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British Crown Rule, 1834 - 1981

Please Note:  The Society planned to update a comprehensive history of St Helena on this web site.   Meanwhile, below is the Wikipedia entry on the history of St Helena written by one of our members in 2007. 

 

British rule, a Crown colony, 1834-1981
The British Parliament passed the India Act in 1833, a provision of which transferred control of St Helena from the East India Company to the Crown with effect from 2 April 1834. In practice, the transfer did not take effect until 24 February 1836 when Major-General George Middlemore (1836-1842), the first governor appointed by the British government, arrived with 91st Regiment troops. He summarily dismissed St Helena Regiment and, following orders from London, embarked on a savage drive to cut administrative costs, dismissing most officers previously in the Company employ. This triggered the start of a long-term pattern whereby those who could afford to do so tended to leave the island for better fortunes and opportunities elsewhere. The population was to fall gradually from 6,150 in 1817 to less than 4,000 by 1890. Charles Darwin spent six days of observation on the island in 1836 during his return journey on HMS Beagle. Controversial figure, Dr. James Barry, also arrived that year as principal medical officer (1836-1837). In addition to reorganising the hospital, Barry highlighted the heavy incidence of venereal diseases in the civilian population, blaming the government for the removal of the St Helena Regiment, which resulted in destitute females resorting to prostitution[1].

In 1838 agreement was reached with Sultan of Lahej to permit a coaling station at Aden, thereby allowing the journey time to the Far East (via the Mediterranean, the Alexandria to Cairo overland crossing and the Red Sea) to be roughly halved compared with the traditional South Atlantic route. This precursor to the effects of the Suez Canal (1869), coupled with the advent of steam shipping that was not reliant on trade winds led to a gradual reduction in the number of ships calling at St Helena and to a decline in its strategic importance to Britain and economic fortunes. The number of ships calling at the island fell from 1,100 in 1855; to 853 in 1869; to 603 in 1879 and to only 288 in 1889.

In 1839, London coffee merchants Wm Burnie & Co described St Helena coffee as being of "very superior quality and flavour". In 1840 the British Government deployed a naval station to suppress the African slave trade. The squadron was based at St Helena and a Vice Admiralty Court was based at Jamestown to try the crews of the slave ships. Most of these were broken up and used for salvage. Between 1840 and 1849, 15,076 freed slaves, known as "Liberated Africans" were landed at Rupert's Bay on the island, of which number over 5,000 were dead or died there. The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed has not yet been accurately determined, but would be over 20,000. Surviving freed slaves lived at Lemon Valley - originally the quarantine area, later for women and children, Rupert's and High Knoll, and only when numbers became too great were they sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. About 500 remained on St Helena, where they were employed. In later years, some were sent to Sierra Leone.

It was also in 1840 that the British government acceded to a French request for Napoleon's body to be returned to France in what became known as the retour des cendres. The body, in excellent state of preservation, was exhumed on 15 October 1840 and ceremonially handed over to the Prince de Joinville in the French ship La Belle Poule.

A European Regiment, called the St Helena Regiment, comprising five companies was formed in 1842 for the purpose of garrisoning the island. William A Thorpe, the founder of the Thorpe business, was born on the island the same year. There was another outbreak of measles in 1843 and it was noted that none of those who survived the 1807 outbreak contracted the disease a second time. The first Baptist minister arrived from Cape Town in 1845. The same year, St Helena coffee was sold in London at 1d per pound, making it the most expensive and exclusive in the world. In 1846, St James church was considerably repaired, a steeple replacing the old tower. The same year, huge waves, or "rollers", hit the island causing 13 ships anchored off Jamestown bay to be wrecked. The foundation stone for St Paul's country church, also known as "The Cathedral", was laid in 1850. Following instructions from London to achieve economies, Governor Thomas Gore Brown (1851-1856) further reduced the civil establishment. He also tackled the problems of overpopulation of Jamestown posed by the restrictions of the valley terrain by establishing a village at Rupert's Bay. A census in 1851 showed a total of 6,914 inhabitants living on the island. In 1859 the Anglican Diocese of St Helena was set up for St Helena, including Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha (initially also including the Falkland Islands, Rio de Janeiro and other towns along the east coast of South America), the first Bishop of St Helena arriving on the island that year. Islanders later complained that succeeding governors were mainly retired senior military officers with an undynamic approach to the job. St John's church was built in upper Jamestown in 1857, one motivation being to counter the levels of vice and prostitution at that end of the town.

