|Early history, 1502 – 1658
Most historical accounts state the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Portuguese navigator João da Nova, on his voyage home from India, and he named it “Santa Helena” after Helena of Constantinople. However, given this is the feast day used by the Greek Orthodox Church it has been argued that the discovery was probably made on the 18th August, the feast day used by the Roman Catholic Church. It has also been suggested that the island may not have been discovered until 30 July 1503 by a squadron under the command of Estavao da Gama and that da Nova actually discovered Tristan da Cunha on the feast day of St Helena. The Portuguese found it uninhabited, with an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock (mainly goats), fruit trees and vegetables, built a chapel and one or two houses, and left their sick suffering from scurvy and other ailments to be taken home, if they recovered, by the next ship, but they formed no permanent settlement. The island thereby became crucially important for the collection of food and as a rendezvous point for homebound voyages from Asia. The island was directly in line with the Trade Winds which took ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic. St Helena was much less frequently visited by Asia-bound ships, the northern trade winds taking ships towards the American continent rather than the island.
It is a popular belief that the Portuguese managed to keep the location of this remote island a secret until almost the end of the 16th century. However, both the location of the island and its name were quoted in Dutch book in 1508 that described a 1505 Portuguese expedition led by Francisco de Almeida from the East Indies “[o]n the twenty-first day of July we saw land, and it was an island lyng six hundred and fifty miles from the Cape, and called Saint Helena, howbeit we could not land there. […] And after we left the island of Saint Helena, we saw another island two hundred miles from there, which is called Ascension”.  Nevertheless, the first residents all arrived on Portuguese vessels. Its first known permanent resident was Portuguese, Fernão Lopez who had turned traitor in India and had been mutilated by order of Albuquerque, the Governor of Goa. Fernando Lopez preferred being marooned to returning to Portugal in his maimed condition, and lived on Saint Helena from about 1516. 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 Saint Helena, where he died in 1545.
When the island was discovered, it was covered with unique (indigenous) vegetation, including many tropical trees. The island’s hinterland must have been a dense tropical forest but the coastal areas were probably quite green as well. The modern landscape is very different, with mostly bare rock in the lower areas, and an inland region that is green – but mainly introduced plants. The change in landscape can be attributed to the impact of humans, the introduction of goats and the introduction of new vegetation.
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. Bermudez, the Patriarch of Abyssinia landed at St Helena in 1557 on a voyage to Portugal, remaining on the island for a year. Three Japanese ambassadors on an embassy to the Pope also visited St Helena in 1583.
No firm evidence supports the idea that Sir Francis Drake located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580). The existence of St Helena was certainly known to the English before they finally located it, for example the Elizabethan adventurer Edward Fenton made plans in 1582 to find and seize the island. In 1588 Thomas Cavendish became the first Englishman known to have visited the island during his first attempt to circumnavigate the world. He stayed for 12 days and described the valley (initially called Chapel Valley) where Jamestown is 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.”
Another English seaman, Captain Abraham Kendall, visited Saint Helena in 1591, and in 1593 Sir James Lancaster stopped at the island on his way home from the East. Once the secret of St Helena’s location had been revealed, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home. As a result, in 1592 Philip II of Spain and I of Portugal (1527–1598) 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 piloted by John Davis (English explorer) attacked a large Spanish Caravel, only to be beaten off and forced to retreat to Ascension Island for repairs. The Italian merchant Francesco Carletti, claimed in his autobiography he was robbed by the Dutch when sailing on a Portuguese ship in 1602. The Portuguese and Spanish soon gave up regularly calling at the island, partly because they used ports along the West African coast, but also because of attacks on their shipping, desecration to their chapel and images, destruction of their livestock and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors. In 1603 Lancaster again visited Saint Helena on his return from the first voyage equipped by the British East India Company. In 1610, by which time most Dutch and English ships visited the island on their home voyage, François Pyrard de Laval deplored the deterioration since his last visit in 1601, describing damage to the chapel and destruction of fruit trees by the expedient of cutting down trees to pick the fruit. Whilst Thomas Best, commander of the tenth British East India Company expedition reported plentiful supplies of lemons in 1614, only 40 lemon trees were observed by the traveller Peter Mundy in 1634.
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 archive office. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favour of their colony founded at the Cape of Good Hope.
