Throughout its history St. Helena has had few famous visitors. Below are some of them.
1588. SIR THOMAS CAVENDISH
Sir Thomas Cavendish, 19th September 1560 – May 1592, was an English explorer and a privateer known as “The Navigator” because he was the first who deliberately tried to emulate Sir Francis Drake and raid the Spanish towns and ships in the Pacific and return by circumnavigating the globe.
He stopped at St. Helena in June 1588, apparently the first Englishman to land on the island. His report of his visit is as follows:
“The eighth day of June by breake of day we fel in sight of the yland of S. Helena, seven or eight leagues short of it, having but a small gale of winde, or almost none at all ; insomuch as we could not get into it that day, but stood off and on all that night.
The next day being the 9. of June having a pretie easie gale of wind we stood in with the shore, our boat being sent away before to make the harborough ; and about one of the clocke in the afternoone we came unto an anker in 12. fathoms water two or three cables length from the shore, in a very faire and smooth bay under the Northwest side of the yland.
This yland is very high land, and lieth in the maine sea standing as it were in the middest of the sea betweene the maine land of Africa, and the maine of Brasilia and the coast of Guinea: And is in 15. degrees and 48. minuts to the Southward of the Equinoctiall line, and is distant from the cape of Beuna Esperanza betweene 5. and 6. hundreth leagues.
The same day about two or three of the clocke in the afternoone wee went on shore, where wee found a marveilous faire & pleasant valley, wherein divers handsome buildings and houses were set up, and especially one which was a Church, which was tyled & whited on the outside very faire, and made with a porch, and within the Church at the upper end was set an altar, whereon stood a very large table set in a frame having in it the picture of our Saviour CHRIST upon the Crosse and the image of our Lady praying, with divers other histories curiously painted in the same. The sides of the Church were all hanged with stained clothes having many devises drawen in them.
There are two houses adjoyning to the Church, on each side one, which serve for kitchins to dresse meate in, with necessary roomes and houses of office: the coverings of the said houses are made flat, whereon is planted a very faire vine, and through both the saide houses runneth a very good and holsome streame of fresh water.
There is also right over against the saide Church a faire causey made up with stones reaching unto a valley by the seaside, in which valley is planted a garden, wherein grow great store of pompions and melons: And upon the saide causey is a frame erected whereon hange two bells wherewith they ring to Masse; and hard unto it is a Crosse set up, which is squared, framed and made very artificially of free stone, whereon is carved in cyphers what time it was builded, which was in the yeere of our Lord 1571.
This valley is the fairest and largest lowe plot in all the yland, and it is marveilous sweete and pleasant, and planted in every place either with fruite trees, or with herbes. There are fig trees, which beare fruit continually, & marveilous plentifully: for on every tree you shal have blossoms, greene figs, and ripe figs, all at ones: and it is so all the yere long: the reason is that the yland standeth so neere the Sunne. There be also great store of lymon trees, orange trees, pomegranate trees, pomecitron trees, date trees, which beare fruite as the fig trees do, and are planted carefully and very artificially with very pleasant walkes under and betweene them, and the saide walkes bee overshadowed with the leaves of the trees: and in every voyde place is planted parceley, sorell, basill, fenell, annis seede, mustard seede, radishes, and many speciall good hearbes: and the fresh water brooke runneth through divers places of this orchard, and may with very small paines be made to water any one tree in the valley.
This fresh water streame commeth from the tops of the mountaines, and falleth from the cliffe into the valley the height of a cable, and hath many armes out of it, which refresh the whole yland, and almost every tree in it. The yland is altogether high mountaines and steepe valleis, except it be in the tops of some hilles, and downe below in some of the valleis, where marveilous store of all these kinds of fruits before spoken of do grow: there is greater store growing in the tops of the mountaines then below in the valleis: but it is wonderfull laboursome and also dangerous traveiling up unto them and downe againe, by reason of the height and steepnesse of the hilles.
There is also upon this yland great store of partridges, which are very tame, not making any great hast to flie away though one come very neere them, but onely to runne away, and get up into the steepe cliffes: we killed some of them with a fowling piece. They differ very much form our partridges which are in England both in bignesse and also in colour. For they be within a little as bigge as an henne, and are of an ashe colour, and live in covies twelve, sixteen, and twentie together: you cannot go ten or twelve score but you shall see or spring one or two covies at the least.
