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Before Discovery

Why did it take until 1502?

If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain.{b}

How come most of the world was known before St Helena was discovered?

Early European Explorers

Henry the Navigator
Henry the Navigator

15th Century voyages of discovery
15th Century voyages of discovery{1}{2}

It had been known since ancient times that there was land South of the Mediterranean, but what was it? How big was it? The first Europeans to investigate Africa were the Portuguese, commanded by Prince Henry (later nicknamed ‘The Navigator’ because of the many explorations he commissioned). Initially his sailors refused, referring to the sea in what we now call the South Atlantic as the Sea of Darkness, and when in 1432 Gonçalo Cabral reached The Azores that was the furthest South any European had been.

In 1433, however, Gill Eannes managed to pass Cape Bojador, the point on the African mainland opposite the Canaries, and suddenly the fears of sailors faded away. Eannes and Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya pushed further south, eventually reaching the Cape Verde islands in 1436. Internal Portuguese troubles then ended exploration until 1455 when Venetian mariner Alvise da Cadamosto, sailing in the service of the King of Portugal, reached the Gambia River and continued south to the Geda River. In 1457 Diogo Gomes reached Cape Palmas.

Henry’s successor King Alfonso began trading with the costal ports already discovered, but further exploration had to wait until 1487 when Bartholomeu Dias was given a mission to find the southern tip of Africa. This he did the same year, opening up the possibility of a sea route to India. But his route stayed mostly close to the coast of Africa{3}, both down and back. He never came within 1,500Km of St Helena.

When Vasco de Gama headed South in 1497 we think he used a different route to Dias{2}. Instead of following the African coast, he headed South West, crossing the Atlantic, almost to what is now Brazil, before turning east-southeast towards the Cape. This was so successful, avoiding as it did the south easterly Trade Winds against which progress was difficult for a sailing ship (see Sailing to the cape for more), that it became the standard way for sailing ships to reach the southern tip of Africa. It did, however, miss hidden St Helena by a wide margin. However on his return voyage in 1499 the same Trade Winds that has proven such an obstacle heading south were a great benefit heading north. He rounded the cape and then headed directly (or, at least, as directly as 15th Century navigation and steering mechanisms would allow) for the Cape Verde islands. This, too, became the standard route for sailing ships travelling to and from the Cape and the Orient beyond. The direct route misses St Helena by about 600Km, but with the variability of wind direction and the limits of steering previously mentioned it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled upon St Helena. That is what João da Nova did in May 1502.

So actually St Helena was discovered fewer than 100 years after exploration of the region began, with Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha discovered at around the same time{c}.

Of course our endemic species were comfortably established until our discovery. It was then their problems began…

The Cantino Planisphere

Click to see a higher resolution version (10643x4998px)

Known before discovery?

There is some debate in historical circles as to whether the location of both St Helena and Ascension Island were known some years before either was officially discovered; possibly as early as 1489/90. The discussion centres around maps dated pre-1502 which show unidentified archipelagos at about the correct latitude for St Helena and Ascension Island. The longitude of these is not always correct but it is known that longitude was hard to determine accurately at that time (see our page Two St Helenas? for an explanation) so this does not invalidate the theory. It is thought possible that the islands were not actually visited at that time, but just either seen in the distance or possibly inferred by the presence of land-nesting seabirds too far from the African coast. You can see some of the debate and follow the links if you want to know more.

Discovery Titbits

Sailing to The Cape

In these days of ships with engines the route from Western Europe to The Cape is simple and obvious - head down to Cape Verde, then turn South East until you get there. But from the 15th and 16th Centuries, when ships relied on the wind for motive power, it was not so easy…

The problem is the prevailing wind, which in the Atlantic south of the equator, blows from the South East. It is completely impossible to sail a wind-powered ship directly into the wind. As long as the wind is off by 10-15° you can make progress by ‘tacking’ - basically, zig-zagging to get the wind to a more favourable angle, which takes longer because a lot more distance has to be covered for a desired result, but at least fuel wasn’t a problem. But closer to the wind even tacking won’t help. So how did early sailing ships make it to the Cape, and thence to India and Asia?

