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Rough Seas

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.{b}

Mostly the sea around St Helena is calm, but occasionally we get ‘Rollers’…

An exceedingly remarkable phenomenon, not yet well accounted for, is what is known locally as the rollers. Regularly, every year, about February and March, these rolling waves occur when the south-east trade winds give place for a short time to a dead calm. In the year 1846 they were so great that ships of 130 tons were lifted bodily from their anchorage and thrown broadside on to the shore. Fortunately they seldom exhibit this degree of violence.{c}

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:

Flying Fish
Quattro de Marco
St. Domingos
Unknown Slaver

In fewer 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 Descobrador. She was bodily lifted by the rollers from her anchors and thrown broadside on top of another Slaver, the Cornelia. Both were then deposited high out of the water and landed in front of the sea guard gate{2}.{d}

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.{d}

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. 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.{d}


Were The Rollers of 1846 a ‘Tsunami’? Well the event certainly isn’t listed in Wikipedia’s List of Historic Tsunamis, but then overlooking an event that occurred on an obscure island would not be surprising. Unfortunately none of the Records we can find gives the height of the wave(s) that hit the island, probably because the event occurred at night in the dark when the wave-height could not be estimated{3}. This means we cannot calculate the Soloviev Intensity to determine whether it was actually a Tsunami. But, for the record…we think yes, it was a Tsunami.

Other Rollers

Rough sea at the landing steps
Rough sea at the landing steps
February 2018
February 2018{e}

The Records contain a number of other incidents where rollers caused damage or serious injury, including:

And in 1805 The Duke of Wellington was nearly drowned when his boat overturned in Rollers while he was being ferried to shore.

High swells are not uncommon, especially in and around January, but rarely cause damage and usually did not even interrupt operations of the RMS St Helena (1990-2018). The ‘Rollers of (February) 2018’ were spectacular (photo, right) but did no damage. Next time a Cruise Ship fails to land passengers due to a heavy swell, perhaps we should not complain… at least not quite as much

Ascension Island also experiences Rollers.

Other Types of Rollers

It is not true{4} that the staff at the Community Care Centre have been issued with instructions specifying what to do in the event of Rollers.

A wet decade…

The 1850s seem to have been a very wet decade, with many incidents of trouble with rain or the sea{5}:

This may have included an El Niño period, but the phenomenon has only been recorded since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Read More

Article: Where is this Painting?

Letter to the Editor from Ian Bruce, published in the St Helena Herald 20th June 2008{6}

I am writing to ask whether any of your readers can help trace the location of a painting by my grandfather, Thomas Bruce.

Tom was born many years ago in 1862 at Vinall’s House, opposite the Community Centre, and was Postmaster 1898 - 1928. He very reluctantly left St Helena for England in 1931, where he died in 1956. Tom was quite artistic and among other things designed the now very collectable George V ship and rocks Postage Stamps, which was in use for 15 years from 1922. I have long been aware of a number of his oil paintings, but only recently realised he also painted a well-known portrayal of the Rollers disaster of 1846 when 13 ships were wrecked. Black and white versions of this have been published in several books, for example Robin Castell’s 1998 book ‘St Helena Illustrated’ (p. 121) and in E. L. Jackson’s 1903 book ‘St Helena the Historic Island’ (opposite p. 16).

Proof that Tom painted the picture comes from Emily Jackson’s book in which she states (p. 250) that the Rollers of 1846 …were drawn by an eye-witness, and from the drawing, an excellent painting has been made by Mr Thomas Bruce (Postmaster). By the kindness of Mr R. R. Bruce [Robert R. Bruce, Tom’s younger brother], I am enabled to give an illustration from the painting.

Trevor Hearl, the eminent island historian, several times wrote messages to me on postcards that featured a full-colour version of this painting. The postcard states its image is based on a photograph taken in the year 2000. Alas, Trevor died a few months before I realised, after reading the above passage in Emily Jackson’s book, that Tom had painted this picture. I therefore do not know where the painting was photographed.

As can be imagined, I would very much have an answer to that question. I realise this is probably a very long shot, but I am now writing to your newspaper in the hope that one of your readers is able to tell me whether this painting still exists and, if so, where it is located. I presume it was left at St Helena when Tom’s brother Robert left St Helena (he emigrated to America in 1923), but I do not know what happened to it after that.

I can be contacted by email at shirebooks@hotmail.co.uk or from messages phoned through to the St Helena Herald.

At the time of writing the painting still has not been located. If you can help, the email address (above) is still valid, or contact us.


{a} Probably by Lieutenant Frederick Rice Stack of The St Helena Regiment{b} Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities{c} John Melliss, The island of St Helena, 1909{6}{d} Philip Gosse in St Helena 1502-1938{e} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.


{1} Captured Slavers 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 behind the current swimming pool, now used as the entrance to the changing rooms.{3} We checked (using www.cybersky.com) - the Moon would have been in its last quarter so there wouldn’t even have been any moonlight.{4} Almost certainly…{5} There was also an Earthquake on 7th June 1756.{6} @@RepDis@@