St Helena 1502-1938

St Helena 1502-1938 by Philip Gosse was originally published in 1938, yet reprinted in 1990. I have a reprinted edition. I first saw this book while on the S. A. Agulhas II en route to Tristan da Cunha four years ago. I wanted to read this hefty book–447 thick pages–before my return visit to Tristan in 2017, so I endeavoured to find an excellent copy from an on-line retailer. This review is for such a copy. Gosse covered St. Helena [1] history from the time of its discovery at the beginning of the sixteenth century to 1938. Although written in England in the late thirties, I found it an easy read not encumbered by flowery language or exceedingly long sentences (an annoying stylistic symptom of the time).

As with Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena was discovered by the Portuguese. It was an uninhabited isolated mountainous island abounding in forests. Fruit-bearing trees and animals were introduced to provide provisions to ships upon their return from Africa and the East Indies. A settlement was established–there was no native population–who realized that a sizable profit could be made in outfitting or replenishing other countries’ ships upon their returns from abroad. Yet shortly after its discovery, the island was put to work at first as a penal colony, a reputation that it held up until the Boer War.

Although isolated, the island was a frequent stop for visiting ships. Both Captains Cook (in 1775) and Bligh (in 1792) visited St. Helena, and Charles Darwin stayed for six days in 1836 while sailing the world aboard the Beagle. The island’s location and elevation made it a prime spot for astronomers, who also occupied Ascension Island to the north. St. Helena had one special stargazing visitor:

“In the year 1676 St. Helena received a distinguished visitor, who was neither concerned with the mercantile activities of the Company nor with its defence. This was the astronomer, Edmund Halley, the first of many scientific men to carry out researches on the island. In the records at the Castle, the astronomer’s name is spelled Hawley, which makes it probable that his name was not pronounced by his contemporaries to rhyme with sally, as it is to-day.”

Gosse had a sense of humour in regaling tales about centuries-long island problems, like the becurst battle to save the island’s dwindling tree population and consequential soil erosion, and the scourge of introduced or invasive species such as goats, rats and termites. An environmental disaster is all the more severe when it occurs on such a small island. Gosse saved most of his humour for describing the folly of successive chaplains whose reputations belied their elevated positions. Why was it that the men who got into the most trouble on this small island were never slaves, nor prisoners, but the chaplains? I laughed at Gosse’s need to use the word inevitable in the passage below:

“The inevitable trouble with the Company’s Chaplain is referred to in a minute dated October 8:

“Of late our parson has been more troublesome than usual and has several new notions….The Governor and Council are resolved to have no more of these Fopperies nor alterations in the established forms of the Church prayers, and if you go on in these whimsical methods of altering the established prayers by halving them, you will render yourself incapable of acting as a Minister of the Church of England here and must expect to be sent home.”

More deporable behaviour committed by clergymen is described here:

“There seems to have been something about St. Helena, some sort of spell, which had a disastrous effect upon clergymen. Only a few months later we find the following entry: ‘Parson Tomlinson having sold arrack to a soldier, the Governor says the Parson has engaged himself to him never to sell any more arrack, and the Governor is resolved he never will look upon him nor his wife neither, if he ever does.'”

and finally the author must write in exasperation:

“It is only with genuine regret that the chronicler of this history is compelled, once again, to refer to the misdeeds of the clergy of the island. He would have preferred to pass over in silence the activities and even the very existence of the new chaplain, Mr. Jones, but in a work such as this, of fact, not fiction, veracity must have preference over the personal wishes of the author.”

Gosse often took a parochial and all too often condescending view of the St. Helenians. He blamed their laziness for the failure of the island to reestablish a forest, and their stupidity for not knowing any better than to continue chopping down trees faster than they could be regrown. Until slavery was abolished, the majority of the people who lived on the island were in fact slaves. Gosse provided frequent population counts over the years and their breakdowns by race and occupation. Those who were not slaves such as soldiers or other residents were regarded just as disparagingly:

“This unruly element was chiefly due to the policy–or perhaps necessity–of the Company’s recruiting its soldiers (and settlers) from among the unemployed in England, many of whom were worthless loafers.”

and provides a backhanded compliment of the St. Helenians here:

“…they appear to be a happy, smiling people, who have suffered privation for so long that they have become accustomed to it. Their wants are few, they dwell in a lovely land, the climate is unrivalled. They are a brave people, but their courage is not that of the dull, obtuse rustic. On the contrary, they are as a race highly intelligent. It is possible at St. Helena for an educated visitor to carry on a rational conversation with the most humble cottager, peasants of a class with which it would be impossible to do so in rural England.”

This is, unfortunately, a reputation that has persisted to the present day. On a documentary I saw about Tristan da Cunha, which also featured a short spot on St. Helena, one of the St. Helenians bemoaned the reputation of her fellow islanders as “layabouts”.

Settlers may have paid no heed to the need to reestablish the island’s forest, and they also plundered the wildlife as well:

“On the Cliff-Islands, at the South side of this, are thousands of grey and black Meaws or Sea Pies, and also white and colour’d Birds, some with long, and some with short Necks, who lay their Eggs on the Rocks; and so unaccustomed to fear, that they suffer themselves to be taken up with the Hand, and gaze at their Surprizers, till knock’d on the head with sticks.”

Say St. Helena and one name should come to mind immediately: it is the location where Emperor Napoleon was sent in exile in 1815. We have Napoleon’s exile to thank for the establishment of a garrison–and later a permanent population–on the island of Tristan da Cunha. Gosse stated up front that he did not want his history of St. Helena to be dominated by the six years of Napoleon’s captivity, since so much had already been written about Napoleon on the island already. The reader is left with a short history of the exile years and a lengthy bibliography to consult for further information. Nevertheless one can only imagine the reaction of the St. Helenians when they found out that Emperor Napoleon–of all people–would soon be arriving as a prisoner:

“And then came the Northumberland, bringing Napoleon Bonaparte, and all these quiet, unimportant people were to find themselves living in the most famous, the most discussed and most written about spot in the whole universe.”


“From now onwards until the end, no action, not even the most trivial incident, in the daily life of Napoleon was to escape notice and comment, for no man who ever lived had his private life recorded and set down more meticulously than was that of Napoleon during the next six years.”

Although a prisoner, Napoleon was nonetheless a prima donna and made excessive demands to the resident governor. I kept on wondering when the governor would finally crack and tell old “Boney” a firm No. (He eventually did. There is only so much that one can provide on an isolated island.)

While the bottom of each page showed the page number, at the top of each page Gosse showed the historical year being written about. Thus the reader always knew at what time the events were taking place. I found the years at the top left and right page corners to be a most welcome addition and enhancement to the reading experience.

There were two surprising omissions in this book. Not a word was written about the enormous extinct St. Helena earwig. This insect was still alive in 1938. The steep cliffside staircase known as Jacob’s Ladder was also given no mention. Find photos on-line taken from the top of this staircase. I get vertigo just looking down the stairs, and that’s just from looking at a photo.

I hope to visit St. Helena, as well as Ascension, one day. Maybe the new St. Helena airport will have ironed out its problems with incoming passenger aircraft by then. In one month I will be preparing for my return visit to Tristan da Cunha.

[1] pronounced / hel – LEE – na /

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