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The ones that got away

There must be some kind of way out of here{a}

Nowadays people want to get here, but that wasn’t always the case


In the early years St Helena was not a popular place to be sent, and quite a lot of people decided they wanted to find their own way home, or to somewhere - in some cases, anywhere - else.

Not all escape attempts will have made it into the Records, so if anything, the statistics given here under-count the numbers attempting to flee.

The first (recorded) escapee

The first person recorded as fleeing St Helena was one Gabriel Powell, grandfather of George Gabriel Powell, who was imprisoned for participation in the ‘rebellion’ of 1684 and sentenced to be hanged. He escaped from prison on or around 1st August 1689 and did happily make his escape to Europe. How he escaped from the prison is not recorded, but how he left the island is known - he either stowed away on, or bribed his way onto the ship Rochester. It must be remembered that, once a 17th Century sailing ship had left St Helena, the Trade Winds made it almost impossible for it to turn back.

Powell’s escape cannot be said to have started a trend, but it may have inspired another band of troublemakers - the Jackson mutineers of 1693.

The Jackson mutineers of 1693

The full story of the mutiny is told on our page Unrest and Rebellion. In summary a soldier, Lieutenant Jackson, and around 50 similarly dissatisfied comrades shot and killed Governor Joshua Johnston and forcibly boarded the ship Francis & Mary which happened to be anchored in the bay. Forcing the crew to set sail they left St Helena. It is variously suggested that they set off for either Virginia in America or Ireland. The Records do not say what happened to the ship, its crew or the mutineers but unless an accident befell them (not uncommon at the time) it can be assumed they settled somewhere and ‘lived happily ever after’.

Nothing else is recorded in the Records about escapees until 1715. Then began nearly 100 years of continual escape attempts, many doomed to failure and the almost certain death of the escapees.

The Century of Escapes

Boats illustrated
Boats illustrated
Escapees, 1715-1815
Escapees, 1715-1815

According to the Records, in the period from 1715 until a century later a total of 114 people fled St Helena. Of these, only 22 departed onboard ships, presumably either by smuggling themselves onboard or by bribing the Captain. The rest left in small boats of various types: yawls, cutters, longboats and jolly boats (illustrated, right). Only 16 of them are known to have survived - mostly the ones fleeing by ship, though as the 114 were mostly military deserters or enslaved that had run away it is probable that others did land safely somewhere and then simply ‘vanished off the grid’.

Many of the enslaved, faced with unremitting cruelty and no hope of improvement, decided to take their chances with the sea: ⋅  ⋅  ⋅  ⋅ 

Those that got away almost certainly died at sea.

A regulation announced on 28th May 1761 whereby sentinels on the shore and guard boats in the bay would allow neither soldier or Black to pass had no more effect on escapes generally than Governor Joshua Johnston’s 1693 edict that ships could not leave the port at night aimed at preventing escape attempts by members of the garrison, though it may have been a reason why escapes of the enslaved stopped at this time (see graph, right).

For the runaway enslaved the preferred method of escape was to steal a small boat, presumably because anyone looking like they were enslaved trying to board a ship unaccompanied by a master would have been immediately noticed. 58 enslaved fled in the period, only three with the ingenuity to achieve this by ship. Of these only the three escaping by ship are known to have survived, the remaining 55 suffering an unrecorded fate. All left in small boats (Yawls, Longboats and Jolly Boats) and as most had no seafaring skills and left with few if any provisions they can be assumed to have died on their voyage. It is an indictment of the inhuman conditions in which the enslaved were kept in 17th Century St Helena that so many preferred almost-certain death to continued servitude.

More deserting military left by ship (33%). In the style of the Jackson mutineers, a band in 1806 seized the brig Jolly Tar from anchor in James Bay and sailed away, reportedly to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The remaining ⅔ stole small boats and mostly did not survive, for similar reasons to the escaping enslaved. The only small-boat deserters that definitely made it to a destination were Wm. Bates, a coxswain, Flurcus a tailor, and two other soldiers, Shoales and Poulter. They set off on 15th November 1715 and landed safely in Antigua in the West Indies after a journey of about 8,000Km in The East India Company’s Longboat - a remarkable achievement, no doubt assisted by Bates’ nautical experience. On 28th July 1770 a Sergeant and six enlisted men repeated the feat, making it eventually to England. One of these deserters actually returned to the island in 1778 (to an unrecorded fate).

