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Discovery and Earliest Years, 1502-1658

Please Note:  The Society plan to provide a comprehensive history of St Helena on this website.   Meanwhile, below is the Wikipedia entry on the history of St Helena. 

Discovery and early years, 1502-1658

Most historical accounts state the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, on his voyage home from India, and that he named it "Santa Helena" after Helena of Constantinople. Given this is the feast day used by the Greek Orthodox Church, it has been argued that the discovery was probably made on 18 August, the feast day used by the Roman Catholic Church. However, a paper published in 2015 reviewed the discovery date and dismissed the 18 August as too late for da Nova to return to Lisbon by 11 September 1502.[1] It suggests Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was probably the first (in 1596) to state that the island was so named because it was found on the 21 May.[2][3] Given that Linschoten correctly stated Whitsunday fell on the Western Christian date of 21 May 1589 (rather than the Orthodox Church date of 28 May),[4] the paper suggests that Linschoten was referring to the Protestant feast-day for Saint Helena on 21 May, not the Orthodox Church version on the same date. It is then argued the Portuguese found the island two decades before the start of the Reformation and the establishment of Protestantism, and it is therefore not possible that the island was so named because it was found on the Protestant feast day. An alternative discovery date of 3 May on the Catholic feast-day celebrating the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena in Jerusalem, as quoted by Odoardo Duarte Lopes in 1591[5] and by Sir Thomas Herbert in 1638,[6] is suggested as historically more credible than the Protestant date of 21 May.[7] The paper observes that if da Nova made the discovery on 3 May 1502, he may have been inhibited from naming the island Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross) because Pedro Álvares Cabral had already assigned that same name to the Brazilian coastline, which he thought to be a large island, on 3 May 1500.[8] News of Cabral’s discovery reached Lisbon directly from South America before da Nova’s fleet set off on the voyage to India in 1501. If da Nova knew the True Cross name had already been assigned, the most obvious and plausible alternative name for him to give the island was "Santa Helena".

It has also been suggested that all the early Portuguese accounts describing the discovery of St Helena by João da Nova after rounding the Cape of Good Hope were wrong and that he actually discovered Tristan da Cunha on the feast day of St Helena, the island not being discovered until 30 July 1503 by a squadron under the command of Estêvão da Gama, da Nova having discovered Tristan da Cunha on the feast day of St Helena.[9][10][11] However, this last theory seems improbable because if da Nova indeed found Tristan on the Catholic feast-day for Saint Helena on 18 August, he had insufficient time to arrive back at Lisbon by 11 September.

The Portuguese found it uninhabited, with an abundance of trees and fresh water. They imported livestock (mainly goats), fruit trees, and vegetables, built a chapel and one or two houses, and left their sick, suffering from scurvy and other ailments, to be taken home, if they recovered, by the next ship, but they formed no permanent settlement. The island thereby became crucially important for the collection of food and as a rendezvous point for homebound voyages from Asia. The island was directly in line with the Trade Winds which took ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic. St Helena was much less frequently visited by Asia-bound ships, the northern trade winds taking ships towards the South American continent rather than the island.

It is a popular belief that the Portuguese managed to keep the location of this remote island a secret until almost the end of the 16th century. However, both the location of the island and its name were quoted in a Dutch book in 1508, which described a 1505 Portuguese expedition led by Francisco de Almeida from the East Indies: "[o]n the twenty-first day of July we saw land, and it was an island lyng six hundred and fifty miles from the Cape, and called Saint Helena, howbeit we could not land there. [...] And after we left the island of Saint Helena, we saw another island two hundred miles from there, which is called Ascension".[12]

Also, Lopo Homem-Reineis published the Atlas Universal about 1519 which clearly showed the locations of St Helena and Ascension. The first residents all arrived on Portuguese vessels. Its first known permanent resident was Portuguese, Fernão Lopes (also Fernando Lopes) who had turned traitor in India and had been mutilated by order of Alphonso d'Albuquerque, the Governor of Goa.[13] Fernão Lopes preferred being marooned to returning to Portugal in his maimed condition, and lived on Saint Helena from about 1516. By royal command, Lopes returned to Portugal about 1526 and then travelled to Rome, where Pope Clement VII granted him an audience. Lopes returned to Saint Helena, where he died in 1545.

