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Unrest and Rebellion

We’re not gonna take it!

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy{c}

St Helena today is peaceful, welcoming and friendly, but it wasn’t always considered so

March for Democracy
March for Democracy

If you come to St Helena today you will meet peace-loving, happy and settled people, who will be delighted to welcome you to the island and help you explore, but St Helena was not always as calm as it is today. In our history there have been periods of extreme unrest, in one case resulting in the assassination of the Governor. The island was settled by The East India Company in 1659, and the first trouble came only 13 years later…

This page focuses on open protest or outright rebellion. In addition please see our page Our Newspapers for many critical publications circulated over the years and also our page SaintFM for that station’s critical stance on Government behaviour.

Sadly this page also has fewer images than most. No artist seems to have been present to create action-paintings featuring bands of unruly soldiers waving weapons. Shame, really.

Governor Coney, 1672

In 1671 The East India Company assigned the island its first Chaplain, William Noakes. If their aim was to calm the population, it failed: unrest began soon after. Governor Richard Coney accused the islanders of drinking too much, backed up by Chaplain Noakes who was a puritan. The people felt that Governor Coney was high-handed and arrogant. Governor Coney didn’t like Chaplain Noakes either, believing him to be anti-royalist. Matters came to a head on 21st August 1672 when two Planters (Henry Gargen and Henry Bennett) aided by Chaplain Noakes seized Governor Coney and imprisoned him. There he remained until October when he was sent back to England on the Company Ship Advance.

One might expect retribution to be fierce, but actually the Company Directors in London shared the planters’ opinions of Governor Coney, and had already arranged his replacement Governor Anthony Beale.

As far as can be established from the Records the mutineers received no punishment whatsoever. Why might this be? Well it is known that the Company was having trouble getting people to go to St Helena, the population having fallen to only 66 (including 18 enslaved) by 1670. Maybe they decided that punishing the instigators of a mutiny with which they actually agreed might be counter-productive.

Not all rebellions were as easily or calmly settled…

Governor Keigwin, 1674

The Dutch invaders having been expelled in May 1673 a period of peace and stability might have been expected but within a year trouble began again, this time aimed at Governor Richard Keigwin. The complaints against Keigwin were that he had spoken against The East India Company, was not prepared to defend St Helena (apparently saying he would leave the island by the first ship that came, be it friend or enemy) and that he was a detached person and had abused ye soldiers very much and for no cause. A Company Ship under the command of Captain William Bass arrived on 22nd April 1674 and found Keigwin had been seized, stripped of his rapier and arms, shut up in a country house and forbidden to speak to anyone or write any messages. Captain Bass persuaded the rebels to free the Governor and re-instate him. Keigwin was, however, replaced by The East India Company later in the year and Governor Gregory Field took over and served without trouble until 1678.

Slave Revolts

The sad fact is that slave revolts were not uncommon. The even sadder fact is that they are poorly documented in the Records because the enslaved did not matter that much. What follows is a little of what we could glean.

1687Three enslaved men band together to poison their masters’ food. All are sentenced to be burned to death.
1695Mere rumours of a revolt lead to three gruesome executions and many cruel punishments.
1707Several enslaved are whipped for an alleged plot to invade James Fort, but as all confessions were obtained under torture it is not clear if any such plot actually existed.
1785It is claimed that villainous schemes have been plotted by the enslaved against The Inhabitants{1}. From 200 to 1,200 lashes are ordered per person.

There were also many escape attempts by the enslaved.

The ‘Dennison Mutiny’, 1684

The underlying cause of this dispute is unclear, but it seems to have centred around one Captain Holden who refused to allow some soldiers additional tobacco rations and then reprimanded them for the strong language they used in response, soldier Adam Dennison being detained in Fort James for the offence.

On 21st October 1684 a group of three Company Soldiers attempted to force their way into Fort James, supported by several Planters, aiming to overthrow the administration and free Dennison. They did not succeed and were arrested. Holden was taken hostage by the mutineers but later freed unharmed.

A letter from the Company in London records their view of the horrible manner of the events, and instructed that Dennison be sent home on the next available ship. 60 Planters said to be involved were ordered to surrender all their weapons to the Company Magazine. In December soldiers William Bowyer, Joseph Clark, Joseph Orseman and Robert Moore were tried for mutiny. All were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but actually they were banished to Barbados never to come on the island again on pain of death. Five Planters were also executed.

One notable casualty of the rebellion was ‘Black Oliver{2}, the slave who had guided Munden’s troops to James Fort during the re-taking of the island in 1673. He had by that time been rewarded by being freed and granted Planter status. He seems to have been on the side of the insurgents.{11} Another mutineer planter was Gabriel Powell, grandfather of George Gabriel Powell, who avoided hanging by becoming the island’s first (recorded) escapee.

