St. Helena has a recorded history spanning just over 500 years and is Britain’s second oldest colony (after Bermuda). Discovered on 21st May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova, sailing at the service of Portugal. Anchoring in what is now James Bay, it is said that he named it “Santa Helena” after St. Helena of Constantinople, whose Saints Day falls on 21st May.
The Portuguese found the island to have an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock (goats, pigs, dogs, cats and – inevitably – rats), fruit trees, and vegetables, thereby initiating the destruction of the island’s rare endemic species. They built a chapel and one or two houses, but formed no permanent settlement. They 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. The island thereby became crucially important for the collection of food and as a rendezvous point for homebound voyages from Asia.
Sometime before 1557 two slaves from Mozambique, one from Java, and two women, escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island for many years; long enough for their numbers to rise to twenty. These were the island’s first ‘permanent’ inhabitants.
Strong circumstantial evidence supports the idea 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. Thomas Cavendish actually visited in 1588, arriving on 8thJune, during his first attempt to circumnavigate the world and became the first Englishman to land at the island. He stayed for 12 days and described the valley (initially called Chapel Valley) where Jamestown is now situated 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.”
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. 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, 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.
THE ENGLISH TAKE OVER
On 16th June 1603 Sir James Lancaster visited St. Helena on his return from his first voyage equipped by the British East India Company, and by 1610 most English and Dutch ships visited the island on their home voyage. The following is a descriptive account of the island by the Dutch officer Admiral Wittert:
“5th April 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.”
The ship “The James” under captain John Hatch collected 4,000 lemons from the island in June 1621.
The Dutch Republic formally made claim to St. Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it. A Dutch territorial stone, undated but certainly later than 1633, is presently kept in the island’s museum. But by 1651, the Dutch had all but abandoned the island, giving preference to their colony at the Cape of Good Hope.
In 1649 the East India Company ordered all homeward-bound vessels to wait for one another at St. Helena, and from 1656 the Company petitioned the government to send a man-of-war to convoy the fleet home from there. Having been granted a charter to govern the island by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell in 1657 the following year the Company decided to fortify and colonise St. Helena with planters.
A fleet commanded by Captain John Dutton arrived at St. Helena in 1659 and took control of the island, Dutton becoming the first governor, from 1659-1661. A fort, originally named the Castle of St John, was completed within a month and further houses were built further up the valley.
It soon became obvious that the island could not be made self-sufficient and in early 1658 the East India Company ordered all homecoming ships to provide one ton of rice on their arrival at the island.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the fort was renamed James Fort, the town Jamestown and the valley James Valley, all in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England. The East India Company immediately sought a Royal Charter which was issued in 1661 and gave the Company the sole right to fortify and colonise the island “in such legal and reasonable manner the said Governor and Company should see fit”.
Each planter was allocated one of 130 pieces of land, and additional settlers were brought here after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But the Company had great difficulty attracting new immigrants, the population falling to only 66, including 18 slaves, by 1670.
Unrest began soon after and in 1672 then-Governor Richard Coney was seized by rebellious members of the island’s council and shipped back to England.
THE DUTCH INVASION
Finding that the Cape of Good Hope was not the ideal harbour they originally envisaged, the Dutch East India Company launched an armed invasion of St. Helena over Christmas 1672. Four Dutch ships arrived off St. Helena from the Cape carrying 180 soldiers and 150 sailors. A landing party came ashore at Lemon Valley but was repelled by English planters hurling rocks from above. However, a discontented settler named William Coxe led the Dutch to a more remote and safer landing place in Swanley Valley. From there the Dutch made their way to High Peak and then Jamestown. Governor Anthony Beale was forced to abandon the island in a Company ship, sailing to Brazil where he located an East India Company flotilla and sent it to reinforce St. Helena with fresh troops. The Company retook the island in May 1673 without loss of life and reinforced it with 250 troops.
THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
In 1673 the Company obtained a new Charter from Charles II of England which granted the island free title as though it was a part of England “in the same manner as East Greenwich in the County of Kent”. Acknowledging that St. Helena was a place where there was no trade, the Company was permitted to send from England any provisions free of Customs and to convey as many settlers as required. But discontent continued and in 1674 settlers and troops seized Governor Richard Keigwin; it was only the lucky arrival of an East India Company fleet that freed him.
