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Quincentenary of St Helena

‘Looking Up - Looking Forward’

Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words.{a}

On 21st May 2002 we celebrated the Quincentenary of our discovery

Quincentenary Logo
Quincentenary Logo{1}

Discovery of St Helena

The facts of our island’s discovery are in dispute…

da Nova stamp
da Nova

Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21st May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova (sometimes, incorrectly, written ‘João da Nova Castella’), sailing in the service of the King 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. However, there are a number of problems with this story. For a start, da Nova would have been a Catholic, and they celebrate St Helena’s Saints Day on 18th August, not 21st May. Protestants celebrate Saint Helena on 21st May, but they hadn’t even been invented in 1502…

Some have disputed that da Nova actually discovered it, but a relatively contemporary record has recently been found - by Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government - confirming that it was indeed da Nova that discovered St Helena. Unfortunately, Falcão, does not give a date for the discovery and various theories exist. Please read our page Discovery of St Helena to learn more. (For the record, we believe the most probable date for St Helena’s discovery is actually 3rd May 1502.)

Despite this, the official history taught on St Helena and generally accepted on the island is that St Helena was discovered by João da Nova on 21st May 1502 and named St Helena, and hence we celebrate our National Day every year on 21st May and celebrated our Quincentenary on 21st May 2002.

Any place that celebrates its discovery on a date when it wasn’t discovered has got to be worth further investigation…{c}

Discovery Titbits

Celebrations in St Helena

Of course, we celebrate St Helena’s Day every year, but obviously a 500th Celebration had to be a bit different.

And there was more than just the Quincentenary to celebrate. On the same day:

The title to the celebrations was ‘Looking Up - Looking Forward’. A ‘countdown clock’ was started a year before the event, on 21st May 2001 by Mrs Ethel Yon MBE.

The full schedule for the Q5 week was as follows:

Despite meticulous planning, naturally not everything went according to plan, as these two press releases show:

Readers may have noticed that our Q5 countdown clock has not been functioning on a regular basis for some time. This is mainly due to the frequent power outages that we have experienced recently. Every time a power outage occurs the clock has to be reset which involves climbing onto the roof of the St Helena Growers outlet. This has become increasingly difficult and dangerous due to the construction work currently being undertaken in the market building. As such following the island-wide power outage on the night of Monday 6th May 2002 it was decided on the basis of health and safety that the clock will now have to remain off. It is rather unfortunate that this had to happen, as the objective of the clock was to remind us of the number of days to St Helena’s Day 2002.{d}
The Q5 committee apologises that the Q5 clock on The Bridge is not working. This is because replacement bulbs are not available on the Island. Bulbs should arrive on the next ship from Cape Town.{e}

In the preceding week there were celebrations around the island, and Jamestown came alive with hundreds of coloured lights shedding their warm glow over the streets and houses whilst the multicoloured bunting fluttered in the gentle breeze.

On the day at Donny’s Place and in the Mule Yard there was live music and a barbecue lunch. The RMS St Helena (1990-2018) arrived as did the RFA Grey Rover, so visitors were able to join the celebrations. Church bells rang out, and a Salvation Army brass band and the bugles and drums of the local Scouts played as Governor David Hollamby represented HRH The Queen at a march-past.

Festivities continued until 2am with music and dancing.

HRH Queen Elizabeth II sent the following message to St Helena:

On the occasion 500th anniversary of the discovery of St Helena I have much pleasure in sending my warmest congratulations to the people of the island on this special day. I know that many Saints have travelled overseas to seek employment on the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, the UK, South Africa and elsewhere, but their love for their homeland remains undiminished. They truly look forward to the first sight of the island on the horizon, as it appears rising from the ocean.

St Helena was discovered in 1502, but it was not until 1658 that The East India Company colonised and fortified the island. St Helena has had many distinguished visitors throughout its history. Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to St Helena in 1815 and remained there until his death in 1821. Other visitors, who have been as famous in their own fields, have included Edmund Halley in 1677, Captain Cook in 1775 and Charles Darwin in 1836.

The loyalty and affection of the Saints for the Crown is well known and greatly valued. I remember with much pleasure my own visit to St Helena in 1947 with The King, The Queen and my sister, Margaret. I have an abiding memory of the arum lilies, understandably the island’s national flower{3}, growing in the wild as we drove to Bamboo Hedge and back to Plantation House. There we met Jonathan, still the oldest living inhabitant of St Helena, and many Saints. The warmth and informality of our welcome remain with me to this day. My family has continued to enjoy strong links with the island and its people. Princess Margaret launched the RMS St Helena (1978-1990), the island’s only regular cargo/passenger shipping link to the outside world in 1978 and the Duke of York enjoyed his own visit to St Helena in 1984. I know that he is delighted to join you in your celebrations in London today to mark the Quincentenary and the launch of the St Helena National Trust. The Princess Royal is very much looking forward to her own visit to St Helena later this year.

My thoughts are with the people of St Helena, wherever you are in the world, on this special day, and I send you every good wish for a peaceful and prosperous future.

Elizabeth R
21st May 2002

A Quincentenary stamp set was issued, featuring people from St Helena’s history that had contributed to island life:

You can see the St Helena Timeline souvenir, published in the St Helena Herald on 17th May 2002. You can also read its reports of the celebrations{4}.