A few escapes have more amusing tales. William Huff, member of the Garrison and a Fiddler, fled on 15th July 1718 on board a ship, and the main reaction recorded in the Records was not anger at the crime of desertion but sadness at the loss of his music. Two years earlier on 28th August 1716 a Mrs Snow decided that she no longer wished to live with Mr Snow and fled on the ship Queen, apparently in the ‘close company’ of the ship’s Captain. Her departure caused Governor Isaac Pyke to remark that the island would have been much improved if four other (named) women had also gone with her.

And then suddenly, at the beginning of the 19th Century, it stopped, the last escape being the 1806 seizure of the brig Jolly Tar. Why did it stop? We can only speculate. Maybe the gradual improvement in the conditions of the enslaved, leading to their eventual emancipation in 1834, tipped the balance in favour of remaining. Maybe the improving conditions for the soldiers had the same effect. Maybe the arrival of so many troops to guard Napoleon and the associated security measures made escape much harder. Maybe word got around that St Helena was a very long way from anywhere else and that setting out on the unforgiving ocean in a small boat was approximately suicide. Maybe it was a combination of these factors. We cannot be sure.

Many plots; Zero escapes

Napoleon figurine

St Helena’s most famous prisoner arrived on 15th October 1815: Napoleon. During the six years he was here many plots were conceived to rescue him, including a rather daring one involving a primitive submarine, but none actually got off the drawing board. Maybe Napoleon did not fancy the idea of his being winched down a 300m cliff in a Boatswain’s Chair, as one plan envisaged; maybe the idea of an early 19th Century submarine was too much; maybe he decided he’d had enough or wars and politics and preferred to be left alone with his gardening. For whatever reason Napoleon did not, and as far as we know did not attempt to escape from St Helena.

Most of our Exiles were similarly accommodating, but not all…

Andries Smorenburg’s crate

Despite the fact that the Boer PoWs were generally well cared for and accepted by the local people, there were still those among them who plotted to escape from the island. In February 1901 five of the prisoners tried to escape in a boat which they seized from fishermen at Sandy Bay. The fishermen took away the oars and after a struggle the prisoners got into the boat and tore up the bottom boards to make paddles. When they found that this did not work, they then tried to bribe the fishermen, offering them money for the oars. In the meantime one of the fishermen had gone on to report the event and eventually a guard arrived and the Boers were taken into custody.

Andries Smorenburg outside Jamestown Gaol
Andries Smorenburg outside Jamestown Gaol

Andries Smorenburg and his crate
Andries Smorenburg and his crate

Possibly the most enterprising escape attempt was that of Andries Smorenburg, who fashioned a crate marked ‘Boer Curios’{1}, in which he hid with clothing, matches, and food and water for 20 days and posted himself from St Helena on a passing ship. But although the crate was marked ‘With Care’ and ‘This Side Up’ it was tossed about and overturned on board and as a result Smorenburg suffered concussion and lost most of his water. In the meantime back on the island, Smorenburg’s absence had been discovered when he did not appear for roll call. The authorities on St Helena contacted Ascension Island and Smorenburg was recaptured there and returned to St Helena after only five days at sea.


You can listen to an islander recalling the escape (right) - but only if you can understand spoken ‘Saint’!

Smorenburg’s crate is apparently on display at the Museum Africa in Johannesburg.

More about the island’s Boer PoWs on our page Boer PoWs.

Captain Willem Merk and his yacht Frontier

On Christmas Eve 1990 Dutch Captain Willem Merk arrived at St Helena in his yacht MV Frontier, a deep-sea stern trawler, seeking help to repair a burst water pipe. On arrival, however, the vessel was discovered to contain Cannabis resin worth around £15,000,000 - then (and still today) treated as a ‘hard drug’ on St Helena.

Merk was arrested and sentenced to nine years imprisonment in July 1991. His three Dutch companions each got two years.

