St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in St Helena: the Bradt Guide

1815–1821: The exile of Napoleon Bonaparte

On 15 October 1815, the British warship Northumberland sailed into James Bay with St Helena’s most famous visitor on board: Napoleon Bonaparte. Exiled following his defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon and his entourage were weary after weeks cooped up at sea, but their first impressions were not favourable. As the new arrival scrutinised his ‘island prison’ with the spy glasses he had used on many a battlefield, he is reputed to have said, ‘It is not an attractive place; I should have done better to remain in Egypt.’

For the islanders, Napoleon’s arrival also triggered a period of change. Along with his entourage came a signifi cant number of troops to guard him, increasing the population of the island from around 6,500 to 8,000. Accommodation was scarce, so two camps were formed to house the soldiers, one at Deadwood and the other at Francis Plain, and the price of both local and imported provisions soared. Then, to limit the possibility of Napoleon’s escape, the government implemented strict measures; even fishing boats were subject to severe restrictions.

Longwood House St Helena by Tricia HayneLongwood House, where Napoleon spent much of his life in exile © Tricia Hayne

On the day of Napoleon’s arrival, a crowd of curious people was waiting at the wharf to greet him, but all in vain. It was decided that he should not come ashore until after sundown the following day, in order to avoid unwanted attention. Even then, it required a troop of soldiers with fi xed bayonets to force passage for him to the house of Henry Porteous, on Main Street in Jamestown.

The Porteous house had been chosen as a temporary residence for Napoleon but the French, with an entourage of 26 people, were astounded at its meagreness and felt that the Castle, with its vast rooms, or Plantation House (the governor’s residence) would have been more suitable. After just one night in these cramped quarters, Napoleon, Sir George Cockburn, and Général Bertrand rode about five miles to inspect Longwood House, where work on preparations for Napoleon’s installation was expected to take two months. Although the house had been used as the summer residence of the lieutenant governor, and Napoleon was assured that it would be transformed into a comfortable residence, he is said to have been disappointed with the dark, low-ceilinged rooms and the bare garden.

It was on the return to Jamestown, when Napoleon decided he could not spend another night at the Porteous house, that he discovered Briars Village. So enchanted was he by the estate that he asked about accommodation here while waiting for the renovations to be completed at Longwood House. The Balcombe family, who owned the house, offered Napoleon the use of their home, but he opted instead to occupy the pavilion, situated on top of a hill just 30 yards (27m) from the main house. Napoleon spent only two months at The Briars, but they proved to be the most enjoyable of his time on St Helena. His relationship with the Balcombe family was friendly, and he became especially fond of their 13-year-old daughter, Betsy. It was with reluctance and sadness that, at the beginning of December, he left to continue his life in exile at Longwood House.

Natural history 

Flora

More than any other of the world’s isolated oceanic islands, St Helena is most famously associated with rare and endemic plants, thanks to well-documented conservation work by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and other organisations. Plant species have been pulled back from the very brink of extinction, and the island is a showcase for the international conservation role of botanic gardens.

Babies' toes  St Helena by Tricia HayneBabies' toes are widespread on St Helena © Tricia Hayne

That said, almost from the moment that the first man set foot on land some 500 years ago, destruction of the original vegetation began. Today, barely 1% of the indigenous forest is left, almost all on Diana’s Peak ridge. Some 60% of the island is now bare, eroded rock, colonised in places by a few tough alien plant species. Although much of the interior of the island remains green, this is largely due to imported exotic vegetation: over the years, more than 1,000 plants have been introduced. Many have brought welcome colour and balance to garden environments, but others – such as New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and whiteweed (Austroeupatorum inulifolium) – have proved to be botanical thugs, invading areas where endemic plants are hanging on, and preventing these less-hardy plants from retaining – or regaining – a foothold. 

Fauna

The first Portuguese who explored the island found an abundance of seabirds, sealions, seals and turtles, but no strictly land animals. Today, the fauna on the island largely comprises introduced species: cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, rats and various types of fowl. There are no snakes, but there is one type of frog, which was probably introduced to St Helena along with the mynah birds in 1885 by Miss Phoebe Moss, a naturalist. There is, however, a good variety of endemic invertebrate fauna, including some particularly interesting examples of their types.

Masked booby St Helena by Tricia HayneJuvenile masked booby © Tricia Hayne

People and culture

People

St Helenians represent a mixture of many different nationalities and influences from different parts of the world: European settlers, with their slaves from the Far East, Chinese labourers, African slaves, and prisoners from the Boer War. They are gentle people, who fiercely defend their traditions and their right to be full British citizens, yet as David Smallman, a governor of St Helena in the 1990s, wrote in his book, Quincentenary: A Story of St Helena 1502–2002: the veneer of Britishness is oft en quite thin. First impressions can be deceptive. St Helena is not a few acres of Britain in a sub-tropical environment. Its remote location and history have conspired to produce a breed of people without equal who, given their lack of natural resources and the relationship with those responsible over the centuries for their governance, have developed a unique personality of their own. St Helenians are also proud of their identities as Saints per se. Indeed, in some ways they are very un-British. In particular, their friendliness is most unlike the traditional British reserve, with a natural instinct to greet everyone, whether friend or stranger. Theirs is a close-knit community, used to sharing resources, to working together – whether in bringing up a family, tilling the land or building the family home. As islander Basil George wrote in his poem, ‘Carry Stone Cottage’, St Helenians are a people who ‘think with their hands’.

Every person on St Helena has a story to tell, each interesting in its own right, but they’re often reluctant to speak publicly. Centuries of dependency on Great Britain has certainly had its effect. Despite this, many St Helenians are committed to their island, and work tirelessly for the good of the community in the fields of education, local history, music, arts and craft, as well as in government positions. Others spend considerable time fundraising for local charities. There are thriving youth groups on the island, including organisations affiliated to the Scout and Guide movement. But perhaps just as important is the contribution made by those who are prepared to share their knowledge and love of the island with visitors, drawing them into the island’s way of life.

Culture

The Saints are a sociable people. Dances, festivals, pageants, fundraisers: all are well attended, with considerable enthusiasm and plenty of noise and spectacle. On the music scene, country and western is a perennial favourite, as you’ll soon find out if you’re close to any of the pubs or clubs on a Friday or Saturday night, but local rock bands are in the mix too. Amongst them is the local Gettogethers, which plays at various functions. While St Helena doesn’t have any great literary tradition, it does have in Basil George a thought-provoking poet, some of whose work was published to coincide with the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Basil also writes children’s books.

Back to the top

St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha articles

View all

Welcome to the world, St Helena

After countless delays and postponements, the first flight to St Helena has finally touched down on rocky soil. There's never been a better time to plan a visit.

Read more...

Six reasons to visit St Helena

With flights to St Helena now departing from Johannesburg, there's never been a better time to visit this remote British outcrop. 

Read more...

The world’s best whale-watching destinations

With whale-watching being the fastest-growing tourist activity worldwide, you may be keen to catch a glimpse of some for yourself. Here are some of the best destinations to do so.

Read more...

Related guides and other books

View all