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East India Company Rule, 1658-1815

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. 

 

East India Company, 1658-1815

The idea for the English to make claim to the island was first made in a 1644 pamphlet by Richard Boothby. By 1649, the East India Company (EIC) ordered all homeward-bound vessels to wait for one another at St Helena and in 1656 onward the Company petitioned the government to send a man-of-war to convoy the fleet home from there. Having been granted a charter to govern the island by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell in 1657,[21] the following year the Company decided to fortify and colonise St Helena with planters. A fleet commanded by Captain John Dutton (first governor, 1659–1661) in the Marmaduke arrived at St Helena in 1659. It is from this date that St Helena claims to be Britain’s second oldest colony (after Bermuda). A fort, originally named the Castle of St John, was completed within a month and further houses were built further up the valley. It soon became obvious that the island could not be made self-sufficient and in early 1658, the East India Company ordered all homecoming ships to provide one ton of rice on their arrival at the island.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the fort was renamed James Fort, the town Jamestown and the valley James Valley, all in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England. The East India Company immediately sought a Royal Charter, possibly to give their occupation of St Helena legitimacy. This was issued in 1661 and gave the Company the sole right to fortify and colonise the island "in such legal and reasonable manner the said Governor and Company should see fit". Each planter was allocated one of 130 pieces of land, but the Company had great difficulty attracting new immigrants, the population falling to only 66, including 18 slaves, by 1670. John Dutton’s successors as governor, Robert Stringer (1661–1670) and Richard Coney (1671–1672), repeatedly warned the Company of unrest amongst the inhabitants, Coney complaining the inhabitants were drunks and ne’er-do-wells. In 1672 Coney was seized by rebellious members of the island’s council and shipped back to England. Coincidentally, the Company had already sent a replacement governor, Anthony Beale (1672–1673).

Finding that the cape was not the ideal harbour they originally envisaged, the Dutch East India Company launched an armed invasion of St Helena from the Cape colony over Christmas 1672. Governor Beale was forced to abandon the island in a Company ship, sailing to Brazil where he hired a fast ship. This he used to locate an East India Company flotilla sent to reinforce St Helena with fresh troops. The Company retook the island in May 1673 without loss of life and reinforced it with 250 troops. The same year the Company petitioned a new Charter from Charles II of England and this granted the island free title as though it was a part of England "in the same manner as East Greenwich in the County of Kent". Acknowledging that St Helena was a place where there was no trade, the Company was permitted to send from England any provisions free of Customs and to convey as many settlers as required.

In 1674 discontented settlers and troops seized Richard Keigwin (1673–1674), the next acting governor; it was only the lucky arrival of an East India Company fleet under the command of Captain William Basse that freed Keigwin. By 1675, the part-time recruitment of settlers in a Militia enabled the permanent garrison to be reduced to 50 troops. On leaving the University of Oxford, in 1676, Edmond Halley visited Saint Helena and set up an observatory with a 24-foot-long (7.3 m) aerial telescope and observed the positions of 341 stars in the Southern hemisphere.[22] His observation site is near St Mathew's Church in Hutt's Gate, in the Longwood district. The 680m high hill there is named for him and is called Halley's Mount. Amongst the most significant taxes levied on imports was a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave. Slaves were also brought from Asia by incoming shipping. Thus, most slaves came from Madagascar and Asia rather than the African mainland. By 1679, the number of slaves had risen to about 80. An uprising by soldiers and planters in 1684 during the governorship of John Blackmore (1678–1689) led to the death of three mutineers in an attack on Fort James and the later execution of four others. The formation of the Grand Alliance and outbreak of war against France in 1689 meant that for several years ships from Asia avoided the island for fear of being attacked by French men-of-war. Soldiers at the end of their service thereby had restricted opportunities to obtain a passage back to Britain. Governor Joshua Johnson (1690–1693) also prevented soldiers smuggling themselves aboard ships by ordering all outgoing ships to leave only during daylight hours. This led to a mutiny in 1693 in which a group of mutineer soldiers seized a ship and made their escape, during the course of which Governor Johnson was killed. Meanwhile, savage punishment was meted out to slaves during this period, some being burnt alive and others starved to death. Rumours of an uprising by slaves in 1694 led to the gruesome execution of three slaves and cruel punishment of many others.

The clearance of the indigenous forest for the distillation of spirits, tanning and agricultural development began to lead to shortage of wood by the 1680s. The numbers of rats and goats had reached plague proportions by the 1690s, leading to the destruction of food crops and young tree shoots. Neither an increase on duty on the locally produced arrack nor a duty on all firewood helped reduce the deforestation whilst attempts to reforest the island by governor John Roberts (1708–1711) were not followed up by his immediate successors. The Great Wood, which once extended from Deadwood Plain to Prosperous Bay Plain, was reported in 1710 as not having a single tree left standing. An early mention of the problems of soil erosion was made in 1718 when a waterspout broke over Sandy Bay, on the southern coast. Against the background of this erosion, several years of drought and the general dependency of St Helena, in 1715 governor Isaac Pyke (1714–1719) made the serious suggestion to the Company that appreciable savings could be made by moving the population to Mauritius, evacuated by the French in 1710. However, with the outbreak of war with other European countries, the Company continued to subsidise the island because of its strategic location. An ordinance was passed in 1731 to preserve the woodlands through the reduction in the goat population. Despite the clear connection between deforestation and the increasing number of floods (in 1732, 1734, 1736, 1747, 1756 and 1787) the East India Company’s Court of Directors gave little support to efforts by governors to eradicate the goat problem. Rats were observed in 1731 building nests in trees two feet across, a visitor in 1717 commenting that the vast number of wild cats preferred to live off young partridges than the rats. An outbreak of plague in 1743 was attributed to the release of infected rats from ships arriving from India. By 1757, soldiers were employed in killing the wild cats.

