St. Helena’s role as a prison island started a long time before Napoleon. Portuguese Nobleman Fernão Lopez became a voluntary exile here as early as 1515, and thus started a long line of famous exiles. These are the stories of some the island most famous exiles.
FERNÃO LOPEZ (C.1516-1545)
Fernão Lopez had turned traitor in India and been mutilated by order of the Governor of Goa. He opted for being marooned here instead of returning to Portugal in his maimed condition. He lived on St. Helena from about 1516, having been deposited here alone and with just a few provisions. The following is from a contemporary account of the first ship to encounter Lopes after he had been left on the island:
“The crew was amazed when they saw the grotto and the straw bed on which he slept…and when they saw the clothing they agreed it must be a Portuguese man. So they took in their water and did not meddle with anything, but left biscuits and cheeses and things to eat and a letter telling him not to hide himself the next time a ship came to the Rooster for no one would harm him. Then the ship set off, and as she was spreading her sails a cockerel fell overboard and the waves carried it to the shore and Lopes caught it and fed it with some rice which they had left behind for him.”
Some say the cockerel became his only friend. During the night it roosted above his head and during the day it followed behind him, and would come if he called to it.
As time went on, Lopes began to be less and less afraid of people. When a ship laid anchor in what would later be known as James Bay, Lopes would greet the sailors, talking to them as they came ashore. Lopes began to be considered something of a saint, because of his deformities and the fact that he would not leave St. Helena for any reason. Many people thought him to be the embodiment of human suffering and alienation, and they took pity on him. The travelers who stopped at the island gave Lopes many things, including livestock and seeds. Eventually, Lopes became a gardener and a keeper of livestock, working the soil, planting fruit trees, grasses and many other forms of vegetation.
By royal command he returned to Portugal in about 1526 but his stay was short – within a few years he returned here, where he remained until he died in 1545, after another period of almost complete solitude.
NAPOLEON BONAPARTE (1815-1821)
In 1815 the British government selected St. Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The influence of this decision on St. Helena, both then and since, that it is described in more detail here ￫
DINIZULU KACETSHWAYO (1890-1897)
Dinizulu was a prince during the Zulu civil war of 1883-1884.
After the annexation of Zululand in 1887 Dinizulu was implicated in the Zulu rising against the British in 1888. The campaign against and search for him was led by the then Captain Baden-Powell. Dinizulu however escaped with his followers across the frontier into the Transvaal Republic. Realising that further resistance was futile a few days later he returned to Zululand and surrendered peacefully to British authorities. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment to be served on St. Helena.
Thirteen Zulu prisoners arrived at Jamestown on 28th March 1890: Dinizulu, his two uncles, Ndabuku and Tshingana, Mr Saunders, their guardian and interpreter, Mr. Anthony Daniels his assistant, two male and two female attendants for Dinizulu, a wife and male attendant for Ndabuku, and the same for Tshingana.
The Zulu party accompanying Dinizulu and his uncles were all free to mingle with residents on the island, and Dinizulu in particular became very popular. There were three weddings between members of the party and local women who subsequently returned to Zululand with their husbands and children. Dinizulu had 8 children by his Zulu wives here, two of whom died and are buried at St. Paul’s (a person claiming to be a descendent of Dinizulu still lives on St. Helena). His entourage also included six donkeys, 10 dogs, some rabbits, a piano and a harmonium.
During the time they were on the Island they gradually abandoned their Zulu culture, including adopting British dress. Dinizulu himself even learned to play the piano. A contempary record reports:
“During the time they were on the island they were gradually weaned from their uncivilized and savage life, until at the time of their departure they were as much civilized and attached to civilized customs as could be expected in such a short time. This can be said especially of the young Prince, who became more refined, his gentlemanly manners and bearing promising well for the tribe over which he may hold sway.”
At the time of their departure they were almost British in their ways. The party, now numbering 25, finally left the island on 24th Dec 1897. Dinizulu died in the Transvaal in 1913 and was succeeded by his son Solomon who had been born on St. Helena in February 1891.
BOER PRISONERS (1900-1902)
From April 1900 until October 1902 St. Helena was “home” to around five and a half thousand Boer prisoners-of-war.
Learn more about their exile, described in more detail here ￫
ZULU POLL TAX PRISONERS (1907-1910)
The Bambatha Rebellion was the last armed resistance against white rule before the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The colonial authorities introduced a poll tax in addition to the existing hut tax to encourage black men to enter the labour market; Bambatha and other chiefs resisted the introduction and collection of the new tax. It is estimated that the total number of rebels that took part in the following rebellion was between 10,000 and 12,000, of whom about 2,300 were killed, Bambatha included. By mid-August 1906 twenty five chiefs who had supported the rebels had been arrested, charged and tried by Courts Martial. In early January 1907 it was decided to remove some of the prisoners from Natal, with Mauritius as the intended destination; however an outbreak of beri-beri there led to a reconsideration and in March 1907 Governor Gallwey on St. Helena was asked if he would take the prisoners. He agreed.