The MV Frontier was impounded by the Police and, according to a witness, torn apart in the operation searching for any more drugs and totally unnecessarily vandalised. Afterwards it was of little use as an operational vessel unless expensively re-fitted. And with Merk no longer on St Helena (see below), nobody seems to have had the will to make a legal purchase of the vessel and re-equip it for use, so it was scuttled just off Lemon Valley on 14th December 1994.

But the story does not end there! Merk was, it seems, not content to serve his sentence. On 4th April 1994 he escaped; and the details of his escape are actually the subject of some controversy.

In the official version he used soap to make copies of the prison keys, which the guards left lying around while they went to the toilet, and leaving an audiotape of himself snoring in his cell, Merk escaped to a wooden boat, Napoleon’s Revenge, which he’d paid an islander £100 to make for him. He sailed this boat all the way to Brazil, arriving in Recife 22 days later, subsisting only on cans of baked beans, condensed milk and bottled water.

On arrival in Brazil, Merk was taken to the Dutch Embassy in Brasilia where he explained his situation. He was able to take advantage of a Dutch law saying that if the sentence received abroad for a crime committed abroad is lengthier than the one he would have received for the same crime at home he could not be extradited. The Dutch relaxed attitude toward Cannabis made that the case so he was immediately declared a free man. Arriving back in The Netherlands on 5th May he sent a message of greetings to the people of St Helena which was published in the St Helena News.

It has been claimed by some{2} that the above story is not credible. They say Merk actually was ‘escaped’ by Government officials who did not want either to pay the costs of keeping him in Jail, or possibly face complaints from him about the sub-standard nature of HM Prison, Jamestown. Chief Secretary John Perrott was quoted in a contemporary UK newspaper as saying Keeping him in prison for a long time caused considerable inconvenience and expense so, in a sense, we won’t be crying over spilt milk if we don’t see him again. Interestingly, neither the UK Government nor the St Helena Governments actually applied for him to be extradited back to St Helena, perhaps adding weight to the ‘escaped’ theory.

Other ‘facts’ are also disputed. Did Merk really sail MV Frontier into James Bay to fix a burst water pipe, or was he intentionally here to land the drugs? Was their discovery an accident or were the police tipped off? Why was Mark allowed to withdraw £100 from the Government Savings Bank the day before his escape with nobody asking why he needed so much money in prison? Was his escape vessel actually christened Napoleon’s Revenge or Fujiar - standing for ‘F*** yoU Jack, I'm All Right’? Did the police really intercept Fujiar/Revenge in James Bay but decide not to board it and search for Mark and instead just let it go, and if so, why? Did he actually sail Fujiar/Revenge all the way to Brazil or was he picked up off St Helena by a pre-arranged yacht?

If there are answers to any or all of these questions they are almost certainly buried in paperwork all of which is covered by the Official Secrets Act, and nobody here seems to be motivated to dig for the truth.

Such was Merk’s fame that at a boating fun-day in Ruperts held on 1st December 2001 one raft-race entrant was the Next Frontier, entered by a team comprising ‘Captain Merk II’, a ‘Dutch’ crew and an ‘ever vigilant policeman’!

It has been said that the remains still exist of an escape tunnel leading from the Castle to The Wharf, whereby a Governor could make a discrete exit to a passing ship in times of trouble. Whether or not this still exists, and even if it ever did, we are not sure. (If it did Governor Smallman might have appreciated knowing of it in 1996 when he faced ‘the riot’!) Of course, since the start of the scheduled commercial air service a tunnel to The Wharf wouldn’t be of much use, and a tunnel to the Airport, around 9Km away, would be a remarkable feat of engineering!

HM Prison, Jamestown

The prison was built in 1827 and is still in use today, the building largely unaltered. If you want to see the inside, you first have to commit a crime…

The prison was declared unsuitable for further use in the 1850s and Governor Gore Brown built a replacement at Ruperts in 1853. This was a model prison designed by Colonel Jebb, constructed mainly of timber and sent out from England in kit form. Construction was completed towards the end of 1854 and the prisoners were re-located. But the Ruperts Prison was short lived - in 1867 a military prisoner who was confined there burnt it to the ground (which took only around an hour), and the prisoners had to be moved back to the old prison. This was reported in The ‘Blue Book’ for 1867 with the following comment:

With the present claims upon the Government I see but little hope of commencing a new jail for the next two or three years.

years later and the -year-old prison remains in use!

