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The St Helena Secret

A complete failure!

If you would keep your secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend.{a}

The Portuguese tried to keep their discovery of St Helena a secret. They failed!

The St Helena Secret

The plan

Many of the island histories claim that, after St Helena was discovered in 1502 by João da Nova the Portuguese kept its location a secret. For example:

The Portuguese mariners preserved the secret of the existence of St. Helena from other nations until 1588, when it was discovered by Capt. Cavendish, on his return from a circumnavigating voyage.{b}
For many years the island and its whereabouts remained a secret known only to its discoverers{c}

Is this true? Let’s see…

The reality

‘A History of the Island of St Helena, 2nd Edition’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824{1} reports that The Portuguese are supposed to have been anxious to conceal the situation of St Helena from the knowledge of other nations, and are said to have succeeded in keeping the secret until it was visited by Cavendish (in 1588). But Brook himself admits that other non-Portuguese visited before Cavendish, including Japanese ambassadors and some enslaved people of unknown origin.

‘Ships at St Helena, 1502-1613’{4} refers to documents compiled by one Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government, who writing in 1607 used records not only of the Portuguese but also the Spanish to compile a list of shipping movements in the South Atlantic from 1497 to the early 1600s. He records not only that one of João da Nova’s fleet was captained by a Florentine, one Fernão Virnet, but also that in a subsequent call, in July 1503 by a fleet led by Estêvão da Gama, one of these ships was captained by João de Bueno, an Italian. So at least two non-Portuguese knew of St Helena’s existence within a year of its discovery. Given its strategic importance as a watering station in the middle of the South Atlantic, it is unimaginable that neither of these ‘foreigners’ would have spread the word of St Helena’s discovery.

What actually happened is that in 1504 King Manuel of Portugal prohibited the disclosure of new lands or sea routes south of the equator to any foreign power. This policy of secrecy failed for two reasons:

  1. St Helena was discovered before the King’s prohibition; and

  2. As mentioned above, other nationalities sailed on Portuguese ships and later published details in their own countries.

So apart from the 1506 Portuguese map (supposedly only available to the Portuguese but created by a German…) the name and location of St Helena were published in a Dutch book six years after the island was first found. The secret was out before 1510!

And while Cavendish might have been the first Englishman actually to set foot on St Helena, it was known to the English a long time before 1588. Robin Castell claims that Sir Francis Drake ‘located’ the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580), though if he did it’s highly likely that he would have already heard where to look! William Barret wrote about St Helena in the mid-1580s and before that Edward Fenton set out a plan to occupy the island in 1582 and use it as a base to plunder Dutch shipping, which means he not only knew about St Helena but had understood its strategic value.

So whatever the Portuguese might have wanted, it is clear that the fact of St Helena’s discovery was known outside Portugal within ten years of the event, and widely known within the next eighty.

Not exactly a stellar example of secrecy!

A secret remains a secret until you make someone promise never to reveal it.{d}


{a} Benjamin Franklin{b} Robert Montgomery Martin in ‘History of the British Possessions in the Indian & Atlantic Oceans’, 1837., {3}{c} ‘St Helena 1502-1938’, by Philip Gosse, {3}{d} Fausto Cercignani


{1} A revised and updated version of ‘A History of the Island of St Helena’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1808.{2} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{3} @@RepDis@@{4} An article, by Beau W. Rowlands, printed in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{2} Number 28, Spring 2004{3}.