The steamship Inyati arrived from Natal on Tuesday 11th June 1907 at 7pm with 25 Zulu prisoners onboard. Included among the number were such men as Tilonko, Messeni and Ndlovu a son of inKosi Sigananda. It was immediately noted that the prisoners were in an emaciated condition and looked half-starved, some of them being hardly able to walk.
These prisoners were certainly not greeted by the islanders with the same enthusiasm afforded to the Boer prisoners seven years earlier, nor was their time on the island to be as fondly remembered locally as was the imprisonment of Dinizulu in 1890. Little seems to have been written about this period and their time on the island is barely recorded. It is known only that they were housed at Ladder Hill Barracks and were assigned to hard labour – working on the roads or breaking stone at the Briars.
Towards the end of 1910 only eighteen of the original twenty five prisoners survived (the graves of the others are not in the burial register and cannot now be found). They were granted parole as part of the general amnesty that was granted to about 4,500 prisoners during the formation of the Union of South Africa.
At their departure two of the prisoners were carried to the ship on stretchers because they were so seriously ill. John Dube, founder of the Zulu-English newspaper Ilanga lase Natal, remarked that the prisoners looked very wasted although they had only served three years of their prison sentences. Most of them looked very old and could not even be recognized. In fact, he observed, they no longer looked like chiefs at all, but more like commoners.
SAYYID KHALID BIN BARGHASH AL-BUSAID (1917-1921)
Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash Al-Busaid briefly ruled Zanzibar from August 25th to August 27th 1896, seizing power after the sudden death of his cousin Hamad bin Thuwaini who many suspect was poisoned by Khalid.
Britain refused to recognize his claim to the throne, preferring as Sultan Hamud bin Muhammed who was more favourable to British interests. In accordance with a treaty signed in 1886 a condition for accession to the sultanate was that the candidate obtain the permission of the British consul and Khalid had not fulfilled this requirement so the British sent an ultimatum to Khalid demanding that he surrender. He did not, barricading himself inside his heavily-fortified palace, which the British decided to take by force. Khalid managed to evade the British forces and was smuggled out of the country to German East Africa where he lived as a Sultan for 20 years. The British continued to pursue him and on 27th February 1917 Khalid was arrested in the Rufiji delta 250 miles from Dar es Salaam. Four months later, on 22nd June he was escorted with his entourage to exile in St. Helena.
On arrival Sayyid Khalid and his followers, seventeen of them, plus three political exiles from Kenya, were kept in military custody in the Jamestown Barracks. There is no information available on the prisoners; all newspapers and other records relating to Khalid were censored during that period. It is known that they did not mix much with the local population.
The weather conditions and the lack of Muslims on the island did not suit Khalid. He requested to be moved to his relatives in Oman or to his property in Dar es Salaam, but this request was refused. However, in January 1921 it was decided to send Sayyid and his entourage to the Seychelles, where there were already held in exile political prisoners from the Gold Coast, Uganda, Nyasaland, and Somaliland. Khalid and his entourage left St. Helena at the end of April 1921 after four years on the island. He died on the 15th of March 1927 in Mombasa age 53.
BAHRAINI PRISONERS (1957-1961)
Britain next (and, to date, finally) called on St. Helena’s services as a prison island in 1957 to detain three Bahrainis.
The three, Abdali al Alaiwat, Abdulrahman al Bakir and Abdulaziz al Shamlan, had been prominent members of the National Union Committee in Bahrain and had been tried by the ruler of Bahrain for offences against the state and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The ruler of Bahrain asked Britain for assistance in removing them to a British Territory and it was decided that they should be sent to St. Helena.
The British Government applied the conditions of the Colonial prisoners Removal Act, 1869 and, after consultation with the St. Helena Government, the prisoners arrived on the island on the 27th January 1957.
The three prisoners were housed under guard at the former searchlight station at Munden’s Point, which had been specially prepared for the purpose. They were cared for by local male servants and kept very much to themselves.
In March 1959 one of the prisoners, Abdulrahman al Bakir, applied to the St. Helena Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, in which he challenged the Governor to show that the imprisonment was lawful. Since the Governor, who at that time was also the Chief Justice of St. Helena, could not be expected to direct the issue of a writ against himself, Mr. Justice Brett of the Federal Supreme Court of Nigeria was appointed Chief Justice and brought to the island from Lagos with three Barristers from London and a Foreign Office Adviser. His application was based on technical matters concerning The Queen’s Jurisdiction in Bahrain, the applicability of the 1869 Act to the prisoners sentenced by a court other than a British Court, and the procedure followed by the various Governments in applying the Act. It was dismissed by the Supreme Court and his appeal to the Privy Council, which was heard in the first half of 1960, was also dismissed.
In June 1961 another of the three men, Abdulaziz al Shamlan, made a similar application. On this occasion Mr. Myles Abbott, formerly of the Nigerian Federal Supreme Court, three barristers and his solicitor came for the trial, and this time the application was successful. As the circumstances were identical in the cases of all three they were immediately released from custody and left for England by the next ship.
People still living on St. Helena remember the Bahrainis exile, though they had very little interaction with them during their stay.