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The only time St Helena has been captured

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.{a}

The story of the only successful invasion of St Helena

Background to the invasion

In the late 16th century both the English and the Dutch became interested in St Helena, and by 1610 most English and Dutch ships (i.e. from The East India Company & the Dutch East India Company (VoC)) visited the island on their home voyage. The Dutch Republic, through the Dutch East India Company (VoC), formally made claim to St Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it. But by 1651, the Dutch had all but abandoned the island, giving preference to the Dutch East India Company (VoC) colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

The East India Company retained their interest in the island and in 1657 were granted a charter to govern the island, deciding the following year to fortify and colonise St Helena.

By the 1670s, finding that the Cape of Good Hope was not the ideal harbour they originally envisaged, the Dutch East India Company (VoC) again took an interest in St Helena, possession of which would also give them complete control of the lucrative trade route through the eastern South Atlantic. When King Charles II declared war on The Netherlands in April 1672 the Dutch decided to act. In October 1672, knowing St Helena was settled and fortified by the English, the Dutch sent a new Commander to the Cape, Ijsbrand Goske. It is not clear whether he had explicit instructions to take the island by force or whether it was his own idea, but either way it could not possibly have been undertaken without the agreement of the Dutch Government. The Dutch Council at Table Bay (Cape Town) approved the plan on 30th November.

The invasion

Dutch attempted landing, 1672

Invasion and recapture

On 13th December 1672 four Dutch ships (Vryheyt, Zuydtpolsbroeck, Kattenburgh and Swaentje) and 634 men, led by Jacob de Gens, set off from the Cape, aiming to invade. They arrived off St Helena on the 29th, , and made several failed attempts to land troops in Chapel Valley. Later that day a landing party came ashore at Lemon Valley but was repelled by English Planters hurling rocks from above. Returning after dark, a light was seen near another landing place, Bennett Point, close to Swanley Valley, on the western side of the Island. A traitor named William Coxe, accompanied by his enslaved, had lit a fire and was waiting to guide the Dutch invasion force onto the island. Five hundred men came ashore and were led up the precipitous cliffs by Coxe and his enslaved, who was then murdered to keep the treacherous story secret.

The Dutch met no opposition on their cross-country trek eastwards (there were no roads in those days) until they reached an area just below High Peak where they overpowered a small detachment of English troops stationed at the fort{1}. The Dutch continued unchallenged to Ladder Hill where they now looked down on James Fort, knowing that if they took this fort, they took the Island.

A detachment of Dutch troops made repeated advances towards James Fort but were driven back each time. However the small group in the fort were trapped; the Dutch were above them and also attacking them from the sea. Governor Anthony Beale realised the Dutch had the strategic advantage, being in possession of Ladder Hill Fort, and that he could not defend his weak position indefinitely. The governor spiked his guns, spoiled the gun powder and retreated with his entourage and their possessions to the ship Humphrey & Elizabeth which was anchored in James Bay. They set sail for Brazil.

Dutch flag superimposed on St Helena outline

According to Dutch records they gained little in monetary terms from their new possession, the most valuable items being an English Slaver, 220 enslaved persons and 551 tusks of ivory. They repaired the fort and set a garrison of 100 men to defend the island.

The English are coming…back!

After reaching Brazil, Governor Beale hired a sloop and a crew, giving them orders to sail him back to St Helena so he could warn English ships approaching the Island. By May 1673 he was back in St Helena waters. Almost immediately he came upon Richard Munden’s English East India squadron. After being briefed by Beale, Munden immediately made plans to retake the Island (writing in his log that his crew had nothing better to do).


On 14th May 1673 one English ship sailed into James Bay, feigning an attack and distracting the Dutch; meanwhile the main force, with four hundred English troops, sailed into Prosperous Bay. With them was ‘Black Oliver{2}, a slave who had sailed with Beale’s party to Brazil and back again. Black Oliver was chosen to guide the troops to James Fort. Captain Richard Keigwin commanded the English troops, among whom was a sailor named Tom who was the first to climb a 300m cliff and drop ropes for the rest of the troops to follow. The plan was for Keigwin to attack from inland while Munden continued to distract the Dutch with an off-shore bombardment.

