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Discovery of St Helena

It’s not that simple

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.{b}

‘Everybody knows’ St Helena was discovered on 21st May 1502…but actually it wasn’t

Much of the information provided here is sourced from an article by Ian Bruce, to whom we are indebted for help in preparing this page. Information also comes from ‘Ships at St Helena, 1502-1613’{16} and from our own original research.

You’d think it would all be fairly simple: someone spots a place that doesn’t seem to be on any charts; lands and discovers nobody living there; marks where it is and when they found it; and as soon as they get home, tells everybody about it. Sadly, as with so much related to St Helena, it didn’t turn out to be that easy…

The official version

Probable appearance of da Nova’s ships
Probable appearance of João da Nova’s ships{3}

João da Nova
João da Nova

Most written accounts state that the Island of St Helena was discovered on 21st May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova{4} (sometimes, incorrectly, named ‘João da Nova Castella’), sailing in the service of the King of Portugal. Anchoring in what is now James Bay, it is said that he named it ‘Santa Helena’ after St Helena of Constantinople, whose Saint’s Day falls on 21st May. Here are some examples - recent and not so recent:

1837: St. Helena was discovered by the Portuguese navigator, Juan De Nova Castella, on the 21st May, 1502, and named by him, in honour of the day of its discovery, after Saint Helena.{c}
1928: The island was discovered on 21st May, 1502, St. Helena’s day, by Juan de Nova Castella, Commodore of a Portuguese squadron returning from India.{d}
2015: Situated in the middle of the South Atlantic, this rugged and remote island was first discovered on the 21st May 1502 by a Portuguese ship commanded by the Spanish pilot and navigator Juan de Nova Castella.{e}

There are, however, a number of problems with this account.

First, and foremost, is the fact that João da Nova was almost certainly a Roman Catholic and Roman Catholics don’t celebrate the feast day of Helena of Constantinople on 21st May; they celebrate it on 18th August. So if he discovered our island on 21st May, why would he name it after Saint Helena?

Read on as the mystery deepens!

To avoid confusion in the following, we have used ‘St Helena’ to refer to the island, and ‘Saint Helena’ to refer to the Saint.

João da Nova was fortunate, because God revealed to him a small island, which he named St Helena and where he took in water, although he had already done so twice since departing India, first at Melinde, then at Mozambique. God appears to have created this island in that very location in order to nourish all those who come from India, as everyone endeavours to call there since its discovery, for it offers the best water on the whole journey or at least that which is necessary and which one requires on the return voyage from India.{f}

The feast day of Saint Helena

Saint Helena

Saint Helena or Saint Helen Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, c.250 - c.330CE, was the wife of the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus and the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great.

According to (Christian) tradition she made a pilgrimage to Syria Palestina, during which she discovered the True Cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. As a result she is revered as a saint by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the Lutheran churches.

But these churches do not celebrate her Saint’s Day on the same day:

This gives us the problem stated above with the official account of when our island was discovered. João da Nova would almost certainly have been a Roman Catholic, so if he discovered our island on 21st May, it is not immediately obvious why he would have named it St Helena. Yes, she is the Patron Saint of new discoveries, but in that case just about everywhere would have been named St Helena.

So where did the date of 21st May come from?

It can be said with reasonable certainty that no contemporary records exist giving the date of da Nova’s discovery of St Helena{5}. We do know that he definitely discovered it - Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government, records the fact. However, tantalisingly, Falcão fails to record the date. He does, however, record that all four ships of da Nova’s fleet returned to Lisbon on 11th September 1502{6}. This return date is material, as can be seen below. Incidentally Falcão’s account is probably based on an earlier one by João de Barros in 1552.

Jan Huygen van Linschoten
Jan Huygen van Linschoten

One of the best-known early records of our island’s discovery that gives it a date was written by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, a Dutch traveller who visited St Helena in 1589. Recording his visit in 1596 in ‘Itinerario’{7} he wrote:

The island of Saint Helena is so named because the Portingales{8} discovered it uppon Saint Helens day which is the twentie one of May.[᠁]The 21st May, being St Helens day, and Whitsunday, after we had taken in all our fresh water, and other necessaries, we set sayle altogether in companie, and directed our course to Portingall{9}, leaving about fifteen men in the island, and some slaves that ran out of the ships.

21st May 1589 was indeed Whitsunday, supporting the accuracy of his account.

