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The Early Years

Before colonisation

The future will be better tomorrow.{a}

St Helena was discovered 157 years before the English colonised it. What happened in that time?

First-known map of St Helena, 1506
First-known map of St Helena, 1506

St Helena was discovered in May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova, sailing in the service of the King of Portugal{1}. Much of the early history of St Helena is obscure. Many Portuguese records will have been lost in the great earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755, and other documents provide only a fragmentary view. What follows is an attempt to stitch together a chronological history of these early years. If you can help us fill in the gaps please contact us.

Nationalists should note that we use the term ‘English’ throughout because Great Britain had not been created at the time of the events described on this page.

See also our pages Before Discovery, A Brief History and The St Helena Secret.

A Portuguese Island, 1502-1633

Emblem of Portugal from 1495

The Portuguese found the island to have an abundance of trees and fresh water. It was immediately apparent to them that a stopping-off point in the middle of the long run from the Cape to The Canaries/Madeira would be an invaluable re-provisioning point, and they tried to keep the existence of St Helena a secret, but as we explain on our page The St Helena Secret they certainly didn’t do a very good job!

With no regard for the endemic flora and fauna they deposited livestock (pigs, dogs, goats, cats), fruit trees, and vegetables for the use of passing ships, an act that would today be considered environmental vandalism. The destruction of the island’s rare endemic species had begun.

Initially they did not build any defences, because they did not need to. The only other seafaring power then accessing the South Atlantic was Spain, which was inter-operating with Portugal under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and this decreed that St Helena must be a Portuguese territory because of its location{2}. All they built in the early years was a Chapel and one or two houses, as reported by Cavendish in 1588 (the first Englishman to land on St Helena).

Not only was it a convenient supply point, but they also took to leaving sailors suffering from Scurvy and other ailments on the island, to fend for themselves and be taken home if they recovered by a subsequent ship. These transients were the island’s first inhabitants.

They also used the island as a rendezvous point for homebound voyages from Asia. The Cape was undeveloped at the time and a fleet could easily become separated while rounding the Cape. A fleet was better protected if it remained together, so an early re-grouping point was an advantage.

Fernão Lopez
Fernão Lopez

Somewhere between 1513 and 1516, one Fernão Lopez chose to be abandoned here, thus becoming the first exile on St Helena and also the first permanent inhabitant, remaining here almost continuously until his death in 1545. His story is told on our page Exiles.

It is said that, after Lopez, a Franciscan friar occupied the island alone for the space of fourteen years, until his death or possibly his removal by the Portuguese. No details seem to be available, either of his name or of the actual dates of his occupation, though his presence may be related to the building of the Chapel that gave what is now James Valley its original name: Chapel Valley. The original Chapel was wooden but a stone building is thought to have been erected in 1571 (according to Cavendish).

It is also reported that, sometime before 1557, two enslaved persons from Mozambique and one from Java, plus two enslaved women (or unrecorded origin), escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island for many years{3}. It is not known how long they were here but when discovered in 1557 their numbers to risen to twenty (we assume they were recaptured and they and their children returned to slavery).

In these early years the island had visitors from other nations. The Records report visitors from France in Sacre and Pensee (1530), the Urdaneta, of unknown nationality (1536) and Spaniard Diogo Pereira Botelho aboard Good Hope (1537 and again in 1551). If the island had ever been a secret it certainly was no longer.

Robin Castell claimed that Sir Francis Drake located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580), and thus the island became known to the English, but we can find no evidence to support this claim. The first Englishman to document the existence of St Helena was William Barret in 1584, describing the island as fruitful of all things which a man can imagine, with great storez of fruite, but it is not thought that he actually visited, getting his information from contemporary Portuguese navigators.

On 25th September 1582 Englishman Edward Fenton set out a plan to occupy St Helena and live by piracy, waylaying returning Dutch East Indiamen, saying he would possesse the same, and theire to be proclaimed kyng. Perhaps fortunately, Fenton was a dreamer and he never attempted to enact his plan.

And so it was that on 8th June 1588 Thomas Cavendish became the first Englishman to actually land on St Helena, during the return leg of his first attempt to circumnavigate the world (1586-1588). Arriving aboard The Desire but no longer accompanied by The Content and The Hugh Gallant (both apparently lost during the voyage) he stayed for 12 days and described the valley where Jamestown is now situated (then called Chapel Valley) as:

A marvellous fair and pleasant valley, wherein divers handsome buildings and houses were set up, and especially one which was a church, which was tiled, and whitened on the outside very fair, and made with a porch, and within the church at the upper end was set an alter. This valley is the fairest and largest low plot in all the island, and it is marvellous sweet and pleasant, and planted in every place with fruit trees or with herbs. There are on this island thousands of goats, which the Spaniards call cabritos, which are very wild: you shall sometimes see one or two hundred of them together, and sometimes you may behold them going in a flock almost a mile long.{4}

Linschoten print
Linschoten print

In May 1589 Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten visited, staying nine days. Later he wrote what became the definitive (but inaccurate) history of the discovery of St Helena, getting the discovery date wrong!

