Sunday, 19 April 2015

St Helena: haven, prison, refuge

What comes into people's minds when they hear the name St Helena? Chances are that two vague memories come to the surface: firstly the island's remoteness and secondly its association with Napoleon. The two statements are, of course, connected.

Well, the island certainly is remote, but Napoleon was only there from 1815 till 1821 when he died, so his shadow looms rather larger, perhaps, than it should. Many other people have ended up on its isolated shores, some by choice, some by chance, some involuntarily. Many like the Emperor, never left them. Most of their descendants live there to this day.

However, St Helena wasn't always an inhabited island. Before I went there, I had assumed that - like the Caribbean islands it resembles in so many respects - its indigenous population had been wiped out by the diseases and land grabbing of greedy invaders and colonists.

Far from it. After all, the island is so far from any landfall that it would be difficult for any self-sustaining population to reach, let alone survive there. No, the lonely island of St Helena only came into its own with the era of transatlantic travel. The Portuguese first discovered the island in 1502 and used to stop off on their way from Cape Verde to the Cape of Good Hope. They used to take on water and drop off sick crew members. These unfortunate sufferers would be supplied with a bag or two of meal, some seeds and, if they were lucky a couple of pigs or goats.  Some survived. Some didn't. The goats, however, flourished, giving rise to a feral population which eventually consumed much of the island's vegetation.

Here is Lemon Valley. It may look pretty barren these days but its steep volcanic slopes once had a thick covering of trees. The valley also has a source of fresh water and was one of the few inlets where ships could anchor and small boats make it safely to shore. Even today, it is a popular place for picnics and swimming, for it is one of the few places on St Helena with a sandy beach. Nevertheless, it is still more easily reached by sea than on foot. Wheeled transport? Forget about it!

At the foot of the valley you may be able to make out a white building which used to be the old fever hospital. Here sick crew members could be isolated. Yellow Fever was not to be trifled with.

The thick tropical forest was gradually felled to build houses and mend ships. Most of the tall Norfolk pines were used as replacement masts, though some were saved or replaced to act as navigation points for shipping. On the right, you can see two such pines, viewed from the central plain, welcome landmarks after weeks at sea.

In the nineteenth century, termites accidentally arrived on the island with the rotting wood of an old slaver. They rapidly devoured the remaining forest and many of the houses, including the reception hall at the Castle and the most of the books in the public library. Buildings had to be rebuilt, many with iron to replace the wooden originals, as in this staircase from the Castle's Cabinet Room.

All in all, St Helena became a classic environmental calamity, its glorious forests sadly diminished: much like our own British Isles, in fact. Fortunately, significant efforts are now underway to make good the worst depredations, replant forest and restore the habitat of precious native species.

Although St Helena had lain undiscovered for centuries - possibly even millennia - by the time the British explorer Captain Thomas Cavendish arrived in 1588, there was already a small community with a church, a scattering of houses, some productive gardens and even a handful of Negro slaves. The Portuguese may not have been interested in establishing long-term settlements on the island but some of its visitors had found it worthwhile to stay. Here is the only reminder of those days: the bell from the old Portuguese Catholic chapel, long demolished. The bell now hangs at the west door of St James' Anglican Church in the main settlement of Jamestown, named after King James VII and II.

The British and Dutch used the island as a base from which to launch raids on Portuguese ships making the long voyage from India, stealing their precious cargo and, eventually, driving them out. They then competed with each other over the next century or so to hold onto the island. The Dutch eventually gave in.

Like the Portuguese before them, the British used the island as a precious stopping off place on the route to India. They gave the East India Company a charter to govern it as a colony, which they did until 1833. In time, St Helena, once just a haven for seafarers,  became a prison for the losers in Britain's imperial conflicts and a refuge for the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

However, to begin with, the Company had some difficulties making the island profitable for its small size and isolation meant that it wasn't as attractive as other colonial destinations. To persuade prospective settlers to emigrate, it offered them parcels of land, agricultural tools and seeds, particularly those who were homeless and destitute after the Great Fire of London. St Helena remained a poor colony, however, with frequent mutinies against the Company's rule and unrest among the slaves. In 1810, the Company brought in the first consignment of Chinese workers to act as labourers and mechanics. You can still see evidence of their presence on the wall of this small cottage.

Old planters' houses are dotted around St Helena. Here on the right is the splendid Georgian mansion, Plantation House, still used as the Governors' residence. Three of the original settler families, by the names of Thorpe, Moss and Solomon, continue to dominate business enterprises on the island. Farm Lodge (below left), was built by the Company in 1750 and lived in by the Moss family who managed the surrounding plantation. It is now a highly recommended small hotel. Below right is Princes Lodge, once the residence of the Bishop of St Helena and now a private gallery.

Miles away from anywhere is Mount Pleasant, at Sandy Bay.

Unlike the Caribbean islands, with which it shares many features, St Helena was not a main destination for West African slavers nor did it have large plantations of coffee, tea or cotton. The slaves arrived gradually and in small numbers. Some were picked up by merchants in Cape Verde on their way south, for use as personal slaves. Ships putting into port would leave a slave in lieu of harbour dues. Some worked on the land. Others were house slaves. Slaves could be treated very badly, although successive Governors gradually established laws to control the planters' worst excesses. Here on the left are the graves of two slaves, on land belonging to Plantation House. The man worked as a butcher. Most slaves, however, lie in unnamed graves in two or three sites across the island, one below Plantation House.