It should be noted that Linschoten, although born a Catholic, had by then become a Protestant. All Protestant groups extant at that time celebrated the feast of St Helena on 21st May. Could it be that, not knowing the actual date but hearing St Helena was named after Saint Helena because of its date of discovery, Linschoten simply inferred that the discovery date was 21st May; St Helena’s day in his religion? If so, this is an understandable simple error, and nothing more. Linschoten should, perhaps, have realised that da Nova was a Roman Catholic, and hence would have celebrated the Feast of Saint Helena on a different day{10}.

Or did he simply confuse the discovery of St Helena with that of Ascension Island, known to have been discovered on 21st May 1503?

In the absence of any other record of the exact date of our island’s discovery, this date seems to have been accepted by all subsequent historians.

An error does not become truth just because a lot of people believe it.{g}

But if this date is wrong, what is the correct date? Various theories exist.

Maybe da Nova didn’t discover St Helena?

Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha{h}

One theory has it that the island found by da Nova was actually Tristan da Cunha and that St Helena was discovered by some of the ships attached to the squadron of Estêvão da Gama’s expedition on 30th July 1503.

However Falcão’s account, independently supported by other contemporary historians João de Barros, Gaspar Correa, Jerónimo Osório de Fonseça, Damião de Góis and Damião Peres, confirms da Nova as our discoverer and hence we reject this theory. According to Falcão, Estêvão da Gama did visit St Helena on 30th July 1503, but the island was already known at this time.

Another theory, advanced by A.R. Disney in his book ‘The Portuguese in India and Other Studies, 1500-1700’{i} goes as follows:

The third Saint Helena discovery story, which is quite different from the other two, occurs in the Lendas da India of Gaspar Correia{j}. According to this account Saint Helena was found by D. Garcia de Noronha, a nephew of Afonso de Albuquerque, on a voyage to India in late 1511 or possibly early 1512. D. Garcia, Correia informs us, sighted ‘huma ilha muyto pequena’ (a very small island) at 16 degrees south, but was unable to land on it owing to unfavourable winds. The pilots, however, entered the island onto their charts, and gave it the name Saint Helena, because they saw it on her day{11}.

Disney goes on to discount this theory, stating that it was not a discovery - it was a re-discovery, and we agree with him.

In 2022 Ian Bruce did extensive research into who really discovered St Helena and concluded it was more likely that João da Nova discovered St Helena in 1502. You can read his research to see if you agree (Please Note The article, printed in abbreviated form in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{1} Number 51, Autumn 2022, also contains a lot of other discovery-related information).

Maybe it was 18th August after all?

18th August 1502, the (Catholic) Saint’s Day for Saint Helena in that year, would seem at first to be an obvious solution. But there is a problem with this date too.

Falcão’s account shows that da Nova returned to Lisbon on 11th September 1502, and if he was discovering St Helena on 18th August, he couldn’t possibly have been back in Lisbon by 11th September. Ships in the 1500s did not travel around 8,000Km in under a month, so this date also seems improbable.

What about another date?

The date that seems, to us, to have the best support is 3rd May 1502. A Portuguese Slaver visited St Helena in 1578 and a book published in 1591 by in Italian, Filippo Pigafetta records that St Helena:

…is so called from having been first discovered by the Portuguese on the 3rd of May 1502, the Feast of St Helena.

Of course, 3rd May 1502 isn’t the Feast Day of St Helena in any extant religion, but it is the Feast of the True Cross, which Saint Helena herself is said to have discovered.

Is it just that da Nova discovered our island on 3rd May 1502, and named it St Helena because of this connection? Of course, he could have named it ‘True Cross Island’, but that name had already been applied in April 1500 to what we now know as the coastline of Brazil (Vera Cruz = True Cross), so he would have sought a new name. It’s perhaps as well he didn’t choose ‘Pope Alexander I Island’, whose day is also celebrated on 3rd May! Maybe ‘St Helena Island’ was just a more attractive name than ‘True Cross Island’!

And the answer is…

Currently, nobody really knows. The most that can be reliably said is that St Helena was discovered by João da Nova, probably sometime in May 1502. Choose whichever theory you prefer!

For the record, we believe the most probable date for St Helena’s discovery is 3rd May 1502, and that the date of 21st May 1502 is a myth{12}.

The official history still taught on St Helena and generally accepted on the island is that St Helena was discovered on 21st May 1502 by João da Nova Castella (Saints on Social Media have commented that they were told this in school so it must be correct!) As a result, we celebrate our National Day every year on 21st May and our Quincentenary was celebrated in 2002. Whatever historians may subsequently determine, it seems unlikely that the timing of our National Day will now change.

