More about St Helena

St Helena – “a mere wart in the sea” – Dr John Fryer, 1682

There is hardly such another ragged, steepy, stony, high, cragged, rocky, barren, desolate and comfortless coast to be seen” – Peter Mundy, 1638

Some simple background notes to help you get rapidly acquainted with the island (click on the link to rapidly reach that section; click the “To Top” button at the bottom right to go back to this list):

 

What Makes St Helena so special – why are Saints so proud of it, why do visitors take the trouble to come so far from overseas, why does St Helena generate so much interest? (It’s got to be more than just Napoleon – surely?!)

  • The island’s Isolation in the surrounding South Atlantic Ocean
  • The Saints and their Culture
  • The island’s History and evidence in the remaining Built Heritage
  • Geology and Scenery
  • Vegetation and Wildlife

All these combined together provide a truly unique place to live or to visit.

Isolation. This can be measured in distance, in the time it takes to get here, or just in the sheer amount of ocean surrounding the island on all sides – horizons of water in every direction unbroken by anything apart from white horses and the occasional seabird.

At present it takes five nights over 3,115 km of sea from Cape Town to reach here on the only ship regularly serving the island – the last remaining Royal Mail Ship St Helena – fondly known by all as the “RMS”. This is cut to only two nights over 1,300 km of sea if you come from Ascension, but with limited seats available on military flights into Ascension. Yachts take longer. There is no other way to get here!

To many, isolation has a fascination all of its own. It is a way of turning your back on the aches and pains of the rest of the world, of “doing without” that which society tries to make us think is indispensable (no airport, no ATMs, no mobile phones!), and of re-creating yourself, refreshing your soul. To live here – even if only for a short time – is very, very special.

Uniqueness. This tiny, stubby volcanic lump of an island has been here a very long time. This has resulted in a heavily eroded surface that provides a wide variety of terrain, soils, altitude and climate, from sea level to almost 900 metres above sea level – in just 123km2 surface area. This in turn has supported the few creatures that have made it across the isolating wastes of the Atlantic whether by sea or on the winds. In the absence of competition or contact with their origins, these plants and animals have adapted to conditions on the island in their own way, differing from their originators to become new species – found nowhere else in the world and uniquely St Helenian.

Such unique species are known as endemics. While few of these species are of any size, nor are they numerous since the coming of man, they do provide a further attraction to those who are curious about the world in which they live.

Land & Sea. An island cannot be considered without the surrounding sea. The sea with no island is seemingly flat and uninteresting. St Helena has both sea and island complementing each other and forming the basis of the support of its people and culture. Never still, always unpredictable, the South Atlantic Ocean has interacted with the island for a very long time. It too is full of surprises, with a number of endemic species despite the semming ease with which waterborne species should be able to travel between places.

Let’s get this right from the outset!. We here are concerned with the Island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.This is not about St Helena Bay in South Africa, nor about those other St Helena Islands off the coast of Australia or the USA. This is THE St Helena Island – that wondrous far-off place, way out there in the South Atlantic, with its remarkable people – The Saints.

St Helena is one of thirteen Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands. It is 1,800 km off the west coast of Africa level with the Angola-Namibia border.

SW Point cliffs

SW Point cliffs

It is remarkable for its unique history as a trading post and fortress, for the magnificence of its coastline, the beauty of its landscape and for its endemic species. The capital, Jamestown, is a precious example of an 18th-century colonial town, planned and built for the East India Company. The island’s cliffs, bays and hilltops are dotted with forts, look-out posts and batteries dating back to the early 18th century, many retaining their original guns.

The St Helenians or “Saints” as they are known locally, are a truly cosmopolitan group, descending as they do from a broad variety of backgrounds – freed slaves of many origins (India, the Far East, Madagscar, West and East Africa), indentured Chinese labour, American whalers, survivors of the Fire of London, British soldiers from the UK and India, businessmen from several countries – who have all contributed their genes, their skills and their culture to form the society we see today. It is still evolving and will continue to do so, Today, St Helena has a resident population of around 4,000. The same number again live in various places around the world, but especially in the UK, South Africa, and those who work and live for prolonged periods on the military bases of Ascension and the Falkland Islands.

In spite of deforestation and erosion by human settlement, its landscape remains one of outstanding variety, contrast and beauty, within which many of the endemic species of flora and fauna survive in tiny isolated refuges.