One of the main slave burial sites is in Rupert's Bay, over the hill from Jamestown, which is currently being developed as the island's container 'port'. Part of it was excavated by archaeologists in 2008. Rupert's Bay, Lemon Valley and Sandy Bay are the only places along the coastline where ships can anchor. It was in these bays that the island's key role in the history of slavery took place. After abolition, it was at St Helena that many of the slaves were liberated, an event in history of which few people seem to be aware, except for islanders. The island became the slaves' refuge. For many, it also became their home.

In 1840, after St Helena had reverted to the Crown, the Government established a court for impounding ships which continued to trade in slaves. British naval patrols brought their sad cargo ashore to the Liberated Africans Depot at Rupert's Bay. The slaves were all starving and destitute. At least 8,000 died at the Depot. Between 1808 and 1869, the Royal Navy seized over 1,600 ships and freed at least 150,000 Africans. Some were shipped to the West Indies as free workers, some went to Sierra Leone. The remainder stayed on St Helena, the forebears of its current population, looked after by members of the Baptist Church, among others (see previous post).

The Castle Gardens contain a memorial to various members of the crew of the Waterwich, one of the anti-slaving fleet, who died at sea in various places south of the equator, giving their lives so others could be free.

One can imagine the joy of the slaves when they realised they had been released, though nothing could ever replace the families and homes they had lost. Other visitors, however, arrived most reluctantly. The most famous of these was, of course, Napoleon. The whole island was fortified to keep him secure, the lookout posts and forts now significant features of its landscape. Any bay where ships could anchor was walled off, like Rupert's Bay above left. The island is still scattered with Napoleonic era cannon, like the one on the right pointing down Sandy Bay, which I just came across, quite by chance.

High Knoll Fort, the island's most impressive fortification, has a 360 degree view right round the island. This picture of High Knoll was taken from the lawn at Briars Pavilion (below right), Napoleon's first and favourite house. The soldiers would have been able to watch his every move.

The solid fortifications at High Knoll (left) were used to store ammunition and were refurbished at various time during many British wars, and long after the Napoleonic era, right up to and including the World War II. The same is true of Ladder Hill Fort (on the right), which looms over James Bay, Jamestown and Munden's Battery, one of many coastal posts best seen from the sea.

When Napoleon was moved to Longwood House (left), soldiers surrounded his (very pleasant) garden to prevent his escape. Every excursion beyond the gates required permission and a military escort. One of the wooden blinds has a hole drilled by the ex-Emperor in order to spy on his guards. Napoleon hated Longwood House, saying it was cold and damp - which it was, and still is. Longwood House and Briars Pavilion are now the property of the French government and fly the tricoleur.

Other notable prisoners on St Helena include Chief Dinizulu, son of the great Zulu Chief Cetshwayo who defeated the British at Isandhlwana. Dinizulu and his retinue stayed in captivity for seven years until 1897. While on the island, he learnt to play the organ, dressed more splendidly than any other resident, including the Governor and fathered seven children by his two maids. He was, however, a man dispossessed by the British of his dignity and his home.

Rather less fortunate captives were General Cronje, his wife and, eventually, 6,000 Boer prisoners of war. They were kept in tents on windswept Deadwood Plain, not far from Longwood House. You can see the hill called Turks Cap and the cliffs to the centre of the photo. More than 120 died during a typhoid epidemic and were buried on land belonging to the Baptist Church (see previous post). The monument to their deaths makes poignant reading, some of these combatants barely into their teens, some brothers dying together. Whatever one thinks of their cause, the British also behaved abominably, not just towards the Boer militia but also towards their wives and children. They were forced into the first ever concentration camps (in South Africa, not on St Helena) action which gave rise to the resentment that ultimately contributed to the establishment of apartheid.

I can't imagine that St Helena was ever a popular posting for a British soldier, though - in retrospect - it was a pretty safe one. Death in the colonies was more likely to be through illness than combat, as on this plaque on the wall of the island's St Paul's Cathedral in memory of a young Scotsman who died far from home, as did so many settlers whose role it was to further and consolidate Britain's imperial ambitions.

The Boer War was the last time the settlement on St Helena served any military, political or strategic purpose. The community has always lived on a knife edge, benefiting from increased government funds when their island is needed as a prison or to serve a military aim. However, the building of the Suez Canal did away with the centuries-old need for a mid-Atlantic watering point. Though fortified for action during the First and Second World Wars, almost all the combat took place elsewhere than St Helena. However, on the front looking across Jamestown Bay is this moving memorial to 40 British sailors, many of them from the west of Scotland, whose ship was torpedoed in the bay. They were civilian merchant seamen whose ship was part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary,

Like all the visitors to St Helena mentioned in this post - the settlers, the sailors, the prisoners and the slaves - these young men were very far from home. For them the island was not a haven, a prison or a refuge. It marked their final resting place.

If you have enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in my personal reasons for visiting St Helena, which I described in my previous post: St Helena: a personal voyage of discovery.

Also this article in the Mirror:
Royal Mail ship St Helena - saying farewell to the beating heart of a community


  1. Hi guys,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article really!
    If someone want to know more about the St helena Island I think this is the right place for you!

  2. Many thanks, Hristo. Much appreciated.

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