British East India Company, 1658 – 1815
The idea for the English to make claim to the island was first made in a 1644 pamphlet by Richard Boothby. By 1649, the East India Company ordered all homeward-bound vessels to wait for one another at St Helena and in 1656 onward 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 Richard Cromwell in 1657, the following year the Company decided to fortify and colonise St Helena with planters. A fleet commanded by Captain John Dutton (first governor, 1659-1661) in the Marmaduke arrived at St Helena in 1659. It is from this date that St Helena claims to be Britain’s second oldest colony (after Bermuda). 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, possibly to give their occupation of St Helena legitimacy. This 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, but the Company had great difficulty attracting new immigrants, the population falling to only 66 including 18 slaves by 1670. John Dutton’s successors as governor, Robert Stringer (1661-1670) and Richard Coney (1671-1672), repeatedly warned the Company of unrest amongst the inhabitants, Coney complaining the inhabitants were drunks and ne’er-do-wells. In 1672 Coney was seized by rebellious members of the island’s council and shipped back to England. Coincidentally, the Company had already sent a replacement governor, Anthony Beale (1672-1673).
Finding that the cape was not the ideal harbour they originally envisaged, the Dutch East India Company launched an armed invasion of St Helena from the Cape colony over Christmas 1672. Governor Beale was forced to abandon the island in a Company ship, sailing to Brazil where he hired a fast ship. This he used to locate an East India Company flotilla sent to reinforce St Helena with fresh troops. The island was retaken in May 1673 without loss of life and reinforced with 250 troops. The same year the Company petitioned a new Charter from Charles II of England and this 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.
In 1674 Richard Keigwin (1673-1674), the next acting governor, was seized by discontented settlers and troops and was only rescued by the lucky arrival of an East India Company fleet under the command of Captain William Basse. By 1675, the part-time recruitment of settlers in a Militia enabled the permanent garrison to be reduced to 50 troops. Edmund Halley was a visitor the following year, observing the positions of 341 stars in the Southern hemisphere. Amongst the most significant taxes levied on imports was a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave. Slaves were also brought from Asia by incoming shipping. Thus, most slaves came from Madagascar and Asia rather than the African mainland. By 1679, the number of slaves had risen to about 80. An uprising by soldiers and planters in 1684 during the governorship of John Blackmore (1678-1689) led to the death of three mutineers in an attack on Fort James and the later execution of four others. The formation of the Grand Alliance and outbreak of war against France in 1698 meant that for several years ships from Asia avoided the island for fear of being attacked by French men-of-war. Soldiers at the end of their service thereby had restricted opportunities to obtain a passage back to Britain. Governor Joshua Johnson (1690-1693) also prevented soldiers smuggling themselves aboard ships by ordering all outgoing ships to only leave during daylight hours. This led to a mutiny in 1693 in which a group of mutineer soldiers seized a ship and made their escape, during the course of which Governor Johnson was killed. Meanwhile, savage punishment was meted out to slaves during this period, some being burnt alive and others starved to death. Rumours of an uprising by slaves in 1694 led to the gruesome execution of three slaves and cruel punishment of many others.
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 1690’s, leading to the destruction of food crops and young tree shoots. 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 (1708-11) 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. An early mention of the problems of soil erosion was made in 1718 when a waterspout broke over Sandy Bay, on the southern coast. Against the background of this erosion, several years of drought and the general dependency of St Helena, in 1715 governor Isaac Pyke (1714-1719) made the serious suggestion to the Company that appreciable savings could be made by moving the population to Mauritius, evacuated by the French in 1710. 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. Despite the clear connection between deforestation and the increasing number of floods (in 1732, 1734, 1736, 1747, 1756 and 1787) 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 in trees two feet across, 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 employed in killing the wild cats.
William Dampier called into St Helena in 1691 at the end of his first of three circumnavigations of the world and stated Jamestown comprised 20-30 small houses built with rough stones furnished with mean furniture. These houses were only occupied when ships called at the island because their owners were all employed on their plantations further in the island. He described how women born on the island “very earnestly desired to be released from that Prison, having no other way to compass this but by marrying Seamen of Passengers that touch here”.
