The history of St Helena is fascinating and touches many aspects of world history. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, it became a Dutch then a British possession (initially under the East India Company then the Crown). It was a strategically important port of call during the British Empire, until the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of steamships.
The island’s remote location meant it was used as a place of exile for key prisoners, including some 6 000 Boers, King Dinuzulu, Bahraini princes and, of course, Napoleon, who died on St Helena. The island also played an important role during the abolition of slavery. St Helena’s heritage provides a significant legacy of fortifications, remains historic buildings, and what has been described as “the quintessential Atlantic port” – Jamestown. In the capital of Jamestown, nearly every building is listed because of its historic importance while Main Street has been described as ‘one of the best examples of unspoiled Georgian architecture anywhere in the world
The first sailors to be put ashore arrived on Portuguese vessels. The island’s first known permanent resident was a Portuguese renegade, Fernão Lopez, who had been mutilated on being returned to the Portuguese, by order of Albuquerque, the Governor of Goa. Fernando Lopez preferred being marooned to returning to Portugal in his maimed condition and lived on St Helena from about 1515. By royal command, Lopez returned to Portugal about 1526 and then travelled to Rome, where Pope Clement VII granted him an audience. Lopez returned to St Helena, by his own request, fully pardoned, where he lived until his death in 1545. In 1588 Thomas Cavendish, having captured a Portuguese ship, compelled the pilot to show him where the island was and thus became the first Englishman known to have visited the island. The Dutch formally made claim to St Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favour of their colony founded at the Cape of Good Hope.
A fleet commanded by Captain John Dutton (first Governor, 1659-1661) in the Marmaduke arrived at St Helena in 1659, with the first permanent settlers and a few slaves they were instructed to bring from the Cape Verde Islands. The English East India Company (E.I.C.) was given a Royal Charter which allowed the company the sole right to fortify and colonise the island “in such legal and reasonable manner as the said Governor and Company should see fit“. The Dutch attempted to regain the island in 1673, but were defeated by the timely arrival of Captain Richard Munden on the scene, and the island has remained British.
More settlers and slaves arrived over the intervening years until 1792, when the slaves outnumbered the civilian population, and it was ordered that no more slaves were to be brought to the island. The community until then consisted of British settlers, soldiers of the EIC and slaves, mainly from Africa, India, and Madagascar.
In 1815 the British Government selected St Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon I of France. He was brought to the island in October 1815 and lodged at Longwood, where he died in May 1821. During this period the island was strongly garrisoned by regular British regimental troops, local St Helena regiment troops, and naval shipping. The agreement was reached that St Helena would remain in the East India Company’s possession, although the British Government would appoint its own governor for the duration of the captivity, and meet additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The EIC gave the island a schooner in 1815, to carry passengers and stores. This was the first “St Helena”. Since pirates attacked it in 1830, there was no dedicated ship until 1978. The Union Castle Line, which had served the island for many years, withdrew its service in 1977. The island then had to find its own supply/passenger ship, the “RMS”, the third ship to be given the name “St Helena”. This “RMS St Helena” served the island well until 1990. It was requisitioned in 1982 by the MOD to help in support of the Falklands Conflict. A new purpose-built ship, the 4th “RMS St Helena”, launched by Prince Andrew in 1989 in Aberdeen, replaced it.
Up until the Falklands War, after which St Helenians were employed there, the island was extremely poor with men going off to Ascension Island (since 1922) and the UK (including the exodus of 100 men in 1949) to find work, the only industry on the island since 1907 being the export of flax. This was poorly paid work and eventually, this industry closed around 1966 with nothing to replace it. Only around this date did the education system begin to offer a limited number of GCE subjects to a few people, until in 1988 when the Prince Andrew Community High School was opened, offering equal opportunity to all island children to gain subjects to “A” level to enable a small annual number of them (limited by funding) to take advantage of tertiary education in UK. Many St Helenians have achieved excellent qualifications since then. 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 (as defined in the British Nationality Act 1948) and were stripped of their right of abode in Britain. After a lot of invaluable effort by M.P.’s and friends in UK, by the Citizenship Commission on the island, by islanders themselves and lawyers in Canada, for which the Islanders will forever be grateful, British citizenship was regained on the 500th Anniversary of the discovery, in 2002.
You can also visit the Museum of St Helena to learn more about our History and Heritage
Famous visitors, Royal visitors, Exiles.
1677 Edmond Halley – astronomer
1691 William Dampier – explorer & buccaneer
1761 Neville Maskelyne – astronomer
1771 Captain James Cook – British explorer
1792 Captain William Bligh of the Bounty
1805 Arthur Wellesley, later became the Duke of Wellington
1805 William Burchell – famous naturalist
1828-1833 Manuel Johnson – famous astronomer
1836 Charles Darwin – English naturalist & geologist
1840 General Sir Edward Sabine – astronomer
1890’s Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail around the world alone
1838 Prince Hendrik (Dutch)
1860 Prince Alfred
1880 Empress Eugenie (Spanish)
1910 The Duke of Connaught & Princess Patricia
1925 Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII
1947 King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Elizabeth & Margaret
1957 Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
1984 Prince Andrew
2002 Princess Anne
1890 Chief Dinizulu and his family
1900-1902 6,000 Boer Prisoners of War
1957-1960 Three Bahraini nationalists