When the island was discovered, it was covered with unique indigenous vegetation. Claims that on discovery the island "was entirely covered with forests, the trees drooping over the tremendous precipices that overhang the sea"[14] have been questioned.[15] It is argued that the presence of an endemic plover and several endemic insects adapted to the barren and arid coastal portions of the island are strong indications that these conditions existed before the island was discovered. Also, the earliest description of the island by Thome Lopez, who sighted the island on 3 July 1503, specifically states that coastal trees were absent: ". . . nor did we see any kind of trees, but it was completely green . . ."[16] Rather than trees, this eyewitness account suggests the presence of low-height scrub adapted to the coastal desert conditions. Nevertheless, St Helena certainly once had a rich and dense inland forest. The loss of endemic vegetation, birds and other fauna, much of it within the first 50 years of discovery, can be attributed to the impact of humans and their introduction of goats, pigs, dogs, cats, rats as well as the introduction of non-endemic birds and vegetation into the island.

Sometime before 1557, two slaves from Mozambique, one from Java, and two women, escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island for many years, long enough for their numbers to rise to twenty. Bermudez, the Patriarch of Abyssinia landed at St Helena in 1557 on a voyage to Portugal, remaining on the island for a year. Three Japanese ambassadors on an embassy to the Pope also visited St Helena in 1583.

Strong circumstantial evidence supports the idea that Sir Francis Drake located the island on the final lap of his circumnavigation of the world (1577–1580).[17] It is suspected this explains how the location of the island was certainly known to the English only a few years later, for example, William Barrett (who died in 1584 as English consul at Aleppo, Syria)[18] stated the island was "sixteene degrees to the South", which is precisely the correct latitude. Again, it is also clear that the Elizabethan adventurer Edward Fenton at the very least knew the approximate location of the island in 1582.[19]

It therefore seems unlikely that when Thomas Cavendish arrived in 1588 during his first attempt to circumnavigate the world, he was the first Englishman to land at the island. He stayed for 12 days and described the valley (initially called Chapel Valley) where Jamestown is situated as "a marvellous fair and pleasant valley, wherein divers handsome buildings and houses were set up, and especially one which was a church, which was tiled, and whitened on the outside very fair, and made with a porch, and within the church at the upper end was set an alter.... This valley is the fairest and largest low plot in all the island, and it is marvellous sweet and pleasant, and planted in every place with fruit trees or with herbs.... There are on this island thousands of goats, which the Spaniards call cabritos, which are very wild: you shall sometimes see one or two hundred of them together, and sometimes you may behold them going in a flock almost a mile long."

Another English seaman, Captain Abraham Kendall, visited Saint Helena in 1591, and in 1593 Sir James Lancaster stopped at the island on his way home from the East. Once St Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home. As a result, in 1592 Philip II of Spain and I of Portugal (1527–1598) ordered the annual fleet returning from Goa on no account to touch at St Helena. In developing their Far East trade, the Dutch also began to frequent the island. One of their first visits was in 1598 when an expedition of two vessels piloted by John Davis (English explorer) attacked a large Spanish Caravel, only to be beaten off and forced to retreat to Ascension Island for repairs. The Italian merchant Francesco Carletti, claimed in his autobiography he was robbed by the Dutch when sailing on a Portuguese ship in 1602.[20]

The Portuguese and Spanish soon gave up regularly calling at the island, partly because they used ports along the West African coast, but also because of attacks on their shipping, desecration to their chapel and images, destruction of their livestock and destruction of plantations by Dutch and English sailors. In 1603 Lancaster again visited Saint Helena on his return from the first voyage equipped by the British East India Company. In 1610, by which time most Dutch and English ships visited the island on their home voyage, François Pyrard de Laval deplored the deterioration since his last visit in 1601, describing damage to the chapel and destruction of fruit trees by cutting down trees to pick the fruit. Whilst Thomas Best, commander of the tenth British East India Company expedition reported plentiful supplies of lemons in 1614, only 40 lemon trees were observed by the traveller Peter Mundy in 1634.