Once St Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese ships calling here. As a result, in 1592 the Portuguese ordered the annual fleet returning from Goa on no account to touch at St Helena. Clearly the English had also by this time adopted the Portuguese practice of depositing sick sailors here, because on 3rd April 1593 Captain Sir James Lancaster made his first visit and discovered abandoned sailor John Segar on St Helena. Sadly, Segar was so overcome by having company again he died of shock.

Competition for the island had clearly begun because on 25th May 1597 three English ships (The Beare, The Beare’s Whelp and The Benjamin) called briefly, commanded by Benjamin Wood, but were deterred from landing by finding four Portuguese ships at anchor in the bay.

In developing their Far East trade, the Dutch also began to frequent the island. One of their first visits was in 1598 when an expedition of two vessels attacked a large Spanish Caravel{5}, only to be beaten off and forced to retreat to Ascension Island for repairs. The Portuguese soon gave up regularly calling at the island because of the attacks on their shipping, but also because of desecration to their chapel and images, destruction of their livestock and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors. As will be seen below, however, they did not finally abandon St Helena at this time and at some point the Portuguese must have installed defences for the island against the foreign powers now operating in the South Atlantic, but we do not know when or exactly what.

Portuguese map from 1601
Portuguese map from 1601{6}

On 16th June 1603 Sir James Lancaster visited St Helena on his return from his first voyage equipped by The East India Company. The destruction of the island’ environment by the introduced goats had clearly not advanced greatly by 1606 because on 2nd February that year The East India Company fleet arrived under Henry Middleton{7}, who described Chapel Valley as having many trees{8}. Later that year The Tigre under Sir Edward Michelbourne called and picked up supplies, reporting the island as uninhabited (clearly no defences yet). He mentions the Chapel and also reports the valley is full of trees.

The following is a descriptive account of the island by the Dutch officer Admiral Wittert, who visited arriving on 15th May 1608:

The fleet being 26° 40s, had orders to bear for the island of St Helena. One finds there good oranges, pomegranates and lemons, enough to serve for the refreshment of the crew of five or six vessels. We saw also a quantity of parsley, purslain, senery, sorrel and camomile herbs, which eaten in soups or in salads are very good against the Scurvy{9}.

By 1610 most English and Dutch ships visited the island on their home voyage to collect food and water{10} but possession of the island was still openly in dispute. In June that year Francois Pryard made his second visit to the island (his first had been in 1601), finding the Portuguese Chapel desecrated. The damage was seen as an act of revenge by the Dutch who claimed the Portuguese had taken letters left in Chapel Valley by Dutch ships for their compatriots to collect. Evidence shows that letters left by the Portuguese were also taken - probably by the Dutch. Stealing letters was clearly a proxy for military conflict.

Dutch warship the Witte Leeuw arrived with three other Dutch ships in June 1613, and found two Portuguese carracks in the bay. The result was a fire-fight which was described as brief but spectacular - the Witte Leeuw blew up when its powder magazine exploded. Another Dutch ship was sunk and the two others fled. More about the Witte Leeuw on our page Lost Ships.

By 1617 the island seems to have acquired an inhabitant. The Records report:

We assume Cory to have been English speaking but sadly we know no more about him or his family.

Conflict for the island continued whenever two nations’ ships met at St Helena. The Records report that sometime in 1620 a battle occurred between three Dutch and two English ships, in which the latter were captured and many English slain. Despite this the English ship James under captain John Hatch reported in June 1621 that it had collected 4,000 lemons from the island.

At around this time it seems the Portuguese finally decided to defend their possession. We know this from an account of a battle fought in 1625 between the English, Dutch and Portuguese for possession of the island, which refers to the English and Dutch ships firing on the Portuguese defences and the latter returning fire. The Portuguese won this battle, but the Dutch and English retained their interest in the island.

The Portuguese Chapel was clearly still in existence in 1628 because in June of that year John Darby, Master’s Mate aboard The Discovery, died while his ship was at St Helena, and was buried in it. Another burial there is recorded for 10th October 1629 - Captain Evans of The Hopewell, but on the same visit it is reported that the Chapel is by the Dutch of late pulled down. The only sensible explanation is that the Chapel was destroyed sometime in late 1628/early 1629 and the burial of Captain Evans took place in the Chapel grounds, near the ruins.

