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 Dinizulu, Bahraini princes and, of course, Napoleon, who died on St Helena. The island also played an important role during the abolition of slavery.
This heritage provides a significant legacy of fortifications, remains, historic buildings, and what has been described as “the quintessential Atlantic port” – Jamestown.
St Helena is an island of volcanic origin and is now a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. The territory consists of the island of Saint Helena, and the dependencies of Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. The island has a history of over 500 years since it was discovered by the Portuguese navigator João da Nova, on his voyage home from India. He named it “Saint Helena”, as 21st May was the birthday of Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great. Britain’s second oldest colony, one of the most isolated islands in the world, was for several centuries of vital strategic importance to ships sailing to Europe from the Far East, to take on essential stores and leave sick crew members to recover in its healthy climate. In the 19th Century it played a huge and largely unrecognised role as a vital refuge for liberated African slaves. Since 1815, the British have also used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinizulu kaCetshwayo and over 6 000 Boer prisoners.
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. The Astronomer, Edmond Halley, came in 1677 to observe the Transit of Mercury and to catalogue some of the southern stars. Dampier, the explorer and buccaneer arrived in 1691.
During the 18th Century, buildings and forts were improved and the historic Main Street of the town was constructed, only to be destroyed, requiring rebuilding in the middle of the 19th Century after white ants, from wood used from a captured slave vessel, ravaged the town.
The astronomer, Neville Maskelyne, came to observe the Transit of Venus in 1761 (who became Astronomer Royal from 1765 ’till his death in 1811), Captain Cook in 1775, Captain Bligh of the Bounty in 1792 and Saul Solomon, who was to found a business “empire” which still bears his name, arrived on the island at the end of that century. Sir Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and to fight Napoleon at Waterloo, stayed here briefly in 1805 and the famous naturalist, William Burchell, arrived that year. In an attempt to procure more labour for the island, a request was sent to China for labourers, and from 1810 till 1834, many came here, with the highest number being 618 in 1818. This added to the racial melting pot, and a few older men stayed on after the Crown took over.
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. 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.
Another famous astronomer was to start his career on St. Helena as a young army officer – Manuel Johnson (1828-1833) – the President of the Royal Astronomical Society 1857-1858. He catalogued “606 principle fixed stars in the Southern Hemisphere”. In 1834 it was announced that the island would revert to rule by Britain. The EIC withdrew and all their privileges disappeared. It was a time of great poverty and emigration. The first principle medical officer under the Crown was Dr. James Barry, who became very famous after “he” died when it was discovered that “he” was in fact a woman in disguise. She made sweeping changes to improve the medical services for islanders but was not popular with the male administration! Charles Darwin visited in 1836 on his round the world voyage on the “Beagle”.
The next big event of the 19th Century, after the exhumation of Napoleon’s body (1840) to be returned to France, was the decision to have a Vice Admiralty Court on St Helena in 1840, to try those ships which were carrying slaves from Africa mainly to Brazil. The many thousands of captives were set free here and a liberated African depot was set up to deal with the huge influx of these sad souls, many of whom died here and are buried in Rupert’s Valley.
The astronomer Sabine (with help in succession from Lefroy, Smyth and Clark) was sent here to set up a magnetic observatory at Longwood in 1840, this being one of three, the other two sites being Toronto (Canada) and the Cape.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 dealt another deathblow to the island’s economy, resulting in further emigration. The next set of prisoners to be sent to the island arrived in 1890 – a party of 13 including King Dinizulu, bringing some prosperity to the island. A few years later, the first man to circumnavigate the world single handedly, Joshua Slocum, arrived and gave a lecture in the museum in the Public Gardens. A huge change took place between 1900-1902 when St Helena encamped around 6000 Boer prisoners, which again boosted the economy.
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 Ministry of Defence to help in support of the Falklands Conflict, and sailed south with the entire crew volunteering for duty. 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 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 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.