Shortly thereafter it was made a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave to St. Helena. Slaves were also brought from Asia by incoming shipping. Thus, most of the island’s slaves came from Madagascar and Asia rather than the African mainland. By 1679, the number of slaves had risen to about 80. Rumours of an impending uprising by slaves in 1694 led to the gruesome execution of three slaves and cruel punishment of many others. Ghost stories still told on the island relate to these executions.
In September 1680 women were forbidden to board visiting ships except in daylight and in the company of their husbands, this measure presumably designed to control prostitution. The clearance of the indigenous forest for the distillation of spirits, tanning and agricultural development began to lead to shortage of wood by the 1680s. The numbers of rats and goats had reached plague proportions by the 1690s, leading to the destruction of food crops and young tree shoots. The wild goat population increased so much that cattle could not survive on the remaining grazing so from October 1698 hunting parties were organised every Wednesday to shoot wild goats. Neither an increase on duty on the locally produced arrack nor a duty on all firewood helped reduce the deforestation whilst attempts to reforest the island by governor John Roberts from 1708-1711 were not followed up by his immediate successors. The Great Wood, which once extended from Deadwood Plain to Prosperous Bay Plain, was reported in 1710 as not having a single tree left standing.
In February 1708 a soldier, Captain Mashborne, reported that he had found small amounts of gold among the limestone dug from Breakneck Valley after it was fired in a kiln. For a short period almost every able-bodied man was employed in prospecting for these precious metals. But the Breakneck Valley Gold Rush was short-lived; it ended with the results of an assay of the deposits in London, showing that they were simply iron pyrites (“fool’s gold”).
In 1715 governor Isaac Pyke made the serious suggestion to the Company that appreciable savings could be made by moving the entire population to Mauritius. However, with the outbreak of war with other European countries, the Company continued to subsidise the island because of its strategic location. An ordinance was passed in 1731 to preserve the woodlands through the reduction in the goat population, but despite the clear connection between deforestation and the increasing number of floods the East India Company’s Court of Directors gave little support to efforts by governors to eradicate the goat problem. Rats were observed in 1731 building nests two feet across in trees, a visitor in 1717 commenting that the vast number of wild cats preferred to live off young partridges than the rats. An outbreak of plague in 1743 was attributed to the release of infected rats from ships arriving from India. By 1757 soldiers were being employed in killing the wild cats.
A census in 1723 showed that the total population had risen to 1,110, 610 of which were slaves. In 1733 Green Tipped Bourbon Coffee seeds were brought from the coffee port of Mocha in Yemen, and were planted at various locations around the Island, the plants flourishing despite general neglect. In 1741 Captain Robert Jenkins was sent from England to St. Helena to investigate charges of corruption brought against the acting governor, and from May 1741 until March 1742 he served as Governor. The island’s first hospital was built in 1742, on approximately the same site as the current General Hospital.
George Gabriel Powell became acting-Governor in July 1742, having won the approval of the directors of the East India Company by exposing fraud on the island. But according to accounts from the time, once he reached this position he began perpetrating much larger frauds himself. He may or may not have been guilty – his fraud-exposing days created him many enemies and it is possible the charges against him were fabricated. He left the island in 1748.
The first Parish Church in Jamestown had been showing signs of decay for many years, and in 1774 a new building was erected. St James’ Church is now the oldest Anglican church south of the Equator and still retains many of its original features, though the roof has been replaced and the spire was dismantled in 1980.
An order by Governor Daniel Corneill in 1787, banning garrison troops and sailors from punch-taverns and only allowing them to drink at army canteens, led to a mutiny over Christmas 1787 when some 200 troops skirmished with loyal troops over a three-day period. Courts martial condemned 99 mutineers to death. These mutineers were then subjected to the Roman Military punishment of ‘decimation’; lots were drawn, with one in every ten being executed.
A March 1802 census counts 893 military personnel, 122 families and civil servants, 241 planters, 227 freed slaves and 1,029 slaves; a total population of 2,511.