While Munden bombarded James Fort, sailor Tom led the troops up the cliff, intending to continue the assault the following morning when Keigwin’s force should be in position to attack. Keigwin reached his position above James Fort as planned but found it was already in English hands - the Dutch had surrendered after the first bombardment. At sunset on 15th May 1673, , the English re-took possession of James Fort. Three Dutch East Indiamen, richly laden, which were anchored in the bay, were also seized.

Down but not out

Dutch ship

Despite being ejected from the island, the Dutch did not immediately go away. On 1st May they had despatched Lieutenant Coenrad Breitenbach to St Helena on the ship Frans Europa to be its new Governor. He arrived on 31st May and was promptly captured by the English who were now, again, in control. From this the English learned that more Dutch ships were on their way from the Cape. Six Dutch ships arrived on 4th June, but the English were waiting for them and chased them off.

Places and people of note

The cliffs at ‘Holdfast Tom’
The cliffs at ‘Holdfast Tom’

Where Keigwin’s troops landed is now called Keigwin’s Point. Where sailor Tom reached the cliff top is called Holdfast Tom. ‘Black Oliver’{2}, the enslaved who guided the troops to James Fort, was afforded the status of Settler and granted land in Fisher’s Valley, but was later killed during the ‘Dennison Mutiny’ in 1684{6}. William Coxe, who had helped the Dutch take the Island, was among the same rebellious group. Richard Munden was knighted by the king on 6th December 1673 in consideration of his eminent service. When Munden left the island he appointed Keigwin governor.

A Constitutional issue

Although St Helena had been assigned to The East India Company by the 1657 Patents and 1661 Charter, the recapture in 1673 was effected by the Royal Navy, not by The East India Company. This led to some legal question as to whether the island was still in the possession of The East India Company or had reverted to the Crown.

To resolve this question, on 16th December 1673 the Company obtained a new Charter from King Charles II which granted the island to The East India Company with free title as though it was a part of England in the same manner as East Greenwich in the County of Kent.

The Dutch Territorial Stone

Dutch Territorial Stone

In the late 20th Century a Dutch Territorial Stone (undated) was discovered being used as a doorstep at Teutonic Hall(!) (photo, right). It was initially thought that this related either to the Dutch capture of St Helena (described above) or to their declared posession in 1633, but historians now believe that it relates to Cape Town, not St Helena, and was probably brought here as ‘spoils of war’, perhaps during one of the Boer Wars or possibly after the 1795 Battle of Muizenberg (British v Dutch).

A rough translation reads:

By order of the Honourable High Powers, The gentlemen Neederburg and Frykenius, Commissioner General of the Netherlands Indian and Cape of Good Hope, Possession named of this Land and Islands from names [names listed]

It is presently kept in the Museum of St Helena.

Read More

Article: An earlier account of the invasion

Emblem of The United Provinces of The Netherlands

Flag of England

From ‘A History of the Island of St Helena, 2nd Edition’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824{5}

