigners’ would have spread the word of St Helena’s discovery. Strong circumstantial evidence supports the idea that Sir Francis Drake located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580), though it is highly likely that he would have already heard where to look!

So whatever the Portuguese might have wanted, it is reasonably likely that the fact of St Helena’s discovery would have been widely known within one or two years of the event.

The ‘Monkcat’

Monkcat [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Carnival, 2016 [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]
Carnival, 2016

In 2014/5 sightings were widely reported of a monkey- or cat-like creature, said to be living wild on St Helena. It was christened the ‘Monkcat’. Sightings were reported by residents, primarily in Rupert’s and Jamestown, mostly at night or early evening. Even workers for the St Helena National Trust found unexplained paw prints up at the Heart Shaped Waterfall, though they did admit the prints might have been made by a ‘large cat’. The Government of St Helena offered a prize for a photograph. The back-story proposed was that it was an African animal that had stowed away on the Basil Read ship MP Glory 4 and somehow evaded port security.

Despite weeks of claimed sightings, no confirmation was ever found and the photograph prize was never successfully claimed (photos submitted were all judged to be domestic cats). In our opinion the entire story is almost certainly a myth, although another possibility is that, having explored St Helena the ‘Monkcat’ simply hopped back on the MP Glory 4 and went home…!

Napoleon Myths

Unsurprisingly, given his significance in St Helena history, Napoleon gives rise to more myths than any other individual or place.

Below: In the steps of NapoleonThe Hurricane that accompanied Napoleon’s DeathNapoleon’s CurseNapoleon and JonathanNapoleon’s Death

In the steps of Napoleon

Napoleon charicature [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

It is sometimes said to visitors that when you alight at the Wharf you do so “where Napoleon walked”. Sadly this isn’t so. In 1815 the Wharf was configured differently and the landing place would not have been at the end, as it is today; it would have been roughly where the ‘middle steps’ are now. Also the wharf has been extended and reconstructed so many times since 1815 that none of the fixtures from Napoleon’s time remain.

A few of the buildings date from Napoleon’s time, so you could say you walk past buildings that Napoleon walked past, but that’s about it. Sorry.

The Hurricane that accompanied Napoleon’s Death

Death of Napoleon [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Some of the island histories report that, at the moment of Napoleon’s death, a hurricane swept over St Helena. Forsyth’s ‘History of the Captivity’{3} reports that “While he was dying a violent hurricane swept over the island, which shook many of the houses to their foundations, and tore up some of the largest trees. As the tempest raged and howled, it seemed as if the spirit of the storm rode upon the blast to tell the world that “A mighty power had passed away to breathless Nature’s dark abyss.””.

However, the Annual Register for 5th May 182l records that the day was “a beautiful day, bright with sunshine”. We tend to believe the newspaper! So how did the hurrican story come about? Well it seems{b} it comes from a letter written by }American Consul William Carrol. As William Carrol was not appointed until 4th February 1831, he may not even have been on St Helena ten years earlier when Napoleon died. In our opinion, William Carrol simply made it up, unaware that anybody would take his report seriously, let alone incorporate it into an otherwise scholarly and reliable history.

Napoleon’s Curse

Napoleon charicature [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Whenever something fails on St Helena, be it an RMS Breakdown, wind shear at the Airport or rain on the St Helena’s Day Parade, sooner or later someone will say it is due to ‘Napoleon’s Curse’. Napoleon is said, during his exile here to have set a curse on St Helena “for all time”.

Suspiciously, the words of the curse are never quoted. Research in the many documents surviving from the time of Napoleon’s imprisonment show that none of them mentions a curse. Indeed, Napoleon may have railed against his captors (especially Governor Lowe) and complained about the Longwood weather but he doesn’t seem to have articulated any particular negativity about the island or its ordinary inhabitants. None of the island histories, from Brooke in 1824 to Gosse in 1938 mentions the Curse either.

So it seems the Curse is simply a late 20th invention; more convenient than ascribing failure to bad planning, bad management or simple misfortune.

Napoleon and Jonathan

Jonathan [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

One charming story often told is that Jonathan the tortoise is so old he actually met Napoleon. Delightful though the idea may be, Jonathan and two companions were not brought to St Helena until 1882, and then he was around 50 years old, so Napoleon died around 11 years before Jonathan hatched.

Napoleon’s Death

Officially, Napoleon died of stomach cancer, but many far more colourful stories exist. We cover three of them below:{c}

Book, Napoleon in America, 2014 [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]
To buy this book, use the Amazon Search at the bottom of this page

  1. Napoleon did not die; his death was faked to cover his escape from St Helena, an embarrassment to his Captors. He lived out his days in America.