With the importation of slaves being made illegal in 1792, Governor Robert Patton recommended the Company import Chinese labour to grow the rural workforce. The first Chinese labourers, from Canton, arrived in 1810, and the total number rose to about 650 by 1818. A census in 1814 showed the number of inhabitants was 3,507.
In 1815 the British government selected St. Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was brought to the island in October 1815 and lodged at Longwood House, where he lived until his death on 5th May 1821. During this period the island was strongly garrisoned by regular British regimental troops and by the local St. Helena Regiment, with naval shipping circling the island. Agreement was reached that St. Helena would remain in the East India Company’s possession, with the British government meeting additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The East India Company Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, was appointed by and directly reported to the Secretary for War and the Colonies, in London.
Brisk business was enjoyed catering for the additional 2,000 troops and personnel on the island over the six-year period, although restrictions placed against ships landing during this period posed a challenge for local traders to import the necessary goods. The 1817 census recorded 821 white inhabitants, a garrison of 820 men, 618 Chinese indentured labourers, 500 free blacks and 1,540 slaves.
In 1818, whilst admitting that nowhere in the world did slavery exist in a milder form than on St. Helena, Governor Lowe initiated the first step in emancipating the slaves by persuading slave owners to give all slave children born after Christmas of that year their freedom once they had reached their late teens.
After Napoleon’s death the thousands of temporary visitors were soon withdrawn. The East India Company resumed full control of St. Helena and life returned to the pre-1815 standards, the fall in population causing a sharp decline in the economy. Following praise of St. Helena’s coffee given by Napoleon during his exile on the island, the product enjoyed a brief popularity in Paris during the years after his death. The phased emancipation of over 800 resident slaves began in 1827, some six years before legislation to ban slavery in the colonies was passed by the British Parliament. Also in 1827 the Jamestown Prison was completed – it is still in use today, the building largely unaltered.
Mynah Birds were introduced to the island in 1829, being seen as “much in estimation as a destroyer of insects” – today they are seen as a pest.
An abortive attempt was made to set up a whaling industry in 1830, and again in 1875.
The UK Parliament passed the India Act in 1833, a provision of which transferred control of St. Helena from the East India Company to the Crown with effect from 2nd April 1834. Major-General George Middlemore, the first governor appointed by the British government, arrived in 1836 with 91st Regiment troops.
After 1836 the Chinese labourers were no longer required but many were allowed to stay on and their descendants became integrated into the population. The surname “Yon” probably dates from this, and “China Lane” in upper Jamestown is so-named because it is on the site where the majority of the Chinese resided.
In February 1837 Dr. James Barry arrived at St. Helena to serve as medical officer. Leaving the island within the year, Barry continued to served as a doctor until dying in 1865, whereupon it was discovered that ‘he’ was actually a woman.
In 1838 agreement was reached with Sultan of Lahej to permit a coaling station at Aden, thereby allowing the journey time to the Far East to be roughly halved compared with the traditional South Atlantic route. This precursor to the effects of the Suez Canal, coupled with the advent of steam shipping that was not reliant on trade winds led to a gradual reduction in the number of ships calling at St. Helena and to a decline in its strategic importance to Britain and economic fortunes. The number of ships calling at the island fell from 1,100 in 1855 to 853 in 1869, 603 in 1879 and to only 288 in 1889.
The British Government deployed a naval station on St. Helena in 1840 to suppress the African slave trade. A Vice Admiralty Court was based at Jamestown to try the crews of the slave ships. Between 1840 and 1849, 15,076 freed slaves, known as “Liberated Africans” were landed on the island at Rupert’s Bay, of which number over 5,000 were dead or died there. The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed has been estimated at over 25,000. Surviving freed slaves lived at Lemon Valley, Rupert’s and High Knoll Fort, and only when numbers became too great were many sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. About 500 remained on St. Helena, where they were employed. In later years, some were sent to Sierra Leone; the rest became part of the indigenous population.
In 1845 St. Helena coffee was sold in London at 1d per pound, making it the most expensive and exclusive in the world.
Exceptional seas hit the island in 1846, causing much damage to ships anchored in James Bay. In seven hours thirteen vessels were sunk within a few yards of the shore, eleven of which were captured slavers. The crane and lower wharf with the commissariat coalyard and one of the reservoirs containing water for shipping were completely destroyed. The island had never before, and has not since, encountered such heavy seas.