There are likewise no lesse store of fesants in the yland, which are also marveilous bigge and fat, surpassing those which are in our countrey in bignesse and in numbers of a company. They differ not very much in colour from the partridges before spoken of.
Wee found moreover in this place great store of Guinie cocks, which we call Turkies, of colour blacke and white, with red heads: they are much about the same bignesse which ours be of in England: their egges be white, and as bigge as a Turkies egge.
There are in this yland thousands of goates, which the Spaniards call Cabritos, which are very wilde: you shall see one or two hundred of them together, and sometimes you may beholde them going in a flocke almost a mile long. Some of them, (whether it be the nature of the breed of them, or of the country I wot not), are as big as an asse, with a maine like an horse and a beard hanging downe to the very ground: they will clime up the cliffes which are so steepe that a man would thinke it a thing unpossible for any living thing to goe there. We tooke and killed many of them for all their swiftnes: for there be thousands of them upon the mountaines.
Here are in like maner great store of swine which be very wilde and very fat, and of a marveilous bignes: they keepe altogether upon the mountaines, and will very seldome abide any man to come neere them, except it be by meere chance when they be found asleepe, or otherwise, according to their kinde, be taken layed in the mire.
We found in the houses at our comming 3. slaves which were Negroes, & one which was borne in the yland of Java, which tolde us that the East Indian fleete, which were in number 5. sailes, the least whereof were in burthen 8. or 900. tunnes, all laden with spices and Calicut cloth, with store of treasure and very rich stones and pearles, were gone from the saide yland of S. Helena but 20 dayes before we came thither.
This yland hath bene found of long time by the Portugals, and hath bene altogether planted by them, for their refreshing as they come from the East Indies. And when they come they have all things plentiful for their reliefe, by reason that they suffer none to inhabit there that might spend up the fruit of the yland, except some very few sicke persons in their company, which they stand in doubt will not live untill they come home, whom they leave there to refresh themselves, and take away the yeere following the other Fleete if they live so long. They touch here rather in their comming home from the East Indies, then at their going thither, because they are throughly furnished with corne when they set out of Portugal, but are but meanely victualled at their comming from the Indies, where there groweth little corne.
The 20. day of June having taken in wood & water and refreshed our selves with such things as we found there, and made cleane our ship, we set saile about 8. of the clocke in the night toward England. At our setting saile wee had the winde at Southeast, and we haled away Northwest and by West. The winde is commonly off the shore at this yland of S. Helena.”
1658. JOHAN NIEUHOF
Johan Nieuhof , 22nd July 1618 – 8th October 1672, was a Dutch traveler who wrote about his journeys to Brazil, China and India.
Nieuhoff’s description of his visit to St. Helena in 1658 reads as follows:
“On the last day of March 1658 the fleet arrived safely without any remarkable accident at the Isle of St. Helens (sic). The Isle of St. Helens is situate under 16 deg. 15 min of Southern Latitude at a great distance from the Continent. It is very surprising to conceive so small an island at so vast a distance at sea, round about which there is scare any Anchorage, by reason of the vast depth of the Seas. It is about 7 leagues in Circumfrence, covered all over with rocky Hills, which in a clear day may be seen 14 leagues at sea. It has many fine Valleys, among which the Church-Valley and the Apple-Valley are the most remarkable. In the Church-Valley, you see to this day the ruins of a Chappel, formerly belonging to the Portugueses; the whole Valleys are plante with lemons, oranges and Pomegranate trees. At that time the island was destitute of Inhabitants, but since the English have made a settlement here.
After the Portugueses had left it, a certain hermit, under the pretence of devotion, used to kill great numbers of wild goats here, and sell their skins, which the Portugueses having got notice of it, they removed him from thence. At another time certain Negroes with two Female Slaves were got into the Mountains, where they increased to the number 20, till they at last were likewise forc’d from thence. The Valleys are excessive hot, but on the hill it is cool enough; Tho’ the heat is much tempered by the Winds and frequent Rain showers which fall sometimes several times in a day; which, with the heat of the Sun-beams, renders the soil very fruitful.
After we had sufficiently refreshed ourselves here, and provided what necessaries we thought fit, or could get, we left this island the last day of May.”
1676. EDMOND HALLEY
Edmond Halley, 8th November 1656 – 14th January 1742, was an English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and physicist who is best known for computing the orbit of the eponymous Halley’s Comet. He was the second Astronomer Royal in Britain, succeeding John Flamsteed.