The answer is a big diversion. At Cape Verde you don’t turn right towards The Cape, you keep roughly straight ahead. This takes you across the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil. On this side of the Atlantic the prevailing wind is behind you, so you can make speedy progress. You continue following the coast of Brazil until you reach the latitude of The Cape (34°S), then turn due East, cross the Atlantic and reach The Cape (hoping all the way that your navigational calculations were correct!)

This is why early ships only passed St Helena going North, and helps explain why St Helena wasn’t discovered sooner. Incidentally, before this trick was pioneered (by Vasco de Gama in 1497) the only way to The Cape was to hug the Western coast of Africa, as the earlier explorers did.

Going North it’s much easier (and shorter). From The Cape you can head direct for Cape Verde with the wind behind you. Piece of cake! (Note that in the North Atlantic there is a small diversion around the Bay of Biscay, for similar reasons to the South Atlantic one.)

All of this is easily illustrated by superimposing the tracks onto our Prevailing Winds map from our page Weather and climate, as follows:

Captain Dampier’s route is depicted on the ‘Voyage to New Holland{4} map which also illustrates the route taken by early sailing ships to allow for the trade winds in the South Atlantic.

As sailing-ship technology improved in the 1700s the South Atlantic diversion gradually became less significant, but it should be noted that when St Helena yacht Carpe Diem headed for The Cape to take part in the 2018 Governor’s Cup it had to head South-west almost to Tristan da Cunha before turning East to their destination.

‘Stone Age’ Inhabitant(s)?

Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 35 (Feb., 1935), p. 32{d}

It is commonly asserted that St Helena was ‘uninhabited’ when it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. That is probably true - João da Nova didn’t stay long so it is not inconceivable that inhabitants could have remained concealed from him, but could they have hidden from the many other subsequent visitors? It seems unlikely.

But it has been claimed that evidence exists of much earlier ‘Stone Age’ inhabitant(s)! See the article (right), published in the papers of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 35 (February, 1935), p 32.

So was there really at least one human on St Helena before 1502? Was it left by a chance pre-historic visitor? Was the stone brought here, or worked here, by a ‘Liberated African’ in the mid-19th Century? Or was the whole thing a hoax perpetrated by Mr Goodwin and/or Mr Norrie?

We were inclined to dismiss the idea of ‘Stone Age’ inhabitants, but then Nick Thorpe presented the stone pictured below, which was found recently on St Helena. It is a flint, which does not occur naturally on St Helena, but it is about hand-sized and has clearly been worked to create a cutting edge.

Like the first stone: how did it get here? The possibilities include ‘Stone Age’ visitors and ‘Liberated Africans’, but also a more recent one: vast quantities of sand were shipped here by Basil Read to build St Helena Airport and it is far from impossible that it was carried here buried in that sand.

If you would like to investigate further the stone could be submitted for analysis (contact the St Helena Heritage Society or Museum of St Helena) and do please contact us with anything interesting you discover.

Read More

Below: WikipediaArticle: The story of history’s greatest adventures


The wider discoveries of the 15th and 16th Century Portuguese explorers are set out on the Wikipedia (History of Portugal).

Article: The story of history’s greatest adventures

Foreword to ‘Atlas of Discovery’ by Gail Roberts, 1973, Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-517-50563-0{5}

The story of exploration is the story of history’s greatest adventures, resounding with tales of courage and of achievement in the face of impossible odds. It is a story that begins far back in the mists of time, and that even now is not complete. For although little of the earth remains unknown, man is constantly seeking new worlds to conquer, or fresh deeds to dare.


{a} history.stackexchange.com{b} Adlai Stevenson{c} Many thanks to Ian Bruce for some corrections to this page{d} {5}


{1} Showing how the routes were influenced by the prevailing winds, and the high-pressure centres that caused them.{2} Actually Da Gama’s route is not certainly known. Only the vaguest accounts are given by the chronicles and eyewitness accounts. It is true that da Gama advised Cabral to steer westward but there is no evidence to indicate this is what he did himself. Our supposition is that he followed his own advice.{3} He did deviate at one point. When he could make no further progress against storms he struck out deep into the South Atlantic, effectively undertaking a volta do mar manoeuvre, except his was anti-clockwise because this was in the southern hemisphere. He arrived at Mossel Bay without seeing the Cape of Good Hope, which was only seen during his home voyage. But he was south of St Helena at this point.{4} Which we now call Australia.{5} @@RepDis@@