Governor Thomas Gore Brown built a new prison 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. But the Ruperts Prison was short lived – in 1867 a military prisoner who was confined there burnt it to the ground.
The lands forming the sites of Napoleon’s burial and of his home at Longwood House were transferred in Napoleon III and his heirs in 1858, and a French representative or consul has lived on the island ever since, the French flag now flying over these areas. The title deeds of Briars Pavilion, where Napoleon lived during his earliest period of exile, were given to the French Government in 1959.
By the 1860s it had become apparent that wood sourced from some condemned slave ships from the 1840s had been infested by termites (known locally as “white ants”). Eating their way through house timbers and also documents the termites caused the collapse of a number of buildings and considerable economic damage over several decades. Extensive reconstruction made use of iron rails and termite-proof timbers. The termite problem persists to the present day.
In April 1862 a meeting in Jamestown decided to convey to Queen Victoria the islanders’ wish that St. Helena be renamed “Prince Albert Island” in honour of The Queen“s recently deceased husband. Their wish never reaches The Queen as objections from members of the clergy cause it to be withdrawn.
In 1871 the Royal Engineers constructed Jacob’s Ladder up the steep side of the valley from Jamestown to Ladder Hill Fort, originally with 700 steps. An experiment in 1874 to produce flax from New Zealand Flax phormium tenax failed. Jonathan, possibly the world’s oldest animal, is thought to have arrived on the island in 1882. Economic decline continued and the population had fallen from its peak of 6,150 in 1817 to less than 4,000 by 1890.
On 17th April 1890 a large rock fall occurred in Jamestown. 1,500 tons of rock demolished 14 houses and killed nine. Many were injured. A fountain was erected in 1891 in Main Street, Jamestown, to commemorate the incident (it was removed in or around 1990 and seems to have been dumped).
Extraordinary weather hit the island in Spring 1897. In September 40MPH(64KPH) winds were recorded, and then in October a thunderstorm lasted two days and produced hail stones a ½inch (1.2cm) in diameter.
In November 1899 St. Helena was connected to London by undersea cable, and for the first time it became possible to send telegraph messages directly to and from the UK.
From 1900-1902 over six thousand Boer prisoners were imprisoned at Deadwood and Broadbottom. The population reached its all-time record of 9,850 in 1901. Lace making was encouraged as an island industry from 1890 and a lace-making school was opened in 1908. Hand-made lace remains one of the island’s tourist attractions. Twenty five Zulu Poll Tax Prisoners were also exiled here from 1907-1910. The Flax Industry was re-started in 1907 (after a failed attempt in 1874), this time successfully.
The S.S. Papanui, en route from Britain to Australia, arrived in James Bay in 1911 on fire. The ship burned out and sank, but its 364 passengers and crew were rescued and looked after on the island.
A census in 1911 showed the population had fallen to only 3,520 inhabitants. Some 4,800 rats tails were presented to the Government in 1913, who paid a penny per tail.
On 8th December 1914 a British naval force defeated a German squadron comprising two armoured cruisers, three light cruisers and three auxiliaries in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and probably thereby saved St. Helena from shelling by the Germans.
Around 46 islanders served in “The Great War” (1914-1918). Later the clock tower next to the Market in Jamestown was dedicated “to the memory of those who fell in the Great War 1914-1918”. No islanders are named.
An Ordinance of 1919 prohibits all motorised transport on St. Helena. (It was repealed in October 1927.)
On 28th September 1920 the Norwegian ship Spangereid (previously known as The Fairport), a large steel-hulled three-masted sailing barque, appeared off Jamestown with a fire in her cargo of coal. Unlike the Papanui, the fire did not get out of control, but the ship was still lost. Much of her cargo and fittings were salvaged, including the Captain’s boat, which was almost completely rebuilt and served as the harbour launch until recent years. Significant quantities of coal were deposited on the shore below the wharf and provided the island with a source of cheap fuel.
The first islanders left to work at Ascension Island in 1921, which was made a dependency of St. Helena in 1922. Islanders continue to work on Ascension to this day. The first car, an Austin 7, was imported into the island in 1929. A count in 1931 showed a goat population of nearly 1,500.