The second photo (below) shows Andries Smorenburg, one of the Boer PoWs, being led out for trial in 1901 after he attempted to escape from St Helena.

See also ‘Lowry’s Cell’.

In former times a family had their home in the upstairs of HM Prison, Jamestown, from where they ran a video-rental business. You had to be let into the Prison to borrow or return a video.

The prison does not conform to modern standards, as reported by the UK Inspector of Prisons in the 1990s. It was decided to relocate prisoners to a new purpose-built prison, but it took from then until 2018 to agree a suitable site. On 29th May 2018 Executive Council announced that the new prison will be built in Bottom Woods, near the Meteorological Station. No completion date was announced and neither was the budget, though the latter was rumoured to be c.£6m. Planning Permission was not granted until March 2020. In 2024 tenders were requested for the construction, but in April it was announced that no qualifying bids had been received. At the time of writing this remains the position.

During his 2018 visit the Prison Advisor for the British Overseas Territories, Keith Munns, said that HM Prison in Jamestown has the worst structure of any of the prisons in the Territories he has visited. In December 2018 the island’s Equality & Human Rights Commission released a report ‘Conditions of Detention at HMP Jamestown’ which concluded that a large number of improvements needed to be made to the existing prison to bring it up to minimum Human Rights standards. The prison was re-furbished in 2019 following this report.

However, the evidence is that, whatever crimes you commit on St Helena, unless you are a Saint you almost certainly won’t end up incarcerated in our Prison. Non-Saints are almost never given custodial sentences for their crimes; mostly they are just bundled off the island to resume their lives elsewhere. The reasons for this probably relate to the fact that our prison still (despite the 2019 upgrade) does not conform to international human rights standards, and the authorites fear that anyone with international connections sent to our Prison will simply sue for breach of their human rights and win release - and compensation.

More recent escapes

See also the article The curious case of Prisoner P’s ‘Walkabout’ (below).

Sanctioned departures

Since the end of the 19th Century Saints did not need to escape from St Helena. Many went with the support and even assistance of the Government of St Helena.

The island was reduced to poverty in the latter half of the 19th Century, mostly by the dramatic fall in ship calls{3} and the reduction of the Garrison by 60% in 1870. A ‘Mutual Emigration Society’ was established in 1872 and the following year the first mass emigrations began: 258 to Cape Town in August and 442 to Natal in November. 75 more left in March 1891, 50 in April 1893, 22 in July of the same year and a further 106 two months later. More left in the 20th Century and thus started the considerable settlement of Saints in South Africa which remains to this day. Allowing for descendants it is sometimes said there are more Saints in South Africa than on St Helena, mostly living in or around Cape Town.

In the 20th Century Saints left for various destinations. America built Wideawake airport on Ascension Island in 1942, employing many Saints, thus establishing the St Helenian community there and with the side effect of introducing Country Music to St Helena. More men left to work on Ascension Island in 1983: 60 in March and 154 in April. In 2016 there were over 500 Saints on Ascension Island{11}.

100 Men DVD Cover
100 Men DVD Cover

SS Umtali

In 1949 the SS Umtali left St Helena with 136 passengers bound for the port of Dover in England. The passengers included 100 men, economic migrants who were contracted to work as agricultural labourers in Britain. The story of the ‘100 Men’ and their experience of rural England is told in a 2008 DVD film. Many Saints followed and there is now a considerable community there, many living in ‘Swindhelena’.

The first islanders to work on the Falkland Islands, 28 in number, set out in April 1986, thus establishing the Saint community there. Many more followed and there are now more than 200 Saints living and working there{5}.

Smaller numbers have moved to other places such that there is probably no settled continent on the planet without at least one Saint.

In April 2019 The Sentinel reported (quoting the St Helena Statistics Office) that 749 people left St Helena in 2018, the largest number for many years. The total over five years was 3,424.

Read More

Below: Newspaper CuttingsCurious case of Prisoner P’s ‘Walkabout’{6}

Newspaper Cuttings

If you are researching into past émigrés from St Helena, you might find useful some newspaper cuttings listing names{e} (and some more{e}). Please Note Some of these are relatively poor copies, but should be just-about readable.