A letter from The East India Company Directors laments that there have been so many rebellions, instructing the island’s administration to take shame to yourselves and advises the causes to be too much lenity and compassion. This advice was clearly heeded in the following years…

The ‘Jackson Mutiny’, 1693

One of the more significant mutinies began with a seemingly small decision by Governor Joshua Johnston. St Helena was not a popular posting for Company Soldiers, and several had sought to escape by smuggling themselves onboard departing ships. Johnston required that ships only depart in daylight hours. This simple change proved fatal for him.

On 17th April 1693 a band of between 14 and 50 soldiers (accounts vary), led by Henry Jackson, marched on James Fort with the aim of demolishing the fort, looting the Treasury, imprisoning Governor Joshua Johnston and the Council and escaping via the ship Francis & Mary, then at anchor in the bay. They concealed themselves in the outer areas of the Fort and waited until daybreak when Governor Johnston arrived to unlock the secure part of the Fort (apparently dressed in his nightgown and slippers - he was clearly planning to go back to bed!) They seized him and in the ensuing struggle Governor Johnston was shot. They did not immediately seek medical help for Johnston and only three hours later did they allow servants to carry him to his bed, where he died of his injuries.

Undeterred in their plan they proceeded to rifle the Treasury and depart in small boats for the ship Francis & Mary, taking with them three hostages from the Council, presumably to ensure their safe escape. But the Captain of the Francis & Mary was not amenable to their plan and a stand-off resulted. After negotiations Jackson sent back three of his band and released the hostages. Taking control of the ship they set sail, possibly for Virginia in America or Ireland - reports vary. The Records do not say what happened to the ship, its crew or the mutineers. What is known, however, is that although the three mutineers Jackson sent back (George Lock, Isaac Slaughter and Joseph Davis) protested that they participated under duress, they were arrested, tried and sentenced to be hanged. Curiously no executioner could be found to carry out the sentence, so one of the three - Davis - was offered a pardon if he carry out the execution on the two others, which he then did.

After such a rocky start, St Helena then settled down to a period of (relative) peace and stability for around 100 years…

(There was a small dispute involving Governor David Dunbar in 1747 which resulted in him being sacked by The East India Company but it could hardly be called a rebellion.)

The ‘Arrack Rebellion’, 1783

Arrack was very popular on St Helena. With no foreign powers attempting to seize the island, the garrison was greatly under-employed, and soldiers and Planters alike seem to have spent much of their free time in the many pubs, inns, Punch Houses and brothels of Jamestown. Governor Daniel Corneille did not approve. Soon after taking office he changed the island’s licensing laws, requiring that the garrison could only obtain alcohol from the Garrison Canteen, where the quantity supplied could be strictly regulated. This was not popular!

A group of soldiers approached Governor Corneille on 26th December 1783, led by one Sergeant Tooley, demanding the old rules be reinstated. They were persuaded by his promise to review the matter, but the following day their mood became more hostile. 200 men with drums and bayonets assembled in the barracks and set out for The Castle. They were met by Governor Corneille and an ugly scene might have resulted, but Governor Corneille was clearly an accomplished diplomat because he persuaded them to disband, though only after promising that the Canteen-only rules would be abolished the following Monday (29th) - which they were.

But that was not the end of the matter. On the afternoon of 29th (presumably after drinking their fill in the morning) the men again became restless. Governor Corneille responded by arresting Tooley, whereupon the troublemakers formed up and marched off to Alarm House, seizing it. A battle ensued in which three mutineers were wounded and 103 taken prisoner (two were killed on the Government side).

Although the 103 prisoners were all sentenced to death, their loss would have severely handicapped the garrison’s ability to defend the island, so Decimation was used instead - lots were drawn and one man in ten was executed{5}. This is the basis of the Mutineers of Alarm House ghost story. The new laws remained repealed.

The ‘Spirits Rebellion’, 1811

Demonstrating perhaps that there is no failure that cannot be repeated, in 1811 Governor Alexander Beatson attempted a similar thing to Governor Corneille - he banned the import of spirits from India and dramatically raised the duty on spirits from Europe. In response, on 23rd December Governor Beatson received an anonymous letter stating that if prices of spirits were not immediately reduced serious consequences would result. He did not comply and the following day a band of 250 soldiers assembled in Longwood, seized Lieutenant-Governor Broughton, and marched on Plantation House. Some of the band, however, clearly had second thoughts because only 75 mutineers actually arrived at Plantation, where they were easily outnumbered and forced to surrender. Six judged-to-be ringleaders were tried and hanged at High Knoll Fort and another at Jamestown. The spirit laws remained in force and as a result the number of soldiers in hospital was reduced from 132 to 48 in only four months.