    During Napoleon’s captivity, there were real plans to get him off St Helena and it not surprising that rumours began to spread even before his death that the prisoner held on St Helena was no longer, in fact, Napoleon. Before the Internet and digital imaging, and with St Helena many weeks travel from St Helena, it was not an easy story to refute. The story seems to first appear in print in 1947, in a self-published book by one Pierre Paul Ebeyer, a Cajun-American whose family aparently revered Napoleon as a second God, which does not give any weight to the story’s credibility. His only evidence was the fact that Napoleon rarely showed himself to any Englishman after 1817. The story was elaborated by another American, Thomas G. Wheeler, writing in Time Magazine in 1974. The story relies on Napoleon being replaced by a double, a Mr Robeaud, though no evidence has ever been found that such a person even existed. Despite there being no actual evidence for the story whatsoever, propelled by its charm several books and even films have been made of it. Notably, these can always be found in the Fiction section, not under History.

  2. Napoleon’s death was not due to cancer; he was poisoned by his Captors to prevent him ever escaping and regaining power, and to save the considerable cost of imprisoning him.

    A Parisian doctor observed in 1829 that the opinion that Napoleon had succumbed to poison “was for a long time accepted in Paris, and it is still current in the departments, these tales being not only rumours among the people but were spread and accepted by educated persons of the best social classes”. This theory is rather better founded than the others. A Swedish dentist, Sven Forshufvud, in 1961 compared the account of Napoleon’s illness made by his valet, Louis-Joseph-Narcisse Marchand, with the symptoms of Arsenic poisining and found a match. As the story developed, in some variations Napoleon was deliberately poisoned by the British; in others it was the French, hoping to make him ill enough to be shipped back to France but accidentally overdosing him. It is even sometimes suggested that the Arsenic was accidentally administered, being a compound used in the colouring of the wallpaper at Longwood House. Sadly for this quaint story, the original autopsy was performed by a competent doctor under, for the time, near ideal conditions, and its conclusions witnessed by many, including many of Napoleon’s supporters. The verdict was unequivocably stomach cancer.

  3. Napoleon died and was buried in Sane Valley, but it was not his body that was collected by the French in 1840. The real body was cremated and his ashes are buried under Westminster Abbey.

    Very soon after 1840 there were rumours circulating in Paris that Napoleon’s grave on St Helena had been found empty because the “sacrilegious English” had removed the body years before, but this is the least credible of the stories because there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. Napolen’s coffins (there were four, one inside the other) were opened in 1840 when the body was exhumed and his body was reported to be in an “excellent” state of preservation (score 1 for the Arsenic theorists - Arsenic is a preservative!) It is furthermore highly unlikely that ashes could have been buried in Westminster Abbey without some record being kept, and no such record exists.

St Helena ‘la Nouvelle’

New St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

This myth is no longer in circulation, but from around the middle 1600s to the early 1700s it was widely believed that there were two St Helenas in the South Atlantic - the real one and another, known as ‘I Ste Helene la Nouvelle’ (‘New St Helena’). Maps in this period showed both, but New St Helena never existed - it was simply a navigational error caused by ship’s captains running across actual St Helena and miscalculating their longitude. You can read all about it on our page Two St Helenas?.

St Helena’s Discovery Date

João da Nova [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]
João da Nova

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 Saint’s Day falls on 21st May”.

Actually, we think not! We do believe it was discovered by João da Nova, but we think he discovered it on 3rd May 1502, not 21st May. To learn why please see our Discovery of St Helena page.

A good way to get to know the Saints, I found, was to listen to their two-hour daily radio broadcast. It takes the place of an island newspaper by reporting anything and everything that happens locally. My interview was repeatedly broadcast between the two big news events of the week: one being that a car knocked over a road sign in town, the other from the local doctor describing as “nonsense” the rumor that people were catching venereal disease by swimming in the town’s pool. “The only way to catch VD in the pool,” the doctor explained over and over, “is if you are doing something other than swimming in it.” It was evidently a persistent rumor because they rebroadcast the doctor’s message every day during my stay on the island. I can imagine the unfaithful husband explaining to his wife that he must have caught some germs in the public pool. Most of the islanders, myself included, decided to stay clear of the pool just in case.{d}

Myths we can’t debunk

Some local myths don’t really lend themselves to analysis. Other stories were thought to be myths but later found to be true. We list some of these below:

  • It is said that when the Bellstone is struck (to make it ring), the striker is granted a wish. We’re not sure exactly how you would test this scientifically, but the litany of failed projects which could, apparently, have been prevented with a simple trip to Levelwood suggests it doesn’t work.