Following commercial rivalries between the original English East India Company and a New East India Company created in 1698, a new Company was formed in 1708 by amalgamation, and entitled the “United Company of Merchants of England, trading to the East Indies”. St Helena was then transferred to this new United East India Company. The same year, extensive work began to build the present Castle. Because of a lack of cement, mud was used as the mortar for many buildings, most of which had deteriorated into a state of ruin. In a search for lime on the island, a soldier in 1709 claimed to have discovered gold and silver deposits in Breakneck Valley. For a short period, it is believed that almost every able-bodied man was employed in prospecting for these precious metals. The short-lived Breakneck Valley Gold Rush ended with the results of an assay of the deposits in London, showing that they were iron pyrites.
A census in 1723 showed that out of a total population 1,110, some 610 were slaves. In 1731, a majority of tenant planters successfully petitioned governor Edward Byfield (1727-1731) for the reduction of the goat population. The next governor, Isaac Pyke (1731-1738), had a tyrannical reputation but successfully extended tree plantations, improved fortifications and transformed the garrison and militia into a reliable force for the first time. In 1733 Green Tipped Bourbon Coffee seeds were brought from the coffee port of Mocha in Yemen, on a Company ship The Houghton and were planted at various locations around the Island where the plants flourished, despite general neglect.
Robert Jenkins, of “Jenkins Ear” fame (governor 1740-1742) embarked on a programme of eliminating corruption and improving the defences. The island’s first hospital was built on its present site in 1742. Governor Charles Hutchinson (1747-1764) tackled the neglect of crops and livestock and also brought the laws of the island closer to those in England. Nevertheless, racial discrimination continued and it was not until 1787 that the black population were allowed to give evidence against whites. In 1758 three French warships were seen lying off the island in wait for the Company’s India fleet. In an inconclusive battle, these were engaged by warships from the Company’s China fleet. Nevil Maskelyne and Robert Waddington set up an observatory in 1761 to observe the transit of Venus, following a suggestion first made by Halley. In the event, observations were obscured by cloud. Most of the cattle were destroyed this year through an unidentified sickness.
Attempts by governor John Skottowe (1764-1782) to regularise the sale of arrack and punch led to some hostility and desertions by a number of troops who stole boats and were probably mostly lost at sea – however, at least one group of seven soldiers and a slave succeeded in escaping to Brazil in 1770. It was from about this date that the island began, for the first time, to enjoy a prolonged period of prosperity. The first Parish Church in Jamestown had been showing signs of decay for many years, and finally a new building was erected in 1774. St James’ is now the oldest Anglican church south of the Equator. Captain James Cook visited the island in 1775 on the final leg of his second circumnavigation of the world.
An order by governor Daniel Corneille (1782–1787) banning garrison troops and sailors from punch-taverns, 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. Ninety-nine mutineers were condemned to death and were then decimated whereby lots were drawn, with one in every ten being shot and executed. Saul Solomon is believed to have arrived at the island about 1790, where he eventually formed the Solomon’s company, initially based at an emporium, today occupied by the Rose and Crown shop. Captain Bligh arrived at St Helena in 1792 during his second attempt to ship a cargo of bread-fruit trees to Jamaica.
In 1795 governor Robert Brooke (1787–1801) was alerted that the French had overrun the Netherlands, forcing the Dutch to become their allies. Some 411 troops were sent from the garrison to support General Sir James Craig in his successful capture of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. As a result of a policy of recruiting time-expired soldiers calling at the island on their voyage home from India, the St Helena Regiment was built up to 1,000 men by 1800. At the same time, every able-bodied man joined the island’s militia. Fortifications were improved and a new system of visual signalling introduced. The importation of slaves was made illegal in 1792. An outbreak of measles was caused by the arrival of a fleet of ships in January 1807, leading to the death of 102 “Blacks” (probably under-reported in church records) and 58 “whites” in the two months to May. Since most slaves were owned by the wealthier town dwellers, governor Robert Patton (1802–1807) recommended that Company import Chinese labour to supplement the rural workforce. These arrived in 1810, their numbers rising to about 600 by 1818, many were allowed to stay on after 1836 and their descendents became integrated into the population.
Action taken by governor Alexander Beatson (1808–1813) to reduce drunkenness by prohibiting the public sale of spirits and the importation of cheap Indian spirits resulted in a mutiny by about 250 troops in December 1811. After surrendering to loyal troops, nine leading mutineers were executed. Under the aegis of governor Mark Wilks (1813-1816) farming methods were improved, a rebuilding programme initiated and the first public library opened. A census in 1814 showed the number of inhabitants was 3,507.
