Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

History of Saint Helena

Uninhabited when first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, who named it for Saint Helena, the island was garrisoned by the British during the 17th century. It became famous as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte's exile, from 1815 until his death in 1821.

Discovery and early years

The island was discovered on May 21, 1502 by the Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova, on his voyage home from India, and by him named "Saint Helena". The Portuguese found it uninhabited, imported livestock, fruit trees and vegetables, built a chapel and one or two houses, and left their sick there to be taken home, if recovered, by the next ship, but they formed no permanent settlement. Its first known permanent resident was Fernando Lopes, a Portuguese in India, who had turned traitor and had been mutilated by order of Albuquerque, the Governor of Goa. Fernando Lopes preferred being marooned to returning to Portugal in his maimed condition, and remained on Saint Helena in 1513. By royal command Lopez visited Portugal some time later, but returned to Saint Helena, where he died in 1530.

In 1584 two Japanese ambassadors to Rome landed at the island. The first Englishman known to have visited it was Thomas Cavendish, who touched there in June 1588 during his voyage round the world. Another English seaman, Captain Kendall, visited Saint Helena in 1591, and in 1593 Sir James Lancaster stopped at the island on his way home from the East. In 1603 the same commander again visited Saint Helena on his return from the first voyage equipped by the British East India Company.

The Portuguese had by this time given up calling at the island, which appears to have been occupied by the Dutch about 1645. The Dutch occupation was temporary and ceased in 1651, the year before they founded Cape Town.

British East India Company

The British East India Company appropriated the island immediately after the departure of the Dutch, and they were confirmed in possession by a clause in their charter of 1661.

The company built a fort (1658), named "Jamestown" after the duke of York (James II), and established a garrison in the island. In 1673 the Dutch succeeded in obtaining possession, but were ejected after a few months' occupation. Since that date St Helena has been in the undisturbed possession of Great Britain, though in 1706 two ships anchored off Jamestown were carried off by the French. In 1673 the Dutch had been expelled by the forces of the Crown, but by a new charter granted in December 1673 the East India Company were declared the true and absolute lords and proprietors of the island.

At this time nearly half the inhabitants were negro slaves. In 1810 the company began the importation of Chinese from their factory at Canton, China. During the company's rule the island prospered, thousands of homeward-bound vessels anchored in the roadstead in a year, staying for considerable periods, refitting and revictualling. Large sums of money were thus expended in the island, where wealthy merchants and officials had their residence. The plantations were worked by the slaves, who were subjected to very barbarous laws until 1792, when a new code of regulations ensured their humane treatment and prohibited the importation of any new slaves. Later it was enacted that all children of slaves born on or after Christmas Day 1818 should be free, and between 1826 and 1836 all slaves were set at liberty.

Among the governors appointed by the company to rule at Saint Helena was one of the Huguenot refugees, Captain Stephen Poirier (1697 - 1707), who attempted unsuccessfully to introduce the cultivation of the vine. A later governor (1741-1742) was Robert Jenkins of "Jenkins's ear" fame. William Dampier visited the island twice, in 1691 and 1701; Halley's Mount commemorates the visit paid by the astronomer Edmund Halley in 1676 - 1678 - the first of a number of scientific men who have pursued their studies on the island.

Napoleon's exile

In 1815 the British government selected Saint Helena as the place of detention of Napoleon Bonaparte. 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 troops, and the governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, was nominated by the Crown. After Napoleon's death the East India Company resumed full control of Saint Helena until April 22, 1834, on which date it was in virtue of an act passed in 1833 vested in the British Crown.

British rule

As a port of call the island continued to enjoy a fair measure of prosperity until about 1870. After that date the great decrease in the number of vessels visiting Jamestown deprived the islanders of their principal means of subsistence. When steamers began to replace sailing vessels and when the Suez Canal opened (in 1869) fewer ships passed the island, while of those that still pass the greater number are so well found that it is unnecessary for them to call.

The withdrawal in 1906 of the small garrison, hitherto maintained by the imperial government, was another cause of depression. During the Second Anglo-Boer war of 1899 - 1902 some thousands of Boer prisoners were detained at Saint Helena, which also served as the place of exile of several Zulu chiefs, including Dinizulu.

See also : Saint Helena

Initial text from a 1911 encyclopedia. Please update as needed.