  • For a long time it was thought the story of ‘Louden’s Ben’ was a myth, until his cave was discovered in 1897 by a hunting party.

  • It is said that Man & Horse Cliff is so-named because a man once galloped his horse over the cliff and fell 180m to his death. No Records{4} or island histories support this explanation, but neither do they offer any alternative reason for the name.

  • The St Helena Giant Earwig labidura herculeana is sometimes described as ‘legendary’ but this is inaccurate. It is known to have existed, but has now been declared extinct.

  • It is sometimes claimed that the Butcher’s Graves carry a skull, two arrows and a butcher’s cleaver because the male, a butcher, killed his wife. The story is widely recounted but no Records{4} have been found to confirm or deny it.

  • Local legend has it there was once a ship’s anchor in the Heart Shaped Waterfall’s plunge pool. This may or may not have been true, but it certainly isn’t there now.

  • Local singer Matty John is sometimes described as a “legendary island musician” but he was definitely real! He was recorded by the 1962 film crew{5} and you can hear an example of him singing on our Speak Saint page.

  • Due to a story circulating on the island at the time, the St Helena News on 23rd July 1999 thought it necessary to reassure its readers that humans and animals could not be infected by a computer virus…

  • It is sometimes said that Whiteweed austroeupatorium inulifolium, an invasive weed, was originally brought here to make perfume, but this story does not seem to make sense. The Wikipeda doesn’t list perfume making as one of Whiteweed’s (few) uses, and none of the histories or Records{4} lists any attempt to start a perfume-production industry here. We prefer the theory the Whiteweed simply migrated here, with seed carried on ships from South America. But if you know otherwise please contact us.

  • And finally, in our various sources we found many references to the “legendary hospitality of the people of St Helena”. Let us assure you this is no legend - it is absolutely true!

Read More

Article: “Who said there were no horses on the Island?”

Published in the St Helena Herald 4th September 2009{2}

A strange creature has been discovered living wild below Diana’s Peak. Experts believe it may be a legendary beast called ‘a horse’.

Island tradition has it that horses roamed on Deadwood Plain in the Before Times, possibly as long ago as the period known to historians as ‘The Seventies’. It was thought they were extinct on St Helena.

The Horse [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

The exact location of the creature’s discovery is being kept secret, but it was found in Woodlands. It was found by Fenny Fowler, who said:

I was planning to eat it, but then Nick Thorpe said it might be one of St Helena’s lost endemics.

The horse is similar to those found in the UK, except that it has only two legs.

It’s only a very subtle difference,” said Nick “but it may be enough for us to say it is a separate species. It could be the world’s only two-legged quadruped. It’s also quite unusual for horses to wear smelly trainers”.

The creature’s discovery sparked a bio-security alert in the Invasive Species Department. However, it turned out the animal’s legs were protected under new human rights legislation introduced on the island this week.

The horse is expected to take part in the Girl Guides procession through Jamestown on Saturday before joining in celebrations in the Mule Yard.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Laugh at funny myths humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Myths Debunked!]

Someone suggested it was disciminatory for this page only to include ‘Myths’ and omit ’Mythters’…


Credits:

{a} ‘The Tower of Babel’, by Pieter Bruegel (The Elder){2}.

{b} ‘U.S. Consular Mail from St Helena’ (2002) by By Michael D. Mueller (St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (SHATPS)).

{c} For a more detailed account of these theories and a discourse into why conspiracy theories exist see the paper ‘Conspiracy on St Helena? (Mis)remembering Napoleon’s Exile’ by Michael Sibalis{2}.

{d} ‘Across Islands and Oceans{2}{6}



Footnotes:

{1} A revised and updated version of ‘A History of the Island of St Helena’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1808..

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

{3} History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena; from the Letters and Journals of the late Lieut.-Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe, and Official Documents Not Before Made Public. By William Forsyth, M.A., 1853.

{4} The St Helena Records is a collection of documents dating back to the earliest days of St Helena, held in the Government of St Helena Archives. The Archives can be accessed in person or via email - see our Family And Friends page for more. From the records and other sources we have compiled an events database, which drives our events-based pages e.g. On This Day page. You can search our events database in various ways on our Chronology page.

{5} The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™ www.youtube.com/watch?v=YngeIbFUEVw.

{6} Read the full chapter here (6.2Mb).



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