In the latter part of the year 1672, whilst Captain Anthony Beale was governor, the Dutch made an attack, from four of their India ships, upon Lemon Valley, but were assailed by such showers of stones, rolled upon them from the precipices above, that they did not deem it prudent to advance. They re-embarked, and feigned a retreat until night came on, when they were directed by the light of a fire at or near to a landing-place called Bennett Point, said to have derived that appellation from the Planter’s name who kept watch with his slave there; and it has been a commonly received opinion, that the Dutch killed the Planter, and that the slave guided them up the country. But, from whatever circumstance that landing-place took its name, there is also a report that the master was the guide, and that the slave was put to death, to prevent his evidence, at any subsequent period, of that treachery; and the latter account is more consistent with a record, dated twelve years after, wherein W. Coxe, a Planter, is declared to have been the person who betrayed the island to the Dutch. The party which landed is stated to have amounted to about five hundred men. If the number be not overrated, it may be inferred that the attack was premeditated, and not the result of sudden thought in a homeward-bound commodore with only the crews of four Indiamen at his disposal. However this may be, tradition says that the enemy marched up Swanley Valley; but this access must have undergone a great change, (apparently from repeated torrents), as very few amongst the most active natives of the island can now pass there without infinite difficulty and danger. Upon gaining the pastures on the heights, report says that they halted to slaughter some cattle, and were afterwards met near High Peak by a detachment from the garrison, when a skirmish ensued, in which the English were overpowered by numbers and routed. The victors then proceeded to Ladder Hill, and marched a party down to attack the fort, where they were repulsed several times; but as they were in possession of the hill which completely commanded the fort, the English Governor did not deem it tenable, and retired with his people and their most valuable effects on board some English and French ships then in the roads.

The ship in which the Governor and his followers embarked proceeded to Brazil; there he hired a sloop for the purpose of cruising to windward of St Helena, that all English ships approaching the island might be warned of their danger. In this transaction he was assisted, by a Mr. John Mitford, master of a British merchant ship called the Humphrey & Elizabeth. Amongst the persons who accompanied Governor Beale, was a Planter named Coulson, and his family, including a negro slave called Black Oliver. The latter on arriving at Brazil was sold to a Mr. Abram, an English merchant, who was prevailed on to permit Oliver to embark as one of the sloop’s crew, a circumstance which unexpectedly contributed to important consequences.

The recapture of St Helena, by Captain Munden, is mentioned in some publications as an unpremeditated measure; that he had proceeded thither merely to convoy the homeward-bound ships to England, and that he was not even aware of the island being in the hands of an enemy, until he came to take in water in the road. But there is one writer who gives a different account, which. appears fully entitled to credit. Dr. John Fryer, a passenger in the East-India Company’s ship Unity, sailed from the Downs in January 1673, with an India fleet, and many other merchant ships on, different voyages. They were convoyed down Channel, and as far as their respective destinations admitted of their continuing the same course, by six men of war, including two fire-ships under the command of Captain Munden. Near St. Jago, all the men of war parted company, making sail for that place: they were ultimately bound to St Helena, to meet the East-India fleet, for their better defence homeward-bound, and to prevent their falling into the enemy’s hands, who had lately possessed themselves of that island: and, in a subsequent part of his book, Dr. Fryer says, that Captain Munden, by the King’s command, was sent out to retake it. The Unity, when off the Cape of Good Hope; in the month of April, met the Johanna, and other homeward-bound ships, to whom the intelligence was imparted that St Helena had been taken; but that Captain Munden’s squadron might be expected there before the Johanna and the ships with her could reach the island. From this account it is evident that Munden knew he was bound to a hostile port.

In the mean time, the sloop from Brazil had gained her station off St Helena, in the track of ships approaching it, and upon the 7th May (or according to some, the 14th) she fell in with Captain Munden’s squadron, then reduced to his Majesty’s ships Assistance, Levant, and Castle fire-ship, with the Company’s ship Mary & Martha. Whether the latter had accompanied the squadron from England, or had met with it off St Helena, is uncertain. Captain Munden, upon communicating with the sloop, and finding on board her a well qualified guide in Black Oliver, had him removed to his own ship, the Assistance, preparatory to further operations.

Whatever records might have been extant, when the island was taken by the Dutch, must have been either lost or destroyed, or removed by Governor Beale, as it is not known that any were found when the English recovered their possession: but information respecting several occurrences, which happened immediately after that event, had been preserved in some notes and memoranda by a very respectable and intelligent inhabitant, who died at an advanced age, in the year 1769, the worthy Mr. Richard Beale, a native of the island, who for many years fulfilled the duties of schoolmaster there, with credit to himself and great advantage to the community. As this gentleman must have had opportunities of conversing with those who had a perfect recollection of the circumstances, and as his testimony is corroborated in some material points by other evidence, we have no reason to doubt its correctness.

