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Titbits from the records

To amuse and inform

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I would like to say a few words, and here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!
‘Albus Dumbledore’, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

We quote elsewhere extensively from the Records{1}, and here are some items that are interesting but didn’t fit in anywhere else.

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

Titbits from the records [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

Go to: The long arm of the lawHealthcareEquality & Human RightsThe EnvironmentLife on St HelenaRead More

Records [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

Other Records{1}-based pages:

• A Brief History

• Chronology

• On This Day

• Island History

Much of the earlier material below is extracted from the Records{1} or the various island histories. Later material comes from the island’ newspapers and other sources. To search the original Records{1} for yourself, see our Family And Friends page for contact details.

Please note: although our database contains items, ranging from to , this is not a complete history, even of all the most important events; there are some we still have not yet managed to date.

For the pre-discovery history of St Helena, see our pages Geology of St Helena and Endemic Species.

The long arm of the law

The long arm of the law [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

Here are some items related to the somewhat capricious legal system in the ‘before days’, particularly under the East India Company Governors.

9th July 1688

The Attorney General prosecutes Parrum for selling Punch [without a licence]. Parrum’s defence is that he does not sell Punch - he gave his customers six lessons of musieck for a dollar and a bowl of Punch into the bargain.

The Records{1} do not show the verdict in this interesting case. It reminds us of a store in the UK in the 1980s which, attempting to circumvent the (then) Sunday-trading restrictions, claimed it was selling customers an Orange - for £1,000, with a free three-piece suite.

6th November 1716

Sentence against Huff a soldier for having a child by one of the Company’s slave women. That he be sett this evening publicly on the Wooden horse with his face blacked over and that henceforth he be looked upon as no other than a Black.

The sentence in this case was clearly aimed at preventing the slaves from inter-breeding with the remainder of the population. The Records{1} make many reference to ‘riding the Wooden horse’. We’re not sure exactly what this entailed - probably a variation of the punishment detailed here: WARNING: Explicit Content.

4th January 1726

Dr. Wignall always drunk and nearly killed the Gov. by giving unsuitable medicines, his excuse being he had nothing else to give{2}. Dr. Wignall for drunken disorderly conduct placed in the Stocks for one hour. He sung and swore the whole time.

This item illustrates the almost unlimited power of East India Company Governors to exact their revenge on anyone that displeased them. The item for 13th March 1719 relates, possibly directly… The Governor’s power was, however, slightly curtailed in 1754. A Council minute for 31st December reports:

Governor [Governor Dunbar] having quarrelled with Mr. Dixon and confined him, the Council agree that a Gov. although chief in administration has but a single vote and cannot consequently have power in himself to confine and Gentleman of Council.

13th March 1719

Part of a letter from the Directors of the East India Company:

Govern yourself by our English Laws and especially remember and practise English lenity and not to mingle your passions and resentments with the sentence.

29th September 1745

Henry Baker, a tailor, ordered to leave the Island for saying that Lieut. George Hay was a Schrubb.

Whatever a ‘Schrubb’ may have been (an Internet search revealed nothing useful), it was either a very serious accusation or Lieut. George Hay was a close friend of Governor Dunbar.

13th December 1779

Woodberry, a slave, accuses his master of cruel punishment. The Court decides that a slave’s word cannot be taken against his master’s{3}.

11th July 1781

Sergeant-Major James Youd is tried for the murder of his woman slave by cruelly beating her with a wooden staff and causing a mortal head wound. Incomprehensibly he is acquitted, probably (again) because a slave’s testimony against a master was ignored{3}.

13th July 1785

Elizabeth Renton, a shopkeeper’s wife is acquitted of murder after stabbing her slave girl under the left shoulder causing a wound nearly five inches deep. Once more a slave’s testimony against a master was ignored{3}.

15th July 1789

William Whaley is convicted of ‘Highway Robbery’ for stealing a piece of cloth from a sailor in the street and running away with it. He is hanged!

The charge of ‘Highway Robbery’ seems to have been laid with the aim of maximising the available penalty. Whaley could not have been hanged if convicted only of theft.

15th January 1800

Job, Mr. Defountain’s slave, for robbing James Warren, Soldier, on Half-Tree-Hollow road. Warren drinking and Job having snatched the bottle from him. Hung 24th January.

Hanging seems an excessive punishment for stealing a swig of (probably) Arrack{10}, but then slaves were routinely subjected to extraordinary penalties for very minor offences.


Healthcare [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

An idea of the medical care available at the time is given by these items:

30th May 1710

The people are very sickly, sending down every day to the Governor for [permission to buy] Brandy.

It is recorded that the demands from the stores for brandy on 6th June were 20 Hogsheads (about 4,500 Litres - presumably not on a single day!)

14th March 1715

Part of a letter from the Directors of the East India Company:

We are surprized at the large demands of Arrack{10}. The people are grown sottish. The place is less healthfull than formerly and diseases more rife.

