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.
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’.

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The Rollers of 1846 Saint Helena Island Info
The Rollers of 1846{a}

Below: The worst sea in recorded historyOther RollersOther Types of RollersRead More

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}.{b}

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.{b}

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.{b}

Other Rollers 

Rough sea at the landing steps Saint Helena Island Info Rollers
Rough sea at the landing steps
February 2018 Saint Helena Island Info Rollers
February 2018{c}

The Records 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.

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

  • 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.

  • February 1982: This week’s very heavy rollers have been the worst for several years with swells breaking across the wharf and into the warehouses, upper sheds and Thompson’s Crane area. No damage to property has occurred but Mr Douglas Wallace’s dinghy was smashed on the steps and the motor lost and Mr Freddie Johnson’s boat was overturned on the wharf suffering minor damage. The fishermen were unable to go out on Wednesday and only two boats managed to get away yesterday. With the Fisheries Corporation relying on a daily supply of fish, the rollers have effectively stopped sales at present.{d}

  • 3rd December 2002: The visit of the liner QEII was abandoned due to heavy swells.

  • March 2010: After a period of heavy seas a large chunk of the wall at Banks Battery collapsed into the sea.

High swells are not uncommon, especially in and around January, but rarely cause damage and usually did not even interrupt operations of the RMS. The ‘Rollers of (February) 2018’ were spectacular (photo, right) but did no damage. 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!

Ascension Island also experiences Rollers.

Other Types of Rollers 

  • From the 1980s there was(is?) a skittles team by the name of Derek’s Rollers.

  • A band called the Atlantic Rollers operated in 2003-6.

  • In 2007 Basil Read advertised jobs for ‘SP Vibro Rollers…; of course, Public Works and some private building contractors own Road Rollers and perhaps some people own Hair Rollers… Nobody is rich enough here to be a ‘High Roller’ but maybe the scheduled commercial air service will bring a few.

It is not true{3} that the staff at the Community Care Complex have been issued with instructions specifying what to do in the event of Rollers.

Read More 

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.
For a chronological summary of our island’s history please see our A Brief History page.

Article: Where is this Painting?

Letter to the Editor from Ian Bruce, published in the St Helena Herald 20th June 2008{4}

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.

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info Rollers

Laugh at funny Rollers humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


{a} Probably by Lieutenant Frederick Rice Stack of the St Helena Regiment{b} Philip Gosse in St Helena 1502-1938{c} South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS){4}{d} St Helena News Review, 12th February 1982{4}


{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.{3} Almost certainly…!{4} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

Take Me Anywhere But Here!

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