Napoleon’s exile, British rule, 1815-1821
In 1815 the British government selected Saint 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. For more details about Napoleon on Saint Helena, see Exile in Saint Helena and death.
During this period the island was strongly garrisoned by the regular British regimental troops, local St Helena Regiment troops and naval shipping circling the island. Agreement was reached that St Helena would remain in the East India Company’s possession, the British government meeting additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon and the East India Company. Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (1816–1821), was appointed by, and directly reported to, the Lord Bathurst, 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, 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. Solomon Dickson & Taylor issued £147-worth of copper halfpenny tokens sometime before 1821 to enhance local trade.
British East India Company, 1821-1834
After Napoleon’s death the thousands of temporary visitors were soon withdrawn. The East India Company resumed full control of Saint Helena and life returned to the pre-1815 standards, the fall in population causing a sharp change in the economy. The next governors, Thomas Brooke (temporary governor, 1821-1823) and Alexander Walker (1823-1828), successfully brought the island through this post-Napoleonic period with the opening of a new farmer’s market in Jamestown, the foundation of an Agricultural and Horticultural Society and improvements in education. In 1832 the East India Company abolished slavery in St Helena (freeing 614 slaves), a year before legislation to ban slavery in the colonies was passed by Parliament. An abortive attempt was made to set up a whaling industry in 1830 (also in 1875). 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.
British rule, a Crown colony, 1834 – 1981
The British 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 2 April 1834. In practice, the transfer did not take effect until 24 February 1836 when Major-General George Middlemore (1836-1842), the first governor appointed by the British government, arrived with 91st Regiment troops. He summarily dismissed St Helena Regiment and, following orders from London, embarked on a savage drive to cut administrative costs, dismissing most officers previously in the Company employ. This triggered the start of a long-term pattern whereby those who could afford to do so tended to leave the island for better fortunes and opportunities elsewhere. The population was to fall gradually fall from 6,150 in 1817 to less than 4,000 by 1890. Charles Darwin spent six days of observation on the island in 1836 during his return journey on HMS Beagle. Dr James Barry (surgeon) the first British female to qualify as a medical doctor, also arrived that year as principal medical officer (1836-1837). In addition to reorganising the hospital, Barry highlighted the heavy incidence of venereal diseases in the civilian population, blaming the government for the removal of the St Helena Regiment, which resulted in destitute females resorting to prostitution.
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 (via the Mediterranean, the Alexandria to Cairo overland crossing and the Red Sea) to be roughly halved compared with the traditional South Atlantic route. This precursor to the affects of the Suez Canal (1869), 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; to 603 in 1879 and to only 288 in 1889.
In 1839, London coffee merchants Wm Burnie & Co described St Helena coffee as being of “very superior quality and flavour”. In 1840 the British Government deployed a naval station to suppress the African slave trade. The squadron was based at St Helena and a Vice Admiralty Court was based at Jamestown to try the crews of the slave ships. Most of these were broken up and used for salvage. Surviving slaves (about 10,000 between 1840-1874) were incarcerated to regain their health in Liberated African Depots at Rupert’s Bay, Lemon Valley and High Knoll. About a third of ex-slaves died and were buried at Rupert’s Bay. A few survivors were employed as servants or labourers, their descendents being absorbed into the population, representing the main source of African ethnicity. Most were shipped out to plantations on the West Indies, only a few returning to Africa.
It was also in 1840 that the British government acceded to a French request for Napoleon’s body to be returned to France. The body, in excellent state of preservation, was exhumed on 15 October 1840 and ceremonially handed over to the Prince de Joinville in the French ship La Belle Poule.
A European Regiment, called the St Helena Regiment, comprising five companies was formed in 1842 for the purpose of garrisoning the island. William A Thorpe, the founder of the Thorpe business, was born on the island the same year. There was another outbreak of measles in 1843 and it was noted that none of those who survived the 1807 outbreak contracted the disease a second time. The first Baptist minister arrived from Cape Town in 1845. The same year, St Helena coffee was sold in London at 1d per pound, making it the most expensive and exclusive in the world. In 1846, St James church was considerably repaired, a steeple replacing the old tower. The same year, huge waves, or “rollers”, hit the island causing 13 ships anchored off Jamestown bay to be wrecked. The foundation stone for St Paul’s country church, also known as “The Cathedral”, was laid in 1850. Following instructions from London to achieve economies, Governor Thomas Gore Brown (1851-1856) further reduced the civil establishment. He also tackled the problems of overpopulation of Jamestown posed by the restrictions of the valley terrain by establishing a village at Rupert’s Bay. A census in 1851 showed a total of 6,914 inhabitants living on the island. In 1859 the Anglican Diocese of St Helena was set up for St Helena, including Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha (initially also including the Falkland Islands, Rio de Janeiro and other towns along the east coast of South America), the first Bishop of St Helena arriving on the island that year. Islanders later complained that succeeding governors were mainly retired senior military officers with an undynamic approach to the job. St John’s church was built in upper Jamestown in 1857, one motivation being to counter the levels of vice and prostitution at that end of the town.