Origins & Geology: Once upon a time, a long time ago, 14 million years ago in fact, there was a weak hotspot on the South Atlantic Ocean floor, deep down where the South American and African continental plates met and interacted. Molton lavas poured out onto the ocean floor and gradually developed a sea mount rising from the depths. In due course this reached the surface some four kilometres above and a roiling, steaming little island appeared foaming in the waves breaking over it. Things did not stop there but for several million years more lava continued to spew out, either as fairly cataclysmic volcanos, and as general bleeding of sheets of molton rock and ash. The island eventually reached some 2,500 metres above the sea’s surface, the result of two main volcano centres, one in the south east in the present day Sandy Bay basin, and the other at Flagstaff in the north.

The ocean floor weakness remained where it was but the island and the section of plate to which it was attached drifted eastwards over the millennia to the island’s current position some 1,400 kms east from the South Atlantic Ridge. This would relate it geographically to Africa rather than South America, but as you will find on any visit, the island is “other-worldly” – neither American nor African – it is quite simply – St Helena.

Look at the cliffs as you approach, look at the cuttings made to carry the roads up the staggering hillsides around Jamestown, look at the paint-palette earths in duns, browns, oranges, reds and purples – to see for yourself the chaotic conditions of the island’s creation over thousands and millions of years. See the effect of the rainfall, wind, the sea and tectonic movements over the same thousands of years which together have produced the rugged, craggy peaks, gorges and skylines we see today – a place of wonder and awe, a privilege to visit, and even more a place to live and work in.

One early visitor summed it up in the words “A mere wart on the face of the Atlantic Ocean” – true enough – merely 10 by 15 kilometres in size, but with new landscapes at every turn where you could be in several dozen other places on earth. Some magnificent wart!

Life found its way to this new island by a number of routes whose details we may never know. Suffice it to say that lower and higher vascular plants, seabirds and even some landbirds made it to the island, and some found suitable habitat on which they could survive. This started a process of evolution whereby as on many other remote islands, a newly arrived species over time was able to live in a number of habitats in the absence of competition. In due course variations developed that were better suited to different aspects of the differences in island altitude, vegetation and climate, forming varieties, sub-species and even species over the millennia. Hence the reason for the large number of endemic species in those groups that have done so well here – especially the plants and invertebrates.

The island has undergone a number of changes during the weathering over the centuries, and during major long slow changes on earth generally. One of these was changes in sea level during periods of glaciation and inter-glacials. The sea was estimated to have been up to 150 metres lower some 10,000 years ago, that it is today. Look at a bathymetric chart and you will quickly realise the island then had a “skirt” of low-lying flat land around its perimeter, but that in the south east corner off Speery Island corner this low-lying exposed land extended several kilometres out to sea giving the island a “tail” of exposed probably marshy land. Might this have been suitable habitat on which a little flock of small waders might survive and thrive? Enter – possibly – the St Helena Wirebird whose fossils have been found in sands deposited on land some 10,000 years ago.

First “Discovery”: Discovery is an awkward word in this day and age when our knowledge of our ignorance of early history is becoming so apparent. It is clearly evident that the island was “discovered” by a number of living organisms – non-human – long before man ever sighted it in 1502. Did any of the early sea voyagers see the island, or even land on it? Like the long-distance journeys of exploration by the Phoenicians, ancient Egyptians and the Chinese? If they did, we have yet to find the evidence, but must keep an open mind.

It is recorded that the Portuguese navigator Jao da Nova did see the island and set foot on the island back in May 1502, an event celebrated every year –on the feast day of St Helena, and truly the day when the island with its present name of St Helena was born. In doing so he connected St Helena to the rest of the world with a number of consequences – both good and bad, depending on your point of view.

Lost & Found: St Helena was lost soon after this! A number of ships reported not being able to find it, and some even claimed to have found a second island nearby. It turned out in the end that given the rudimentary navigational aids and recording systems on hand drawn maps, and limited communication between ships and countries, the real location has been mis-recorded – perhaps on purpose in trying to retain exclusive use of the island as a stopover – and in time its location became fixed and it was re-located on more and more frequent occasions.

The original Portuguese visit or others soon afterwards, started the ball rolling in modifying the island by leaving their agents behind – primarily livestock, especially goats, to multiply and provide a food source for future visits – but also we suspect some plants. In a very short time the original flora and fauna was irrevocably altered, not least by the extraordinary breeding success of the goats and their depredations upon the indigenous flora which had no protection for such onslaughts – no thorns, no toxins – so no future?

One Portuguese traveller – Fernando Lopez – opted to stay on the island for many years – disgraced back in Goa and severely mutilated and shipped back to Portugal as punishment, on reaching St Helena he opted to remain in 1513, with a number of Negro slaves and farmed successfully on the island instead. Four years later he was removed to Portugal, but after an audience with the King he was pardoned and permitted to return to St Helena where he continued to live until he died it is said some 30 years alter. He was supplied with pigs, goats, poultry, partridges, pheasants, guinea fowls, peacocks, root vegetables and fruit trees, all of which thrived under his husbandry.