William Dampier called into St Helena in 1691 at the end of his first of three circumnavigations of the world and stated Jamestown comprised 20–30 small houses built with rough stones furnished with mean furniture. These houses were only occupied when ships called at the island because their owners were all employed on their plantations further in the island. He described how women born on the island "very earnestly desired to be released from that Prison, having no other way to compass this but by marrying Seamen of Passengers that touch here". Dampier described the island, which he called 'Santa Hellena', in his book A New Voyage Round The World, published in 1697.

Following commercial rivalries between the original English East India Company and a New East India Company created in 1698, a new Company was formed in 1708 by amalgamation, and entitled the "United Company of Merchants of England, trading to the East Indies". St Helena was then transferred to this new United East India Company. The same year, extensive work began to build the present Castle. Because of a lack of cement, mud was used as the mortar for many buildings, most of which had deteriorated into a state of ruin. In a search for lime on the island, a soldier in 1709 claimed to have discovered gold and silver deposits in Breakneck Valley. For a short period, it is believed that almost every able-bodied man was employed in prospecting for these precious metals. The short-lived Breakneck Valley Gold Rush ended with the results of an assay of the deposits in London, showing that they were iron pyrites.

A census in 1723 showed that out of a total population 1,110, some 610 were slaves. In 1731, a majority of tenant planters successfully petitioned governor Edward Byfield (1727–1731) for the reduction of the goat population. The next governor, Isaac Pyke (1731–1738), had a tyrannical reputation but successfully extended tree plantations, improved fortifications and transformed the garrison and militia into a reliable force for the first time. In 1733 Green Tipped Bourbon Coffee seeds were brought from the coffee port of Mocha in Yemen, on a Company ship The Houghton and were planted at various locations around the Island where the plants flourished, despite general neglect.

Robert Jenkins, of "Jenkins' Ear" fame (governor 1740–1742) embarked on a programme of eliminating corruption and improving the defences. The island’s first hospital was built on its present site in 1742. Governor Charles Hutchinson (1747–1764) tackled the neglect of crops and livestock and also brought the laws of the island closer to those in England. Nevertheless, racial discrimination continued and it was not until 1787 that the black population were allowed to give evidence against whites. In 1758 three French warships were seen lying off the island in wait for the Company’s India fleet. In an inconclusive battle, these were engaged by warships from the Company’s China fleet. Nevil Maskelyne and Robert Waddington set up an observatory in 1761 to observe the transit of Venus, following a suggestion first made by Halley. In the event, observations were obscured by cloud. Most of the cattle were destroyed this year through an unidentified sickness.

Attempts by governor John Skottowe (1764–1782) to regularise the sale of arrack and punch led to some hostility and desertions by a number of troops who stole boats and were probably mostly lost at sea — however, at least one group of seven soldiers and a slave succeeded in escaping to Brazil in 1770. It was from about this date that the island began, for the first time, to enjoy a prolonged period of prosperity. The first Parish Church in Jamestown had been showing signs of decay for many years, and finally a new building was erected in 1774. St James’ is now the oldest Anglican church south of the Equator. Captain James Cook visited the island in 1775 on the final leg of his second circumnavigation of the world.

An order by governor Daniel Corneille (1782–1787) banning garrison troops and sailors from punch-taverns, only allowing them to drink at army canteens, led to a mutiny over Christmas 1787 when some 200 troops skirmished with loyal troops over a three-day period. Courts martial condemned 99 mutineers to death. These mutineers were then decimated; lots were drawn, with one in every ten being shot and executed.

Saul Solomon is believed to have arrived at the island about 1790, where he eventually formed the Solomon’s company, initially based at an emporium. Today the Rose and Crown shop occupies the building. Captain Bligh arrived at St Helena in 1792 during his second attempt to ship a cargo of breadfruit trees to Jamaica. That same year saw the importation of slaves made illegal.

In 1795 governor Robert Brooke (1787–1801) was alerted that the French had overrun the Netherlands, forcing the Dutch to become their allies. Some 411 troops were sent from the garrison to support General Sir James Craig in his successful capture of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. Fortifications were improved and a new system of visual signalling introduced. Brooke had a battery built at Ladder Hill, and a tower to protect its rearward approaches, known as High Knoll Fort.

As a result of a policy of recruiting time-expired soldiers calling at the island on their voyage home from India, the St Helena Regiment was built up to 1,000 men by 1800. At the same time, every able-bodied man joined the island’s militia.

The arrival of a fleet of ships in January 1807 caused an outbreak of measles. The outbreak led to the death of 102 "Blacks" (probably under-reported in church records), and 58 "whites" in the two months to May. With the importation of slaves no longer being legal, Governor Robert Patton (1802–1807) recommended that Company import Chinese labour to grow the rural workforce. The first Chinese labourers arrived in 1810, and the total number rose to about 600 by 1818. After 1836, many were allowed to stay on and their descendants became integrated into the population.

Governor Alexander Beatson (1808–1813) took action to reduce drunkenness by prohibiting the public sale of spirits and the importation of cheap Indian spirits. As in 1787, these actions resulted in a mutiny by about 250 troops in December 1811. After the mutineers surrendered to loyal troops, nine of the mutineers' leaders were executed. Under the aegis of the next governor, Mark Wilks (1813–1816) farming methods were improved, a rebuilding programme initiated, and the first public library opened. A census in 1814 showed the number of inhabitants was 3,507.