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St Helena

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History

St Helena was discovered by the Portuguese admiral Joao Dar Nova on May 21st 1502 – the birthday of Emperor Constantine’s mother – whose name was given to the island in honour of this date. Veiled in secrecy, they used the island as a re-victualling port which included taking on fresh water having just navigated the doldrums.

 

The island and its use remained a secret until 8th June 1588 when a curious Captain Cavendish landed. The Englishman discovered a small settlement which indicated its prior use. The settlement was occupied by 3 negro slaves who were attending to a small number of animals, fruits and vegetables.

 

In 1592 King Philip of Spain (and Portugal) advised his fleet not to call to the island as a way to avoid encounters with British ships.

 

Subsequently, a Dutch expedition called to the island in 1601. In 1633 they tried to lay claim to the island under the jurisdiction of the United Provinces. However, they never colonised the island.

 

In 1659, Captain John Dutton arrived at St Helena having been appointed by the East India Company as the island’s Governor General.

 

The outbreak of the bubonic plague in Europe in 1665 and then the Great Fire of London in 1666 made many Londoners homeless. The East India Company would employ planters who could "work their passage" on Company ships to islands owned by them such as St Helena.

 

St Helena is famous for its location along the Middle Passage which was the route slaves were taken to the Americas. The frigate Waterwitch which was stationed at St Helena played an instrumental role in the interception of slave ships which contributed to ending the slave trade in the early 1800s.

 

White ants (or termites) were introduced to the island from such ships being broken up on the beach in James Bay. This would later lead to the destruction of buildings in Jamestown requiring them to be re-built.

 

In 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he was sent from France to Plymouth via Tor Bay in England on the Bellerophorn.

Naploeon on the Bellerophorn in Plymouth Sound in 1815 - oil on canvass by Jules Giradet

At Plymouth he was transferred to the British warship HMS Northumberland. He had expectations of living in England. However, due to Habeas Corpus he was transferred from one vessel to another without setting foot in England. Nevertheless, the majority of his men were sent to Dartmoor prison. He was only allowed to maintain a small retinue of his men for the onward journey to St Helena.

 

Napoleon died at Old Longwood House on May 5th 1821. His autopsy was conducted on the snooker table which can be seen to this day at Longwood House in St Helena.

 

He was buried near a source in the Geranium Valley which has been called the Valley of the Tomb, although other accounts refer to his burial at Valley of the Willows now called Sane Valley.

 

In 1840, Napoleon’s body was exhumed and taken to France. He now rests in Dome Les Invalides on the banks of Seine according to his wishes.

 

In 1834, the British government purchased St Helena from the East India Company.

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