By the end of the 16th century navigators from other countries had found the island too and the Portuguese – who had not attempted any serious kind of settlement – lost their secrets. The explorer Thomas Cavendish was commander of the first British vessel recorded to reach the island on the 8th of June 1588 – 86 years after the Portuguese had first located it. He reported there were by then thousands of goats and food was readily available.

By the year 1603 British trading ships between Britain and India were calling at the island, as were those of the Dutch and Spanish fleets. St Helena’s secret was out, and it has not been lost sight of since.

Defences: “No man is an island unto himself” and St Helena is no exception. The island’s isolation and location on the major sea route around the Cape gave it an inestimable value in the days of sailing ships and the advent of the global economy putting it firmly into the sights of the major powers at the time, all vying to grow their empires on the backs of well-supplied and distant countries. The Dutch drove out the Portuguese and claimed and held the island from 1633, but leaving few if any signs of their presence, until 1651 when they settled the Cape of Good Hope instead. At this point the British East India Company took control and settled the island. For a short period the Dutch re-took the island in 1665, but the British took it back again.

From 1666 onwards the numbers of settlers from Britain increased. In 1672 the Dutch again invaded, landing at Bennett’s Point, after an unsuccessful attempt at Lemon Valley. Again they were un-seated within the year by a British force that landed both at Prosperous Bay and James Valley. Following these incursions and upsets the island was very heavily fortified at all possible landing places with curtain walls, defensive lines, lookout points, signal stations and cannons mounted at batteries carved precariously out of the cliff faces above likely invasion points. Fortress St Helena was born – the precursor of the numerous defensive military ruins scattered around the island’s periphery and interior today. The defences were maintained and developed through time with the evolution of armaments and defensive theories and in order to deal with the special requirements of holding important prisoners such as Napoleon, and the Boers, and then coping with the exigencies of the First and Second World Wars.

The East India Company: The British EIC managed and ruled the island from 1659 for the next 177 years until 1836. The island was a valued and secure victualling and watering stop on the long run between England and the Far East for the many sailing ships carrying cargoes on this route. It can be said that St Helena for all these years was the vital key in the success of the British Empire in the East, accessible only around the Cape of Good Hope.

The EIC established a system of governance on the island with all the necessary support infrastructure. Defences, plantations, livestock and plant crops, forestry, water supplies, communication routes, laws, church and education – all evolved from rudimentary beginnings. Slave labour was the system in use with slaves from the Far Eastern holdings of the company as well as from Madagascar and other localities. The island was defended by the “Honourable Company’s” own St Helena Regiment, manning the defences and lookouts along with conscripted settlers in the early days. The basis of systems still extant on the island today was put in place by the EIC and its Council and Governors over the years with varying degrees of success. Some Governors treated the island as their personal fiefdom, others had a deep concern for all who lived here and did their best to improve the lives of the settled inhabitants. Perched between London and India the influences on the island were varied – an influence that has survived down to the present day as can be witnessed in the people, the names, the language and accents.

The grog riots and unrest: Not all was paradise on this lonely but much visited island. At times 1,000 sailing ships a year called, stopping in the “Roads” off Jamestown since they could not tie up to the shore, for varying periods, taking on food and water, enjoying the island and its attractions, and leaving behind them a varied genealogy as is the wont of visiting seafarers. Sailors incarcerated on simple small sailing vessels for months at a time were only too eager to make up for lost time and sorely missed luxuries including alcohol.

The Saints of the time were only too keen to augment their meagre lives with whatever bounty they could glean from these visits and thriving industries developed making grog of various kinds, purveying meat, vegetables, fruit, and of course women, to satisfy the sailors various needs. It was necessary to keep order with a strong military force, and the soldiers too, brought in from England or India, had their own needs and desires.

Whenever attempts were made by various Governors to curb the excesses, especially of alcohol consumption, unrest and disturbances ensued leading on occasions to riots and mutiny. Quickly stemmed in most instances the perpetrators were brought to book and usually hanged, even quartered as an example to others. Unruly salves were severely punished, again often by being hung, or branded with an “R” on the forehead (runaway), put in the stocks, and generally treated with a disdain that today is recognised as inhuman. Life was hard in those times with limited freedom and few luxuries for those lower down the social strata.

Slavery old and new: Slavery was the source of labour on St Helena from its initial discovery in 1502 right up until the absolute abolition of the practice in 1827 – for 325 years. At 20 years calculated for a generation this amounts to 16 generations – amply sufficient time for a slavery mindset to become well-established – people dependant upon the support of others to do their menial jobs, with the slave expecting their support to come from the family that “owned” him or her. One hundred and eighty six years have passed since that time but the memory of slavery dies hard, especially given the final chapters as enacted here on the island.