The following year, the lands forming the sites of Napoleon’s burial and of his home at Longwood House were vested in Napoleon III and his heirs 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 much later given to the French Government in 1959.
St Helena coffee grown on the Bamboo Hedge Estate at Sandy Bay won a premier award at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. Saul Solomon was buried at St Helena in 1853. The first postage stamp was issued for the island in 1856, the six-pence blue, marking the start of considerable philatelic interest in the island.
By the 1860’s it was apparent that wood sourced from some condemned slave ships (possibly a Brazilian ship) from the 1840s were infested by termites (“white ants”). Eating their way through house timbers (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. The corner stone for St Matthew’s church at Hutt’s Gate was laid in 1861.
The withdrawal of the British naval station in 1864 and closure of the Liberated African Station ten years later (several hundred Africans were deported to Lagos and other places on the West African coast) resulted in a further deterioration in the economy. A small earthquake was recorded the same year. The gaol in Rupert’s Bay was destroyed and the Castle and Supreme Court were reconstructed in 1867. Cinchona plants were introduced in 1868 by Charles Elliot (1863-1870) with a view to exporting quinine but the experiment was abandoned by his successor Governor C. G. E. Patey (1870-1873), who also embarked on a programme of reducing the civil establishment. The latter action led to another phase of emigration from the island. An experiment in 1874 to produce flax from Phomium Tenax (New Zealand flax) failed (the cultivation of flax recommenced in 1907 and eventually became the island’s largest export). In 1871, the Royal Engineers constructed Jacob’s Ladder up the steep side of the valley from Jamestown to Knoll Mount Fort, with 700 steps, one step being covered over in later repairs. A census in 1881 showed 5,059 inhabitants lived on the island. Jonathan, claimed to be the world’s oldest tortoise, is thought to have arrived on the island in 1882.
An outbreak of measles in 1886 resulted in 113 cases and 8 deaths. Jamestown was lighted for the first time in 1888, the initial cost being born by the inhabitants. Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, son of the Zulu king Cetshwayo, was exiled at St Helena between 1890 and 1897. Diphtheria broke out in 1887 and also in 1893 which, with an additional outbreak of whooping cough, led to the death of 31 children under 10. In 1890 a great fall of rock killed nine people in Jamestown, a fountain being erected in Main Street in their memory. A census in 1891 showed 4,116 inhabitants lived on the island. A submarine cable en-route to Britain from Cape Town was landed in November 1899 and extended to Ascension by December and was operated by the Eastern Telegraph Company. For the next two years over six thousand Boer prisoners were imprisoned at Deadwood and Broadbottom. The population reached its all-time record of 9,850 in 1901. Although a number of prisoners died, being buried at Knollcombes, the islanders and Boers developed a relationship of mutual respect and trust, a few Boers choosing to remain on the island when the war ended in 1902. A severe outbreak of influenza in 1900 led to the death of 3.3% of the population, although it affected neither the Boer prisoners not the troops guarding them. An outbreak of whooping cough in 1903 infected most children on the island, although only one dies as a result.
The departure of the Boers and later removal of the remaining garrison in 1906 (with the disbandment of the St Helena Volunteers, this was the first time the island was left without a garrison) both impacted on the island economy, which was only slightly offset by growing philatelic sales. The successful reestablishment of the flax industry in 1907 did much to counter these problems, generating considerable income during the war years. Lace making was encouraged as an island-industry during the pre-war period, initiated by Emily Jackson in 1890 and a lace-making school was opened in 1908. Two men, known as the Prosperous Bay Murderers, were hanged in 1905. A fish-canning factory opened in 1909 but failed due to an unusual shortage of fish that year. S.S. Papanui, en route from Britain to Australia with emigrants, arrived in James Bay in 1911 on fire. The ship burned out and sank, but it’s 364 passengers and crew were rescued and looked after on the island. A census in 1911 showed the population had fallen from its peak in 1901 to only 3,520 inhabitants. Some 4,800 rats tails were presented to the Government in 1913, who paid a penny per tail.