The Dutch must have kept a bad look-out, for about three o’clock in the morning, a party of two hundred men, under a Captain Kedgwin, was conducted by Oliver to an opening, which on that occasion acquired its present name, Prosperous Bay. They landed quite unobserved, at a place since called Kedgwin’s Rock, and proceeded to an accessible part of the precipice above the bay, which one of the party ascended, taking with him a ball of twine; to this a rope was afterwards fastened and hauled up, and thus the others were enabled to follow. Whilst he was in the act of climbing the dangerous ascent, his comrades below frequently called to him by name to hold fast, and ‘Hold Fast Tom’ is the appellation by which the spot has been ever since known. Jonathan Higham, a soldier employed on this service, who afterwards settled on the island, was often heard to say, that had twenty men opposed them from above, their advance would have been impracticable. From the present appearance of the place, as well as from the account of the way in which it was ascended, one would suppose that a couple of men, with crowbars, to loosen and roll down stones, would have been quite sufficient to stop the advance of an enemy. After the whole detachment had gained the heights, they marched through Long Wood to the place called the Hutts, where they arrived about daybreak, and stopping for refreshment at a farm-house. (the ruins, of which until lately were visible), then proceeded to the summit of Ruperts Hill, on the east side of James Valley; at the same time, the ships making their appearance before the town, opened a brisk cannonade, which, soon obliged the Governor to surrender.

There is a laboured and improbable tradition that Munden effected his conquest partly by landing men from off the spritsail yard of his ship, upon Mundens Point; and that the place derives its name from that circumstance. That there are parts of the coast of St Helena against which a ship might break her jib boom, without her keel touching the ground, is certainly true; because the case actually happened, (not intentionally we may, be sure), in 1820; to a vessel called the Lady Carrington, near to Buttermilk Point: but it is at least doubtful whether, a similar event could possibly occur at Mundens Point; and very unlikely that, without some very extreme necessity, a commander would risk his ship to effect a disembarkation in so unusual a manner. No such necessity appears to have existed upon the occasion alluded to: the operations for the recapture of the island, as already detailed would seem to be abundantly sufficient to account for success, without having recourse to extraordinary improbabilities; and it is further to be observed, that even were a party landed upon Mundens Point rocks, they could have had no communication with the town, except by swimming, or climbing a precipice nearly perpendicular. The appellation of Mundens Point is much more easily accounted for, from the circumstance of Captain Munden having, before his departure, placed two pieces of cannon upon the summit of that eminence which now bears his name.

The dispossession of the Dutch was not the only loss they sustained on this occasion. Less prompt in their measures to secure their conquest, than the English were to recover it, it had been in full possession of the latter, before the arrival from The Netherlands of a ship called the Europe, in which was embarked a Governor, and probably reinforcements for the garrison; but instead of entering upon the duties to which he had been appointed, he was unexpectedly reduced to the less desirable situation of a prisoner of war, the Europe becoming a prize to Captain Munden: and by the stratagem of displaying the Dutch flag, six India ships of that nation were soon after decoyed so close in, that their Vice and Rear Admirals were taken, with a quantity of silver on board. The remaining four escaped, through the impatience of the English, who prematurely commenced the attack.

A garrison having been formed of detachments from the different ships, amounting in the whole to one hundred and sixty men, was placed under the command of Captain Kedgwin, as governor; and Captain Munden sailing with his prizes for England, upon his arrival was knighted.

{a} Napoleon{b} Ian Bruce


{1} If you want to visit the battle site please see our page Dark Tourism.{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} A revised and updated version of ‘A History of the Island of St Helena’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1808.{6} 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}.


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