Once again St Helena settled down to peace and stability.

The transfer to the Crown in 1834 may have helped. More probably, the economic decline resulting from the steady reductions in both the size of the Garrison and the numbers of ships calling made the population dependent on their masters for the necessities of life, and therefore much less likely to rebel. Things stayed calm and peaceful until the 1950s.

Demanding Democracy, 1950s

From the settlement of the island in 1659 until the 1950s the island had been run as a colony. Serious decisions were taken in London, initially by The East India Company and after 1834 by the Crown, and represented to the people by the appointed Governor. Some wealthy landowners had some influence over policy, but by and large the population had no say in their island’s laws or policies. But in the 1950s this began to change, possibly started by the post-war egalitarianism and possibly by the move towards self-determination and independence by neighbouring African nations. People stared demanding a voice in their island’s affairs. There was even a protest march (shown in the picture at the top of this page).

The moves towards democracy - a process which even today is not quite finished - began in 1963 when, for the first time, islanders were allowed to vote for people to represent them on the ‘Advisory Council’. The process is fully documented on our page Government on St Helena. From then until the introduction of our current Our Constitution in 2009 democracy has slowly increased, though what we have now can only be best described as ‘near democracy’:

And with democracy comes frustration when the democratic process doesn’t seem to be getting results…

The ‘Riot’, 1996

By 1996 the island was in financial difficulties. Budget cuts imposed from London and continually-rising prices meant there was genuine hardship. Working in the UK was not a viable option due to the withdrawal of Citizenship in 1983. Many islanders depended on social security to supplement the income they could earn but prices were rising faster than benefits.

Governor Smallman
Governor Smallman

Legislative Council and Executive Council continually argued with Governor David Smallman that benefits needed to be increased but he said this could not be done because the subsidy from London would not cover it. Matters became serious when on 10th March 1996 a budget was presented by Governor Smallman and Executive Council rejected it. Under the constitution at the time Executive Council was entitled to do this and then further negotiations had to take place. These followed but when the budget was presented to Legislative Council on 30th March it voted it down. Governor Smallman then used his executive powers{6} to force the budget through.

On 19th April a demonstration was held in Jamestown to protest against the budget and demand increased social security benefits. Tempers were high and as the demonstration reached The Castle Governor Smallman came out to speak to the demonstrators. Enraged by his refusal to budge 50-60 demonstrators moved into the Governor’s Office and began noisily protesting, remaining for around three hours. Reports of what actually occurred vary. In his book ‘A View from the Castle’ ex-Governor Smallman claims Several threats of physical violence were made - ‘We’ve killed more than one Governor in the past{7}, we could do it again!’ Indeed, one female protestor got hold of my tie and yanked it above my head to show how easy it could be to lynch me by hanging! (The ‘female protester’ was Sandra Crowie. She was immediately restrained by Cllr. Bobbie Robertson and no harm came to Gov. Smallman.) And it seems the demonstration achieved its purpose - benefit levels were subsequently increased, though only by £5 per week - half what the protestors were demanding.

Reporting the incident the UK’s Daily Telegraph described it as a Riot, though this seems rather extreme. Nobody was hurt and there was not even any property damage. As Riots go it was pretty tame! A very St Helenian Riot

Gov. Smallman incorrectly blamed Cllr. Bobbie Robertson for ‘organising’ the fraças and got his revenge soon after by using his executive powers{6} to veto Cllr. Robertson’s appointment to Executive Council.

SHELCO protest, 2003

In 1999 a private company, the Saint Helena Leisure Corporation (‘SHELCO’), proposed to the British Government that it would build an airport on St Helena, at its own expense, in exchange for rights to operate its own tourist facilities on the island. After months of negotiations SHELCO’s proposal was rejected, and subsequently so too was SHELCO’s planning permission for its proposed leisure resort, much to the annoyance of Saints who were expecting not just an airport but also jobs in the associated facilities and leisure resort. In the following months many other issues got mixed into public dissent, including Government’s mismanagement of the Island, including its track record on handling inward investors which the St Helena Herald described as somewhat less than inspiring, and ongoing complaints over Executive Council policies of secrecy and non-disclosure shielded under the Official Secrets Act. On 1st March 2003 a protest march, organised by the Chamber of Commerce, was held in Jamestown in which more than 100 people participated directly with around 250 following along. The theme was ‘We Want Change!’. Some photographs of the march appear below.

Many calls were made: That Executive Council resign; That Governor Hollamby resign; that Government be conducted with openness and transparency; and others. See the article (below).