The earliest slaves accompanied the earliest explorers – we are told that Fernando Lopez was left on the island with Negro companions – whether servants or slaves is not clear. At one time each ship calling at the island was levied one slave as part of the landing charges and expeditions were sent out to acquire more slaves for labour on the island. It is well know that inter-marriage took place, and certainly children were born as the result of relationships between slaves and their “owners”. Children born of a slave woman and a free man were considered also to be slaves and many such were born of liaisons between lonely St Helena Regiment soldiers and slave women on the island.

From an early stage in the history of the island, slaves who espoused Christianity for at least seven years were given their freedom. Late in the 18th century the whole issue of slavery became a challenge with Governors seeking to bring an end to the practice. The importation of new slaves was forbidden after 1792 under Governor Brooke. Children born to slaves after Christmas Day 1818 were considered to be free, but to serve as “apprentices” until 18 years old. 

The Napoleon interlude: One man imprisoned on the island for six short years is the most that many people know about St Helena on hearing the island name. Few know that Napoleon Bonaparte had set his heart on the capture of St Helena as early as 1804, only to be distracted by the temptation to capture Surinam instead. Eleven years later, after his downfall at Waterloo Napoleon stepped ashore at the Steps to live out his final six years on the island. His story is told in great detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say he spent a miserable time out at Longwood under considerable constraints and died in 1821. Although buried on the island his body was removed to France some 19 years later, so for only the second time Napoleon passed over the Steps as he departed the island once more.

The island was less famously a prison for other international malcontents who had attracted the ire of the British Government – Dinuzulu between 1890 and 1899, six thousand Boer soldier prisoners and their families in 1900, and three Bahraini princes between 1957 and 1960. “Fortress St Helena” was also “Gaol St Helena” to more than a few people. Sadly even today some people see the island as a prison rather than a place of wonder and awe.

The British Government takes over: (still being worked upon)

The coming of steamships, the Suez Canal and economic hardship:

Emigration, Alternative employments and the “diaspora”:

The coming of the Airport and the island’s future:

The links between this isolated outpost of civilisation and the rest of the world have remained firmly through the medium of the sea for the past 510 years. The rest of the world has been linked by a maze of aircraft routes since the 1920s and 30s leaving St Helena about a century behind. The main reason for this has been the very rugged nature of the terrain, and consequently the very large amounts of finance needed to construct a suitably flat and long platform for airliners to land upon. An airport for St Helena has been under discussion now for almost 50 years, but it was only in 2011 that the decision to finally go ahead was made. Construction is well under way and it is now hoped that the first aircraft will be able to land in early 2016.

Look at any physical map of the island and you will see how limited the few areas of relatively flat land are. Two main sites came under consideration – Deadwood n the north, and Prosperous Bay Plain – a plain in name but not in nature – on the eastern coast. The latter site was in the end selected, and seemed to most people to be ideal apart from the amazing engineering feats required to bring this rugged area into some semblance of a smooth landing site. No housing, no farming, a rugged, deserted and desertic area of broken rocks, an inland drainage basin, few plants and enormous sea cliffs along its eastern border. The inland drainage basin and the surrounding ridge are however unique habitats on the island and have been the site of some amazing evolutionary adaptation in the insect world. Insects you say? Since when did a “bunch of bugs” ever stand in the way of modern development, of linking an isolated island community with the rest of the civilised world, with modern technology, medicine and all that is missing in life on St Helena?

Well, the answer is now! While the so-called “bugs” per se are significant with 49 species found in the Prosperous Bay Plain Central Basin alone being endemic – that is species not found anywhere else in the world – they ae there for a reason and a very good one – the habitat itself is a unique one. An inland drainage basisn that has had limited outflow for millennia, accumulating all the fine silts and their organic debris which elsewhere on the island have flowed out to sea with every storm and rain shower. To further complicate – or enrich – the situation – evidence suggests that for millennia the area has also provided a relatively flat area for thousands of other airborne creatures – seabirds of a number of species – on which to safely nest and raise their chicks. Tonnes and tonnes of fish have been brought to the island in their beaks and in their crops to be fed as tasty morsels or pre-digested fish slurry to their hungry waiting chicks, only to be ejected at the other end as a rich white paste, known as guano. This has been further enriched with the bodies of those that did not make it, adult and chick alike, some of which have been found as fossils and near fossils in the area.

All this has combined to provide a special habitat area of very different composition to the other areas of the island, an area which has been exploited by the early insects to arrive on the island. Single species being able to evolve over the centuries into several other species, each with its own specialisation, its own niche in this arid, but otherwise rich and varied area.

 

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