He visited St. Helena in 1676/7, chosen for being the southern-most territory under British rule at the time, and set up an observatory with a great sextant specially constructed of 5½ foot radius fitted with telescopes in place of sights, his own 2 foot quadrant and several telescopes of different focal lengths up to 24 feet. He observed the positions of 341 stars in the Southern hemisphere, publishing his results in Catalogus Stellarum Australium. His observation site is near St Mathew’s Church in the Longwood district. The 680m high hill there is named for him; Halley’s Mount, and bears a plaque inscribed “The site of the observatory of Edmond Halley. He came to catalogue the stars of the southern hemisphere 1677-1678”. While here he observed a transit of Mercury, and realised that a similar transit of Venus could be used to determine the absolute size of the Solar System.
He visited again in 1700, on his return from exploring the Antarctic.
1761. NEVIL MASKELYNE
He set up an observatory here in 1761, at the commission of the Royal Society, to observe the transit of Venus, following a suggestion first made by Halley. The Directors of the East India Company in London wrote to The Governor of St. Helena:
“His Majesty having been graciously pleased to encourage the making observations on the transit of the planet Venus over the Sun’s disk on the 6th June next and proper persons being engaged by the Royal Society for the purpose two of them, Mr. Charles Mason and Mr. Jeremiah Dixon proceed to Fort Marlborough on H. M. Ship Seahorse and the other two Revd. Mr. Nevil Maskelyne and Mr. Robert Waddington take passage on the Prince Henry to St. Helena. As this is done to make some improvements in Astronomy which will be of general utility the two last named gentlemen are upon their arrival and during their stay to be accommodated by you in a suitable manner with diet and apartments at the Company’s expense and you are to give them all the assistance as to materials, workmen, and whatsoever else the service they are employed upon may require.”
However, bad weather prevented any useful observations. Instead Maskelyne used his journey to develop a method of determining longitude using the position of the moon, which became known as the lunar distance method. In addition he also wrote his observations of the tides at St. Helena and later on various other astronomical phenomena observed here during his visit.
1771. CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
He visited the island twice, in 1771 and in 1775. His first visit caused quite a furore, even though he didn’t actually set foot on the island…
James Cook’s first voyage (1768-1771) was an expedition to the South Pacific aboard HMS Endeavour. Returning home to England, Endeavour stopped at St. Helena from the 1st to 4th May 1771. As far as anybody knows Cook did not disembark, but the Admiralty later commissioned John Hawkesworth to write an account of the voyage. Basing his account on the ship’s logs and other documents Hawkesworth attributed the following observation to Cook:
“All kinds of Labour is here performd by Man, indeed he is the only animal that works except a few Saddle Horses nor has he the least assistance of art to enable him to perform his task. Supposing the Roads to be too steep and narrow for Carts, an objection which lies against only one part of the Island, yet the simple contrivance of Wheelbarrows would Doub[t]less be far preferable to carrying burthens upon the head, and yet even that expedient was never tried. Their slaves indeed are very numerous: they have them from most parts of the World, but they appeard to me a miserable race worn out almost with the severity of the punishments of which they frequently complaind. I am sorry to say that it appeard to me that far more frequent and more wanton Cruelty were excercisd by my countrey men over these unfortunate people than even their neighbours the Dutch, fam’d for inhumanity, are guilty of. One rule however they strictly observe which is never to Punish when ships are there.”
Unsurprisingly the landowners of St. Helena took exception to this description of their island, particularly because it seemed to have been made by such an eminent person. So on disembarking at Jamestown during his second visit, in 1775, Cook soon found that the inhabitants of St. Helena were not altogether happy with him. When they explained the reasons for their ire Cook was mortified.
Teased by Mrs. Skottowe, the Governor’s wife, Cook had no answer except to blame the “absent philosophers” who had written the words in his name but had not consulted him. Fortunately his explanation was accepted, and after his visit he described himself “agreeably surprised with the prospect of a Country finely diversified with hill and vally, Wood and Lawn and all laid out in inclosures”. He later wrote “In the account given of St. Helena, in the narrative of my former voyage, I find some mistakes. Its inhabitants are far from exercising a wanton cruelty over their slaves; and they have had wheel carriages and porters’ knots for many years. This note I insert with pleasure”.
However one of Cook’s travelling companions later noted that “there are many wheelbarrows and several carts on the island, some of which seemed to be studiously placed before Captain Cook’s lodgings every day”.