The curious case of Prisoner P’s ‘Walkabout’{6}

Two items published in the St Helena Herald 17th & 24th September 2004{7}

Escaped prisoner still missing

St Helena Herald 17th September 2004

Prisoner P, a Category D{8} prisoner sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for the importation of drugs, went missing last weekend. He remains at large.

Last December, Prisoner P was given 6 years in prison for importing Ecstasy and Cannabis nearly a year ago. It’s hardly a sentence of hard labour for any of the prisoners in Gaol{9} on St Helena, but as a category D prisoner, Prisoner P was considered to be such a low risk that he was allowed to carry out regular tasks outside of the prison without supervision. Prisoner P had been doing so for some time now, but last weekend, he failed to return from his duties of watering the grounds of St. James’ church. He has now been missing for nearly a week, despite the efforts of the Police, the Sea Rescue service and the Fire Department to locate him.

While there can’t be many explanations for his disappearance, Police are keeping an open mind, appealing to the public for information through posters and television spots. They have performed some searches of likely places already, including Jamestown and surrounding hillsides, and the Sea Rescue service has examined the coastline from the Flag to Breakneck. They will be deciding shortly what further action should be taken and whether additional agencies might be called in to help.

As a result of his absconding, Prisoner P may well find conditions less comfortable than before, once he has been recaptured. The Prison service will consider all extenuating circumstances, of course, and depending on their deliberations, Prisoner P may find his classification as category D temporarily changed and any early release entitlement affected. In addition, escaping from prison will be regarded by the Police as a separate offence for which he might face additional charges, depending on the circumstances of his escape, as will anyone found to have harboured him.

Prisoner recaptured

St Helena Herald 24th September 2004

The search for escaped prisoner, Prisoner P, has finally ended as police apprehended him on Tuesday morning.

The Police Department would like to express their sincere appreciation to the public for their cooperation and support during the time Prisoner P was at large, says Chief of Police. Prisoner P, a category D prisoner sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for the importation of drugs, went missing from the prison premises on the 11th of September. Police, various organisations, and members of the General Public carried out extensive searches hoping to recapture Prisoner P. All attempts proved unsuccessful. Even with the help of publicity from the media, flyers, and Cable & Wireless’s television service, he still remained at large. The whereabouts of Prisoner P remained a total mystery. What could have happened to him? Where could he go on an island as small as this? Assumptions, from the rumourmongers, were growing rapidly, a frequent one being that the prisoner was suffering from chronic depression. Another suggested that he was on board a yacht that left the harbour soon after his disappearance. Ah no lovey, he didn’t escape, he was just left unsupervised was a common comment.

Nevertheless, he was a convicted prisoner, and even though he was categorised as a class D prisoner, which allowed him to perform regular tasks outside of the prison, he still escaped from police custody. However, on Tuesday morning police, acting on information received from a member of the public in Jamestown, that the prisoner had been sighted in the Brewery Yard area, searched the area, and Prisoner P was captured that same morning. He had been missing for over ten days.


{a} Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower{10}{b} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{c} Museum of St Helena{d} St Helena Statistics Office{e} Ian Bruce


{1} The full inscription was This side up. Captain Marling, Gloucester Regiment. Boer Curios. Captain Marling was with the 4th Gloucester Regiment who were guarding the PoWs so the crate would have been loaded without attracting suspicion. We do not know whether Captain Marling actually existed. If he did we presume he was completely unaware of the attempt.{2} For example, Alan Bannister writing in the St Helena News Review, September 1994{c}.{3} Not, however, caused by the opening of the Suez Canal, as often claimed, but by the move to steamships - see our page Myths Debunked!.{4} This has largely been replaced by the 2021 Census, but as the latter did not report all the same data we still use the 2016 Census for some statistics.{5} Source: 2008 Census - latest data available; later census reports do not include Saints on the Falkland Islands.{6} Yes, we’ve disguised his name. His identity is not material to the story.{7} @@RepDis@@{8} The least serious category, with the most privileges.{9} Sweet that the Herald still used this in 2004.{10} Though the version actually quoted here is the one by Jimi Hendrix.{11} Source: 2016 Census{d}{4}.