Islanders were made aware of their vulnerability to naval attack, despite extensive fortifications, following a visit by a fleet of three German super-dreadnoughts in January 1914. With the outbreak of the Great War, the defunct St Helena Volunteer Corps was re-established. Some 46 islanders gave their lives in the First World War. The 1918 world pandemic of influenza bypassed St Helena. The self-proclaimed Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Khalid Bin Barghash, was exiled in St Helena from 1917 to 1921 before being transferred to the Seychelles.
William A. Thorpe was killed in an accident in 1918, his business continuing to operate on the island to the present day. In 1920 the Norwegian ship Spangereid caught fire and sank at her mooring at James Bay, depositing quantities of coal on the beach below the wharf. A census in 1921 showed the islands population was 3,747. The first islanders left to work at Ascension Island in 1921, which was made a dependency of St Helena in 1922. Thomas R. Bruce (postmaster 1898-1928) was the first islander to design a postage stamp, the 1922-1937 George V ship-design – this significantly contributed to island revenues for several years. South African coinage became legal tender in 1923, reflecting the high level of trade with that country. There were nine deaths from whooping cough between 1920 and 1929 and 2,200 cases of measles in 1932. The first car, an Austin 7, was imported into the island in 1929. A census in 1931 showed a population of 3,995 (and a goat population of nearly 1,500). Cable and Wireless absorbed the Eastern Telegraph Company in 1934. Tristan da Cunha was made a dependency of St Helena in 1938.
Some six islanders gave their lives during the Second World War. The German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee was observed passing the island in 1939 and the British oil tanker Darkdale was torpedoed off Jamestown bay. As part of the Lend-Lease agreement, America built Wideawake airport on Ascension in 1942, but no military use was made of St Helena. As in the previous war, the island enjoyed increased revenues through the sale of flax.
There were 217 cases of poliomyelitis, including 11 deaths, in 1945. A census in 1946 showed 4,748 inhabitants lived on the island. In 1948 there were seven deaths from whooping cough and 77 hospital admissions from acute nephritis. In 1951, mumps attacked 90% of the population. Solomon’s became a limited company the same year. Flax prices continued to rise after the war, rising to their zenith in 1951. However, this St Helena staple industry 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. Many acres of land are still covered with flax plants. A census in 1956 showed the population had fallen only slightly, to 4,642. 1957 witnessed the arrival of three Bahrain princes as prisoners of Britain, who remained until released by a writ of habeas corpus in 1960. Another attempt to cooperate a fish cannery led to closure in 1957. From 1958, the Union Castle shipping line gradually reduced their service calls to the island. The same year, there were 36 cases of poliomyelitis. A census in 1966 showed a relatively unchanged population of 4,649 inhabitants.
A South African company (The South Atlantic Trading and Investment Corporation, SATIC) bought a majority share in Solomon and Company in 1968. Following several years of losses and to avoid the economic effects of a closure of the company, the St Helena government eventually bought a majority share in the company in 1974. In 1969 the first elections were held under the new constitution for twelve-member Legislative Council. By 1976, the population had grown slightly to 5,147 inhabitants. Based from Avonmouth, Curnow Shipping replaced the Union-Castle Line mailship service in 1977, using the RMS St Helena, a coastal passenger and cargo vessel that had been used between Vancouver and Alaska. Due to structural weakness, the spire of St James church was demolished in 1980. The endemic flowering shrub, the St Helena Ebony, believed to have been extinct for over a century, was discovered on the island in 1981.
1981 to present
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 (as defined in the British Nationality Act 1948) and were stripped of their right of abode in Britain. For the next 20 years, many could only find low-paid work with the island government and the only available employment overseas for the islanders was restricted to the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island, a period during which the island was often referred to as the “South Atlantic Alcatraz”.
The RMS St Helena 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. The ship was involved in supporting minesweeper operations but the volunteers were refused South Atlantic Medals. Prince Andrew began his relationship with St Helena in 1984 with a visit to the island as a member of the armed forces.