1792. CAPTAIN BLIGH
Captain Bligh, 9th September 1754 – 7th December 1817, was an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. He is most famous for the mutiny which occurred during his command of HMS Bounty in 1789.
“I landed at 1 o’clock when I was saluted with 13 guns, and the Governor received me. In my interview with him I informed him of my orders to give into his care 10 breadfruit plants, and one of every kind (of which I had five), as would secure to the island a lasting supply of this valuable fruit which our most gracious King had ordered to be planted there. Colonel Broke (sic) expressed great gratitude, and the principal plants were taken to a valley near his residence called Plantation House, and the rest to James’s Valley.Few places look more unhealthy when sailing along its burnt-up cliffs huge masses of rock fit only to resist the sea, yet few places are more healthy. The inhabitants are not like other Europeans who live in the Torrid Zone, but have good constitutions the women being fair and pretty. James Town, the capital, lies in a deep and narrow valley, and it is little more than one long street of houses; these are built after our English fashion, most of them having thatched roofs. Lodgings are scarce, so I was fortunate in finding rooms with Captain Statham in a well-regulated house at the common rate of twelve shillings a day. The Otaheitans were delighted with what they saw here, as Colonel Brooke showed them kind attention, had them to stay at his house, and gave them each a suit of red clothes.”
History records that the breadfruit plans left by Bligh all died because of a lack of attention. Curiously, though, a plant does grow wild on St. Helena which is known locally as “Breadfruit”, though it is actually monstera deliciosa, the Fruit Salad Plant (sometimes known as the “Swiss Cheese Plant”) and is not related in any way to the plants Bligh introduced.
Bligh visited again in 1799, arriving with orders to escort an East India Merchant Fleet back to Britain.
By a strance coincidence, Fletcher Christian (of Mutiny on The Bounty fame) also visited St. Helena in 1784.
1805. THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON
Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, 1st May 1769 – 14th September 1852, was a British soldier and statesman and one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century.
In 1805 he visited St. Helena on his voyage home from a distinguished military career in India. Curiously he stayed in The Briars, the same building to which Napoleon I would later be exiled after Wellington defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo (Napoleon was subsequently moved to Longwood House, where he remained until his death).
1836. CHARLES DARWIN
Charles Darwin, 12th February 1809 – 19th April 1882, was an English naturalist and geologist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory and for his publication On the Origin of Species in 1859.
He spent six days of observation on St. Helena in 1836 from 8th to 14th July, during his return journey on the first voyage of the HMS Beagle, writing:
“The Beagle staid at St. Helena five days, during which time I lived in the clouds in the centre of the Island. It is a curious little world within itself; the forbidding aspect of which has been so often described, rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean. Near the town, as if to complete nature’s defence, small forts and guns fill up every gap in the rugged rocks. The town runs up a flat and narrow valley; the houses look respectable, and are interspersed with a very few green trees. When approaching the anchorage there was one striking view: an irregular castle perched on the summit of a lofty bill, and surrounded by a few scattered fir-trees, boldly projected against the sky.
The next day I obtained lodgings within a stone’s throw of Napoleon’s tomb: it was a capital central situation, whence I could make excursions in every direction. During the four days I stayed here, I wandered over the island from morning to night, and examined its geological history. My lodgings were situated at a height of about 2000 feet; here the weather was cold and boisterous, with constant showers of rain; and every now and then the whole scene was veiled in thick clouds.
At this season, the land moistened by constant showers, produces a singularly bright green pasture, which lower and lower down, gradually fades away and at last disappears. In latitude 16°, and at the trifling elevation of 1500 feet, it is surprising to behold a vegetation possessing a character decidedly British. When we consider that the number of plants now found on the island is 746, and that out of these fifty-two alone are indigenous species, the rest having been imported, and most of them from England, we see the reason of the British character of the vegetation. Many of these English plants appear to flourish better than in their native country; some also from the opposite quarter of Australia succeed remarkably well. The many imported species must have destroyed some of the native kinds; and it is only on the highest and steepest ridges, that the indigenous Flora is now predominant.
The English, or rather Welsh character of the scenery, is kept up by the numerous cottages and small white houses; some buried at the bottom of the deepest valleys, and others mounted on the crests of the lofty hills. On viewing the island from an eminence, the first circumstance which strikes one, is the number of the roads and forts: the labour bestowed on the public works, if one forgets its character as a prison, seems out of all proportion to its extent or value. There is so little level or useful land, that it seems surprising how so many people, about 5,000, can subsist here.I so much enjoyed my rambles among the rocks and mountains of St. Helena that I felt almost sorry on the morning of the 14th to descend to the town. Before noon I was on board, and the Beagle made sail.”