The following year, the lands forming the sites of Napoleon's burial and of his home at Longwood House were vested in Napoleon III and his heirs and a French representative or consul has lived on the island ever since, the French flag now flying over these areas. The title deeds of Briars Pavilion, where Napoleon lived during his earliest period of exile, were much later given to the French Government in 1959.

St Helena coffee grown on the Bamboo Hedge Estate at Sandy Bay won a premier award at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. Saul Solomon was buried at St Helena in 1853. The first postage stamp was issued for the island in 1856, the six-pence blue, marking the start of considerable philatelic interest in the island.

By the 1860s it was apparent that wood sourced from some condemned slave ships (possibly a Brazilian ship) from the 1840s were infested by termites ("white ants"). Eating their way through house timbers (also documents) the termites caused the collapse of a number of buildings and considerable economic damage over several decades. Extensive reconstruction made use of iron rails and termite-proof timbers. The termite problem persists to the present day. The cornerstone for St Matthew's church at Hutt's Gate was laid in 1861.

The withdrawal of the British naval station in 1864 and closure of the Liberated African Station ten years later (several hundred Africans were deported to Lagos and other places on the West African coast) resulted in a further deterioration in the economy. A small earthquake was recorded the same year. The gaol in Rupert's Bay was destroyed and the Castle and Supreme Court were reconstructed in 1867. Cinchona plants were introduced in 1868 by Charles Elliot (1863-1870) with a view to exporting quinine but the experiment was abandoned by his successor Governor C. G. E. Patey (1870-1873), who also embarked on a programme of reducing the civil establishment. The latter action led to another phase of emigration from the island. An experiment in 1874 to produce flax from Phomium Tenax (New Zealand flax) failed (the cultivation of flax recommenced in 1907 and eventually became the island's largest export). In 1871, the Royal Engineers constructed Jacob's Ladder up the steep side of the valley from Jamestown to Knoll Mount Fort, with 700 steps, one step being covered over in later repairs. A census in 1881 showed 5,059 inhabitants lived on the island. Jonathan, claimed to be the world's oldest tortoise, is thought to have arrived on the island in 1882.

An outbreak of measles in 1886 resulted in 113 cases and 8 deaths. Jamestown was lighted for the first time in 1888, the initial cost being born by the inhabitants. Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, son of the Zulu king Cetshwayo, was exiled at St Helena between 1890 and 1897. Diphtheria broke out in 1887 and also in 1893 which, with an additional outbreak of whooping cough, led to the death of 31 children under 10. In 1890 a great fall of rock killed nine people in Jamestown, a fountain being erected in Main Street in their memory. A census in 1891 showed 4,116 inhabitants lived on the island. A submarine cable en-route to Britain from Cape Town was landed in November 1899 and extended to Ascension by December and was operated by the Eastern Telegaph Company.For the next two years over six thousand Boer prisoners were imprisoned at Deadwood and Broadbottom. The population reached its all-time record of 9,850 in 1901. Although a number of prisoners died, being buried at Knollcombes, the islanders and Boers developed a relationship of mutual respect and trust, a few Boers choosing to remain on the island when the war ended in 1902. A severe outbreak of influenza in 1900 led to the death of 3.3% of the population, although it affected neither the Boer prisoners nor the troops guarding them. An outbreak of whooping cough in 1903 infected most children on the island, although only one died as a result.

The departure of the Boers and later removal of the remaining garrison in 1906 (with the disbandment of the St Helena Volunteers, this was the first time the island was left without a garrison) both impacted on the island economy, which was only slightly offset by growing philatelic sales. The successful reestablishment of the flax industry in 1907 did much to counter these problems, generating considerable income during the war years. Lace making was encouraged as an island-industry during the pre-war period, initiated by Emily Jackson in 1890 and a lace-making school was opened in 1908. Two men, known as the Prosperous Bay Murderers, were hanged in 1905. A fish-canning factory opened in 1909 but failed due to an unusual shortage of fish that year. S.S. Papanui, en route from Britain to Australia with emigrants, arrived in James Bay in 1911 on fire. The ship burned out and sank, but its 364 passengers and crew were rescued and looked after on the island. A census in 1911 showed the population had fallen from its peak in 1901 to only 3,520 inhabitants. Some 4,800 rats tails were presented to the Government in 1913, who paid a penny per tail.