The fact that since 1945, when 21st May was designated as ‘St Helena’s Day’, Saints have been celebrating their National Day on the Protestant Saint’s day dedicated to Helena rather than the actual date of the island’s discovery is perhaps apt: nothing is ever what it seems on St Helena!{k}

Any place that celebrates its discovery on a date when it wasn’t discovered has got to be worth further investigation…{l}

Discovery Titbits


For more annual events see our page This Year.

Below: Events on 3rd MayEvents on 21st MayEvents on 18th August

Events on 3rd May

Events for your choice of dates on our page Chronology.

Events on 21st May

Events for your choice of dates on our page Chronology.

Events on 18th August

Events for your choice of dates on our page Chronology.

Read More

Below: Article: St Helena DayExtract from ‘History of the Portuguese during the Reign of Emmanuel’

Article: St Helena Day

By Ian Bruce, originally published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{1}, September 2015{2}

Download this article as a .pdf file.

Much of the material presented above is sourced from this article.

Extract from ‘History of the Portuguese during the Reign of Emmanuel’

Originally by Jerónimo Osório, Bishop of Sylves, published in 1571, this extract is from page 126 of the English translation, published in 1752 by James Gibbs.{2}

Sometime after he[da Nova] turned it[the Cape], he discovered a little island lying in 15 degrees south latitude, to which he gave the name of St Helena. This island standing by itself in the midst of such a vast ocean seems as if it were to have been placed there by Providence, for the reception and shelter of weather-beaten ships in their return from an Indian voyage. There are many delightful rivers in this place. It is covered with fine trees, and the air is temperate and healthy : and after it was inhabited and cultivated (which we shall take notice of afterwards) it abounded in all kind of cattle and the soil produced plenty of all sorts of fruits and refreshing herbs. It is now rendered the most useful spot for our people who trade to India. Here they always take in wood and water for their ships, where they may likewise have the diversions of fishing and hunting, and lay in a supply of provisions. Nova having departed from St Helena, set out for Portugal where, after a very favourable and easy voyage, he arrival on the 11th day of September 1502, to the great joy of Emmanuel and all his people.

You can read a longer report of his activities, extracted from Jerónimo Osório’s book.


{a} Erik Brown, Wirebird Blog{13}{15}, 18th August 2014{b} Marcel Proust{c} Robert Montgomery Martin in ‘History of the British Possessions in the Indian & Atlantic Oceans’, 1837, {2}{d} The ‘Blue Book’, 1929{2}{e} 1, 2 & 3 Main Street, 2015{2}{f} João de Barros, Portuguese chronicler, 1552{2}{g} Mohandas Gandhi{h} Hadoram Shirihai, via Social Media{i} Ashgate Publishing Company 1988/2009{j} Gaspar Correia, Lendas da India, Porto, 1975, vol. 2, pp. 196-7.{k} Governor David Smallman in his book ‘A View from the Castle’, 2018{2}{l} Social Media User{14}


{1} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{2} @@RepDis@@{3} Showing the Insignia of the ‘Knights of Christ’, a medieval Catholic militant Order of Chivalry of the Knights Templar which had been suppressed in Europe but was allowed to operate in the Kingdom of Portugal.{4} Born c.1460 in Maceda, Ourense, Galicia; Died 16th July 1509 in Kochi, India.{5} Contemporary sources that have been examined, without success, are listed in the Article.{6} Some sources say 13th September.{7} Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huygen Van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, inhoudende een corte beschryvinghe der selver landen ende zee-custen… waer by ghevoecht zijn niet alleen die conterfeytsels van de habyten, drachten ende wesen, so van de Portugesen aldaer residerende als van de ingeboornen Indianen. - English translation in 1598: John Huighen Van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into Ye Easte and West Indies: Divided Into Foure Bookes.{8} A contemporary name for the Portuguese.{9} Portugal.{10} It should be noted that Protestantism didn’t even exist in 1502.{11} It is not clear which of ‘her day’s they meant but we must presume they were referring to 18th August.{12} See other debunked myths.{13} See more blogs.{14} Posted on Social Media and used with the poster’s permission but they wish to remain anonymous.{15} Published by the Tourist Information Office{1}.{16} An article, by Beau W. Rowlands, printed in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{1} Number 28, Spring 2004{2}.