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Rough Seas

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The sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction. It thundered at the town, and thundered at the cliffs, and brought the coast down, madly.
Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

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

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

The Rollers of 1846 [Saint Helena Island Info:Rollers]
The Rollers of 1846

Below: The worst sea in recorded historyOther Rollers

The worst sea in recorded history

As noted below there have been a number of recorded instances of heavy seas causing damage on St Helena, but by far the worst instance was the ‘Rollers of 1846’.

For over a week, the seas surrounding James’ Bay had been extremely restless, but in the morning of 18th February 1846 the prevalent south-east trade wind dropped. However the atmosphere across the island became exceedingly oppressive. That evening the sea became steadily stronger, rising higher than had ever before been recorded on St Helena, and within moments massive ‘rollers’ began to dominate the bay. The sound of the seas echoed throughout the town, making it impossible for people to sleep peacefully. Many believed the noise might have been due to a thunderstorm - itself an unusual occurrence on St Helena.

The following morning a crowd gathered at the seafront. The sea was an endless white sheet of foam and unbelievably calm, and there was not as much as a breath of wind. But it wasn’t the calm that occupied the watchers’ attention…it was the widespread destruction that had happened in the night.

An incomplete list of the ships lost:

De Marco
Flying Fish
Quatro de Marco
St. Domingos
Two unknown slavers

In less than seven hours a total of thirteen ships had been destroyed, every single one dashed to pieces by the fierce rollers. According to Philip Gosse:

The road across the wharf was filled with shipping as the result of a slaver{1}, called the Decobrador. She was bodily lifted by the rollers from her anchors and thrown broadside on top of another slaver, the Cordelia. Both were then deposited high out of the water and landed in front of the sea guard gate{2}.{a}

At least one man lost his life on that night; his name was Robert Bath. Robert went out fishing that evening to Sugar Loaf with two additional fishermen, James Craig and John Maggott. Robert was killed by the treacherous seas and John and James were stranded at Sugar Loaf until they were found the following day. Philip Gosse also records the account of a rescue that took place on that night:

The onset had been so sudden and so unexpected that a number of persons were on board the ships when the storm began. Amongst these were Mr Seale, a ship-keeper, and his wife, who were onboard the Descobrador. Both would have perished if it wasn’t for the bravery of an American seaman named Roach who, taking a rope with him, managed to swim out to the ship, fasten a rope around Mrs Seale’s waist and jump overboard with her. Both were then drawn safely to shore. Mr Seale was rescued in the same manner.{a}

In addition to the slavers, all the passage boats that were lying at their moorings were destroyed - in total, thirteen boats overwhelmed by one storm.

The cost of repairing the considerable damage to the wharf alone was estimated at £10,000{3}. A large iron crane which was built at the lower part of the wharf was washed away, and the sea broke the solid rock at the landing steps on which the foundation of the wharf was built, detaching a massive rock weighing several hundred tons. The commissariat coalyard and one of the reservoirs containing water for shipping were also completely destroyed. The sea also broke over the lower Chubbs Battery, taking with it a 24 pounder Carronade along with the parapet wall on both sides.

According to Philip Gosse:

The cause of this extraordinary occurrence has never been determined, but the most plausible explanation is that it was the result of a submarine earthquake, even though earthquakes as well as thunderstorms and lighting are almost unknown on the Island.{a}

The painting of the Rollers shown above is by Thomas R. Bruce, an ancestor of current historian Ian Bruce, who was postmaster from 1898-1928 and also was the first islander to design a postage stamp. It was painted from a sketch, the artist of which is not known.

Other Rollers

Rough sea at the landing steps [Saint Helena Island Info:Rollers]
Rough sea at the landing steps

The Records{4} contain a number of other incidents where rollers caused damage or serious injury:

  • October 1724: Three men were washed from the rocks at Sandy Bay during high winds and stormy seas. One was drowned.

  • 24th December 1732: Heavy rollers destroyed a crane at Lemon Valley. At least 27 tonnes of rock, up to 4m long and 1.8m thick were carried into the sea by the force of the gigantic waves.

  • 20th January 1755: High surf damaged fortifications in several places. Rollers during January were also recorded as damaging property and sea defences in 1771 & 1787.

  • 13th January 1881: Heavy rollers hit the Wharf, causing spray estimated at 770 feet high. Some boats were lost.

  • January 1955: Heavy Rollers caused some damage, espacially to a warehouse at the Wharf.

  • January 1960: Atlantic rollers damaged the sea front wall.

High swells are not uncommon, especially in and around January, but rarely cause damage and usually do not even interrupt operations of the RMS. But next time a Cruise Ship fails to land passerngers due to a heavy swell, perhaps we should not complain…at least not quite as much!

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Rollers]

Laugh at funny rollers humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Rollers]


{a} Philip Gosse in ‘St Helena 1502-1938’


{1} A captured slave ship. These were held in James Bay after capture, pending re-sale or destruction.

{2} The sea guard gate was the entrance into Jamestown. It was not the present arch; it was somewhere in the vicinity of the current swimming pool.


{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.


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