Islanders were made aware of their vulnerability to naval attack, despite extensive fortifications, following a visit by a fleet of three German super-dreadnoughts in January 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, the defunct St Helena Volunteer Corps was re-established. Some 46 islanders gave their lives in World War I. The 1918 world pandemic of influenza bypassed St Helena. The self-proclaimed Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Khalid Bin Barghash, was exiled in St Helena from 1917 to 1921 before being transferred to the Seychelles.

William A. Thorpe was killed in an accident in 1918, his business continuing to operate on the island to the present day. In 1920 the Norwegian ship Spangereid caught fire and sank at her mooring at James Bay, depositing quantities of coal on the beach below the wharf. A census in 1921 showed the islands population was 3,747. The first islanders left to work at Ascension Island in 1921, which was made a dependency of St Helena in 1922. Thomas R. Bruce (postmaster 1898-1928) was the first islander to design a postage stamp, the 1922-1937 George V ship-design-this significantly contributed to island revenues for several years. South African coinage became legal tender in 1923, reflecting the high level of trade with that country. There were nine deaths from whooping cough between 1920 and 1929 and 2,200 cases of measles in 1932. The first car, an Austin 7, was imported into the island in 1929. A census in 1931 showed a population of 3,995 (and a goat population of nearly 1,500). Cable and Wireless absorbed the Eastern Telegaph Company in 1934. Tristan da Cunha was made a dependency of St Helena in 1938.

Some six islanders gave their lives during World War II. The German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee was observed passing the island in 1939 and the British oil tanker Darkdale was torpedoed off Jamestown bay. As part of the Lend-Lease agreement, America built Wideawake airport on Ascension in 1942, but no military use was made of St Helena. As in the previous war, the island enjoyed increased revenues through the sale of flax.

There were 217 cases of poliomyelitis, including 11 deaths, in 1945. A census in 1946 showed 4,748 inhabitants lived on the island. In 1948 there were seven deaths from whooping cough and 77 hospital admissions from acute nephritis. In 1951, mumps attacked 90% of the population. Solomon's became a limited company the same year. Flax prices continued to rise after the war, rising to their zenith in 1951. However, this St Helena staple industry fell into decline because of competition from synthetic fibres and also because the delivered price of the island's flax was substantially higher than world prices. The decision by a major buyer, the British Post Office, to use synthetic fibres for their mailbags was a major blow, all of which contributed in the closure of the island's flax mills in 1965. Many acres of land are still covered with flax plants. A census in 1956 showed the population had fallen only slightly, to 4,642. 1957 witnessed the arrival of three Bahrain princes as prisoners of Britain, who remained until released by a writ of habeas corpus in 1960. Another attempt to cooperate a fish cannery led to closure in 1957. From 1958, the Union Castle shipping line gradually reduced their service calls to the island. The same year, there were 36 cases of poliomyelitis. A census in 1966 showed a relatively unchanged population of 4,649 inhabitants.

A South African company (The South Atlantic Trading and Investment Corporation, SATIC) bought a majority share in Solomon and Company in 1968. Following several years of losses and to avoid the economic effects of a closure of the company, the St Helena government eventually bought a majority share in the company in 1974. In 1969 the first elections were held under the new constitution for twelve-member Legislative Council. By 1976, the population had grown slightly to 5,147 inhabitants. Based from Avonmouth, Curnow Shipping replaced the Union-Castle Line mailship service in 1977, using the RMS St Helena, a coastal passenger and cargo vessel that had been used between Vancouver and Alaska. Due to structural weakness, the spire of St James church was demolished in 1980. The endemic flowering shrub, the St Helena Ebony, believed to have been extinct for over a century, was discovered on the island in 1981.[3]

References

  1. Holmes, Rachel: Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor, Viking Press, 2002, ISBN 0-375-5055-6.
  2. http://www.kew.org/plants/islandplants/sthelenaebony.html.