The island that came in from the cold

My fourth novel,?The Detective and the Devil, is partly set on St Helena and is published on April 21, 2016. This post, inspired by a very special day in the island’s history, gives a brief introduction to the place, and deliberately?fails to mention any French emperors.

The first recorded resident of St Helena, the British territory sealocked in the South Atlantic, was Fernando Lopez. A Portuguese?nobleman, he had deserted his troops in Goa, and as punishment he was disfigured horribly – his right hand, left thumb, ears, and nose were all cut off. Unwilling to be returned to Portugal with such an appearance, he asked to be abandoned on St Helena in 1516, a recent Portuguese possession on the return track from the East, where he was left with nothing but a pet cock for company. He grew lemon trees and kept goats (which had themselves been left on the island by the Portuguese – it had had no such wildlife when they came across it, and it was uninhabited). It’s not known what happened to him.

St Helena had been ‘discovered’ for?the Great Nations of Europe (as Randy Newman describes them)?by Joao da Nova Castella on St Helen’s Day 21 May 1502. Vasco da Gama visited?the island again the following year, saying that from the Cape of Good Hope ‘the wind is very constant and carries you in 16 days onto St Helens Road’. The?Portuguese set the template for what St Helena would become during the Age of Navigation – they put?livestock on the island, principally?goats, and they planted fruit trees and herbs. They also used the island as a kind of?quarantine camp, putting?sick men ashore with food and oil and picking them up a year later – if they were still alive.

View of St Helena From the Sea, George Hutchins Bellasis, 1815
View of St Helena From the Sea, George Hutchins Bellasis, 1815

In 1588, Thomas Cavendish visited?the island during his circumnavigation, describing a?’marvellous faire and pleasant valley’ in which stood the Portuguese church – hence the name today, Chapel Valley. He saw ‘pompions and melons’ growing, along with?oranges, lemons, pomegranates, and dates. Cavendish described a kind of Eden, and may have inadvertently set the template for English literature’s tradition of mystical islands. Shakespeare may even have had St Helena in mind when he wrote The Tempest, though Barbados would have been knocking around in there, too.

'A View of St Helena from the sea', Capt. Tobin RN, 1815
‘A View of St Helena from the sea’, Capt. Tobin RN, 1815

As the Portuguese empire declined, the Dutch and English ones rose, and as they fought for mercantile dominance in the East, the English decided St Helena would make a useful stopping-off point for the new East India Company. The EIC decided, effectively, to invade St Helena and take it for themselves, doing to the Portuguese what they would later do to the ancient empires of India.

In 1658, a party of forty under Captain Dutton (who had a Dutch wife) was sent by the EIC to establish a plantation on St Helena. They stopped at?Cape Verde to acquire ‘plantoon rootes’ (plantains or bananas) cassava, ‘jamooes’ (yams), potatoes, peas, beans, oranges, lemons and ‘gravances’. They also picked up five or six ‘Blacks or Negroes’. Slaves would be a big part of St Helena’s economy from this point until the mid-19th century.

The Dutton party landed in May 1569. The island has been British ever since, apart from one brief interlude when the Dutch snatched it away for a few years in the 1670s. It remained an important staging post, but as England, and then Britain’s, trading empire declined, it became cut off, accessible only by a Royal Mail ship from Cape Town, in a crossing which takes several days.

Until yesterday, that is – when this happened.

The island’s airport has been a long time coming, and it won’t be fully operational until May, but the paradise of Cavendish’s description is once again connected to the world’s transport system, as it once was when that system relied on sail, not jet turbines. One wonders what Fernando Lopez would have made of those gigantic metal birds falling from the sky onto his island prison.

As an incidental aside, the opening of the airport has obviously been big news on St Helena, and the islanders should be congratulated for their years of work and campaigning to get the thing built. How did the British government feel about it? I couldn’t find a single tweet. Odd that we should have such a dysfunctional sense of history. Needless to say, the islanders didn’t need telling how significant yesterday was….


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