The Dutch Republic formally made claim to St Helena in 1633, although there is no evidence that they ever occupied, colonised or fortified it. A Dutch territorial stone, undated but certainly later than 1633, is presently kept in the island’s archive office. By 1651, the Dutch had mainly abandoned the island in favour of their colony founded at the Cape of Good Hope.

References and Notes 
[1] Ian Bruce, ‘St Helena Day’, Wirebird The Journal of the Friends of St Helena, no. 44 (2015): 32–46.
[2] Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huygen Van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, inhoudende een corte beschryvinghe der selver landen ende zee-custen... waer by ghevoecht zijn niet alleen die conterfeytsels van de habyten, drachten ende wesen, so van de Portugesen aldaer residerende als van de ingeboornen Indianen. (C. Claesz, 1596).
[3] Jan Huygen van Linschoten, John Huighen Van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into Ye Easte [and] West Indies: Divided Into Foure Bookes (London: John Wolfe, 1598).
[4] Side-by-side Easter calendar reference for the 16th century,
[5] Duarte Lopes and Filippo Pigafetta, Relatione del Reame di Congo et delle circonvicine contrade tratta dalli scritti & ragionamenti di Odoardo Lope[S] Portoghese / per Filipo Pigafetta con disegni vari di geografiadi pianti, d’habiti d’animali, & altro. (Rome: BGrassi, 1591).
[6] Thomas Herbert, Some Yeares Travels into Africa et Asia the Great: Especially Describing the Famous Empires of Persia and Industant as Also Divers Other Kingdoms in the Orientall Indies and I’les Adjacent (Jacob Blome & Richard Bishop, 1638), 353.
[8] Corrêa and Felner, Lendas da India, [Edited by R. J. de Lima Felner], Vol 1 Part 1:152
[9] A.H. Schulenburg, 'The discovery of St Helena: the search continues'. Wirebird: The Journal of the Friends of St Helena, Issue 24 (Spring 2002), pp. 13–19.
[10] Duarte Leite, História dos Descobrimentos, Vol. II (Lisbon: Edições Cosmos, 1960), 206.
[11] de Montalbodo, Paesi Nuovamente Retovati & Nuovo Mondo da Alberico Vesputio Fiorentino Intitulato (Venice: 1507).
[12] The Voyage from Lisbon to India, 1505–6, being an account and journal by Albericus Vespuccius, translated from the contemporary Flemish [by George Frederick Barwick and Janet M. E. Barwick], and edited with prologue and notes by C. H. Coote. [With the text of the original entitled "Die reyse va Lissebone" in facsimile.], Published by B. F. Stevens in 1894.
[13] Beau W. Rowlands, Fernão Lopes: A South Atlantic ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (Winchester: George Mann Publications, 2007)
[14] Melliss, J. C., St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island Including Its Geology, Fauna, Flora, and Meteorology, London: L. Reeve and Company
[15] Benson, C.W. (1950). A contribution to the ornithology of St Helena and other notes from a sea voyage. Ibis 92, 75–83. / Decelle, J., 1970. Vegetation. In La Faune terrestre de l'isle Sainte Helene, primiere partie. Musee Royal de I'Afrique Central—Tervuren, Belgique—Annates Serie IN-8°, Sciences Zoologiques, 181:37 p44
[16] A.H. Schulenburg, 'The discovery of St Helena: the search continues'. Wirebird: The Journal of the Friends of St Helena, Issue 24 (Spring 2002), pp. 13–19.
[17] Drake and St Helena, privately published by Robin Castell in 2005
[18] The Principall Navigations Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation. By Richard Hakluyt. Imprinted at London, 1589. A photo-lithographic facsimile, with an introduction by David Beers Quinn and Raleigh Ashlin Skelton, and with a new index by Alison Quinn
[19] The Troublesome Voyage of Captain Edward Fenton 1582–1583, Narrative & Documents edited by E.R.G.Taylor, Hakluyt Society Second Series CXIII, 1957
[20] My Voyage Around the World: The Chronicles of a 16th Century Florentine Merchant