There is also no record of him having seen the Wirebird, and in fact he believed “all the birds have been introduced within late years”.
1838. PRINCE WILLIAM HENRY FREDERICK OF HOLLAND
1840. PRINCE DE JOINVILLE
1860. H.R.H. PRINCE ALFRED
“He was then an officer serving in the Royal Navy, on board H.M.S. Euryalus. His visit of course threw the island into a fever of excitement. Triumphal arches, etc., lined the wharf and streets, and, all preparations completed, they awaited the Prince; but the ship not arriving the day expected, the vexation of the people was great. However, after three days’ suspense the Prince landed, and the people of St. Helena were able to render a hearty welcome, and to give vent to their excitement. The Prince honoured the Governor by dining at Plantation. He attended a ball at the Castle, and sailed again on the evening of the same day he arrived.”
1880. EMPRESS EUGENIE
Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick, 5th May 1826 – 11th July 1920 was the last Empress consort of the French from 1853 to 1871 as the wife of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. She called here in 1880 on her way from her visit to the grave of her son in South Africa. She was entertained by the Governor at the Castle, but no festivities marked her call, out of respect to her deep mourning. She visited the tomb and Longwood.
1898. JOSHUA SLOCUM
Joshua Slocum, 20th February 1844 – 14th November 1909, was the first man to sail single-handedly around the world. On 24th April 1895 he set sail from Boston, Massachusetts heading south. He stopped at St. Helena during his return journey on 14th April 1898, arriving back in Boston on 27th June of that same year having covered a distance of more than 46,000 miles (74,000 km).
1925. EDWARD, PRINCE OF WALES
Edward, 23rd June 1894 – 28th May 1972, was Prince of Wales from 1910 until he became King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Empire, and Emperor of India, on 20th January 1936. He was King until his abdication on 11thDecember 1936.
“I need not assure you of the deep interest with which I set foot on an Island whose name is so well known to all students of History, not only because it was here that were written the closing pages of a great and romantic life story – the story of the Emperor whose mortal remains now lie on the banks of the Seine, where many soldiers of France have found a resting place…”
The speech also celebrated St. Helena’s loyalty to the Empire, and acknowledged the importance of the flax industry “on which much of your material prosperity depends”. The full text is on display in The Castle.
1936. LORD AND LADY BADEN-POWELL
Their visit was marked with celebrations by the island’s scouts and guides.
1947. KING GEORGE VI
George VI, 14th December 1895 – 6th February 1952, was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11th December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India and the first Head of the Commonwealth.
He became the only reigning monarch to visit the island in April 1947 when the King, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth,Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret were travelling from South Africa.
Having looked round a dilapidated Longwood House almost destroyed by termites, the King signed the visitors’ book and expressed his concern at its perilous state and his hope that the French Government would take the necessary steps to restore the historic house. On his return to England the King called in the French Ambassador and again expressed his hope that the French Government would urgently begin restoration of the house. (The King got his wish, though not in his lifetime!)
The visit was filmed by Pathé News
1957. THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH
He arrived at St. Helena in 1957 while travelling around the world aboard the newly commissioned HMY Britannia, during which he opened the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and visited the Antarctic. Here he opened the new playground in lower Market Street (now known as the “Duke of Edinburgh Playground”).
1984. PRINCE ANDREW
He visited St. Helena as a member of the armed forces, arriving on 5th April 1984, travelling aboard the HMS Herald. In addition to massive celebrations with marching and singing, a dance was held at the Paramount Cinema and Prince Andrew was treated to a performance of “Fibre”, a musical produced by children from the island’s schools. He departed the following day.
The island’s new secondary school is named after him, in honour of the visit.
The image shows him stepping ashore, alighting from his launch by swinging on the rope, just as everyone still does: islanders, visitors, Governors and even royal personages! Note also Governor Massingham in full traditional uniform, including the Governor’s Hat.
2002. THE PRINCESS ROYAL
She arrived here on 16th November 2002. After a welcoming speech and parade in Jamestown she laid the foundation stone for the island’s Community Care Complex, a residential home for the elderly in Half Tree Hollow, visited the various Napoleonic sites, opened the Quincy Vale sheltered accommodation and attended an agricultural show on Francis Plain.