In the UK

In the UK, SHG UK Rep Kedell Worboys hosted a reception in the Durban Court of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London. This special event marked both St Helena’s Quincentenary and also the launch of the St Helena National Trust. Kedell said:

The aim of the reception is to raise the awareness of St Helena through publicity in the UK press and to gain support for and membership of the St Helena National Trust.

His Royal Highness the Duke of York was in attendance, along with 150 other guests including representatives from The St Helena Association, Friends of St Helena, the Citizenship Commission, Students, St Helena Ex. Servicemen, the Armed Forces, former Governors of St Helena and Members of Parliament. Representatives from the Portuguese, Netherlands, French, South African and USA embassies were also invited.

The reception was sponsored by Crown Agents Financial Services and Procurement Services, Richard James International, Andrew Weir Shipping, the St Helena National Trust and Anchor Marine Racing whilst the venue was paid for by Environment Policy Department of the FCO.

Baroness Amos introduced the event with the following speech:

Welcome to HRH The Duke of York and St Helena Government Representative, Mrs Kedell Worboys, together with the many Saints and friends of St Helena to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the island and the launch of the St Helena National Trust.

21st May also sees commencement of the citizenship provisions of the Overseas Territories Act. This was a commitment of our 1999 White Paper. St Helenians have lobbied long and hard for the restoration of British Citizenship ever since it was lost in the early 1980s. It is a great pleasure that we have been able to restore these rights now to coincide with the anniversary of the island’s discovery 500 years ago today. We hope that this will enable you and citizens throughout the Overseas Territories to travel more freely and use the skills and experiences gained from such travel to the advantage of the Territories.

The Government is committed to the long-term future and development of St Helena. DFID provides development assistance of some £10 million each year and the FCO provides financial assistance from the Command Programme Budget and Good Government Funds. In the last year FCO-funded projects have included law revision, magistrate training and funding for a Deputy Chief of Police. We are also in the process of establishing a small business enterprise scheme for St Helena of £150,000 a year, which we hope to continue for the next two years.

I know that Saints are actively seeking ways to increase the island’s prosperity. They have voted overwhelmingly in favour of pursuing air access, which, if it could be arranged, should increase tourism and opportunities for investors to visit the island. Discussions between the St Helena Government, DFID and a private sector consortium{5} are presently being held to see if the island’s preference for air access can be met. Meanwhile we are pursuing negotiations with the United States Government for the opening up of Wideawake Airport on Ascension Island to civilian charter aircraft. This will allow more people to visit both islands and provide a stimulus to tourism.

Today also sees the launch of the St Helena National Trust. St Helenians are striving hard to protect and promote the natural beauty of their unique island. The St Helena National Trust will have an important role in preserving the island as an area of outstanding natural beauty with its unique flora and fauna. Five thousand endemic gumwood trees have been planted in the Millennium Forest. St Helenians are working with experts at Kew to save the boxwood trees. The island is engaged in the work of the UK Overseas Conservation Forum and recently, thanks to FCO funding, St Helena’s Environmental Co-ordinator, Isabel Peters, attended a conference on bio-diversity at The Hague. These are good examples of working in partnership towards the shared goals in St Helena’s new Environment Charter. A measure of St Helena’s commitment to its history and the built environment is the opening of the new Museum of St Helena, which is also taking place today. Many people both on the island and overseas have contributed funds and their time on a voluntary basis to see this project come to fruition. I am happy that the Government was also able to contribute £50,000 towards it.

Finally, I know that St Helena’s celebrations are not just confined to today but that activities are planned throughout the year. I would like to wish every Saint, wherever they are, a very happy and above all enjoyable Quincentenary.


Below: Photomosaic PosterSealBook ‘Quincentenary: A Story of St Helena, 1502-2002’

Photomosaic Poster

A photomosaic poster was issued to celebrate the event, which is shown below. If you look closely you can see that the image is actually made up of islander’s faces…{6}

The Seal

Supposed Seal

The Q5 committee attempted to locate the seal of João da Nova (image, right) for display as part of the celebrations, assuming it to be genuine and unaware that its existence is a myth. They, of course, failed.

Book ‘Quincentenary: A Story of St Helena, 1502-2002’

The book ‘Quincentenary: A Story of St Helena, 1502-2002’ was published in 2004 by former-Governor David Leslie Smallman. You can learn more about it (and him) on our page Historians of St Helena.


If you’re counting, our Sexcentenary will be celebrated in days{7}!

Events on 21st May

Events for your choice of dates on our page Chronology.

Read More


{a} Plautus{b} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (‘SHATPS’){c} Social Media User{8}{d} St Helena Herald, 10th May 2002{9}{e} St Helena Herald, 12th October 2001{9}{f} Radio St Helena/Museum of St Helena, digitised by Burgh House Media Productions


{1} This is the best representation of the logo we could find. If you have a better one please send it to us.{2} Site of St Helena’s last execution.{3} It was then. Now it’s the St Helena Ebony.{4} We included the entire edition as it’s interesting to see what else was under discussion at the time of the island’s 500th Birthday.{5} SHELCO. The discussions failed. See our page Building St Helena Airport for more.{6} Sorry, the resolution of the photograph is not great. If you have the original poster and can photograph it for us at at least 5000x3000px please send it to us.{7} Or, possibly, days, if by then everyone has agreed on 3rd May as our discovery date.{8} Posted on Social Media and used with the poster’s permission but they wish to remain anonymous.{9} @@RepDis@@