Many 18th Century Governors attempted to control Arrack{10}, and the Punch Houses in which it was sold. Several of these attempts led to mutinies. This contrasts with the 1673 minute where the Directors of the East India Company actually sent Arrack{10} to St Helena “for encouraging your men”!

16th March 1736

John Long, a prisoner, complains that he is suffering from The Flux and prays to be excused work at the fortifications{4} until he is better. Alexander and Goodwin think he ought to be allowed time to get better. Crispe is of the opinion that the most effectual way to cure him is to hang him.

Equality & Human Rights

Equality & Human Rights [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

The early Records{1} show scant regard for either of these!

20th March 1680

Two freemen having sold their land in order to return to England are allowed to goe but none in future who have received land or cattle from the Company are to sell until they know whether they will be allowed to leave.

The idea that ‘freemen’ needed the Company’s permission to leave the island gives a clue to exactly how ‘free’ a freeman was in 1680.

February 1703

Governor Poirier clearly had a firm view on the value of women:

It hath pleased the Almighty to give my wife a happy deliverance yesterday of a… I say no more but be sure it shall neither be Bishop of London nor Colonel in the King’s Army.

17th January 1704

Gabriel Powell{5} on Tuesday whipt his slave boy aged 8 years till his back was in some places raw and on Wednesday threw him with his hands tyed into a bed of nettles which venomed and stung him to that degree that he immediately fell into convulsions and dyed. For this, fined 40s.

For reference, Arrack{10} then sold for around 6s/gallon.

31st August 1724

Totty, a slave, tried for repeatedly running away and leading a booters life. The Gentlemen of the Jury, several of whom have already been great sufferers of the said Totty, petition to have him executed.

Totty was duly executed. Nobody seemed to notice or care that the jury were also plaintiffs. One can infer that Totty was Black.

3rd August 1736

Mary Gurling’s child examined by Council and two midwives who pronounced it a black man’s child. Mary Gurling to be severely punished for her false swearing and imprisoned till she tells who is the real father.

We deduce that Mary Gurling was white and a married woman, and that she had claimed during her pregnancy that her husband was the father. We later read, on 14th September 1736 (i.e. she stuck it out in prison for over a month - a remarkabe feat in itself):

Mary Gurling’s confession and that of Amdrew the Black. She ordered to receive 39 lashes and he to be castrated.

The castration of a male slave for the ‘crime’ of having sex with a white woman was considered normal at the time.

May 1807

Measles was brought to the island from Cape Town on 24th January 1807, and raged for some months. The burial record (held by the Church, which dealt with all official burials) reads:

1st March to 1st May: 58 Whites and 102 Blacks, but many more Blacks have been carried off, the exact number of whom has not yet been ascertained as they had not yet been Christened and their burials of course not registered in the Church Books.

So even in death the African slaves were not afforded the same respect as their masters.

22nd May 1815

The Church often celebrates its role in the ending of slavery, but it is interesting to note that only a few years earlier it was complicit in blatant racial discrimination, as evidenced by this official notice:

Appropriated Pews in Town Church
No Slaves or Free Blacks are to occupy any of the Pews.

The Environment

Redwood [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

As elsewhere at the time, ecology was unknown and immediate economic need was the primary driver in environmental decisions.

9th July 1745

On 23rd October 1774 Messrs. Thomas and James Greentree had been fined £10 each for allowing their goats free rein in the Great Wood, thus causing considerable damage to the trees growing there. The goats were rounded up and destroyed. But later we read the following in reply to a letter from the Directors of the East India Company

We have repaid the two Messrs Greentree their fines according to your orders. As you are of the opinion that the Goats are of more use here than Ebony they shall not be destroyed for the future.

Life on St Helena

Life on St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

These excerpts give an idea of what life was like on St Helena in the ‘before days’:

22nd December 1679

Many contentious persons on frivolous occasions trouble one another by complaining of words spoken some months or years before. All such complaints must in future be made on the following Council day. Such frivolous complaints have occasioned the Governor and Council to spend much precious time to compose their impertenant brablings and squabblings.

By way of an example, the Minutes for 3rd March 1690 record:

Sergeant Hailes complains that Parrum’s wife did say openly “God curs the Island and all that is upon it.

1st August 1683

Part of a letter from the Directors of the East India Company:

We heard very scandalous reports of loose women going on board our ships. For the future suffer none to board upon any pretence without a lycence in writing.

‘loose women’ feature frequently in the Records{1} (loose men don’t seem to be mentioned). One such may have been Mrs. Clavering, who on 20th August 1707 was charged with “scandalizing the whole Island” and sentenced to be “duckt in the sea at the Crane”[i.e. at the Wharf]. On appeal her sentence was reduced. To whom she appealed - and how - are not recorded.