Interestingly it was noted that the Police videoed the march. It was later stated that this was done only for public safety reasons.

More recent demonstrations

Four demonstrations have taken place more recently:

In all cases the protestors were given access to present their case and in all cases nothing actually changed as a result. The evidence suggests that in St Helena massed protests are not an effective way to change the Government’s mind.

At the time of writing all the island’s media outlets (Radio and Newspapers - there is no locally-produced TV) are independent of, and therefore sometimes openly critical of Government of St Helena. The SAMS media outlets{8} follow a policy of ‘positive engagement’. Saints increasingly express their dissent on Social Media (as below){d}:

Tungi flowering

One rather more tangible version of dissent, however, features in a story told to us after we first published this page. Apparently some time ago a Government official seconded from the UK managed to upset an unusually large number of people. One evening he left the Freemason’s Hall{9} in Napoleon Street very much worse for drink, climbed into his car, clearly intending to drive home, but found that he was unable to proceed due to the sharp pains in his ‘seat’. Someone, it seems, had placed a particularly spiky Tungi Leaf on the seat of his car… Whether he got the point figuratively as well as literally we don’t know.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.{c}

Read More

Article: Editorial

By Johnny Drummond, published in the St Helena Herald 1st March 2003{4}

Herald editorial flash, Johnny Drummond

Last Saturday’s protest march has to be considered a success. It has been a number of years since the Teachers’ March, which was principally a departmental issue to do with home to duty transport. As far as I am aware it has now been several decades since the ‘Island’ last marched to express their disagreement with or anger over an issue affecting the future of St Helena. On Saturday an estimated 6%+ of the Island’s remaining population turned out to express grave concerns over what has been termed ‘Government’s mismanagement of Island’s affairs’. There can be few who would disagree that government’s recent track record on handling inward investors is somewhat less than inspiring nor would it be a record to which many other countries would aspire. The ongoing complaints over ExCo policies of secrecy and non-disclosure of proper and correct information have risen greatly because of imperfect explanations of decisions made whilst cowering behind the shield of the ‘Official Secrets Act’, which incidentally is challengeable in the higher Courts although probably not here. The all embracing ‘in the public interest’ is certainly questionable and indeed must be questioned. In the interests of the openness, transparency and accountability highlighted and encouraged by the British Government in the White Paper ‘Partnership for Progress and Prosperity’ of 1999 our Government MUST take heed of its own lofty statements and ambitions for the future of St Helena. The people of this Island demand a significant improvement in performance but the people of this Island must also accept that they have a responsibility to ensure that Government is continually kept up to the mark. If Saints and Islanders just sit back and accept everything like sheep they will surely end up as lambs being led to the slaughter. The march on Saturday was the first step in bringing our Government to attention, the first step on the road to Freedom of Speech and Expression; the first step towards a truly democratic society for all; the first step towards a full assertion of their Rights by St Helenians for St Helenians; the first step towards the realisation that the status quo can be challenged. Saints must not be gagged by fear or ignorance; Saints must not be allowed to grow in an atmosphere of shady secrecy, which compounds a general fear of authority and an the acceptance of situations, which are known to be wrong and unfair. The chains of slavery were universally struck off in 1834 as a result they have to be replaced by the symbolic chains of conscience, social responsibility and a strong commitment to what is right for ourselves, for our children and for those generations that will follow us.{10}


{a} Government of St Helena{b} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{c} Martin Luther King, Jr.{d} Saint Memes (group)


{1} Clearly the enslaved were not considered to be ‘Inhabitants.’.{2} To modern eyes this name is racist. He was one of the enslaved who had been given the first-name ‘Oliver’ by his master and, being one of the enslaved, was known as a ‘Black’. Black Oliver was presumably a contraction of the Black, Oliver. None of this is acceptable to modern thinking, but then neither is slavery. It is, however, how he is referenced in the Records and we have no other name to use for him.{3} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{4} @@RepDis@@{5} Decimation was a Roman military punishment, usually used in cases of rebellion or cowardice. It is interesting to note that the term is nowadays often mis-used to mean completely destroyed, as in The town was decimated by the hurricane. If the town had actually been ‘decimated’ then 90% would have been left untouched!{6} Withdrawn in the 2009 Constitution.{7} A reference to Governor Joshua Johnston, shot and killed in the Jackson Mutiny, 1693.{8} SAMS Radio 1 and The Sentinel.{9} The not-in-the-slightest secret meeting place of the island’s Masons.{10} As far as we can tell, years later nothing much has actually changed.{11} You can read an article about him by Ian Bruce, first published in the ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{3} Number 49, 2020{4}.