St. Helena Island

The high volcanic island of St. Helena is located at 15-55 South / 055-43 West, pretty far from anywhere else.

– Distance to Cape Town: 1700 miles

– Distance to Lunenburg directly: 4,815 miles

– 47 square miles

– 2,700 feet to the highest summit

– The only anchorage is a deep, open roadstead affair off Jamestown on the  NW side

– There may have been other endemic species but one remains called the Wirebird

The first European discovery of the island seems to also be the only discovery. This was in 1502 by a Spanish navigator sailing for the Portuguese, Juan de Nova Castella on a return voyage from India. The island was uninhabited, nor has there ever been discovered any evidence of prior human habitation. In due course the Portuguese imported livestock, fruit trees, vegetables, built a chapel and a few houses. The islands first resident was Fernando Lopes who landed in 1513 with a few slaves. And thus the ignomineous began.

The strategic value of the island to an empire with global maritime reach was clear and strong for centuries. An easily defended base far out to sea but on major shipping routes.. Right on the tradewinds route from India and the Far East to Europe, and a workable roadstead anchorage, good in prevailing conditions, that almost any sailing ship could both sail up to without assistance and sail away again much the same way. So, untill the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, St. Helena had a great deal of sailing ships passing by (both naval and commercial) and some steam ship traffic. Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal, much in the news these days, made for a dramatic short cut between Europe and the Far East. This would not be the last time bypasses altered regional and local economies.

The island started out under Portuguese rule. It seems that they gave up and the Dutch took it for a spell. The British took over in 1673, and has been British ever since. Untill recently the last Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St. Helena made regular calls to supply the island. But since then an airport has been established, putting the RMS out of business, which I believe was the plan. I understand that the airport is quite an adventurous landing. There is also a pier for a modest cargo ship to the east of the anchorage in Ruperts Bay. The population is about 4,000 now. There are hopes of increasing that a good deal. “Saints” as they are proudly called. Every one we meet is nice and friendly.

During the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, maybe 6,000 Boer POWs were imprisoned there – this around 1900. Chief Dinizulu was incarcerated there as well after wars with the Zulu. And any number of slaves as well. St Helena prohibited the import of slaves in 1796 and banned slavery outright in the 1830s. At some point a group of Chinese were brought to the island. Add in some English and this and that from all over and you have the DNA pool that makes up the “Saints.”

We anchor off Jamestown, on the NW coast and the main community although there are other small settlements about the island. Jamestown is an interesting collection of historical and ancient structures climbing up either side of a steep ravine. So many built of teak, the original treated lumber – resistant to rot and termites. Quite impressive to see teak floors in a house, otherwise quite plain. Anne’s Place, a fine gathering spot, is set in the Castle gardens up on the left not far from the moat and wall protecting the town. There are a couple grand hotels too. One called the Consulate Hotel, a classy place harkening back to imperial days gone by. The dining room alone using topmasts and timbers from the full rigged ship Fairport, lost here in 1921, is an elegant sight to behold.

No doubt our gang will get a good look around the stunning landscape of this isolated patch of England – and, of course, visit Napoleon Bonaparte’s last mansion (cottage). He was a guest of HM Government shortly after losing the battle at Waterloo. From 1815 to 1821 St Helena was his empire, or his garden was anyway. He died there. The French came and took his body away some time later. It is in a grand mausoleum in Paris these days. But his old house, called Longwood, and I think his former grave too, are considered French territory.

Many famous mariners and ships have dropped the hook at St Helena. It is all but inevatable that the Picton Castle has anchored in the very spot that snagged anchors of Dampier, Cook, Bligh, Drake, Darwin, and the ship that carried Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth and sister Margaret. Once again we sail in the wake of history and those who sailed these waters before us.

Scroll to Top