A Dutch Island, 1633-1659

Emblem of The United Provinces of The Netherlands

The Dutch Republic formally made claim to St Helena on 15th April 1633. Dutch Commander Jaques Specx arrived with a fleet and filed the following on behalf of the United Provinces of The Netherlands{11} :

On the 15th day of April 1633 the noble sire Jaques Specx, late Governor General of the State of the United Provinces of The Netherlands in India, together with the Council-in-pleno of the Dutch fleet which has just arrived here, consisting of the ships Prinz Willem, Princesse Emelia, Hollandia, Zutphen, Rotterdam and Nieuw Hoorn, have accepted the possession and proprietorship of the island, named of yore St Helena, with all its grounds, hills, cliffs, and rocks belonging to it, for the State of the United Provinces, in order to benefit and advantage of the said Netherland State, as soon as the circumstances shall allow, to fortify, occupy, populate and defend it against the invasion of enemies, in the way as their Highnesses the High and Mighty States General of the said United Provinces shall deem advisable{12}.

As is shown clearly by the solemn deed, made out in due form, of the aforesaid possession and proprietorship.

To certify this and confirming the truth, that nobody may pretend ignorance thereof has been erected this pillar, as well as this notification, duly sealed and signed and nailed thereonto in the above mentioned year and on the date mentioned.

Lieve Douwis
Cornelius Theunissen Drent
on command of the said Hon.
General and Council-in-pleno
J Van Vossele as secretary

The original document can be inspected in the Rijkarchives, Den Haag, The Netherlands, and clearly shows perforations made by nails, suggesting (as it mentions) that it was nailed to a post on the island, probably within the grounds of the Chapel. The Dutch were not parties to the Treaty of Tordesillas so would not have recognised the allocation of the island to Portugal. The Records show that three English ships, Star, Jewel and Hopwell accompanied the Dutch fleet into St Helena, so it can be inferred that the English were content for the island to be held by the Dutch (with whom they were then allies).

Despite this detailed claim document, there is no evidence that the Dutch ever actually occupied, colonised or fortified St Helena, thus rendering their claim invalid (according to the international laws of that time). By 1651, the Dutch had all but abandoned ideas of occupying the island, giving preference instead to their colony at the Cape of Good Hope. English ships continued to call at the island but the Records do not note any inhabitants.

Interestingly, in February 1652 Dutch captain Jan Riebeck, travelling up from the Cape, writes about his ship being equipped with numerous guns for the fear of Prince Rupert. It is said Rupert used St Helena as a base for piracy against passing ships, preferring the less populated valley to the east of James (then Chapel) Bay - and hence this is now known as Ruperts Valley{13}.

An English Island, 1659-

Flag of England

Church Valley in 1658 by Johan Nieuhof
Church Valley in 1658 by Johan Nieuhof

It is said that as early as 1644 Richard Boothby, a stockholder of The East India Company, floated the idea of a colony on St Helena, having himself passed a Merry Christmas on the island, recommending it as pleasant, healthfull, frutifull, and commodious, perfect for trading with all Nations and naturally invincible and impregnable{16}.

In 1649 The East India Company ordered all homeward-bound vessels to wait for one another at St Helena, and from 1656, because of many attacks on its ships the Company petitioned the government to send a man-of-war each year to convoy the fleet home from there.

In October 1657 Patents were granted to The East India Company by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell, including rights to govern St Helena, and in December 1658 the Company decided to fortify and colonise St Helena with Planters.

The rest, as they say…


{a} James Danforth “Dan” Quayle


{1} Exactly when in May is disputed (and some say it wasn’t even in May). For more see our page Discovery of St Helena.{2} Portugal and Spain were the only two European seafaring nations at the time, and the treaty divided all new discoveries in the world between them. Anything discovered east of longitude 42° 30’ W would belong to Portugal and anything west of the line would belong to Spain. At 5° 43’ W, St Helena was some 4,000Km east of this line, so unequivocably a Portuguese possession. The treaty was actually instigated by Pope Alexander VI to prevent ‘Christian nations’ arguing over who owned what.{3} Many enslaved later escaped from St Helena but these five were the only enslaved to escape to St Helena.{4} For his complete description see our page Famous Visitors.{5} Spain was then in alliance with Portugal.{6} Clearly based on the Linschoten print of 1596.{7} Comprising The Dragon, The Ascension and The Hector.{8} Today it has quite a few trees, but they were all planted in the 18th Century or later and none are endemic.{9} He also reports finding letters pinned to the fence surrounding Chapel.{10} Why only on the home (northbound) voyage? Well, it’s because of the strong Trade Winds in the South-east Atlantic, as explained fully on our page Before Discovery.{11} Alert readers will, of course, realise that the original document would have been written in Dutch, and this is a translation…{12} 136 words as a single sentence. Don’t you just love legal documents?{13} Though an alternative explanation for the valley’s name exists - see our page Ruperts.{14} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{15} @@RepDis@@{16} We say It is said that because, like so many ‘facts’ of St Helena history, this is disputed. If you want to know more you can read a more detailed article about him by Ian Bruce, originally published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{14} #47, October 2018{15}.


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