The 1987 census showed that the island population stood at 5,644. The Development & Economic Planning Department, which still operates, was formed in 1988 to contribute to raising the living standards of the people of St Helena by planning and managing sustainable economic development through education, participation and planning, improving decision making by providing statistical information and by improving the safety and operation of the wharf and harbour operations. After decades of planning, the realisation of the three-tier school system began in 1988 under the aegis of the Head of Education, Basil George, when the Prince Andrew School was opened for all pupils of 12 onwards. Middle schools would take the 8 to 12 year old children and the First schools from 5 year olds.
Prince Andrew launched the replacement RMS St Helena in 1989 at Aberdeen. The vessel was specially built for the Cardiff-Cape Town route, and featured a mixed cargo/passenger layout. At the same time, a shuttle service between St Helena and Ascension was planned, for the many Saint Helenians working there and on the Falklands. In 1995 the decision was made to base the ship from Cape Town and limit the number of trips to the UK to just four a year.
The 1988 St Helena Constitution took effect in 1989 and provided that the island would be governed by a Governor and Commander-in-Chief, and an Executive and Legislative Council. The Executive Council members would be elected for nomination by the elected members of the Legislative Council, and subsequently appointed by the Governor and could only be removed from office by the votes of a majority of the five members of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council Members would be re-elected by the voters every four years. With few exceptions the Governor would be obliged to abide by the advice given to him by the Executive Council. Five Council Committees would be made up from the membership of the Legislative Council and civil servants so that at any time there would always be a majority of elected members. The five Chairpersons of these committees would comprise the elected membership of the Executive Council.
The Bishop’s Commission on Citizenship was established at the Fifteenth Session of Diocesan Synod in 1992 with the aim of restoring full citizenship of the islanders and restore the right of abode in the UK. Research began (Prof. T. Charlton) in 1993, two years before its introduction on the island and five years after, to measure the influence that television has on the behaviour of children in classrooms and school playgrounds. This concluded that the island children continued to be hard working and very well behaved and that family and community social controls were more important in shaping children’s behaviour than exposure to television. The Island of St Helena Coffee Company was founded in 1994 by David Henry and continues to operate independently from the island Government. Using Green Tipped Bourbon Coffee plants imported in 1733, crops are grown on several sites, including the Bamboo Hedge Estate Sandy Bay estate used for the 1851 Great Exhibition entry. In 1997, the acute employment problem at St Helena was brought to the attention of the British public following reports in the tabloid press of a “riot” following an article in the Financial Times describing how the Governor, David Smallman (1995-1999), was jostled by a small crowd who believed he and the Foreign Office had rejected plans to build an airport on the island.
Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, and the same year the British government published a review of the Dependent Territories. This included a commitment to restore the pre-1981 status for citizenship. This was effected by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, which restored full passports to the islanders, and renamed the Dependent Territories the British Overseas Territories. The St Helena National Trust was also formed the same year with the aim of promoting the island’s unique environmental and culture heritage. The last full census was conducted in 1998 when the population was 5,008 persons. Annual estimates since 1998 showed an accelerated decline in the population, to an estimated figure of 4,299 in 2005 . The next full census in 2008 is expected to show less than 4,000 inhabitants.
In a vote held in January 2002, a majority of islanders (at home and abroad) voted in favour for an airport to be built. The island’s two-floor museum situated in a building near the base of Jacob’s Ladder was opened the same year and is operated by the St Helena Heritage Society. The Bank of St Helena, located next to the Post Office, commenced operations in 2004, inheriting the assets and accounts of the former St Helena Government Savings and the Ascension Island Savings Banks, both of which then ceased to exist. In April 2005 the British Government announced plans to construct an airport on Saint Helena to bolster the Island’s economy, and reduce the dependence on boats to supply the Island. The Airport is currently expected to be open in 2012, though no firm date has yet been announced. At that time the Royal Mail ship is expected to cease operations.
In the first half of 2008, areas of the cliff above the wharf were stabilised from rock falls with netting at a cost of approximately £3 million. On the 14th August, about 200 tons of rock fell from the west side of Jamestown severely damaging the Baptist chapel and surrounding buildings. Plans are in hand to net the most dangerous sections of the mountains either side of Jamestown over the period to 2015 at an estimated cost of about £15 million.
A comparative review of the different sources for the history of St Helena has been published on the St Helena Institute web site