20th May 1805

Part of a letter from Samuel Peach, member of the garrison, to his friend Edward Larken in England:

Governor mad as a March hare, dreaming of nothing but great guns, mortars and invasion.

The Governor in question would have been Governor Robert Patton who, in this website editor’s opinion, was probably more sane than average for an East India Company Governor.

23rd October 1809

The dominant role the Government of St Helena plays in St Helena is still a topic of debate, where something like 80% of the workforce is still employed by Government. As we see from this notice, it used to be much worse:

Notification issued that on arrival of a vessel with cargo for sale, the Government may first purchase. Afterwards Govt. Servants and Landholders and after three days Shopkeepers.

1st October 1828

On this day, William Rookes and James Unsworth were convicted of selling, for drinking, the rum in which the body of a dead person had been preserved while abord ship.

In our view this is taking entrepreneurship a little too far!

Read More

Article: “Archive To Archive

By Johnny Drummond, published in the St Helena News 9th March 2001{6}

Archives door plaque [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]
Archives door plaque

The Archives, as most people know, are situated in the Castle. There is no sign outside{7} and anyone passing the door might think that it is some kind of storeroom, which of course is exactly what it is. But the Archive is more than a storeroom full of dusty books; it is the most important complex of rooms on the Island outside of the museum.

The St Helena Archives contain records of the history of the Island going back to 1673. The records are a meticulously hand-written account of transactions and instructions between the East India Company in London and the Governors of the Island at the time. Almost every important document relating to the history of St Helena is held in this rather confined space. Narrowly spaced steel shelves support an incredible wealth of information including copies of the St Helena Guardian, 1851- 1923, The Diocesan Magazine, 1899-1947, The Wirebird, 1955-1966, St Helena News Review, 1958-1986 and the St Helena News to the present day. All Government documents, Gazettes, Ordinances and Legislation from the 1800s onwards as well as a tremendous number of other papers.

There are two members of staff, Maureen Stevens, the Custodian of Records and Barry Williams, the Assistant Custodian of Records. Apart from maintaining this Island treasure the main function of the Archive staff is to conserve these priceless historical records for posterity and for future generations. Barry explained that restoration must be done with the minimum damage or alteration to the original book or document, which in most cases are in a very fragile state and need to be handled extremely carefully indeed. The job of restoration is a precise and painstaking procedure requiring time and a lot of patience. In the case of a book, the pages must first be collated to make sure that they are in the correct order. Any fragments of pages must also be carefully stored so that they can be replaced as the work progresses. The book must first be ‘pulled’ or stripped down then each folio is separated into pages, which are then individually restored and any holes filled using special parchment. The pages are then covered with sheets of transparent tissue, which are ironed on to hold the pieces in place. Large documents are put through a specialised laminating machine. The pages are then put into folios, which are stitched together by hand and bound into a volume. Covers are added to protect the pages; these can be covered with a variety of cloths or leathers. The final job is to put the title of the book on the spine or cover; this is done with a special letterpress, which prints the letters through gold foil and onto the book. Any other tooling is done by hand. Unfortunately Barry doesn’t have a wide range of embossing tools to further embellish his work.

A tremendous amount of restoration has already been done but there is still a lot to do. Barry said that the Archive receives a great many enquiries from overseas by post but this has increased greatly since the introduction of e-mail. Maureen does the major part of the research and answers correspondence and enquiries as well as dealing with visitors with specific requests.

The Archive is open to members of the public who wish to do their own research. The Archives will form part of the new museum complex when it is eventually opened, Barry expressed some concern about the proximity of the Run, which goes directly beneath the building. If by some chance the Run were to overflow the consequences for the Island’s Archive and Heritage could be disastrous.


At the time of writing{8}, The Archives have still not become “part of the new museum complex” and remain in The Castle. The staff have changed but the rest of the article is still applicable.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]

Laugh at funny titbits humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Titbits from the records]


{a} by William John Burchell, botanist & schoolmaster. Copyright © the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, used with permission{6}{9}.


{1} 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. You can search our events database, extracted from the Records, on our Chronology page.

{2} The Governor in question, Governor John Smith was saved only when a passing ship happened to have the right medicine for his illness.

{3} In June 1787, after the case where William Worrall and his slave were caught stealing sheep but only the slave was convicted because his word could not be accepted against his master’s, the law was altered, such that a slave who “understood the nature of an oath” could give testimony against his/her master, or any other person.

{4} Prisoners and slaves provided most of the labour for the building of the island’s forts and batteries.

{5} Father of George Gabriel Powell.

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

{7} Now, there is - see picture.

{8} I.E. w/c 24th April 2017.

{9} Strictly, permission was given to the St Helena Heritage Society to use Burchell’s images for “any Museum of St Helena purpose”, which we consider applies to

{10} A locally-brewed spirit distilled from potatoes that is mentioned often in the Records{1}. Its origins are in South and Southeast Asia, where it is made from either the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain or fruit, depending upon the country of origin.


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