Some six islanders were killed in milatary service during World War II, none of them on St. Helena. The Nazi plan for Britain following a successful invasion envisaged that, once Britain had been subdued, King George VI and Winston Churchill would be removed from power and exiled to St. Helena.
In August 1941 St. Helena time was made the same as Greenwich Mean Time; previously the clocks were set 20 minutes earlier than GMT. The British oil tanker Darkdale was torpedoed off James Bay in October 1941.
America built Wideawake airport on Ascension in 1942, employing many Saints. As in the previous war, the island enjoyed increased revenues through the sale of flax for rope.
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 2007 DVD film.
Flax prices continued to rise after the war, rising to their zenith in 1951; the only year in the history of St. Helena where the value of exports exceeded that of imports. However this industry soon fell into decline because of competition from synthetic fibres and also because the delivered price of the island’s flax was substantially higher than world prices. The decision by a major buyer, the British Post Office, to use synthetic fibres for their mailbags was a major blow, all of which contributed in the closure of the island’s flax mills in 1965, resulting in considerable unemployment and also leaving the island covered with flax plants that were no longer useful. They remain an environmental issue to this day.
The island’s first (and, for 38 years, only) radio station, Radio St. Helena launched on Christmas Day 1967.
From 1958 the Union Castle shipping line gradually reduced their service calls to the island, ceasing calls entirely in 1977. The island’s only communications link became the first RMS St. Helena.
The British Nationality Act 1981 reclassified St. Helena and the other crown colonies as British Dependent Territories. The islanders lost their status as ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ and hence were stripped of their right of abode in Britain. Thus only low-paid work with the island government was available for most, the alternative being employment overseas on the Falkland Islands or Ascension Island. The Bishop’s Commission on Citizenship was established in 1992 with the aim of restoring full citizenship to the islanders, and especially their right of abode in the UK. This aim was reached in 1997 when the British government published a review of the Dependent Territories which included a commitment to restore the pre-1981 status for citizenship; effected by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, which restored full passports to the islanders, and renamed the Dependent Territories the British Overseas Territories.
In 1991 Dutch Captain Willem Merk arrived at St. Helena in his yacht ‘Frontier’, which was discovered to contain a substantial quantity of Cannabis. Merk was arrested and sentenced to nine years imprisonment in July 1991; his three Dutch companions each got two years; his yacht was scuttled just off Lemon Valley. But Merk was not content to serve his sentence. On 4th April 1994, using soap to make copies of the prison keys, which the guards reportedly 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, which it’s said he’d paid an islander to make. He went by this boat to a waiting yacht and then via Brazil back to Holland where he was declared a free man. He even sent a message of greetings to the people of St. Helena, which was published in the St. Helena News on 9th February 2001.
A time capsule was buried at the Wharf on St. Helena’s Day 1993, to be opened 200 years later – a plaque, currently in the Museum of St Helena, records this. The photo (below) shows the burial ceremony (the Governor in the hat is Alan Norman Hoole (1991-1995)).
Television was introduced to the island in 1995. Three channels were available, sourced from Southern Africa by means of a satellite receiver with local re-transmission. The first Governor’s Cup Yacht Race took place in 1996, from Cape Town to St. Helena.
St. Helena celebrated its Quincentenery on 21st May 2002 and on the same day full British citizenship was restored to islanders, leading to a double celebration. Church bells rang out, and a Salvation Army brass band and the bugles and drums of the local Scouts played as Governor David Hollamby represented The Queen at a march past. Also on this day the Museum of St. Helena was officially opened by Governor Hollamby.
In April 2005 the British Government announced plans to construct an airport on St. Helena to bolster the Island’s economy, and reduce the dependence on ships to supply the Island, the airport to open in 2012. However in December 2008 the UK announced that “there will be a pause in negotiations over the St. Helena airport contract”. The pause ended on 22nd July 2010 and contracts for construction of the airport were signed with Basil Read Pty on 3rd November 2011. The airport is under construction and is expected to open in February 2016. The RMS St. Helena will cease operations when flights begin.
St. Helena’ current Constitution came into force on 1st September 2009, reference S.I. 2009 No.1751 (UK). There was a massed protest in April 2011 over tax reforms and increases in charges for services, including electricity and water.